But my question is always - what is the end goal of all the killing that is usually offered as the alternative? Certainly we can interrupt the advancement of a group like ISIS and protect more people from being victims of their barbarism. But as President George W. Bush found out - there will be no "Mission Accomplished" moment when ISIS leaders formally "surrender" and the threat is eliminated.
That's why President Obama said this during his interview with Matt Yglesias:
But this is going to be a generational challenge in the Muslim world and the Middle East that not only the United States but everybody's going to have to deal with. And we're going to have to have some humility in recognizing that we don't have the option of simply invading every country where disorder breaks out. And that to some degree, the people of these countries are going to have to, you know, find their own way. And we can help them but we can't do it for them.It strikes me that this is a lesson the United States has had trouble learning over the last 60 years. Its why the President often talks about the need for a new set of tools to deal with the challenges of the 21st Century. During WWII, the American military helped defeat dictators who not only oppressed their own people, but sought to expand their power beyond their own borders.
But following that victory, we became embroiled in conflicts on the side of dictators who were fending off challenges as their own citizens sought to throw off the yoke of tyranny that was often the legacy of colonialism. Those efforts didn't end so well because people who are willing to fight and die for their own emancipation are not likely to "surrender."
In one of the most important speeches of his Presidency, Barack Obama addressed this shift in his remarks to the young people of Europe almost a year ago.
Throughout human history, societies have grappled with fundamental questions of how to organize themselves, the proper relationship between the individual and the state, the best means to resolve inevitable conflicts between states. And it was here in Europe, through centuries of struggle -- through war and Enlightenment, repression and revolution -- that a particular set of ideals began to emerge: The belief that through conscience and free will, each of us has the right to live as we choose. The belief that power is derived from the consent of the governed, and that laws and institutions should be established to protect that understanding. And those ideas eventually inspired a band of colonialists across an ocean, and they wrote them into the founding documents that still guide America today, including the simple truth that all men -- and women -- are created equal.In his interview with Yglesias, the President noted that the older, most traditional view of power is giving way to the reality that power is derived from the consent of the governed.
But those ideals have also been tested -- here in Europe and around the world. Those ideals have often been threatened by an older, more traditional view of power. This alternative vision argues that ordinary men and women are too small-minded to govern their own affairs, that order and progress can only come when individuals surrender their rights to an all-powerful sovereign.
I am a firm believer that particularly in this modern internet age, the capacity of the old-style authoritarian government to sustain itself and to thrive just is going to continue to weaken. It's going to continue to crumble that model. My argument to any partner that we have is that you are better off if you've got a strong civil society and you've got democratic legitimacy and you are respectful of human rights.Going back to his speech in Brussels, President Obama pointed out how this has played out recently around the globe.
Indeed, the ideals that came to define our alliance also inspired movements across the globe among those very people, ironically, who had too often been denied their full rights by Western powers. After the Second World War, people from Africa to India threw off the yoke of colonialism to secure their independence. In the United States, citizens took freedom rides and endured beatings to put an end to segregation and to secure their civil rights. As the Iron Curtain fell here in Europe, the iron fist of apartheid was unclenched, and Nelson Mandela emerged upright, proud, from prison to lead a multiracial democracy. Latin American nations rejected dictatorship and built new democracies, and Asian nations showed that development and democracy could go hand in hand.It is exactly the same kind of movement that was unleashed by the Arab Spring. What we are witnessing is an attempt to exploit that movement by sectarian extremists. That is why Harf is exactly right in saying that the answer ultimately will come from addressing the root causes. The disorder caused by throwing off the shackles of dictators needs to be met with the development of strong civil societies with democratic legitimacy and respect for human rights. That is ultimately what will defeat ISIS.
Here's how the President ended his remarks in Brussels:
I believe that if we hold firm to our principles, and are willing to back our beliefs with courage and resolve, then hope will ultimately overcome fear, and freedom will continue to triumph over tyranny -- because that is what forever stirs in the human heart.P.S. These are the same lessons that Putin will need to learn in the Ukraine and Netanyahu will need to learn in the Middle East (especially with regards to the occupation of Palestinian territories).