Last week, we had a chance to watch Hillary Clinton respond in real time to a complex foreign policy challenge. On Thursday, six days after the Paris attacks, she gave a comprehensive anti-terrorism speech at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The speech was very impressive. While other candidates are content to issue vague calls to get tough on terror, Clinton offered a multilayered but coherent framework, not only dealing with the Islamic State but also putting that threat within the crosscutting conflicts that are inflaming the Middle East.
For example, instead of just issuing a generic call to get tough on the terrorists, she pointed to the reality that the Islamic State will be toppled only if there is an uprising by fellow Sunnis. There has to be a Sunni Awakening against the Islamic State in 2016, like the Sunni Awakening that toppled al-Qaida in Iraq starting in 2007.
That will not happen while President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria is spreading mayhem, terror and genocide. As long as they find themselves in the grips of a horrific civil war, even sensible Sunnis will feel that they need the Islamic State as a counterpoint to the butchery coming out of Damascus.
Clinton therefore gestured to the reality that you can’t really deal with the Islamic State unless you also are willing to deal with Assad. He is not some secondary threat who we can deal with after we’ve tamed the the Islamic State monster. Assad created the failed state and the power vacuum that the Islamic State was able to fill. Assad serves as chief recruiter for the Islamic State every time he drops a barrel bomb on a school or a market. Assad, as Clinton pointed out, has murdered even more Syrians than the Islamic State has.
Dealing with Assad and the Islamic State simultaneously throws you into the bitter and complex jockeying between Sunni and Shiite, between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It puts pressure on your Ukraine policy (Vladimir Putin will want concessions as a price for backing off his aggression in the Middle East). Everything is connected. Which is why the presidency is for grown-ups, not rank outsiders.
Some of Clinton’s specific prescriptions were a little too limited and Obamaesque for my taste (she didn’t even call for more American special operations forces to improve the bombing campaigns, though she said she would be open to it). But she is thoughtful and instructive on both the big picture and the right way forward. She seems to understand that if we end up allying with Russia in a common fight against terrorism, we will end up preserving Assad, preserving the Islamic State and making everything worse.
Some Republicans have stained themselves with refugee xenophobia, but there’s a bigger story here: For a time, the Middle East was held together by Arab nation-states and a belief in Arab nationalisms. Recently, Arab nationalisms have withered and Arab nation-states have begun to dissolve from their own decrepitude.
Along comes the Islamic State filling that vacuum and trying to destroy what’s left of Arab nations. the Islamic State dreams of a caliphate. It erases borders. It destroys order.
The Arab nation-states were not great. But the nation-state system did preserve a certain order. National identities and boundaries enabled Sunnis and Shiites to live together peaceably. If nations go away in the region, we’ll get a sectarian war of all against all, radiating terrorism like we’ve never seen.
The grand strategy of American policy in the Middle East, therefore, should be to do what we can to revive and reform Arab nations, to help them become functioning governing units.
That means confronting the forces that thrive in failed states. That begins with stepped-up military pressure on the Islamic State. Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations proposes a campaign like the one that allowed the Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban after 9/11 – a light-footprint campaign using special operations forces and CIA paramilitaries to direct allied bombing in support of locals on the ground. Once life becomes a miserable grind for the Islamic State fighters, recruiting will suffer.
But it also means going hard on Assad, creating no-fly zones for sanctuaries for Syrian refugees to limit his power, ratcheting up pressure on Iran and Russia to force his departure. And it also means supporting institutional reform, as Clinton said, throughout the Arab world, to revitalize nations as functioning units. Not an unsustainable stab at nation-building, but better governance from top to bottom.
Before Paris, it was possible to argue that time was on our side, that we could sit back and let the Islamic State collapse under the weight of its own craziness. The Paris attacks refuted that. the Islamic State is becoming an ever more aggressive threat. The FBI already has over 900 active Islamic State investigations ongoing. Lord knows what sort of biological or other weapons the group can get its hands on.
Candidate Clinton laid out a supple and sophisticated approach. The next president will have to provide the action.
David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.