WASHINGTON – Denmark, a NATO country, just joined the fight against ISIL, (also ISIS or IS) in Iraq. We are told that it will contribute four combat jets and three more in reserve. The fact that this militarily insignificant development is news tells us a great deal about the level of European enthusiasm regarding this new, probably long, conflict in the Middle East.
Where is NATO?
Without any offense to Denmark whose government is no doubt sincere about doing what it can regarding the fight against ISIL, four combat jets do not add much muscle to the US-led coalition. Where is the German air force? More broadly, did NATO, the (once mighty) Western Alliance linking North America and Europe, rise to the occasion? No, it did not, and it will not. Europe is poor, indebted, exhausted and depressed.
Small coalition, big problem
The Obama administration is trying to make the best of a bad situation. It is trying to portray its limited and late response to the threat represented by the Islamic State and any other radical group now established in Syria, Iraq and beyond as a well-organized, cohesive collective action.
Yes, Saudi Arabia is on board, and so is Jordan, the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain. And now we have Denmark, soon to be joined by Great Britain, while France has already engaged in a few bombing missions. Yes, this is something. But not that much, given the magnitude of the task.
All in all, are we making progress? Sure, some progress. But it is modest. In the course of the 1999 air campaign against Serbia regarding the future of Kosovo, NATO had 38,000 air sorties. Now we are at around 300 sorties in Iraq and Syria, while we celebrate as major accomplishments a few hits here and there.
The larger problem
The obvious problem here is in the disconnect between means (scarce) and ends (very large). America and its few allies want us to believe that it is possible to “resolve” with a (so far) modest air campaign a political-military problem –Islamic radicalism– that is really large, and in fact almost intractable.
Sure we can and should bomb the Islamic radicals in Syria and Iraq. But the end game is not just to kill a few bad guys. The end game is to break the morale of ISIL leaders and foot soldiers, and to kill the appeal of their cause within the wider Muslim World.
It is most unlikely that the mission as defined –bombing from the air, no US boots on the ground– will accomplish that. In a best case scenario, most radicals will be chased out of Syria and Iraq. But they will regroup somewhere else; they will change tactics. They always do.
The crisis of the Arab World
At the root of this festering mess there is a disoriented Arab World in crisis. Sadly some Muslim believers decided that the only way out of backwardness is to embrace an absolutely crazy religious and political model founded on absurd rules enforced with barbaric cruelty, all the way stating that the plight of good Muslims is the result of a giant, US-led, Western conspiracy.
This is a horrible way to address the real problems stemming from systemic under development. But, strangely enough, this way to explain and “resolve” major problems rooted in cultural backwardness finds a lot of converts.
Given all this, it is delusional to believe that now, with the US Air Force in the lead and a few additional airplanes provided by second or third-rate military powers, we are going to take care of a major Middle East crisis.
Look, there will be some military successes. I certainly hope so. But this problem of the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism will not go away. This horrible virus will fade away only when most people in the Arab world will be able to concentrate their energies on real goals of education, modernization, equal rights for women, investments, and more. This has yet to happen.
In hindsight, if President Obama had acted swiftly when the ISIL threat had become apparent, that is before it took firm roots in Syria and then moved into Iraq, probably today we would not need this large-scale military effort to contain it and hopefully destroy it.
Islamic radicalism will not go away
However, realistically speaking, it would be foolish to believe that by defeating ISIL, (assuming that this is possible), we would have resolved once and for all the threat of Islamic radicalism.
Religious fanaticism operates in a fantasy word of its own making. It recruits dreamers, and not people who have rational political goals. No rational, modern person would believe that establishing a New Caliphate represents a reasonable political objective.
Yes, president Obama managed to locate and then kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, while America also captured or killed other senior al Qaeda leaders. But radicalism did not go away as a result of these significant tactical victories. We face an extremely difficult threat for which there is no simple solution.
Sure we can do better in identifying and preventing hostile actions aimed at American assets and individual Americans. But it would be unrealistic to believe that we can identify and capture all the bad guys. There are too many of them, and they can easily operate in small groups or as individuals.
Will the Arab World choose modernity?
As I said above, the root of the problem is in a major cultural crisis within the Arab World affecting also other Muslim societies. The only way out of this is for the Arabs to find and pursue a realistic path that will lead them to modernity.
Until large segments of these perennially backward societies are prisoners of fantastic, conspiratorial world views justified through crazy interpretations of the Muslim faith, we shall continue to have a nasty problem in our hands.