Thus far, even a cursory glance at any of the Republican debates is enough to show the complete lack of thought, consideration, or care given to statements of foreign policy, particularly toward ISIS. Simplistic statements that were once limited to frontrunner Donald Trump have pervaded the debates, becoming the norm among even the most “intelligent” candidates, an adjective exclusively reserved for Ted Cruz. Rather than challenge Trump on specifics regarding anything he has said, particularly his most demonizing policies—from rounding up all job-stealing immigrants, to indiscriminately barring all Muslims entry into the United States—the “smartest” candidate has chosen, instead, to outdo Trump’s statements, with dangerously militaristic and vague statements that garner the same amount of cheer and enthusiasm as the frontrunner.
The Democrats aren’t without their lack of specifics either, but that’s because explaining the complexities of nation-building, regime change, and counterterrorism requires more than the thirty seconds allowed; the importance of these issues relies on careful understanding, historical sensitivity, and Newton’s laws of actions and reactions. Across party spectrums, hawkish candidates are the ones who favor increased US involvement in the fight against ISIS, unilateral if necessary. Cruz, Carson, and Trump don’t bother with the acquisition of legitimacy or coalition-building—the US has a strong military that requires neither, in their view. Bush, once considered a shoe-in for the Republican nomination, finds himself stuck in the problematic situation of considering complex courses of actions to fight terrorism, something that has clearly become unfashionable within the Republican Party. Marco Rubio advocates for increased involvement by Arab states, but he also lends greater importance to American strength and air power. Hillary says the same.
In Part 1, I provided a simple case for intervention. In order to bring the world back on track to the liberal goals of the United Nations, nations had to return to multilateral modes of action, had to fight for the ideals of inalienable human rights, and had to confront evil if the world was to be free from its influence. These are, of course, lofty goals, currently impossible and thus idealistic. But if the UN and its bodies are supposed to show us the ideal human community, small steps can be taken to fulfill this potential. ISIS presents the possibility to take such steps. But it’s time to consider why, despite presenting such a clear opportunity, ISIS has so far gotten its way.
In trying to be an all-inclusive, considerate system, the liberal international order is inherently flawed by excess permissions that don’t play well with nation-states. Rights such as the right to self-determination, the right to combat tyranny and oppression, present problems for states with populations that demand autonomy, or that consider the ruling government illegitimate and therefore deserving overthrow. The biggest hindrance to honoring liberal ideals, like basic freedoms of speech, religion, and assembly come from the states that don’t protect or guarantee these rights. Sovereignty prevents willy-nilly intervention, creating a barrier to the pursuit of a truly liberal world order. That’s why China censors, Venezuela detains, and Russia murders. Despite being members of the United Nations, countries that don’t honor the claims of its charter are legally allowed to do so because of national sovereignty. In terms of ISIS, liberalism’s own ideals are the problem: ISIS has the right to practice its own religion; it could be seen as combating an invasive hegemon; and its self-proclaimed Islamic state falls within the boundaries of international law, despite not being recognized as a state.
Contradictions of an international magnitude had to be confronted, eventually. ISIS demands they be confronted now. On the part of the US, can it continue to condemn a group that beheads its victims, all the while supporting an established state (Saudi Arabia) that does so, legally? Can Turkey continue to deny territory to the Kurdish fighters who have been the most effective in combating ISIS? Can Iran continue to support a president (Assad) that threatens the progress of their own nuclear program, and the diminution of economic sanctions? Can the European community continue to honor the sovereignty of a state that has clearly failed and burdened them with a massive influx of refugees?
These questions look like cost/benefit decisions, simple power politics based on preferred outcomes. But each one contradicts a liberal ideal, and each one prevents the true fulfillment of a liberal world order. The US turns a blind eye to human rights abuses; Turkey actively prevents a group’s call for autonomy; Iran supports a president that ignores the social contract, while also running contrary to non-proliferation; the European community has acted out of despair, instead of hope. Each violation, though not unique to ISIS, is nicely embodied by its continued existence. And each violation continues to be an unfortunate reminder of the international community’s shortcomings.
Will all of these wrongs be righted if ISIS were to be carpet bombed into oblivion, leaving a gleeful Cruz and Carson pointing fingers at the other candidates and chanting proverbial I-told-you-so’s? No, especially since carpet bombing includes civilian casualties. Shortcuts cannot be taken in the fight against ISIS, and further betrayal of liberal ideals will only discredit progress. ISIS is in it for the long haul. So is liberalism.