At a recent conference, I found myself bemoaning the ineffectiveness of Western military action against the Islamic State (ISIL). We in the West had decided to attack ISIL, but seemed to be pulling our punches. Why were their banking, propaganda and other facilities that support their terrorist operations not being blown to bits?
Imagine the surprise when a senior U.S. expert on these issues replied that by far the best thing to do with ISIL was precisely nothing: the Middle East and wider "Muslim world" was doomed to a massive revolting civil war, so let them get on with it and take stock of the situation once it clarified.
That, perhaps, is rather easier for an American to say. European leaders stare aghast at the rising death toll among refugees ("migrants") in boats in the Mediterranean. Is it moral to do Nothing? But does doing Something simply encourage more terrified people to try to cross to Europe and stay there? Where does such a process end? Whose continent is Europe anyway?
Anything can be analysed indefinitely. Policy papers, strategy documents, roadmaps, risk management assessments, spreadsheets of options can all be produced in bewildering, bureaucratic profusion. Yet sooner or later, one of our leaders has to go out to face the media or the public, and explain in just a few words what is happening, and what to do about it.
Any such statement has to accomplish two basic tasks. It has to describe the proposed action and explain why that action makes sense. And it has to do that convincingly, while setting a compelling tone.
The statement by President Obama in August last year, following the murder by ISIL of the American hostage, journalist James Foley, was, of course, awful on almost every level. It failed to convey urgency, and framed itself against the all-important background of the president's golfing prowess. Above all, the central explicit philosophical idea was unerringly wrong: "One thing we can all agree on is that a group like ISIL has no place in the 21st century."
Why should we agree on that, when it is horribly obvious (a) that ISIL does have a place in this century and (b) that its place is tending to grow, including by attracting young people from our own societies who take post-modern irony to its logical conclusion, namely lurching society back to the gory glory of the Dark Ages?
On the other hand, the president's statement arguably ticked the box of purposeful inactivity. If the real policy is to sit back and watch the different violent factions in the Middle East attack each other, but not in fact admit that that is the policy, maybe the statement was quite clarifying in the greater scheme of things.
One thing we perhaps can all agree on is that the worst of all worlds is to appear tentative or indecisive. No Western leader strides out to the TV cameras and says that much the best response to the butchering of his or her citizens is to do not much, then wait to see what happens. Even those people who might agree that, all things considered, this is the best policy, will be tempted to hoot that the leader is showing clueless weakness. Leaders are paid by us to act! They hit us? We hit them! What's so difficult about that?
Well, yes. But there is a problem.
Precision bombing of ad hoc targets degrades and demoralizes ISIL to some extent. But it does not do much to tackle the primitive yet alluring ideological impulse that ISIL represents. It might even encourage it. Plus, our accumulated experience in the Middle East since 9/11 suggests that acting tough does not necessarily improve the situation.
Is there a middle way of cautious offense? If you folks over there want to murder each other over theological distinctions, we will not actively move against you and weigh in on one side or the other, as we did recently in Libya. However, we will take steps to defend our civilization against you and try to stop you spreading, by raising the immediate cost to you and your supporters of your loathsome activities.
In other words, if we really do think that ISIL has no place in our century, let us start to give that idea substance.
- Proclaim that anyone joining ISIL goes on a master-register of suspected war criminals, and is likely to be an unemployable outlaw for the rest of his or her wretched life.
- Declare that under no circumstances will any so-called state or "caliphate" created by ISIL ever be admitted into any serious international organization.
- Announce that any Western companies that do business with other companies trading with ISIL or helping with its finances face brutal fines; any other companies found to be trading with ISIL or funding its activities will be blocked indefinitely from Western markets.
- Diplomatic and trading relations with any country found to be directly supporting ISIL will be terminated forthwith. And so on.
An ISIL spokesman proclaims the organization's plans to conquer Israel and the West.
Any such robust policy package as this will be implemented imperfectly. All policies are implemented with "pragmatic" (or cynical) exceptions and qualifications. Yet something like this at least sets a serious intellectual and rhetorical framework that makes sense to most of the mainstream global community and is likely to win popular support across the political spectrum.
The key point? Answer the bold ISIL assertion of inevitable Islamist victory with a clear counter-message: No, you are merely violent losers, you are not going anywhere.
Charles Crawford served as UK Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw. He is now a communication consultant.