Here’s why we can only contain the Islamic State, not bomb it back to the Stone Age
Critics have long called the U.S.’s Syria policy feckless. But the Paris attacks brought this to a head, with renewed calls for escalation to end the Islamic State’s threat and prevent another Paris. But the critics’ policies won’t end the threat either. More than a decade of continuous warfare against militants in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere have taught us a great deal about what works, what doesn’t, and why. And that experience suggests that to defeat the Islamic State — defined as eliminating its ability to carry out Paris-style terrorism — would require a vastly greater effort than almost anyone now proposes, and a vastly greater effort than the American public is likely to support.
In practical terms, what’s possible against the Islamic State is some form of containment or suppression. And that’s essentially what the administration’s current policy amounts to. You can quibble with elements of that policy, but we’re stuck with its basic outline. The Western interests at stake are limited; the underlying problem is deeper and tougher than critics imply, and the cost to solve the real problem is much higher. Like it or not, we are going to be living with containment and suppression for a long time.