Ryan Crocker, who probably knows the Middle East better than any other living American diplomat, recently cut to the chase about the situation in Iraq. “This is about America’s national security,” he told the New York Times. “We don’t understand real evil, organized evil, very well. This is evil incarnate. People like [ISIS leader] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have been in a fight for a decade. They are messianic in their vision, and they are not going to stop.”
We’ve been in the fight for more than a decade too. It began as a proportionate attempt to retaliate against those who attacked America on Sept. 11, 2001. We successfully ousted the Taliban government that supported Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, but Osama and many of his top aides escaped. The war against al-Qaeda should have continued as a targeted special-forces operation, but the flagrantly disproportionate Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq changed all that … and the Obama surge in Afghanistan didn’t help much, either. Suddenly we found ourselves locked in the middle of civil wars in both countries (or perhaps I should say “countries”). The President was right to extricate our combat troops from those futile fights.
But the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS–or the Levant, ISIL, if you prefer) has changed the game again. Terrorism has a new name, and now, for the first time, it has a well-organized, well-funded, well-armed military with the ability to take and perhaps hold territory. There have been reports of al-Qaeda elements linking up with the Islamic State. There are reports of hundreds of would-be jihadis from around the world joining ISIS, including dozens from the U.S. ISIS is considered so extreme that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda’s central command, has condemned it. The Islamic State is metastasizing and committing mass atrocities with astonishing ferocity. It aspires to attack the U.S. and will, no doubt, soon attempt to do so. This is a threat we cannot ignore.
Yes, we’re sick of war, sick of the region and particularly sick of Iraq–but, as seemed clear in the days after 9/11, and less clear since, this is a struggle that is going to be with us for a very long time. It doesn’t need to be the thunderous, all-consuming fight that the Bush-Cheney government made it out to be. It will require a strategic rethink of who our friends and enemies are in the region. We may find that Iran is part of the ISIS solution rather than part of the problem–a problem that Saudi Arabia’s support for Sunni extremism helped create. We may even find ourselves on the same side as Syria’s disgraceful Bashar Assad: ISIS is the greatest threat to his continued rule.
There are real dangers here. We don’t want to take sides in what may well become a cataclysmic regional war between Sunni and Shi’ite. We don’t want to become the “air force of Shi’ite militias,” as former CIA director David Petraeus has said. The best way forward would be to work through a reconstituted Iraqi government, led by newly appointed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. But we’ve seen the danger of arming the Iraqis in the past; those arms are now being used against us by ISIS. In the best-case scenario, al-Abadi builds a government that wins back the trust of Iraq’s Sunnis, but that won’t happen overnight.
In the worst-case scenario, the U.S. military would have to fight the Islamic State from a Kurdish base; support for the peshmerga forces is essential. Any direct U.S. military action should be measured and proportionate–an insinuation rather than an invasion, taken in concert with allies who are capable of sophisticated covert operations. This time, as opposed to 2003, more than a few of the regional players on both sides of the sectarian divide want our help in the war on ISIS. The President may hope that he can keep U.S. involvement at current levels–air strikes and the presence of 800 special operators on the ground, who are mostly scouting the enemy and working up new targeting sets. But no one should be surprised if we find ourselves on a slippery slope toward more violence. There will be no escaping this fight, unfortunately.
There has been endless debate about who “lost” Iraq and Syria. Even Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are squabbling about it. We don’t have the luxury of wasting time or political energy on that now. There is not a politician, policymaker or journalist who hasn’t been wrong about Iraq at some point. What’s needed is a clear and united sense of national purpose … as clear and united as it was on Sept. 12, 2001. Our war against al-Qaeda-style extremism isn’t over; it may have only just begun.
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This appears in the August 25, 2014 issue of TIME.