Steve Yetiv is the Louis I. Jaffe Professor of International Relations at Old Dominion University and author of National Security Through a Cockeyed Lens
U.S. President Donald Trump recently repeated his call that the Islamic State is an existential threat to the United States that must be destroyed, and U.S. officials have plans to nearly double forces in Syria, with more possibly to come. This week's meeting of the anti-Islamic State coalition in Washington initiated talks on how to dislodge the group from its self-declared capital in Raqqa, Syria.
In fact, while the Islamic State is a threat, it is not an existential threat to the United States, and the country and its allies should be careful about getting stuck in the Middle East.
Yes, the Islamic State is a heinous group engaged in medieval butchery on an epic scale and has contributed to a regional refugee crisis. And Mr. Trump is also right to be concerned about its potential to launch terrorist attacks, even if the United States has not been a prime target. But it is a relatively small group, has lost much territory and its lustre as a powerful movement has waned over the past 18 months. These losses hurt its ability to gain new recruits in the United States and elsewhere and, in any case, it has many enemies within and outside Iraq that limit its power.
It is vital to put the Islamic State threat into perspective.
In the United States, exaggerating the terror threat can lead to excessive policies, such as the ban that targets refugees and travellers from predominantly Muslim countries. But it also produces problems abroad. Expanding the war against the Islamic State could drag the United States and its allies into another Middle East quagmire – just what the Islamic State wishes. Military fiascoes don't usually begin with a flashing red sign that says, "This is a Quagmire."
Too much military force on the ground also risks pitting the United States against the Sunnis in the Sunni-Shia sectarian struggle. It would alienate many Sunnis who hate the Shiites more than the Sunnis of the Islamic State. Rather than alienate the Sunnis, the United States should do even more to push for greater inclusion of Sunnis into Iraq's government and military. That may also help reintegrate Sunni tribal leaders, who otherwise would support the Islamic State – even if they hate it – rather than the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government. These actions may help Iraq unify and eventually re-emerge to help balance Iran.
A too-muscular approach against the Islamic State may convince many in the region that Washington wants to steal their oil – a long-standing fear, according to 15 years of opinion surveys. Mr. Trump has suggested that taking some of Iraq's oil might be sensible under some conditions, which heightens those concerns and hurts the U.S. image and ability to gain regional co-operation.
We also have to wonder about a policy that may fail even if it succeeds. Iran, Syria and Russia co-operate in the region. The Islamic State and some Sunnis who support it challenge Shia Iran and Syria and its Shia proxies. Crushing the Islamic State will solve some problems but embolden other trouble makers, including Syria's brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad, and deadly Shia militias. On its current course, Washington certainly needs to plan for such an outcome.
Seeing the Islamic State as an existential threat may also lead Mr. Trump to make unnecessary concessions to countries such as Russia to obtain its co-operation. In fact, he repeatedly has said that Russian President Vladimir Putin could help defeat the Islamic State. Would Mr. Trump, for example, turn a blind eye to Ukraine in exchange for Russia helping (or pretending to help) in the Islamic State fight?
Washington remains between "Iraq" and a hard place. If it doesn't check the Islamic State enough, it could launch some serious attacks on U.S. soil and that of its allies, and further destabilize the region. If it militarizes its approach too much, it could be drawn into a regional war against an insurgency led by the Islamic State, push it into attacking the U.S. mainland when the group might otherwise not have been provoked to that extent, strengthen Iran, Syria and Russia in the region, and alienate Sunnis.
The best strategy is to continue but not significantly expand the current approach. The United States and its allies should contain the Islamic State. Beyond the use of allied military pressure, that would include enhanced intelligence work on how to deny the group the ability to launch terror attacks, a greater role for regional allies and better efforts to thwart the Islamic State message on social media. Over time, this strategy may well weaken it to the point that it is no longer able to hold land, attract numerous recruits and fund itself effectively.