Successful deception directs the audience’s attention — allowing people to see what they want or expect to see, while something quite different occurs in full view.
Might the same be happening with the so-called Islamic State (IS)?
Does the U.S. have another case of collective group-think?
Myopia is dangerous. It may close off important policy options and lock us into unnecessarily bad choices.
Policy-makers and strategists can limit such risk by developing at least one alternative theory of the case and directing the intelligence community to seek information that may confirm or deny its validity (and that of the base-case). If one is rendered implausible, a better theory should be developed to take its place.
Such analysis may open policy and strategy options that might not have been obvious when considering the base case alone.
The best work on IS comes from Institute for the Study of War. The base-case is that IS are the Player. The senior leadership are in charge of the military and political efforts, and direct the activities of its forces on the ground and its representatives on social media.
These efforts have the intended purpose of establishing an ever-expanding Islamic Caliphate cum terrorist safe-haven, from which to organize attacks against the West.
The affected populations either support IS or have been cowed by their sickening brutality. Neighboring states are loath to intervene. The appalling beheading of American journalist, James Foley, has increased global antipathy for the group.
Reports that nearly 100 U.S. persons and hundreds of Europeans, all wielding home-country passports, have gone to Syria and Iraq to join IS illuminate the risk of attacks on the homeland.
No wonder U.S. and European officials are gravely concerned.
The base case makes the policy option clear: The U.S. must defeat IS and eliminate it as a threat. Although air-strikes have begun, a strategy has been elusive.
Still, interesting questions arise.
How did IS emerge so rapidly from a splinter Syrian opposition group into a regional phenomenon, taking the Sunni parts of Iraq and Syria by storm?
Why have many Sunnis in Iraq and Syria seemingly accepted, even embraced, a group that even al Qaeda dismissed as too extreme? Were these some of the same Iraqis that in 2007 turned against al Qaeda in Iraq? [Maliki’s mis-governance alienated Sunnis, but is living in a terror safe-haven under the lunatic rule of IS perceived better?]
Where’s the outrage from the Sunni Arab regimes? They have decried IS, but have taken little action against them.
As the West have often found when trying to understand the Middle East, things may not always be as they seem.
An alternative may be to consider IS as a Pawn (or Knight). In this theory, the Real Player – likely a group of Sunni political figures – is using IS to push aside Syrian and Iraqi forces and capture U.S. attention. While the U.S. and others are focused on IS, the political figures aim to forge a new Sunni state along the Euphrates.
Once they have consolidated control, these figures will emerge as a political alternative after executing leading IS figures. In exchange for ridding the world of IS, they will demand recognition of their de facto territory as an independent Sunni state.
After all, could that not be one of the few reasons the veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council might agree to new lines in the Middle East?
Without such support that Sunni state would be a pipe-dream.
To be sure, the idea of having a check against Iranian influence could be appealing to some Sunni Arab states. A truncated Shi’a-controlled Iraq and rump-Syria would be of far less concern.
Under this scenario, the policy choices and potential strategies could be substantially different.
Should a new Sunni state be supported in exchange for eliminating IS? Could this bring together a coalition necessary for a successful outcome? Tricky issues such as oil revenues and control of mixed sectarian areas, to include Baghdad, would need careful consideration. So would Iran’s potential reactions.
Or, should we deny such aspirations? If so, how then to gain the necessary internal and external support to eliminate IS?
Of course, the notion of using radical groups to achieve political aims is not unusual. Neither is the tendency of actors to over-estimate their degree of control over them.
Analysis of available information, I must emphasize, suggests this alternative theory is less likely than the base case. But asking different questions may reveal important insights otherwise missed.
We should use this or a better alternative as a check against group-think and to test our assumptions and perceived options.
Such rigorous testing may improve our understanding and lead to better policy choices. Would that not be useful, considering some of our problems in the recent past?