In a review-essay in the Wall Street Journal, James Traub makes a number of important points about the Islamic State.
Al Qaeda Classic misunderstood the appeal of ISIS just as much as did Western observers. Western powers at least had the excuse that they were busy with many things and on many fronts. Al Qaeda had much easier contact, but still under-estimated its rival.
Americans have debated whether “nation-building” is possible in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Billions of dollars already have been lavished on the effort in both countries, yet it would be hard to claim that the effort has been a success. However, ISIS appears to demonstrate that it is possible, and on a shoe-string budget compared to what Americans have spent. Recent reports have suggested that ISIS has begun to encounter al sorts of problems, so they may be presiding over the start of a “nation un-building.” Even that will not solve the problem of nation-building however. Can there be an effective alternative approach formulated by the West?
Former Baath Party members have been venting their rage at the Americans for more than a decade, often in alliance with radical Islamists like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and now Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. How long can this alliance between the former supporters of a secular regime and religious extremists survive? By their excesses, the jihadists once drove many Sunnis into alliance with the Americans and—tacitly—with the Shi’ites. Subsequently, the Shi’ites returned to a policy of persecuting the Sunnis. Nouri al-Maliki gets the blame for this in American media, but the reality is that he had wide support among Shi’ites. This makes it difficult to imagine that the Sunnis will readily abandon the Islamists. So long as it is directed against Shi’ites and Americans, the alliance ought to be able to paper over any other divisions. At least neither party will abandon the alliance until after victory has been won.
The Saudis and their Gulf clients see the struggle in Iraq as part of a larger confrontation between Sunnis and Shi’a Islam that has been going on for a long time. The rift has been open for centuries, but it has been particularly acute since the Iranian Revolution toppled the shah. Defeating ISIS so that the Shi’ite majority in Iraq can sleep better at night isn’t at the top of the Saudi agenda. The uncertainties about the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program will not make the Saudis more committed to opposing ISIS.
Could all this have been avoided had the self-satisfied, moralizing Baby Boomers who have run American foreign policy for the last twenty years or so been content to leave dictators in place? Saddam Hussein did not have to be overthrown. The Syrian rebels did not have to be encouraged to go on resisting after it had become clear that the Bashar Assad regime was going to hold onto power. The Gaddafi regime in Libya did not have to be bombed out of existence.
It has become a common belief that things would have gone differently had the Obama administration been willing to stay on in Iraq. Regardless of the truth of this belief, will the US be willing to stay on after the defeat of ISIS to prevent a return to stupidity? In ceding so much of the active role in opposing Iraq to Iran, is the US preparing the ground for a partition of the country. Will Saudi Arabia and Jordan absorb the Sunni parts of the country?
How serious a danger is ISIS? To the United States and other Western societies, ISIS is not very dangerous. It isn’t Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. It may be a loathsome ideology, but it does not control a powerful state. So, a sense of proportion is needed. So, too, is patience. “Keep them penned in and wait for the food riots to start,” as one character in William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition described America’s Cold War policy of containment.
 James Traub, “The Demonic Wellspring,” WSJ, 14-15 March 2015.