As bad as containment sounds, it may now be hard to accomplish more.
Secretary of State John Kerry has emphatically denied that the United States is pursuing a containment strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but the term appears apt. Containment hardly seems optimal, and ISIS does not yet seem contained, but at this point it is unclear that the administration is interested in or capable of more. Indeed, recent ISIS advances suggest that they are nowhere near contained.
As messaging, Kerry’s denial is understandable. Announcing that the United States merely intends to “contain” ISIS would seem to suggest that we are content to treat it as an entity we can work with. Politically, “contain” is much less impressive sounding than “destroy.” It also conjures up previous administration statements and critiques about pinpricks, red lines and unbelievably small uses of military force.
We now see that the U.S. is trying to restore a semblance of stability to Iraq. A U.S.-led military coalition is attacking from the air ISIS’s march in Syria and rolling back their presence in Iraq by working with Syrian opposition groups, Kurds, the Iraqi government and even in parallel with Iran.
A few years ago, it seemed that the tide of war was receding. The unfortunate part of the tide metaphor is that tides come back. Members of both political parties who previously advocated inaction in Syria should now recognize that this is what a strategic vacuum looks like.
There may well have been a time three or four years ago when the United States could have intervened boldly and decisively in Syria, shaped events on the ground, prevented the rise of ISIS and even punished the butcher of Damascus. We didn’t. Just because we’ve now become aware that the train left the station doesn’t mean that we can call it back.
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