Why ISIL won’t be defeated

John Mearsheimer speaks with Al Jazeera about the war on ISIL, the Israel lobby and the Palestinian question.

US invasion of Iraq
ISIL is in large part a consequence of the US' invasion of Iraq in 2003 and toppling Saddam Hussein [Getty]

In late August 2006, John Mearsheimer and Steve Walt published a book called ‘The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy’, ever since life, says Mearsheimer, has been fundamentally altered.

“If you criticise Israel or criticise the lobby, you pay a significant price and most people are unwilling to pay this price,” Mearsheimer told Al Jazeera.

John Mearshiemer [Al Jazeera]
John Mearshiemer [Al Jazeera]

A specialist of international politics and author of several books, Mearsheimer maintains a critical view of United States foreign policy with special emphasis on its Middle East policies. 

He argues that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) will not be defeated in traditional warfare because “you do not defeat an ideology”.

Mearsheimer is working on a new book that tackles the relationship between liberalism and nationalism in international politics.

“My argument is that nationalism is the most powerful ideology on the planet and, whenever liberalism and nationalism clash, nationalism wins almost every time,” he said. 

He spoke to Al Jazeera about the war on ISIL, US foreign policy and the Palestinian question.

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Al Jazeera: What is your take on the US-led coalition war on ISIL?

John Mearsheimer: My view is the West – and here we are talking mainly about the US –  has a clear strategy for how to deal with ISIL, but it is a deeply flawed one. There are two components to the US-led approach: first to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power and, second, to use Western air power, coupled with local forces on the ground, to inflict a decisive defeat on ISIL.

ISIL fighters will not stand and do battles with the US military. What they will do is melt away into the towns, the countryside and cities, and they will come back to fight another day, so there is no military solution to defeating ISIL.


The problem with this approach is, now that the Russians, Iranians and Hezbollah are committed to keeping Assad in power, that there is no way the US, and the West more generally, are going to topple Assad from power.

Instead what you will end up with is a situation where the Russians and the Americans fight a proxy war over Assad which is going to detract from the American-led efforts against ISIL.

Even more importantly, there is no way that you can decisively defeat ISIL because you are trying to defeat an Ideology.

There is no question that if the US and the European powers put a large number of ground forces in Syria and Iraq they could defeat ISIL in a traditional war, but the problem is that ISIL fighters would just evaporate.

They would just disappear into cities and towns just like the Taliban did, and the end result would be twofold; one as long as the West occupied Syria and Iraq,this would just generate more terrorists. Secondly, once the US and its allies left, ISIL fighters would come back as Taliban fighters did in Afghanistan.

So again, trying to topple Assad makes no sense now that the Russians have entered the fray.

Al Jazeera:  Several analysts argue that the only way to defeat ISIL is by putting boots on the ground. The US is already considering sending a special force to Syria and there are already some forces in Iraq. 

Mearsheimer: There are two issues here. Who will put boots on the ground to deal with ISIL?

Everybody agrees that ISIL cannot be defeated with air power alone, and we need boots on the ground. The Americans – and Europeans, for sure – do not want to send ground troops because they know what happened in Afghanistan and they know what happened in Iraq.

It just makes the problem worse. Get the local forces to intervene on the ground and have the US and Europeans provide air power to support those ground forces. However, the fact is that there are no local actors who are willing to put boots on the ground.

It is also hard to see where we are going to get the troops that would be necessary to topple ISIL.

And even if you topple ISIL and inflict a military defeat on it – let’s just say the Americans and Europeans put down ground forces and roll up the ISIL military units that now control all that territory in Iraq and Syria – in the end, this will not matter because you cannot defeat an ideology.

ISIL fighters will not stand and do battle with the American military. What they will do is melt away into the towns, countryside and cities, and they will come back to fight another day, so there is no military solution to defeating ISIL.

ANALYSIS: What does US intel really know about ISIL?

Al Jazeera: Messy US intelligence failure in the war in Iraq has resurfaced recently. To what extent do you think the US is responsible for the rise of ISIL?

Obama vows to destroy ISIL

Mearsheimer: I think there is no question that the the US is principally responsible for the creation of ISIL.

There was no ISIL before the US invaded Iraq. And ISIL is largely a consequence of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and toppling of Saddam Hussein.

This has been compounded by the fact that since roughly 2011, the US has been committed to toppling Assad from power in Damascus, which has helped to create a civil war in Syria now, in addition to the mess we created in Iraq.

This of course provided fertile territory for ISIL to grow by leaps and bounds, so there is no question in my mind that the US played a main role.

Al Jazeera: Was this a deliberate action?

Mearsheimer: What is remarkable about all of this is that the Bush administration did not anticipate any trouble in Iraq. They thought that we were going to go in there, topple Saddam Hussein from power, put some benevolent leader in charge in Baghdad and we would be able to leave and march on to the next country to invade.

This is what the Bush doctrine was all about and, of course, this was a remarkably foolish way to think about what would be the consequence of an American-led invasion. And what we have seen is that we created a chaos in Iraq that led to the creation of ISIL.

Al Jazeera: As we approach the end of President Barack Obama‘s second term, how would you assess his Middle East policies? Was he executing the Bush doctrine by another face and name?

Mearsheimer: I think there is a great deal of similarity between what Obama is trying to do in the Middle East and what President Bush did.

The big difference is: Bush invaded two countries [Afghanistan and Iraq] with American ground forces, but Obama knows that it is not a good idea, and that is why he does not want to put ground forces in Syria.

Nevertheless, President Obama, much like President Bush before him, is deeply committed to fostering regime change in the Middle East.

Obama, like Bush, is interested in the remaking of the Middle East [by force]. As we all know, the US played a role in toppling the government in Libya in 2011, and the US has been deeply involved in trying to foster regime change in Syria since mid-2000 when Bush was in office.

Obama has not changed that policy at all. He is deeply committed to the idea that Assad must go.

So the US is, in many ways, a revolutionary force in the Middle East whether you are talking about Bush or Obama. And just listening to various US presidential candidates, there is no reason to believe there will be any rethinking of that basic policy of regime change.

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Al Jazeera: But  the dominant perception in the region is that the US, during Obama’s previous years in office, adopted a hands-off approach to the political turmoil in the Middle East?

Mearsheimer: There is no question that the US pulled its troops out of Iraq and we definitely decreased the troop level in Afghanistan.

Although I would point out that Obama is not leaving Afghanistan. The US will leave some residual force there for the foreseeable future. With regard to Iraq, we have begun to insert small military units, and in our fight against ISIL, we are in effect back in Iraq.

There is no question that the US has little interest in inserting a large number of ground troops but, in terms of influence in Syria and Iraq, the US is still in the game in a serious way. It is just trying to do it from the air or with small American special forces on the ground.


Al Jazeera: And on the Palestinian question?

Mearsheimer: The Obama administration has gone to great lengths to convince Netanyahu [the Israeli prime minister] that the two-state solution is in everyone’s interest. However, Netanyahu’s government is adamantly opposed to the two-state solution. They are bent on creating a greater Israel and, indeed, one could argue that they have already created greater Israel.

Obama failed in his attempt to convince the Israelis to accept the two-state solution and, as a result of the ensuing conflict between Obama and Netanyahu over that issue and Iran’s nuclear deal, relations between the US and Israel are at an all-time low.

I have been an advocate of the two-state solution. It is not the best alternative, but it is a good one. However, I think we are past the point where it is a viable option.

There is not going to be a two-state solution. There is now – and will continue to be –  a greater Israel, and inside that greater Israel Palestinians will soon outnumber the Israeli Jews. That means you will have an apartheid state.

And the important question is whether Israel can maintain itself as an apartheid state in the foreseeable future.

Al Jazeera: But is Israel not already an apartheid state?

Mearsheimer: I believe that certainly in terms of the occupied territories it is an apartheid state, and you can make a plausible argument when you include the pre-1967 border.

And the issue, from an Israeli point of view, is that once you go to the one person, one vote system, the Palestinians will outnumber the Jews and it will cease to be a Jewish state. So the Israelis will have a powerful interest in maintaining the apartheid state.

The problem, however, is that Israel likes to think of itself as part of the West, and supporters of Israel go to great lengths to say we share the same values, but there is no way you can make that argument once it is widely recognised that Israel is an apartheid state. 

Al Jazeera: Does the Israel lobby still maintain its power and clout in Washington’s corridors of power?

Mearsheimer: The lobby is as powerful as ever. The lobby is alive and well, and Israel is going to have to rely heavily on the lobby to deal with the fact that it is rapidly becoming – if it is not already – an apartheid state.

This will cause huge problems in the US – and the West more generally. What the Israelis are betting is that the lobby will protect them. If there was no lobby, the discourse on Israel in the US would be fundamentally different from how it is today. Moreover, the policies of the US government and European governments would be fundamentally different.

The lobby, however, is such a powerful factor that it alters – in profound ways – both the discourse and the policies. The problem is that if you criticise Israel or criticise the lobby you pay a significant price, and most people are unwilling to pay this price.

Source: Al Jazeera