U.S. leaders must be prepared to fight extremism and radical jihad emanating from the Middle East for “decades,” says a retired Marine Corps four-star general who has spent the past decade on the military and diplomatic battlefields of America’s war on terrorism.
John R. Allen, who served most recently as President Obama’s envoy to the international coalition against the Islamic State, warned in an interview that Washington will be courting disaster if it withdraws from the region any further than it already has.
“The region, as bad as it is, can worsen,” Mr. Allen said in an interview with The Washington Times as part of a special series of articles examining the war against the terrorist group, also known as ISIS and ISIL.
“Absent clear and unequivocal U.S. leadership and the long-term cooperation of the community of nations, we’re condemned to fight for the foreseeable future,” said the retired general, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
The United States, he said, must take the lead “in the fashioning of a generation-long strategy that both embraces the necessity to defend ourselves, but also the requirement to address massive institutional weaknesses and social flaws that leave us in an environment of perpetual radicalization.”
After a military career lasting nearly four decades, Mr. Allen, 62, made headlines recently by endorsing Democrat Hillary Clinton for president. He told Clinton supporters recently that rhetoric from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump could alienate U.S. allies in the Muslim world.
In his interview, however, he steered clear of taking a position on the Obama administration’s approach to the Islamic State. He said politicization of the threat posed by the group only clouds the debate over how best to defeat it.
A “complex array of factors” gave rise to al Osama bin Laden’s original al Qaeda and to the subsequent rise of the Islamic State, he said.
The terrorists’ desire to defend and extend the reach of Islam has been key, he said, but other factors include demographics, economics and an outright failure of governance before and after the 2011 revolutions that rocked the Middle East.
“The reasons for the so-called Arab Spring are instructive in understanding the causes for widespread radicalization that has given rise to these groups around the world,” he said.
Increasingly younger populations in the developing world, he said, are reacting to governments that are not inclusive, lack legitimate justice systems and are mired in corruption.
Other factors he mentioned are social inequality, particularly the lack of basic rights for women and minorities; ethnic and religious discrimination; limited access to education; and bleak economic prospects in much of the world where the appeal of the Islamic State and other jihadi groups is expanding.
“The next U.S. president will inherit a world where, unless these basic social factors are resolved, or at least addressed, we’ll see greater conflict, not less,” Mr. Allen said. “In the aftermath of the first wave of the Arab Spring — and I view the Arab Spring as more the first wave of a tsunami — we are condemned to fight for the next 50 years.”
“The next president will have to react to protect our security, but will also have to make the basic decision either to begin the generation-long process to resolve these factors or withdraw further into our shrinking sphere of influence and let these conditions continue to fester, creating group after group after group,” the retired general said.
“If we don’t like the results of the Syrian civil war, which has redefined human misery in the 21st century, then there is no alternative but to act,” he said. “Interminable war with expanding extremist interests cannot be what we bequeath our children.”