Medical science has helped many cancer patients extend their lives. Further, it’s inching towards cures. Military science has been far less effective in fighting religious cancers, such as ISIS—the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (aka ISIL, the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant). The United States might take that into account as Iraq faces dismemberment.

We toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Then Iraq disintegrated thanks to a virtually nonexistent post-war plan for rebuilding a shattered country. A troop surge in 2007 brought bubbling hot spots down to a simmer but never extinguished the fire. Fuel and matches remained abundant. We withdrew in 2011. Now the lid has blown. Again.

Let’s get real. And that includes you, Dick Cheney! We can’t remake the Middle East. The cancer of Islamism—Islamic fundamentalism as distinct from Islam—has eaten away at the region since the Sunni-Shiite split in the Seventh Century following the death of Muhammad. We can retard its spread in some places, but a cure will come only from within. Whether it will be found in this century remains to be seen.

Is the cancer metaphor overblown? While all peoples praise peace, justice and freedom, Islamists and many others in the Muslim world define these principles differently. Peace means planting your boot on the neck of your enemy. And you always have enemies. Justice equates with revenge rather than ending the conditions that contribute to hostilities. Freedom, in terms of the caliphate, entails living as you believe God dictates—and dictating the same conditions to everyone you overrun. In The Clash of Civilizations (1996), Samuel Huntington posited that different civilizations/cultures possess different values and goals. Some are malignant. He was right.

What now? Use may be made of American air power in Iraq. But American boots—aside from Special Forces advisors and small, covert special operations units—will not hit the ground. We could stay there for a hundred years, and the same religious and tribal hatreds would remain while we slowly bled ourselves. So we won’t try to cure the cancer of Islamism. We’ll attempt to contain it. This will involve a web of complex, often unsavory, political relationships to stabilize the disease’s periphery.

Turkey will work with Kurdistan. (They’ve been coming to terms for a while.) The vicious Assad regime in Syria will receive more support from Iran, the rebels little from us. The U.S. and Iran will engage, although how remains unclear. We’ll try to drag Saudi Arabia to the table, although the Saudis hate Iraq’s Shiite, Maliki-run government—which we’ll try to change. We’ll quietly prop up Egypt’s military-run government and continue working with Jordan’s King Hussein. We’ll stand by Israel as a counterweight to Shiite Islamist ambitions in Lebanon—again while working with Hezbollah’s patron Iran. Hopefully, Mid-East first aid will stop the bleeding then prompt ISIS to cannibalize itself.

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” goes a well-known Arab saying. Many enemies may accommodate each other until this crisis ends. But once ISIS is dealt with, allies joined under duress will turn on each other yet again.

The blog will take two weeks off. Look for the next post on July 11.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.


  1. Tracy on June 20, 2014 at 5:58 pm

    I’m not so sure the cancer metaphor works in this case. With cancer, the preferred treatment is to excise, not contain. I don’t think we can excise radical Islam from the Middle East. Thus, I think it is more like diabetes: you can live with it, but you have to treat it. You’ll never be rid of it, but you can be healthy and happy by making better choices.

    I think we should start with a “diet change” of no more wars in the region.

    • David on June 20, 2014 at 6:09 pm

      Thanks for this response, Tracy. As it happens, I’m less concerned about getting my MD than finding a way to describe ISIS and other Islamist groups. They’re malignancies that threaten healthy groups, first praying on weaker societies to gain strength to attack the strong. No, I don’t think they’ll succeed. And yes, your diabetes analogy also makes sense. Islamism represents a chronic condition we’ll have to live with for some time. Most certainly, we’ll have to control it. My take is that we’ll have to encircle or contain it because this cancer—I’m sticking to my metaphorical guns here—is rather inoperable. It’s worth repeating that Islamists will eventually turn on themselves.

  2. Ron Laupheimer on June 20, 2014 at 8:39 pm

    Well written and thought-out piece as usual. I do not feel that the great majority of people in this country look at the Middle East in this manner.

    The United States has to learn to let other peoples of the world resolve their differences among themselves (even if that means much injuring/killing of native peoples). We cannot and should not be the world’s protector. We must spend more of our very limited discretionary resources taking care of our own (e.g., single payer health insurance for ALL US residents, sufficient healthy food for ALL Americans). It is clear Washington has not learned that point through numerous recent wars now, but it is, in my opinion (which strongly favors isolation), the only realistic approach to this real problem.

    • David on June 20, 2014 at 10:34 pm

      Ron, I agree that Washington has failed to learn some basic lessons about the world, i.e. “they” are not always just like “us.” We’ve neglected our own people in the process. I suggest, however, that isolation is not the answer. A turtle with its head stuck inside its shell is vulnerable—even a big turtle. Not to mention an ostrich with its head in the sand. America has legitimate interests around the world, and there are nations and groups which would threaten them. Such threats would affect all Americans. We need to maintain a coherent foreign policy and sound military capabilities. We also need to be more realistic about them.

  3. Sandy Lipkowitz on June 21, 2014 at 4:23 pm

    Scary stuff and the scariest is that there doesn’t seem to be a solution.
    Enjoy your time off. I hope you are off celebrating your BD.

  4. Carolyn Perlstein on June 21, 2014 at 5:04 pm

    And now Canada’s largest Protestant governing body has boycotted buying Israeli products. I am dismayed with this thinking: punish Israel while this militant group threatens to overwhelm the Middle East. The lack of logic is what overwhelms me.

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