America, China and the Islamic State

Washington has launched still another “war against terror” in the Middle East and beyond. It is the kind of escalation that the Islamic State has hoped. In contrast, Beijing is likely to stick to cautious engagement.

Half a month after offering the American people his rationale for taking the United States into a new Middle East war to combat the Islamic State (IS), President Obama issued a call to the world to join America in the fight against violent religious extremism. Taking the moral high ground, President Obama told the UN General Assembly that “there can be no reasoning, no negotiations with this brand of evil.”

Undoubtedly, the IS represents the kind of brutality that is new even in the most violent war-torn enclaves of the Middle East.

But as the critics see it, the rise of the Islamic State is the result of President Bush’s war on terror and military actions, while its further radicalization is the effect of President Obama’s efforts to overcome the Middle East’s divides with raw military power, but without ground troops – and a political solution.

Huge investment, barbaric returns

A decade ago, neoconservatives in Washington envisioned a new democratic Middle East, including a stable, prosperous Iraq that would be united and peaceful. And they walked the talk. Between 2003 and 2012, U.S. aid to Iraq totaled more than $57 billion. During the same period, war costs in Iraq soared to $3.5 trillion (Joint Economic Committee of Congress). That’s more than 20 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.

The massive investment netted a far more authoritarian and volatile region, including an unstable, impoverished Iraq, which is disintegrating into Kurd, Shiite and Sunni parts, amidst barbaric violence.

More than quarter a year ago, I warned about the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its “Dream of the 21st Century Caliphate.” After all, the ISIS was expanding activities from Iraq to Syria and Turkish border, while moving closer to control major oil fields.

As international media attention lingered in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, Iraq turned into a battlefield as IS took control of several cities in Anbar Province, including the key city of Fallujah in early 2014, which paved the way to the capture of Mosul and other Sunni cities by June. Through the summer, the militants’ advances continued.

Despite brutal violence and beheadings in the Middle East, the White House continued to call the ISIS a “minor player” that had little or no strategic importance in the region. That, I argued, was a gross misjudgment. What could make things worse would be a short-term tactic by “one or another major Western power that represent a legacy of imperialism in the region.”

That’s the strategic trap the Obama administration stepped in. It is also why the White House has struggled to create another “coalition of the willing,” while carefully avoiding the term that became so notorious in the Bush-Cheney era.

Nevertheless, behind the official façade of determination in the General Assembly and the Security Council, there is unease that stems from the fact that the Islamic State and other extremist groups are currently training hundreds, even thousands of foreigners, which in due time will be sent back to their home, in order to export terror from the war-torn Middle East to the United States, Europe, even Asia.

Chinese caution

That’s why China, along with other emerging nations, is exercising great restraint in the case of the Islamic State.

China does have its concerns about rising domestic terrorist threats by Islamist extremists, especially in the Xinjiang province. But Beijing also has concerns about quasi-imperial interventions, as evidenced by U.S.-led “regime changes” in the Middle East and particularly the past 13 years of flawed and destabilizing policies in the region.

The bilateral strains were reflected by President Obama’s recent interview in which he characterized China’s stance as passive in international crises. “They have been free riders for the last 30 years and it’s worked really well for them,” Obama said.

Yet, from the Chinese standpoint, there is a difference between free ride and self-defeating policies. Beijing supported President Bush’s post-9/11 war on terror as long as it relied on multilateral cooperation and international law. Things changed with the Bush-Cheney unilateral security doctrine, which shunned international collaboration and legality.

Beijing is likely to cautiously support the efforts to curb the IS, but “with the international community so as to safeguard international security and stability,” as China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying has put it.

Chinese restraint is not a sign of free ride. Rather, it reflects caution in a critical moment when the broader Middle East is under a dramatic transformation. Thanks to its shale gas revolution, Washington now sees the Middle East as a strategic priority. Last year, China surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest net importer of crude oil and other liquid quells. To Beijing, the region is an economic priority.

Any burning oil field, any supply disruption translates to erosion in economic development in China and other major emerging economies and developing nations.

The impasse of “divide and rule”

Before the Western interventions, the IS had engaged in brutal acts of barbarism for almost a year in the Middle East. It was only after the beheadings of two American hostages – freelance journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff – that pressure mounted for President Obama to act.

At the time, U.S. military view was that IS may not currently threaten America and that the regional powers are best positioned to defeat the group. General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued there was no sign that IS militants were engaged in “active plotting against the homeland.” In turn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Army Lt. General Michael Flynn, noted that force alone cannot be the key to a U.S. strategy for defeating the IS militants.

Both military leaders know only too well that the U.S.-led attack against the extremist militants has potential to radicalize and unify the IS and comparable groups in the Middle East, as evidenced by past U.S. interventions in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. The fear is that a flawed approach against the IS could undermine stability in the region and extend terror from the U.S. military outposts to American metropolises and European capitals.

After all, U.S. policies in the region share a long, dark history. In the 1980s the U.S.-supported mujahideen militants in Afghanistan – who were then seen as “freedom fighters” in Washington – gave rise to Osama bin Laden and his Wahhabi al-Qaeda extremists a decade later. In the 2000s, the IS evolved as a response to President Bush’s invasion of Iraq, while U.S. efforts to use the so-called “good jihadists” against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad further contributed to the IS’s expansion.

In each case, Washington relied on the old imperial tactic of divide-and-rule in which “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But such friends are fickle. In each case, the militants eventually turned against the hand that once fed them. In each case, finally, a short-term tactic in the Middle East has potential to contribute to long-term destabilization far beyond the region.

It is these realities that are likely to restrain Chinese engagement with U.S.-led efforts to suppress the Islamic State. Beijing will fight terrorism, but its focus will be on multilateral cooperation, international law and a political solution.

Original version written on Sept 15, current version published by China-US Focus on September 29, 2014