Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Koert DebeufRepresentative of the European Parliament’s Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe to the Arab world
Yes, Europe will go to war against the Islamic State (IS)—but it should not lead the campaign.
As a matter of fact, Europe is already at war, albeit in a limited way. European countries like the UK and France are supporting the United States in stopping the march of IS into Kurdistan by launching air attacks and arming the Peshmerga (the Kurdish military), who are fighting the jihadists.
But Europe should go further. The Islamic State is acting like a new Mongol invasion. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is the new Genghis Khan. The group is destroying civilization, killing people in the most barbaric way, and blowing up world heritage. IS is committing crimes against humanity and will not stop at the borders of the Middle East. Very soon it will threaten European security as well.
The worst-case scenario would be a war between the West and the Islamic State. Such a development would play into the hands of IS, as the jihadists would immediately brand it as a new Western Christian crusade against Islam. A major Western-led conflict would make IS more popular in some parts of the Arab world.
Therefore, it is vital that a coalition of Arab states take the lead in this war. Only coordinated action by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, and preferably Iran can prevent IS’s expansion in the region. The role of the EU and the United States should merely be to ensure that this regional war is a success.
Henrik HeidenkampResearch fellow for the Defense, Industries, and Society Program at the Royal United Services Institute
Europe certainly could directly engage the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) with military means; whether it will depends on European leaders’ resolve.
ISIS presents a clear danger for international security and peace. For Europe, the group poses a complex strategic challenge. Geopolitically, Europe is directly affected by the spread of ISIS, as highlighted by the jihadists’ black flag flying within sight of Iraq’s border with NATO member Turkey.
In addition, the large numbers of European citizens fighting in ISIS’s ranks might turn into a domestic security threat once these fighters return to their home countries. The ISIS terror has also triggered huge migration flows that will eventually reach European states.
Therefore, both the EU and the international community have a distinct interest in taking quick action against ISIS. The West’s enabling strategy of recent weeks, which has included weapons deliveries and U.S. air strikes, has been somewhat successful but has its limits—not least with regard to the difficult end-user control for Western arms exports.
Pinprick-type measures will not be sufficient to eliminate ISIS as a political and military actor. That requires military action on the ground under a UN Security Council mandate. European nations have both the interest and the military capabilities—such as the EU battle groups—to contribute to military actions together with the United States. Of course, it remains to be seen whether European decisionmakers will find the required political will to take such steps. In any case, military operations must complement political, humanitarian, financial, and intelligence efforts.
Karl-Heinz KampAcademic director of the Federal Academy for Security Policy in Berlin
The short answer is no—because Europe is neither willing nor able to go to war.
A more detailed response would raise two further questions. First, who is “Europe”? Does this label refer to the EU, with its battle groups that have never been used? Does it mean the European members of NATO, or a European coalition of the willing?
Second, who would Europe be fighting against? The Islamic State (IS), with its stone-age empire in Iraq and Syria; Boko Haram, which has just proclaimed a caliphate in Nigeria; or jihadist militias in Libya likely to become as bloodthirsty as IS as soon as they gain more power?
Admittedly, pictures of murderous barbarians crucifying anyone who doesn’t want to follow them back to medieval times are powerful tools that cause horror and dismay. Alas, consternation alone is not a strategy.
What the Middle East is experiencing is more than a series of crises or revolutions that will lead sooner or later to a new order. Instead, it is the erosion of statehood and the end of the current order. In such a situation, military intervention reaches its limits as it is unclear against whom and for whose benefit such operations should be carried out. U.S. air strikes or European deliveries of weapons and equipment are insufficient and unsatisfying—but this is all that can and should be done right now.
The views expressed above are the responsibility of the author alone.
Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations
Europe is already at war against Islamic fundamentalism in general, if not yet against the Islamic State (IS) in particular. European victims of terrorist attacks in London and Madrid, and of military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, are silent witnesses to this truth.
Alas, European public opinion shies away from this state of affairs. Europeans are distressed by their own countries’ seemingly incurable economic stagnation, skeptical about war after years of devastation, and content to indulge in schadenfreude as they see their U.S. allies in trouble. The wound that opened up in 2003, when then U.S. president George W. Bush invaded Iraq and European leadership became bitterly divided over the issue, is still festering—despite five years of suave rhetoric from Bush’s successor, Barack Obama.
Writing in 2012, I dared to predict that defense would become the biggest millstone around Europe’s neck, more so than the economy. That sounded far-fetched at the time, but unfortunately, it has become true. The EU needs to adopt a common diplomatic agenda, evolve into a much more coordinated bloc at the United Nations, and rethink its cuts on military budgets.
It would be political suicide to propose investing more in defense today. So coordinating spending, cutting hapless duplication of efforts, giving each EU country a strategic duty, and creating a European elite force capable of deploying abroad fast are measures that would give EU a much better punch—without wasting more euros.
Tommy SteinerSenior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy of the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya
I do not know whether Europe will go to war against the Islamic State (IS). But since IS already poses a clear threat to a core European regional interest—curtailing the export of violence and instability from the Middle East to Europe through terror and radical indoctrination—the EU must formulate and execute a broad range of strategies and measures at home and abroad. The several thousand European nationals fighting in IS’s ranks constitute a counterterrorism nightmare and a domestic socioeconomic challenge of the highest order.
In standing up to this multidimensional global threat, Europe should not go it alone. Rather, the EU should enhance strategic coordination and political cooperation with its Western allies, including Israel. To thwart the IS threat in the Middle East, Europe ought to develop a comprehensive tool kit including military assets and capabilities, political support, and economic measures. The EU must also develop a broad strategy to counter IS’s European-based infrastructure.
These steps may not amount to war, but IS poses a daunting long-term challenge that simply cannot be exaggerated. The barbaric murder of U.S. journalist James Foley by a British national fighting for IS ought to serve as a wake-up call, but recent events show that time and again, Europe fails to rouse.
Sylke TempelEditor in chief of Internationale Politik at the German Council on Foreign Relations
As long as the EU lacks a real common foreign and security policy, institutions like a European Security Council to provide strategic guidance, a high commissioner for defense, and a European army, “Europe” as a whole won’t be going to war anywhere. So far, the EU hasn’t even forged a common policy on weapons deliveries to Kurdish forces.
There is no doubt that the Islamic State’s conquest of large swaths of land in Syria and Iraq has provided one of the most dangerous terror organizations in the world with resources and a base that al-Qaeda could only dream of. IS is a veritable threat to European security interests.
But might individual European countries go to war against IS? Perhaps, under certain circumstances. If the situation worsens even further—that is, if IS can consolidate its rule over Iraq, if weapons provided by Europeans to Kurds end up in the hands of IS, and if (heaven forbid) European jihadists carry out a 9/11-type attack in Europe—then it might dawn on European states that Europe will have no choice but to take on the Islamic State.