Defeating ISIS likely means a regional war that will cost many lives, but America’s existence is not in danger, according to a co-author of the new book ISIS: The State of Terror.
“We don’t view ISIS as an existential threat to the United States,” J.M. Berger, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Tuesday at the New America Foundation.
“Its primary tool against the United States in the immediate future is terrorism, and terrorism on a scale that is something we need to fight, and something we need to be concerned about, but it’s not going to topple the United States.”
Berger said the American people have displayed remarkable showings of resilience in the face of terrorism over the years, adapting to necessary responses, and going after perpetrators.
After 9/11, “the government went on. People went to work the next day,” he said.
“Fundamentally we’re a very resilient country, and we’ve come I think to understand that.”
ISIS is a much bigger problem in the regional sense, according to Berger, and the U.S. should still look at ways that it can improve the situation there.
Because it is an apocalyptic cult that relies heavily on propagating the illusion that it’s strong, he thinks the best way to weaken its support is to undermine this illusory projection of strength.
“If we’re doing it truthfully, that can be a very powerful tool,” he said.
Berger highlighted recent stories appearing in The Washington Post that talks about how territories under ISIS’ control are not doing very well, and are plagued internally by things like health problems, “dissent, defections and setbacks on the battlefield” that “sap the group’s strength and erode its aura of invincibility among those living under its despotic rule.”
He suggested that the United States should be more aggressive about using this kind of intelligence against them.
“Does anybody here doubt that the United States has a satellite that could read the digits off your watch from space?” he asked.
“Why don’t we use that technology to show what’s going on, the reports that we’re seeing in print, you know that there’s garbage on the streets, that there’s dead bodies laying around everywhere, there’s no food. If that stuff is true we can expose that.”
Berger said that the more we can expose, the more we can undermine their narrative strength.
The looming question, however, has to do with what happens when their narrative and military strength goes away.
He pointed out that apocalyptic cults have always failed throughout history (noting the obvious fact that we still have a world), but that some deal with failure by becoming more violent.
“It’s hard to see an outcome in ISIS territories that isn’t going to involve a horrific loss of human life,” Berger said.
This does not mean that ISIS is going to succeed or that it is invulnerable, he said, but that it has “stacked the deck” so there will be a tremendous cost no matter what happens.
One response they could have to the eventual takeover of Mosul might be “to burn it to the ground on the way out.”
However, because ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States, he strongly recommends that it should not “rise to their provocations” and send U.S. ground troops.