09/05/2014 12:52 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2014

The U.S. Needs to Define Its Objective, Enlist International Support in Fight Against ISIS Threat


As the world grapples with how to combat the Islamic State -- otherwise known as ISIS -- in Syria, so far it would appear that the biggest weapon in its arsenal is a thesaurus.

Depending on whom you listen to, we're going to "contain," "cripple," "roll back," "defeat" and/or "eliminate" a group that has been described as "barbarous," "beyond anything we've ever seen," "cancerous," an "embodiment of evil," "highly ambitious," "savage," "well-armed" and "well-funded."

After he was initially lambasted by many politicians and political pundits for admitting that his administration had no "strategy yet" for dealing with ISIS, President Obama indicated Wednesday that America intends to "degrade and destroy" a group that represents a "barbaric and ultimately empty vision."

What stands out to me most in this debate -- and what is impossible to ignore -- is the stark and chilling tone of the language being used to describe this threat. But my first questions are not language-related. Instead they are: How much of a threat does ISIS represent to the U.S.? And what are we prepared to do to deal with it?

Admittedly, it's hard to answer these questions given the turmoil and chaos of the Middle East and our own lack of sufficient knowledge and understanding about ISIS. We know little about where the individuals who identify with this group come from, how many of them there are and how they've been so effective. Until recently, we couldn't identify their leaders. Up until now, we've only been able to marvel at how this small, decentralized and dispersed fighting force managed to take ground from over 300,000 Iraqi troops.

What's more, we've only been able to guess how much of a threat ISIS represents to U.S. interests. Some of the terminology that's been tossed around in the media and in Washington would suggest that the group is knocking on the door of New York City; but the Department of Homeland Security and FBI maintain they have no credible information to indicate an attack on the U.S. homeland. That said, our intelligence suggests that ISIS could pose a limited threat if left unchecked.

We can safely say that the members of ISIS have scary ambitions, are highly disciplined, have strong ideological appeal and possess effective propaganda to push their agenda. They are also brutal, as evidenced by this week's report of another barbaric killing of an American journalist. At the same time, they are not invincible. ISIS has plenty of limitations that are now coming to the fore. And we should be aware that it's only one of several groups that could emerge from the region and pose a threat to the U.S.

Gauging the ISIS threat is the first step in defining our objective. The next step pertains to resources and, more specifically, who's going to help us meet this threat. In other words, I want to be sure what I'm signing up for.

His no "strategy yet" statement aside, President Obama has made it clear that the U.S. is pursuing "a range of options" for combating ISIS. The administration should, of course, consider all types of responses. And it should do so as part of a comprehensive strategy to meet a growing and evolving threat.

That strategy should include airstrikes, which are already occurring against ISIS forces in Iraq and have proven to be effective, at least in the early stages. It should also include a powerful and effective ground force.

Furthermore, our strategy should require that we spell out our partners and what they're prepared to do to contribute to meet the threat. We need to be part of a regional coalition with military, intelligence, diplomatic, economic and law enforcement components. Only through an organized, coordinated approach with our allies will we be able to effectively begin to isolate ISIS.

Apparently, no one thinks that putting U.S. boots on the ground should be an option, even if we put more boots on the ground for non-combat purposes. Training and supporting local forces, however, is high on our to-do list, but that task is much harder and expensive than we generally acknowledge. We have spent tens of billions of dollars to train, advise and assist new armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, but those units remain severely challenged. (Incidentally, in late June, the president asked Congress to authorize $500 million in U.S. military training and equipment for Syrian rebels fighting the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, as well as ISIS. What did Congress do? Take a five-week vacation, which has to make you wonder how seriously Congress takes the threat.)

In putting together a comprehensive strategy, we have to proceed carefully, while focusing on an immediate objective: stopping the advancement of ISIS. If, as the president vowed, we're going to "degrade and destroy" ISIS, we need greater help and cooperation from our friends and allies.

The ISIS challenge is, at its core, a war of ideas. I have seen virtually no consideration of a strategic component to take on ISIS on this fundamental level. We need to recognize that while it is possible to destroy an ideology (Nazism, fascism), doing so is not easy, and it cannot be done without an effective, fully supported counter message. In this case, whatever message we determine is most effective must have the solid backing of Muslim nations in the region.

Make no mistake: to defeat ISIS will require a major, multiyear undertaking. We need to approach that undertaking one step at a time, and as part of a larger international coalition, but pursuant to an overall comprehensive strategy.

Lee H. Hamilton is Professor of Practice, Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; Director, Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.