09/09/2014 07:59 am ET Updated Nov 09, 2014

Obama, ISIS, Kissinger and Clausewitz: American Military Force in Religious Conflicts


It took Henry Kissinger to articulate the sense of chaos and anarchic violence that is spreading across the world: The World Order is crumbling. Beheadings, mass murder of civilians, international borders vanishing, and the inability of political institutions to manage conflict are smashing the carefully constructed post-WWII universe.

There's a reason, and historical precedent, and neither bodes well for a swift return to manageable conflicts.

Humanity's recent efforts to reduce war and violence have been based on the faith that political institutions could contain and mitigate violence. Two hundred years ago Clausewitz shrewdly defined war as"politics by other means." We could negotiate and politic our way out of war, if we were smart about it. We reversed Clausewitz and successfully used politics as "war by other means."

But it's a rationalist, somewhat Western model. And it is no longer accepted in many quarters.

Rationalist goals have receded and been replaced by religious goals in crucial regions of conflict. There is little one can negotiate with an opponent whose actions spring from the absolute certainty and spiritual requirements of religion. Take the obvious transformation of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Once was, the conflict was between two competing secular visions, Zionism and Palestinian autonomy. Now Hamas presents an Islamist vision of the struggle, and the old PLO secularists are sidelined. Although much less profound, Israeli politics have a similar transformation, with questions about the power of religious settlers for whom loss of any part of Israeli territory is a religious sin.

It's happened before. The Crusades, the Inquisition and the French Religious Wars centuries ago. The recent Sudanese, Nigerian and Lebanese civil wars. And now ISIS with its murderous vision of a Sunni Islamist Caliphate, the consequent butchery of Muslims and others, and the de facto end to national borders created by Western colonial powers. Negotiations are not going to settle our differences with ISIS.

Obama's strength has been a keen intellectual grasp of issues and a willingness to reduce the use of force even when he is criticized as weak. It's kinda worked, with the quantum of violence in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere reduced, all very much in the national interest. That strength could now be a weakness. Whether on our own or in concert with others force and violence are the only available tools, other than doing nothing and hoping for the best.

There is an argument for doing nothing. ISIS will heighten the Sunni/Shiite/Alawite split in Islam. Old enemies, like the US and Iran, will have common interests. Sunni kingdoms will worry about ISIS expanding. Israel could revive a political relationship with the PLO.

All risky and unlikely. Obama now faces a transformation of his signature policies that reduced violence as a tool of foreign policy. He will have no allies in the anti-Obama crowd whose desire to see him fail often outstrips their pursuit of the national interest. He is being tested and he is alone.

A new international paradigm is upon us. Kissinger, the foreign policy establishment and the rationalists see it coming but don't know what to do. It's up to Obama, for better or worse, to develop a doctrine and a methodology for the use of force in religious conflicts. It will likely be the most lasting of his strategic contributions to the national interest.