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Administration, Analysts: Better Government, Economies Needed to Fight IS

File - Demonstrators chant pro-Islamic State group slogans as they wave the group's flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, Iraq, June 2014.
File - Demonstrators chant pro-Islamic State group slogans as they wave the group's flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, Iraq, June 2014.

As the United States approaches its second year of combating Islamic State, officials and analysts make clear that military might will not be enough to make good on President Obama's pledge "to degrade and destroy" the militant group.

For months, the Obama administration has been re-examining its strategy to defeat IS, which now holds large sections of Syria and Iraq. In January, Secretary of State John Kerry discussed a “holistic” approach that includes accountable governments, and universal empowerment in politics, economics and education.

This week, at the close of the G7 summit in Germany, President Barack Obama said, "When a finalized plan is presented to me by the Pentagon, then I will share it with the American people." And, he said, it will require commitment on the part of the Iraqis.

But several experts on Middle East affairs say while most people in the region recognize that militants are a violent threat to their communities, getting full participation from the Arab public in the fight against IS will not be easy.

Military Force Is Not Enough

“Defeating and crushing them is not going to resolve the problem in the long run; they came from something; they came from the failure of the Syrian state and weaknesses of the Iraqi state in taking care of all of its citizens,” says former U.S. ambassador to Egypt Francis Ricciardone.

Zogby International surveys of Arab public opinion showed a majority of Arabs do not support the U.S.-led bombing raids against IS, even though they know it is a dangerous group.

At the Arab American Institute in Washington, the group’s president, Jim Zogby, explains:

“They lost confidence in the ability of the U.S. to use force and use it responsibly; Iraq was a terrible toll on the Arab psyche and the [U.S.] behavior on ‘Israel-Palestine’ has also had an impact, so simply knowing that Arabs are afraid of IS does not translate immediately to America should lead a military attack against IS, " Zogby said.

Zogby added that many Arabs also are not necessarily happy to see the U.S. and Iran both fighting IS, a Sunni group that has targeted Shiite Muslims, and Washington working with a government in Iraq that does not bring in all segments of the population.

Political and Socio-Economic Role

In 2009, President Obama said in Cairo that the U.S. welcomes governments that “govern with respect for all their people” and “place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party.”

But Khalil Anani, professor of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, says Arab rulers have failed to include the political opposition, particularly the moderate Islamic opposition.

“Many young Arabs lost faith in democracy and adopted very radical ideas and became more venerable to join extreme movements instead of joining political parties,” Anani said.

He argued that one of the main mistakes of the U.S. is tolerating repressive regimes in return for stability.

“Stability can not be achieved without securing peoples' rights, without opening the public sphere for people to express their views and without responding to the economic grievances among the poor.”

Professor Anani acknowledged the need to militarily constrain the Islamic State, but he cited economic inequality as a factor in its expansion.

“It is crucial to tackle problems like poverty, unemployment and inequality between the rich and the poor,” Anani said.

Without addressing those issues, Anani said, using military force alone still would allow the extremists to exploit political and economic grievances to lure young Muslims to join IS.