The general wisdom holds that the rise of the Islamic State has represented a major threat to US interests in the Middle East.
This is certainly true in the sense that the Islamic State has declared itself openly hostile to the United States.
However, I want to point out at least three reasons why I believe that the presence of this latest extremist threat actually serves important US interests in the region.
1) The Islamic States is perceived as a threat by both the United States and Iran. The existence of this common enemy has created the conditions for indirect cooperation between leaders in Washington and Tehran. Such a limited cooperation (again, indirect in nature but unthinkable before the rise of IS) could represent an important step in the difficult process of confidence-building between the two countries; a process that could eventually result in a successful US-Iranian nuclear deal by mid 2015.
2) The Islamic State is deeply involved in the Syrian civil war. IS fighters arguably represent the greatest challenge to President Assad forces. Prolonged fighting between IS and Syrian government forces will presumably weaken both. Since they are both US enemies, leaders in Washington may not dislike such an outcome, at least in the short/medium term.
3) The rise of the Islamic State has allowed the United States to renew its direct military presence in a strategically important region (US troops had to leave Iraq at the end of 2011). Along with the use of US airpower, the United States has so far deployed at least 3,000 troops to train Iraqi and Kurdish forces and has recently announced its intention to deploy 400 troops more to assist vetted Syrian rebels.
The Obama administration’s approach to the fight against the Islamic State has been extremely cautious. It looks like the US administration is more interested in “containing” the threat rather than “eliminating” it. Could the US approach be explained in part by the above considerations?