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ISIS and American Foreign Policy

In 2016 alone, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIL, has claimed responsibility for several attacks around the world. Acts of terror in Belgium, Germany, the United States, and many other countries perpetrated by individuals pledging loyalty to the organization and its mission of spreading the Islamic religion have claimed the lives of hundreds of innocent people and wounded many more. In addition, the group’s territorial conquest and radical religious crusade in the Middle East have led to the deaths of many innocent civilians through warfare and religious persecution, as well as the displacement of millions from the region. As these events have unfolded, the ongoing debate about how the world should respond to the threat that ISIS poses has been diverse and controversial. However, while there is a general agreement that something must be done to address the terrorist organization, few individuals and governments have reached a consensus on what the appropriate response should be. In deciding what action to take, the United States Government must consider any proposed action within the context of its broader Foreign Policy. A Foreign Policy is a set of formal rules that guide a country’s behavior towards other nations. It is one of the primary functions of the U.S. Government enumerated in the Constitution and usually consists of specific goals involving the U.S.’s security, defense, and overall national interests. Foreign policy in the Unites States has changed drastically since the nation’s founding. From the strategy set out in George Washington’s Farewell Address encouraging the avoidance of entangling alliances to the military interventionist policies of the modern day, U.S. Foreign Policy has run the spectrum from limited involvement to the investment of major national resources in foreign endeavors.



Activity/How to Use

  • To prepare, students should read each of the above news articles, and primary sources before the activity.
    • Students should think about these questions on their own as they read:
  1. What is foreign policy? How would you characterize American foreign policy during most of the 19th century? At the beginning of the 20th century? Following World War II? Today? What do you think accounts for the differences?
  2. What role do the three branches of government have in creating American foreign policy? What tensions sometimes arise between the branches over foreign policy? Who else influences foreign policy?
  3. What principles and values have helped shape American foreign policy?
  4. Considering what you have learned about the philosophy, function, and history of United States’ foreign policy, what, in your opinion, would be an appropriate response to ISIS, if any?
  • In class, divide students into two equal groups:
    • One group should prepare to argue that the U.S. should pursue a larger role in the fight against ISIS.
    • The other should prepare to argue that the U.S. should NOT pursue a larger role in the fight against ISIS.
    • Tell the students they will take part in a civil class debate following these directions:
      • Speak courteously: No raised voices or insults.
      • Listen courteously: No interruptions.
      • Argue authoritatively: Use primary sources to support reasoning.
    • Have the students prepare for the debate with their group.
      • Distribute “Questions to Consider” (provided below) to help students prepare their data and arguments. The teacher may add additional questions during the debate to help clarify or extend arguments.
      • Students should have time to work as a group (30 minutes) to prepare their arguments using the sources above.
        • Students will have to think about why they are for or against action against ISIS.
        • Students should use primary sources and facts to support their argument.
        • Students should think about why the opposing group believes what they believe and be able to respond to that argument.
    • After the students are prepared, the teacher will ask the “Questions to Consider” to both sides who will answer the questions one side at a time.
      • Alternate which team answers the questions first.
      • Allow students from the opposing group to ask clarifying questions if necessary.
      • Give each group a time limit on each question to keep the debate moving.

Questions to Consider

  • Does ISIS pose a threat to U.S. citizens or their property? Why or why not? Is the U.S. justified in intervening against ISIS even if the group does not pose a threat to U.S. citizens or their property?
  • Is the current U.S. policy of bombing/limited engagements against ISIS adequate? Should the U.S. put “boots on the ground” and invade ISIS-controlled territories?
  • What are some possible long-term consequences, both good and bad, of invading Iraq and Syria to destroy ISIS? What are some possible long-term consequences, both good and bad, of not intervening in the area?
  • The U.S. Constitution states “The Congress shall have Power to declare War.” If the United States is to continue carrying out limited engagements against ISIS, should the country formally declare war? What are the consequences of doing so? Of not doing so?

Extension After the debate, students should think about what they learned from reading the articles and debating on the topic.  They should write a 1-2 page essay explaining what they learned and what actions the U.S. should take against ISIS.