Washington’s elite media, as usual, is doing its job exactly wrong.
They are baying for war.
Pundits and reporters are seemingly competing for who can be more scornful of President Obama for his insufficiently militaristic response to the brutal Sunni militants who call themselves the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
They are gleefully parsing Obama’s language for weakness, and essentially demanding a major military assault — while failing to ask the tough questions about what if any good it could actually accomplish.
It’s not just that the lessons of the abject failure of the press corps in the run-up to war in Iraq seem to have been forgotten. Watching post-invasion reality in the region should have made it clear to anyone paying any attention at all that America is not omnipotent, and that military action kills not just enemies but innocent civilians, creates refugee crises, can spawn more enemies than it destroys, further destabilizes entire regions, and alters the future in unanticipated and sometimes disastrous ways.
(Indeed, as noted author Robert W. Merry wrote in the National Interest recently, the “ominous turn of events in the Middle East flows directly from the regional destabilization wrought by President George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.”)
In a nation that considers itself peaceful and civilized, the case for military action should be overwhelmingly stronger than the case against. It must face, and survive, aggressive questioning.
There is no reason to expect that kind of pushback from within Congress — leading figures from far right to far left are falling into line with the hawkish consensus for some sort of action, virtually begging Obama to ask for their authorization so they can give it to him. And Vice President Joe Biden, the one guy inside the White House who’s been a consistent voice of military restraint, said Wednesday that the U.S. will follow ISIS “to the gates of hell“.
In the absence of a coherent opposition party or movement, it’s the Fourth Estate’s duty to ask those questions, and demand not just answers, but evidence to back up those answers.
The press corps shouldn’t be asking: Why isn’t Obama sounding tougher? It should be asking: What is he considering, and why the hell does he think it has any chance of working?
I asked a few experts who I respect and trust to propose some of the specific questions that the Obama administration should have to answer. (As I wrote in my inaugural blog post, one of my goals here it to serve as a megaphone for people who a) know what they’re talking about and b) have gotten things right in the past.)
Here are three responses. As more come in, I’ll add them to the bottom. And I’ll hoist good ones up from comments, too. Or maybe I’ll make it all into a second post.
Retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, now a military scholar and author, summed up his questions in three words: “Purpose? Method? Endstate?”
He argues that ISIS isn’t the threat some make it out to be, and that it’s only one part of a proxy war against Iran that will continue as long as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar continue to fund it:
ISIS is a contemporary version of Mohammed’s 7th Century force with pickup trucks instead of horses, but with the same brutality. Its successful conquest of largely Sunni Arab areas in irrelevant desert is evidence for the weakness in those areas and their surroundings rather than strength on the part of ISIS.
Frankly, I think lots of Westerners with either no personal experience on the ground fighting and killing Arabs or with agendas (ideological or self-enrichment) are making a mountain range out of very small hills at best. Also, keep in mind if ISIS in Syria presented any real threat would the Israelis stand by and do nothing about it? Of course not.
Finally, we created the conditions for ISIS through our intervention and installation of Iranian power in Baghdad, but Riyadh, Ankara and Doha are now the recruiting and financial centers for ISIS. As long as they and their surrogates want to wage this proxy war against Iran and its satellites/allies the conflict will continue.
After the 1991 failure to remove S[addam] H[ussein] from power, we wasted two decades, trillions of dollars and thousands of lives on Iraq and the region. It’s time to stop.
Iconoclastic retired diplomat and Middle East expert Chas W. Freeman Jr., whose appointment to chair Obama’s National Intelligence Council was quashed in early 2009 by the pro-Israel lobby, notes the inherent conflict between Obama’s casual admission last week that “We don’t have a strategy yet” and the fact that we are already actively bombing ISIS.
There have been 124 air strikes across Iraq as of September 2, according to the Guardian; the White House has described the mission thus far as “to protect U.S. personnel and facilities and to address the humanitarian situation on the ground.”
What are the missing elements of a strategy for dealing with ISIS and whose cooperation do we need to produce one? What is being done to secure that cooperation?
Our military tell us that the use of force cannot effectively counter ISIS, yet we’re bombing ISIS as if it can. What can counter ISIS? What sort of diplomacy is needed to keep ISIS from carrying out its threats to extend its operations to our homeland?
How can we fight ISIS in Iraq while allowing it safe haven in Syria? Would opposing ISIS in Syria require us to cooperate with the Assad government? With Hezbollah? With Iran? If we cannot cooperate with these enemies of ISIS, can we coordinate policy with them? If so, how?
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Gulf Arab states have been major sources of international financial support for radical Islamists in Syria. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has adopted a sectarian religions approach to its foreign policy, countering Iran theologically as well as geopolitically. Does Saudi Arabia have a role in turning Salafi Muslim rebels in Syria against their more extreme co-religionists in ISIS? If so, what?
Should we be working with Iran against ISIS? How would doing so be reconciled with our deference to Israeli and Saudi paranoia about Iran?
Compared to al Qa’ida, how do you rate ISIS as a threat to Americans abroad? Israelis? Americans at home?
How is a base area defended by hundreds of U.S. troops an embassy under the Vienna Convention? How does our embassy at Baghdad differ from the norm?
How afraid of ISIS are the Saudis? How much should they be concerned about it?
Who are the foreign fighters in ISIS? Where and how are they recruited? Is there any non-coercive program to counter the ideological appeal of ISIS?
Why is ISIS not an appropriate means of expressing the defiant resentment of Arab youth against the United States and American policies in the Middle East? If the U.S. and Israel can kill large numbers of civilians with impunity, why can’t citizen militias do the same to Americans and the United States?
How do you see the role of Russia in the contemporary Middle East, given the rise of ISIS and the siege of Syria?
Paul R. Pillar, formerly the CIA’s top Middle East analyst, wrote an influential op-ed in the Washington Post during a particularly intense period of saber-rattling toward Iran in 2007 called “What to Ask Before the Next War”.
Last week, he wrote a brilliant article in the National Interest, attempting to put “ISIS in Perspective”.
In the piece, he wrote that “Americans, following a long tradition of finding monsters overseas to destroy, are now focusing their attention and their energy on a relatively new one.”
He also noted that “We also are reacting quite understandably to the group’s methods, which are despicably inhumane, and to its objectives, which are disgustingly medieval.” But, he wrote, “we also should bear in mind that an emotional reaction to such an incident produces the wrong frame of mind for debate, and cool-headed deliberation, about public policy.”
He warned about the danger of absolutism in assertions that ISIS “must be destroyed”:
We have heard similar absolutism before, and we have seen the results. We heard it with the post-9/11 false syllogism that if terrorism is considered a serious problem then we must recognize that we are at “war,” and if we are at war then that means we must rely principally on military force. We heard it also in the dictum that if there is even a one percent chance of something awful happening to us, then we must treat that as a certainty.
The absolutist approach leads to inappropriate derision and dismissal of policy steps as “half measures” when they may in fact be—considering the costs, benefits, and other U.S. interests at stake—the most prudent steps that could be taken. Some actions that would set back ISIS may be, given the circumstances, sensible and cost-effective. Other possible measures may seem aimed more directly at the goal of destroying ISIS but, given the circumstances, would not be sensible.
In an interview, Pillar marveled at the “kind of mass emotional phenomenon” based in part on the recent barbaric beheadings of captured free-lance journalists and the scary maps that make it seem like ISIS is about to take Baghdad. But, he said, the press is “getting excited in a way that I think has been blown well out of proportion.”
Here are the questions he thinks the press should be raising instead:
What do you expect the response of ISIS to be, given especially that these killings that have gotten so much attention have been couched by the group as revenge for military action we’ve already taken? Why shouldn’t we expect more of the same if we do more of the same?
Have we considered whether part of the group’s purpose is to provoke more U.S. intervention, and therefore show themselves as the group standing up to the U.S.? Would we not indeed be playing into their hands by doing so?
Given that Matthew Olsen, the outgoing director of the NCTC [National Counterterrorism Center] made a statement the other day that we do not face the prospect of attacks by this group against the homeland, why are we focusing as much attention as we are against this one group? They’ve done certain dramatic things that have gotten our attention, and the press’s attention, but what exactly are the U.S.’s interests at stake?
Given that this group’s advances in Syria and Iraq have had a great deal to do with the larger sectarian conflict in those countries… how do we intervene without effectively taking sides in a sectarian conflict in which the United States has no interest? Why should we favor Shiites or Sunnis? Because that’s exactly how it will be seen. Have you considered the downside of being seen as taking sides in a sectarian conflict, in terms of the enemies that you make?
With particular regard to the question of intervening in Syria: What exactly would be our broader political objective? Do we still believe that [Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad] must go? And if we do, how do we square this with an intervention against ISIS, given that the regime and ISIS are the two most powerful interests in the Syrian civil war?
How effective would air strikes be against a group most of whose strength is closely intermingled with civilian populations? It does not consist of large military formations out in the desert. How do you do something effective militarily without causing casualties among innocent civilians?
Pillar said the air strikes thus far have largely involved “the few targets of opportunity there have been,” including advancing troops. “But the larger the operation, and the more extensive it becomes, the more the question of collateral damage becomes pertinent.”
Here are a few other notes of skepticism I’ve run across. (Send me more!)
New York Times reporter James Risen notes:
And in a story about the lack of fulsome debate on the issue, Huffington Post’s Sam Stein finds a critic asking questions:
“It seems unlikely that U.S. military action, even if assisted by surrogates on the ground, can ‘kill’ ISIS. At best, we will be able to significantly reduce its capabilities. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but then what?” said. “If the basic problem is instability — a problem extending far beyond Iraq/Syria, of course — then the big question is what if anything the U.S. and its allies can do to restore stability to the region. That’s where the debate ought to focus. I don’t get much sense of people taking on that issue, perhaps because it is truly a daunting one.”
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