Late in June I wrote a post entitled Beyond terrorism. In it, I argued that since 9/11 we have been too quick and loose in using the word terrorism, too broad brush. At that point ISIS had begun its dramatic advance from Syria into Iraq. Their stated objective: to establish an Islamic Caliphate in the region. Focusing on their horrendous brutality, like al Qaeda before them, we branded ISIS terrorists. When masked men slaughter those who hold different beliefs and on two separate days behead two American journalists on camera, it’s hard not to consider them terrorists.
But defining and thus confining ISIS is not easy. For sure they have adopted some terrorist tactics, but they look more like rebels, though not in the ordinary sense. While the rebels whom they nominally joined in Syria seek to simply replace the Assad dynasty, it seems that ISIS’s goal is to replace it with something entirely different, in their view something transformative and theocratic. It is a goal that transcends one nation state as exhibited in their lightening expansion into Iraq. The march of ISIS is only another manifestation of an epic struggle, or perhaps more accurately a series of epic struggles overwhelming the Middle East. In a sense were witnessing a series of complex, multi-layered and often seemingly inconsistent civil wars. Tom Friedman’s recent Times column is worth reading in that regard, but especially for his underlying thesis that its time for us to take on a policy of “ready, aim, fire”, the polar opposite of what we have so often done in the past: think especially of Iraq. In taking this view, he essentially stands (as do I) with President Obama, who is engaged in building a strategy for action before moving onto a more active battleground, however that manifests itself.
Truth is that the ISIS move into Iraq caught us all be surprise and that includes, it seems, our intelligence services. It isn’t only that we underestimated their size and scope — we saw them as a small fringe rejected even by al Qaeda. What remarkably passed under the radar was that ISIS was in fact a well organized, sophisticated and, thanks to conquered territory and plundering, extremely well financed. Of course, Republicans blame the Obama administration for all this, which is quite ludicrous. It wasn’t that the president took us out of Iraq to quickly, but that we entered at all. The John McCain’s wanted us to send heavy weapons to the Syrian rebels and now to send more of them to Iraqis. The fact is, as again reported in the Times (and also sited by Friedman), that much of ISIS weaponry comes from US armed Iraqi soldiers who abandoned them in fleeing the battlefield. Perhaps more significant, much of ISIS military prowess, including planning/command and control, derives from the leadership of the Iraqi army that we and then Maliki dismissed in an ill conceived fire, aim, ready policy. Essentially our neo-con motivated actions have played a big role in arming and then leading the ISIS throngs.
There is no question that ISIS would like to punish the United States much as bin Laden did before. Indeed, it would be grossly wrong to think this is their primary mission. Sure there is an element of wanting to impose Islam on the larger world, but really I think it’s more to punish us for getting in the middle of their sectarian battle and rivalry. Bin Laden blamed us for landing troops on Saudi soil during the Gulf War, of non-believers defiling a “holy” land. ISIS just blamed their beheading of the two American journalists on our bombing of them in Iraq. This is certainly not to excuse either group or to make light of the threat they do pose, but to put in perspective. Let’s remember that vastly more Moslems were slaughtered in Afghanistan and other Middle East countries that were Americans killed on 9/11 and thereafter. We are not the primary enemy.
What adds to Obama’s dilemma and ours is that in a very fundamental sense, we fail to comprehend the full and nuanced dynamic of what’s afoot in the Muslim world. Our rightist politicians, the media and sadly some Democrats are yelling for the light brigade to charge. But who is the object of that charge and who are our allies chosen or de-facto. When it comes ISIS it seems that our usual adversaries Iran and Assad are as opposed, and indeed far more opposed, to ISIS than are we. After all this is their neighborhood and ISIS represents a much greater threat to their status quo than to ours. Let’s also remember that the current conflict is not only between Sunni and Shia but also within each of these Muslim denominations. It’s complicated and hard to keep tabs on the players and their individual concerns.
What will Obama do to combat ISIS? He hasn’t included me in his counsel and in any event decisions like that are way above my pay grade. I don’t think wars have great outcomes, but do hope that before intervening in this epic struggle (for the primary players an existential struggle) we will at a minimum aim (fully access all the consequences known and unintended) and be ready before he gives the order to fire.