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The Mainstream Media, ISIS, and Iraq War Déjà vu
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The Founders of the United States believed that it was essential for citizens to be well-informed in order to have a workable self-government. Being schooled in the classics, in which the socio-political views of Plato and Aristotle held sway, they believed that the popular governments of the ancient world had foundered because of the common people’s lack of knowledge and the inevitable consequence of that, their tendency to be deceived by demagogues.

As James Madison, known as the father of the U.S. Constitution, put it in Federalist No. 10: “… [D]emocracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention … incompatible with personal security or the rights of property….” John Adams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the second U.S. president, wrote: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” And Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, who is generally portrayed as the Founder most favorable toward the common people, opined: “The majority, oppressing an individual, is guilty of a crime, abuses its strength, and … breaks up the foundations of society.”

Because the American people would have a prominent role in the new republic, leading figures such as Jefferson saw education as a major means for overcoming the problems that had plagued popular rule in the past. But while the American people today have far more formal education than ever before, the dominant political discourse, adhered to by most respectable people, is set by the mainstream media, and much of the information they offer is misinformation, if not actual disinformation. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the realm of foreign policy, a subject to which common, everyday wisdom has only marginal applicability, thus requiring the American people to depend on what they receive from the mainstream media.

As the radical jihadists of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) have swept into Iraq, who should appear in the mainstream media providing advice on proper U.S. Middle East policy but the neocons who masterminded the war on Iraq that created the very conditions for ISIS’s success. Once again they are arguing for American military intervention in that country.

Ignored is the fact that the neocons managed to be uncannily wrong in virtually all of their prognostications during the run-up to the war on Iraq. They were wrong about Saddam Hussein’s alleged huge stockpile of WMDs as well as UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), which they claimed could deliver those WMDs not only against America’s friends in the Middle East but even against the U.S. homeland. They were wrong about Saddam’s having a close connection to the al Qaeda terrorists, to whom he might provide WMDs. They incorrectly claimed that the war would be a “cakewalk” requiring few American troops since the Iraqi army and people in general would join in the fight to liberate themselves from Saddam. They maintained that once Saddam’s regime was overthrown Iraqis of all backgrounds would form a new democratic government that would provide a model for the rest of the Middle East to follow. And they held that the cost to America for that utopian result would be easily covered by a bonanza of oil that would benefit the American government and consumers.

The result, of course, approached the polar opposite — a dystopia in which American troops would occupy the country for over eight years, suffering multitudinous casualties and causing the deaths of far more Iraqis, with the result being a country fragmented along ethno-sectarian lines, the fragmentation in turn igniting a Sunni-Shiite conflict encompassing the entire Middle East. Moreover, Islamic radicals, far more powerful than the original al Qaeda, have taken over large swaths of Iraq and its Levantine neighbors and threaten to conquer even more. And the cost involved in that military fiasco, which President Obama terminated at the end of 2011, exceeded a trillion dollars, contributing mightily to America’s massive national debt and its overall economic doldrums.

Nevertheless, defenders of the neocons sometimes claim that one cannot judge the neocons’ current views by their mistakes in the past. As Sen. John McCain put it in 2008, while campaigning for the presidency: “Well, that’s history. That’s the past. That’s talking about what happened before. What we should be talking about is what we’re going to do now.”[1]“McCain continues Iraq back and forth with Obama,” Political Ticker Blog, CNN, February 28, 2008.

The fact that the neocons were totally wrong in the past does not necessarily guarantee that their advice for the present must likewise be wrong, but surely we may examine their track record in assessing their latest opinions, since there are no crystal balls enabling one to actually see into the future. Obviously, no one would rely on a surgeon whose last ten patients died on the operating table because of his own mistakes, nor would anyone patronize an airline whose planes have consistently crashed upon take-off. But the neocons, when providing their take on the current situation in the Middle East, are never even asked by their mainstream media hosts to account for their past errors. Rather, all of that inconvenient history seems to have been flushed down the Orwellian memory hole.

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The neocons themselves, however, are not averse to using history in a twisted form to blame their adversaries, most notably President Obama, for the dire situation in the Middle East. They constantly pontificate that the ISIS danger was caused by America’s failure to intervene enough.[2]For a paean to the benefits of war see Eliot A. Cohen, “Obama does not accept war for what it is,” Washington Post, July 31, 2014. Neocon Cohen coined the term “World War IV” for the neocon-desired war against the major states in the Middle East. It should be noted that this tactic makes their position empirically unfalsifiable, since no matter how much the United States might intervene, it conceivably could always intervene more. Of course, that argument is also completely contrary to the neocons’ position in the run-up to the war in 2003, as outlined above.

The neocons’ specific storyline is that ISIS would not have taken over Iraq if Obama had not withdrawn the remaining American troops. But if the United States had treated Iraq as a colonial dependency, it would have generated even greater anti-American hatred on the part of the Iraqis and the Middle East region as a whole. Instead of our seeing a Sunni-Shiite conflict there, it is likely that the entire Middle East would have been set aflame against the United States and any governments that remained friendly to it, while the U.S. government poured in more and more men and money in a hopeless effort to maintain an occupation force against the increasingly hostile inhabitants and outside “terrorists” — or “freedom fighters,” as would have been the opinion of a majority of the region’s population. Such a state of affairs would have had a terrible effect on America’s image in the world, making it a veritable pariah state like Israel (which would seem to be a goal of the neocons), and would be virtually impossible to maintain politically in the United States. Moreover, the ethno-sectarian divisions in Iraq are endemic; American military forces only held them in check and did not solve them. They were bound to emerge sometime in the future.[3]Jason Brownlee, “Was Obama wrong to withdraw troops from Iraq?,” Washington Post, June 26, 2014; and Stephen J. Sniegoski, “The unfolding of Yinon’s ‘Zionist Plan for the Middle East’: The crisis in Iraq and the centrality of Israel’s national interest,” The Last Ditch, July 12, 2014.

An additional aspect of the neocon rendition of history is that if the United States had supported the Syrian resistance to the Assad regime earlier, the radical Islamists would not have co-opted it, and thus the rise of ISIS would have been precluded. But the neocons, liberal “humanitarian” interventionists, and other assorted war hawks were calling for U.S. bombing of Assad’s forces long after the Islamist element had become dominant in the resistance. It is not apparent when, if ever, American military attacks on Assad would not have primarily benefited the radical Islamists. So it is quite likely that had the United States attacked Syria, it would have eliminated a major opponent of ISIS. And if ISIS controlled Syria, it would be much less difficult for it to take over territory in Iraq.

Furthermore, if the United States had bombed and destabilized Iran, as the neocons sought, there would be even less effective resistance to ISIS in the Middle East, though even then it is not apparent that ISIS would have been able to consolidate a unified Islamic caliphate, as opposed to bringing about a jumble of warring mini-states, as envisioned and sought by Oded Yinon and, likely, the Israeli Right.[4]“The Zionist Plan for the Middle East,” translated and edited by Israel Shahak, Belmont, Mass.: Association of Arab-American University Graduates, Inc., 1982.

As a result of the constant drumbeat for intervention in the mainstream media and the worsening situation in Iraq, President Obama, with his characteristic willingness to bend under pressure from respectable opinion, opted for what he claimed was a limited engagement restricted to air strikes for a humanitarian cause, as well as protecting American citizens in the nearby city of Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan. The humanitarian justification provided by President Obama to save the Yazidis from possible genocide seems like a strong rationale, since previous American interventionist policies are the cause of their dire plight. (The Yazidis profess a syncretistic religion based in significant part on Zoroastrianism, the pre-Islamic religion of Iran.) We should note, however, that Obama’s humanitarian instincts are quite selective — predicated on American politics — since he was quite willing to resupply ammunition to the Israelis so they could continue their democidal onslaught against the civilian population of Gaza.

It turns out that the danger to the Yazidis seems to have been much exaggerated. When American Special Forces actually reached Mt. Sinjar, where the Yazidis were said to be penned in and dying, the alleged huge numbers of people were simply not there, and those who were did not seem to be suffering great hardship and preferred to stay where they were.[5]Justin Raimondo, “Iraq: The ‘Humanitarian Catastrophe’ That Petered Out,” Antiwar.com, August 15, 2014. The best that can be said about this piece of war propaganda is that — unlike Saddam Hussein’s non-existent WMDs and the totally fabricated Iraqi massacre of the incubator babies in Kuwait in 1990 (used to generate public support for the Gulf War) — the Yazidis really do exist, and ISIS has killed civilians for religious reasons; but there is nothing approaching the genocidal situation that would arouse the American people to support war.

As has usually been the case for U.S. Middle East policy in recent years, there is an Israel angle here, for Israel has a close relationship with the now-threatened Kurds. As the ever-perspicacious Justin Raimondo writes: “Remember that the Kurds are Israel’s best — and only — allies in the region. Israeli trainers have been integrated into the peshmerga, and the first oil extracted from the newly-Kurdified regions of collapsing Iraq went straight to the Jewish state…. ISIS is at the gates of Irbil, the Kurdish regional government’s capital city. This is why we hear the War Party loudly demanding U.S. military intervention — not to save the Yazidis, but to save a key Israeli ally.”[6]Justin Raimondo, “Sneaking Back into Iraq,” Antiwar.com, August 8, 2014.

From the Israeli perspective, ISIS probably has already done enough to destabilize Israel’s enemies in line with Yinon’s plan and needs to be reined in before it becomes too powerful. As an analogy, it should be pointed out that Israel initially supported Hamas as a counterweight to the Palestinian Liberation Organization, whereas now it is more opposed to Hamas, at least in public, than to the now weakened Palestinian Authority.

Neocons and other war hawks claim that Obama’s limited air strikes are not sufficient and that it is necessary for the United States not simply to contain but to defeat ISIS, and thus roll back its territorial gains. War hawks in Congress are going so far as to claim that if something is not done to defeat ISIS, it will attack the United States.

For example, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told “Fox News Sunday” that ISIS is a “direct threat to our homeland.”

“Mr. President, be honest with the threat we face,” Graham said. “They are coming.”[7]“Graham: Islamic State will attack on U.S. soil, Obama must stop terror group’s rise,” Fox News, August 10, 2014.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) stated on NBC’s “Meet the Press”: “They [ISIS] have 10 times, 20 times more money than al Qaeda ever had. They have much more weapons than al Qaeda ever had. And ISIS has hundreds of foreign fighters with them, available to come to the United States to attack us.”[8]Erin Durkin and Bill Hutchinson, “Lawmakers say ISIS is capable of attack on U.S. soil: ‘They are more powerful than Al Qaeda was on 9/11,’” New York Daily News, August 11, 2014.

And the ever-warlike John McCain trumpeted: “This ISIS is metastasizing throughout the region, and their goal, as they’ve stated openly time after time, is the destruction of the United States of America.”[9]“ISIS poses a danger to America, lawmakers from both parties say,” Associated Press, August 10, 2014.

A somewhat attenuated variant of that ISIS meme has been picked up by Obama’s Defense Department, with both the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, and Secretary of State Chuck Hagel expressing the need for greater American military involvement, though still adhering to the president’s no-ground-troops-in-combat stance.[10]Jason Ditz, “Pentagon Pushes Iraq, Syria Escalations,” Antiwar.com, August 21, 2014.

It is true that it would likely require much greater American involvement not only to stop ISIS from advancing and from consolidating its existing territory but also to truly provide long-term humanitarian protection to the Yazidis and other non-Sunni minorities. Consequently, the United States could quite easily be drawn into full-scale involvement in the conflict, which would entail inserting American ground forces and occupying Iraq — in short, Iraq War, déjà vu. Obama has already moved beyond the humanitarian defense of the Yazidis to providing the Kurds with arms and sending more military “advisors” to the area. The slide down the slippery slope has already begun.

However, let’s step back from panic mode. How dangerous is ISIS to the United States? ISIS has largely been successful in taking over areas that are sympathetic to it in Iraq, where Sunnis had grievances toward the central government run by Shiites. ISIS did not win any large-scale battles in Iraq; the Sunnis in the Iraqi army simply refused to fight. ISIS did not dare push on to Baghdad where it would have to fight Shiites and maybe draw Iranian forces into the war. Also, ISIS has not been very successful in fighting the Syrian army. In short, while ISIS obviously consists of many fanatical soldiers, it has yet to demonstrate that it has the prowess to defeat a major army.

Obama’s much maligned high-school sports analogy, dismissive of ISIS as a “JV [junior varsity] basketball team,” has yet to be shown to be false.[11]“‘JV’ terrorists? Obama under fire for having ‘underestimated’ militant threat in Iraq, Syria,” Fox News, August 11, 2014; and “Obama’s Kobe Bryant-Al Qaeda Flap,” Daily Beast, January 22, 2014. For ISIS has not yet faced stiff military competition, in large part because large neighboring countries don’t treat it as a dangerous threat.

For example, Israel, which is reputed to have the best intelligence operation in the world regarding the Middle East, does not act as though it is fearful of ISIS despite being in close proximity to the jihadists’ newly acquired territory. Israel still perceives Iran as its greatest external enemy and wants to make sure that the United States does not improve its relationship with that country by working with it against ISIS. (Needless to say, this is also the neocon position.)[12]Frederick W. Kagan and William Kristol, “What to Do in Iraq,” The Weekly Standard Blog, June 16, 2014; and Max Boot, “Getting Fooled by Iran in Iraq,” Commentary, June 15, 2014. And instead of focusing on ISIS and trying to build up an anti-ISIS alliance, Israel has taken advantage of the situation to kill and terrorize masses of Palestinians in Gaza. From Israel’s actions, as well as the words of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,[13]Marcy Kreiter, “Netanyahu Warns U.S. against Working with Iran to Halt ISIS Advance in Iraq,” International Business Times, June 22, 2014; and Michael Wilner, “Netanyahu suggests pinning ISIS against Iran,” Jerusalem Post, June 24, 2014. one can readily infer that the Jewish state considers the threat of Iran (because of its support for the Palestinian resistance) and the Palestinians (in terms of demography) to be far more dangerous to Israel than ISIS.

Something similar can be said for Turkey with its large, well-equipped standing army. Yet Turkey has provided Sunni jihadists, including ISIS, with arms and sanctuary, in the war against the Assad regime. If Turkey saw the need to stop ISIS it would seal its border to ISIS supporters and send its powerful army against it.

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Despite claims that ISIS’s acquisition of oil wells in western Iraq will make it self-sufficient, it is unlikely that this religious group will find skilled people who can operate the requisite technology. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been supplying ISIS and other radical jihadist groups with modern weaponry to fight Syria. How long could ISIS go without such supplies? It is hard to believe that the loot taken from the Iraqi army could be long-lasting — after all, sophisticated equipment needs to repaired, and ammunition is gone after it is fired. Furthermore, will the Sunni tribes in Iraq accept rule by ISIS? They rose up against al Qaeda in the Sunni Awakening of 2007 and are starting to do so again.[14]Jeremy Bender, “These Reports Signal the Beginning of the End for ISIS in Iraq,” Business Insider, July 31, 2014.

Stephen Walt, co-author of the much-discussed book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, observes that “if the history of the past twenty years teaches us anything, it is that forceful American interference of this sort just makes these problems worse.”[15]Stephen M. Walt, “Do No (More) Harm,” Foreign Policy, August 7, 2014. Note that this is a key point in refuting the mainstream internationalists’ claim that U.S. involvement is indispensable for the good of the world and that Washington should thus eschew a policy of non-intervention. That claim is clearly not accepted in the Muslim Middle East or, for that matter, in most of the world, where the United States is seen as something of a rogue nation because its unilateral military interventions frequently skirt, if not openly violate, the basic tenets of international law.

If Washington were to attack ISIS it would certainly make things worse for the United States, since it would draw the latter’s focus upon it. Yet ISIS’s neighbors have not yet shown that they are unable to dispose of the problem. If the United States stood back, the surrounding countries would likely use their much greater power to defeat ISIS, if it really posed a threat to them. And if ISIS does not pose a recognized threat to its neighbors, why does the United States need to become militarily involved? The only thing American intervention could achieve would be to make the United States a key target for ISIS and other jihadi terrorists, as well as inflaming the populace of the Middle East even more. In short, U.S. military involvement in Iraq would be apt to bring upon itself the very terrorist attacks that it would purport to prevent.

Unfortunately, instead of presenting those obvious facts, the mainstream media are engaged in disseminating the war hysterics of the neocons and other war hawks, albeit in a less strident, more palatable form.[16]See, for example, Richard Cohen, “The Result of Obama’s Do-Nothing Policy? Iraq,” Washington Post, June 16, 2014; Editorial Board, “The Middle East’s mounting danger,” Washington Post, June 11, 2014; Editorial Board, “ISIS must be defeated: Our view,” USA Today, August 10. 2014; and “The war over Iraq,” New York Daily News, August 12, 2014. The drumbeat is beginning to approach the volume we heard during the run-up to the war on Iraq. Average Americans are weary of war, but the one-sided propaganda might still be sufficient to bamboozle them once again. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln’s saying, it might not be possible to fool all the people all the time, but the record shows that enough of the people can be fooled enough of the time to achieve the desired result. Only time will tell what the outcome here will be.

References

[1] “McCain continues Iraq back and forth with Obama,” Political Ticker Blog, CNN, February 28, 2008.

[2] For a paean to the benefits of war see Eliot A. Cohen, “Obama does not accept war for what it is,” Washington Post, July 31, 2014. Neocon Cohen coined the term “World War IV” for the neocon-desired war against the major states in the Middle East.

[3] Jason Brownlee, “Was Obama wrong to withdraw troops from Iraq?,” Washington Post, June 26, 2014; and Stephen J. Sniegoski, “The unfolding of Yinon’s ‘Zionist Plan for the Middle East’: The crisis in Iraq and the centrality of Israel’s national interest,” The Last Ditch, July 12, 2014.

[4] “The Zionist Plan for the Middle East,” translated and edited by Israel Shahak, Belmont, Mass.: Association of Arab-American University Graduates, Inc., 1982.

[5] Justin Raimondo, “Iraq: The ‘Humanitarian Catastrophe’ That Petered Out,” Antiwar.com, August 15, 2014.

[6] Justin Raimondo, “Sneaking Back into Iraq,” Antiwar.com, August 8, 2014.

[7] “Graham: Islamic State will attack on U.S. soil, Obama must stop terror group’s rise,” Fox News, August 10, 2014.

[8] Erin Durkin and Bill Hutchinson, “Lawmakers say ISIS is capable of attack on U.S. soil: ‘They are more powerful than Al Qaeda was on 9/11,’” New York Daily News, August 11, 2014.

[9] “ISIS poses a danger to America, lawmakers from both parties say,” Associated Press, August 10, 2014.

[10] Jason Ditz, “Pentagon Pushes Iraq, Syria Escalations,” Antiwar.com, August 21, 2014.

[11] “‘JV’ terrorists? Obama under fire for having ‘underestimated’ militant threat in Iraq, Syria,” Fox News, August 11, 2014; and “Obama’s Kobe Bryant-Al Qaeda Flap,” Daily Beast, January 22, 2014.

[12] Frederick W. Kagan and William Kristol, “What to Do in Iraq,” The Weekly Standard Blog, June 16, 2014; and Max Boot, “Getting Fooled by Iran in Iraq,” Commentary, June 15, 2014.

[13] Marcy Kreiter, “Netanyahu Warns U.S. against Working with Iran to Halt ISIS Advance in Iraq,” International Business Times, June 22, 2014; and Michael Wilner, “Netanyahu suggests pinning ISIS against Iran,” Jerusalem Post, June 24, 2014.

[14] Jeremy Bender, “These Reports Signal the Beginning of the End for ISIS in Iraq,” Business Insider, July 31, 2014.

[15] Stephen M. Walt, “Do No (More) Harm,” Foreign Policy, August 7, 2014.

[16] See, for example, Richard Cohen, “The Result of Obama’s Do-Nothing Policy? Iraq,” Washington Post, June 16, 2014; Editorial Board, “The Middle East’s mounting danger,” Washington Post, June 11, 2014; Editorial Board, “ISIS must be defeated: Our view,” USA Today, August 10. 2014; and “The war over Iraq,” New York Daily News, August 12, 2014.

(Republished from The Last Ditch by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Media, Iraq War, ISIS 
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