The Paris terrorist attack is already bearing bitter fruit. Some wannabe presidential candidates are outdoing each other on how feckless they would be with the lives of American soldiers whose “boots” would be on the ground, while others are proposing shutting down Mosques in the United States, creating internment camps, expanding “hate crime” legislation, generating government databases of Muslims, issuing Muslim ID cards and increasing the ability of the government to spy on all citizens. There have also been calls both in Europe and the U.S. to block the entry of any refugees coming from the Middle East as well as proposals to only admit Christians. GOP Presidential aspirant Ben Carson has called Syrian refugees “rabid dogs” and a Texan politician has described them as rattlesnakes. Hillary Clinton’s top financial backer Israeli Haim Saban has called for “more scrutiny” of Muslims in the United States. The head of the CIA is warning that more ISIS terrorist attacks are “in the pipeline,” which may or may not be true as John Brennan has certainly lied to us in the past and presumably will continue to do so in the future. He is certainly contradicted by the FBI’s James Comey who claims that there is no evidence of any current terrorist plot.
The usual crowd of non-interventionists led by Ron Paul and the not-in-my backyard libertarian punditry is arguing that because U.S. involvement in the Middle East has hitherto been such a disaster no replication of failed policies can possibly be desirable. They point out that the neocons, whose broad agenda is regime change for Muslim governments on behalf of Israel, are braying for war and if they are on one side it behooves the rest of us to line up on the other. Having watched Bill Kristol with his Cheshire cat grin on Sunday morning talk television calling for more war please, I would have to concede that the critics have a point.
Indeed, the foreign policies of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have been disastrous, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that this time around a rethink about what the persistence of ISIS might mean both to the region and world might not be in order. And even a neocon can be right once in a while, if one discounts his or her motives. Last Tuesday’s Washington Post lead editorial on a neocon dominated opinion page noted correctly that there are a number of “options” between the current incrementalism and all out invasion before stupidly advocating as a priority ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Not coincidentally, that formula is precisely what the Israeli government would prefer and that demonstrates exactly what is wrong with the neocons. Even when they get something nearly right ideology and Israel trump all other considerations and they wind up with the wrong answer. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is no doubt delighted by the Paris attacks just as he was after 9/11 because it commits the western powers to a war against Islam and renders invisible Israel’s continuous abuse of the Palestinians, leads the way in actually believing that removing al-Assad is an imperative in spite of the far greater threat represented by ISIS.
But first, a short examination of why ISIS is different is in order. ISIS is arguably the creation of the power vacuum that the United States allowed to develop in the Middle East after it invaded Iraq and then took steps to destabilize the government of Syria. Conceding that, the arguments that the non-interventionists make for not engaging in further meddling in the region have a certain cogency, but the actual threat represented by ISIS must be considered without getting bogged down in what might have been.
It has been noted that without the attacks in Paris there would be no worldwide outrage over ISIS. That is correct because, inevitably, the Western media and its home grown sympathies dominate on the world stage. The overwhelming majority of ISIS victims are, however, Muslims, nearly eighty of whom were killed in bombings in Lebanon and Iraq over the two days prior to Paris, while thousands more Iraqis and Syrians have been executed and buried in mass graves. And then there is the downing of the Russian airliner which killed nearly twice as many people as died in France. There was little expression of solidarity coming out of that, again a tribute to the dominance of the western media which views Russia as a pariah and hardly takes notice of dead Muslims.
The objections being made against taking steps to drive ISIS from its “Caliphate” in Syria-Iraq fall into two categories. One is that a U.S. or NATO led (amounting to the same thing) effort will be both costly and open ended while its chance of achieving real success might be considered debatable in a situation in which there are no real American interests at stake. Second is the likelihood of blowback, that foreign troops on Syrian and Iraqi soil will only destabilize the region further. Likewise, if predominantly Shia military forces (Iran, Lebanon and Iraq) are part of the effort it will only lead to more sectarian strife as ISIS is a Sunni movement. Both objections suggest that terrorism coming out of the Middle East would continue in any event while a new western-backed intrusion into the Arab heartland would motivate many otherwise uncommitted Muslims to back ISIS as it will be seen as a righteous Islamic resistance to the hostile Europeans and Americans.
Let us accept that terrorism will not disappear. It is a weapon of the weak and disenfranchised against those who are strong and at least nominally in control so it will always be with us. Complete security for any society is, in any event, impossible even in a police state. And if ISIS is defeated and denied a homeland of sorts it will scatter and operated through franchises much like al-Qaeda did after the conquest of Afghanistan by U.S. forces and the Northern Alliance while the root cause that has fed Middle Eastern terrorism, the complete shattering of state authority throughout the region due to wars initiated by Washington and Israel, is not going away any time soon.
So if U.S. intervention in the Middle East and south Asia has proven catastrophic and terrorism will not be ended why is it different this time? It is different because ISIS can no longer be contained. It has been able to elevate its game, shifting from a regional source of disorder to a genuine international threat able to send cadres of terrorists into Europe and force hundreds of thousands of refugees to flee their homes. This is not to say that ISIS is able to overthrow any western government, but its ability to mount terrorist attacks worldwide including a capability to bring down airliners and stage simultaneous multiple attacks on a city with sophisticated security thousands of miles away has been a game changer. And it has been able to take advantage of a migrant and refugee crisis that it helped create to distribute its supporters all over Europe and presumably elsewhere, including the United States. Indeed, though the U.S. is a more difficult target than France for a number of reasons, i.e. no land border with the Middle East and a relatively assimilated Muslim population, as a former intelligence officer I well understand that no target is impossible. Far from it. Recent news reports tell of the arrest of five Syrians in Honduras seeking to travel to the United States on stolen Greek passports. And there is a considerable advantage once a would-be terrorist gets inside the U.S. in that it is easy to get hold of weapons and ammunition while soft targets that consist of large numbers of civilians can be found anywhere.
So I consider ISIS to be a genuine threat that must somehow again be contained or even pushed back because removing the group from its occupied territory and forcing it to go on the run will cut it off from its funding and ability to attract and train recruits. It will complicate how it communicates and will disrupt or possibly even destroy its ability to act internationally. But at the same time I accept the arguments being made against any kind of European or American intervention to accomplish that end, which means that the best strategy is to assist local actors with some actual skin in the game to do the pushing with logistical and intelligence assistance as well as air support from the western powers and Russia. Deploying U.S. military forward observers to maximize the efficiency of the airpower already in place would be risky for those involved but would have a considerable impact.
Tightening the ring around ISIS means including all the local players without exception – Syria, Lebanon, Hezbollah, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq as well as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. If the Sunni states can pull together a reliable ground force to do the job, so much the better but the objective would be to put unrelenting pressure on ISIS to hasten its eventual demise. It could and probably should all be accomplished under the aegis of the United Nations, which certainly has the authority to sanction a group that has carved out an illegal entity from two existing states, that has carried out numerous war crimes and atrocities, and that is engaged in downing airliners and attacking civilians. A U.N. imprimatur would also authorize the military action against ISIS that the United States has already been undertaking illegally.
Syrian and Iraqi sovereignty must be restored as a sine qua non once ISIS is expelled since the pervasive instability of the region has derived from a lack of legitimate government authority. And a negotiated settlement for Syria that will eventually ease the departure of al-Assad within a stable framework is essential, possibly godfathered by the Russians. Meanwhile the countries sitting on the fence or openly financing and egging ISIS on – which means the Saudis, some Gulf States and Israel – should be made to understand the folly of their current policies. They should be pressured either to keep out of the conflict or finally recognize where their real interests lie. At a minimum, their hypocrisy and inhumanity should be exposed.
I write all of the above as a committed anti-interventionist who otherwise believes that the last really good war the United States has fought ended in 1781 at Yorktown. In my opinion that would still be the case but for the fact that ISIS, cult-like and apocalyptic, has changed the paradigm for terrorism, genuinely putting the “terror” back into it. Even al-Qaeda did not line up hundreds of prisoners and execute them, did not burn people alive and do beheadings. It did not kill seventy helpless Yazidi older women before dumping them in a mass grave because they were “useless” while taking the younger women with them to serve as sex slaves. I do believe ISIS to be both an abomination and a global menace that all nations should unite to suppress. If we do not do something now, the threat will not go away, it will only get worse and many more Americans, Europeans and Arabs will inevitably die as a result.