Friday, August 22, 2014

Hyping the Threat - But to What End?

Not the best way to win international respect
It started out controversial, sure, but defensible. Use American air power to help the embattled Peshmerga hold the perimeter south of Irbil against the relentless ISIS advance. And as long as we were there, provide cover along with desperately-needed supplies to the helpless Yazidis, trapped on Mt. Sinjar, threatened by starvation and thirst on one hand, and murderous religious fanatics on the other. As the Kurdish resistance stiffened and the Yazidis were led to refugee camps inside Iraqi Kurdistan, the US shifted their fires north and provided air support for the Iraqi special forces units, allowing them to re-take at least most of the strategic Mosul Dam.

At that point everyone just kind of paused, looking around. Air power could eliminate strongpoints, tanks, artillery and vehicles. It could prevent massed infantry attacks in some cases. What it can not do - something universally acknowledged after Vietnam and Desert Storm - is take, or re-take, territory. You need ground forces to displace the enemy infantry and hold the ground against counter-attack. And one thing was absolutely certain - no significant US ground forces would be re-introduced into Iraq, at least as long as Barack Obama was the commander in chief.

Then, a video appeared on the internet depicting the savage murder of kidnapped photojournalist James Foley. After the initial shock and spittle-flecked outrage came the demands for war on the Islamic State. The playbook for unnecessary war is well-developed, and even in the years after it was used to drive the pointless and disastrous US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 it still works. The key is to hype the threat. Not just in any rational terms, but with such over-the-top rhetoric that it actually sounds silly and incoherent. Because if you want to frighten people, they can't be afraid that something bad might happen somewhere at some time. They have to be afraid something bad is going to happen to THEM, and soon. But this is the USA, with over 300 million people and the largest, most modern military force in the world. So you have to somehow convince the population that a few thousand 12th century religious fundamentalists with small arms halfway around the world is a threat to Ma and Pa Kettle in Little Rock, Arkansas.

So President Obama called them a "Cancer" that must be removed, Secretary of State Kerry said that ISIS "must be destroyed" and Secretary of Defense Hagel said ISIS is "beyond anything we've seen" and represents an "imminent threat to every interest we have." Meanwhile, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said ISIS "must eventually be destroyed", but that couldn't be done without fighting them not just in Iraq, but also in Syria.

Look. All this rhetoric matters. It matters because you can't say ISIS is the greatest threat we've faced and then do nothing. ISIS is really not a threat to anyone but the Iraqi government as currently structured. It's true that many of their fighters carry western passports, and will be a threat to launch small scale terrorist attacks against the US and Europe for years to come. But that isn't a new threat, and it isn't "beyond anything we've seen". Another attack on the scale of 9/11 is essentially impossible, and it has been and remains trivial to launch a truck bomb attack on the scale of Oklahoma City from within the US. But ISIS IS the big dog in the Arab desert from Aleppo in Syria to Mosul and south to Samara in Iraq. There is no military force that has both the ability and the willingness to launch the sort of large-scale ground campaign that would be required to push them back. So if the American political leadership is going to take the position that ISIS represents an existential threat to the US then they are going to have to deploy at least one, and probably two divisions into both Iraq and Syria to carry out their threats to destroy the organization.

And here's the problem. The wars in Syria and Iraq are based in tribal and sectarian hatreds that go back many years, and are a small proxy conflict for the same hatreds in the larger region. The regional players are Saudi Arabia and Iran, and if the US is going to participate in those wars, at some point she's going to have to choose sides. And ISIS is Sunni, supported by American Allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar, while embattled Iraq is Shiite, supported by American adversary Iran. And in Syria, ISIS is fighting to topple brutal authoritarian (and Shiite) Bashir al-Assad. Taking sides won't be particularly easy or straightforward in any case.

At this point I can't predict whether President Obama is going to put American combat troops on the ground to fight ISIS. I especially can't predict whether Congress would support such a measure, in a case where Republican lust for war will be countered by their political strategy of 100% obstruction. But if the American leadership keeps spouting over the top fear-mongering rhetoric about ISIS and the threat they pose, they will find themselves in a corner with no way out but to launch another unnecessary middle-eastern war.


  1. But if the American leadership keeps spouting over the top fear-mongering rhetoric about ISIS and the threat they pose, they will find themselves in a corner with no way out but to launch another unnecessary middle-eastern war.

    I believe our ruling elite calls that a "WIN-WIN-WIN."

    Possibly related.

    1. Even I would be shocked if they turned out to be that stupid...