Err Strikes

Zack Beauchamp urges observers to be skeptical of the Rasmussen poll suggesting that 46 percent of likely voters favor airstrikes in Iraq:

The wording of the Rasmussen question says something important — that’s also false. Here’s how the Rasmussen question in airstrikes read: Do you favor or oppose the United States making military airstrikes in Iraq to help the government fight al Qaeda-led insurgents? The premise of Rasmussen’s question is wrong. The most important anti-government group, the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIS), is not al-Qaeda led. They splintered from al-Qaeda in February, essentially over the question of whether al-Qaeda could order ISIS around (ISIS had stopped obeying al-Qaeda orders, including ones to tamp down on civilian casualties).

Not only is this a clear mistake, but it’s a relevant one: al-Qaeda has a particularly bad perception among the American public. Americans believe, rightly, that al-Qaeda is out to attack the American homeland, and would likely be more supportive of fighting it than a separate group of Islamist militants.

Earlier Dish on the distinction between ISIS and al-Qaeda here. Juan Cole rejects the strategy of “shock-and-awe” bombing against ISIS, which he doubts would work:

Air power can be useful if it is employed in lending close air support to an attacking military force on the ground, which is itself made up of good fighters with popular support.

American air power saved Kosovo from a Serbian massacre by helping repel Serbian armor and giving support to Kosovar irregulars. In Afghanistan, US air power helped the Northern Alliance win against the Taliban in fall 2001. But the Taliban were unpopular in Mazar, Herat and Kabul, and the Northern Alliance was welcome in those cities. The same tactics did not succeed in Qandahar, which is in some ways still significantly Taliban territory.

US air power alone would be unlikely to dislodge ISIS from Mosul at this point. The Sunni insurgents look more like Viet Cong (local defenders) than they do like outside attackers (Serbs, Taliban in Mazar). Where the enemy has some local support and is defending, air power has a long history of failure.

Barry Posen also urges a more restrained response:

[W]ar is war: not a scalpel but a battle axe. And once you start swinging that axe, there may be unintended consequences. If the United States were to go so far as to help the Baghdad forces retake Mosul and other cities by providing air support, the Sunni Arabs who live there are not likely to think more kindly of us. If the United States provides such air support, and intelligence support, the Iraqi military will never grow up. The combination will be deadly to U.S. interests. All Sunni Arabs will know that we are the pillar of Shiite hegemony in Iraq. If one is interested in the safety of American citizens, this is not a particularly smart role to assume.

An ISIS statelet straddling Iraq and Syria might provide haven for Islamic terrorists who ultimately decide that attacks on Western targets are in their interests, though there is little sign presently that this is ISIS’s program. But “ISISstan” will not be a great base, or a safe one.

Ryan Cooper reminds us that we have several non-violent options at our disposal, including what should be an undisputed US responsibility toward Iraq:

[W]e can streamline the process for Iraqis applying for refugee status, especially those who worked with the U.S. during the occupation. We have already resettled about 85,000 Iraqis here, but as this famous This American Life episode detailed, the application process is very slow and the red tape is hellish. Vulnerable Iraqis who helped America may not have two years to wait for their first interview.