Are We Being Baited?

Here’s another thing I missed last month: the horrific beheadings of James Foley and Steve Sotloff. Jonah made, I thought, a key point:

Foley and Sotloff are but two among nearly 70 journalists killed while covering the conflict in Syria, hundreds who have been brutally murdered by ISIS jihadists in similarly gruesome fashion, and nearly 200,000 casualties of a civil war gone hopelessly off the rails.

And yet the two beheadings seem to have turned public and elite opinion in ways that none of this previous horror has. In a month, the Daily News Front Page James Foleydiscourse has shifted from whether to counter ISIS to how to do so. In a month, everyone has agreed, it appears, that ISIS is a menace and that there has to be a US-led coalition to degrade and defeat it. The slippery slope toward the logic of war – which would be, by any estimation, a mere continuation of the war begun in 2003 – has been so greased there seems barely any friction.

This is the striking new fact of America this fall: re-starting the war in Iraq is now something that does not elicit immediate and horrified rejection by the president or the Congress. The GOP is daring Obama to go all-in as GWB, Round Two.

We should be wary of this! David Carr has a typically rich assessment of the production values and staging of the two beheading videos by ISIS, and it seems quite clear why they were made:

The executioner is cocky and ruthless, seemingly eager to get to the task at hand. When he does attack his bound victim, only the beginning is shown and then there is a fade to black. Once the picture returns, the head of the victim is carefully arranged on the body, all the violence of the act displayed in a bloody tableau. There is another cutaway, and the next potential victim is shown with a warning that he may be next.

“It is an interesting aesthetic choice not to show the actual beheading,” Alex Gibney, a documentary filmmaker, said. “I can’t be sure, but they seemed to dial it back just enough so that it would get passed around. In a way, it makes it all the more chilling, that it was so carefully stage-managed and edited to achieve the maximum impact.”

Like the horrifying images of 9/11, these images scramble our minds. And they are designed to. They are designed to awake the primordial instincts and the existential fear that Salafist fundamentalists thrive on. The direct spoken message to Obama puts this unbalanced British loser on a par with the president of a super-power – and, by reacting so comprehensively to it – the president has unwittingly given these poseurs a much bigger platform. More to the point, by already committing the United States to ultimately destroying ISIS, the president has committed this country to a war he was elected to avoid. Don’t tell me about “no ground troops”. If your mission is destroying something, and ground troops become at some point essential to that mission, the mission will creep – or they will claim victory.

I will wait and give the president a chance to make his best case Wednesday night. But let me say upfront: I deeply distrust wars that are prompted by this kind of emotion, however justified the emotion may be.

I lost my judgment completely as 9/11 coursed through my frontal cortex – and made errors that helped spawn more terror (like the current ISIS-dominated Sunni insurgency in Iraq). Many, many of us did. And when these slick, cartoonish nihilists press buttons designed to generate a reaction that they can then leverage some more, they are pulling the strings, not us.

The struggle in the Middle East right now is an infinitely complex series of overlapping civil wars, religious wars, and sectarian passions, exacerbated by demography, water, and the breaking of Iraq in 2003. It seems clear they are going to rage for years if not decades. What’s happening in Sunni Iraq right now is exactly what happened during the first insurgency: Salafists taking advantage of Sunni resentment to build an insurgency. But the fissures are obvious: even now, ISIS is murdering fellow Sunnis as well as Shiites and Turkmen and every other kind of infidel. The regional actors – placing bets and money and arms on various factions – pull all sorts of strings that can make any American initiative moot. And if we prevail, we will win no friends, merely new enemies. Notice this important nugget in a recent NYT story on the desperate, besieged Shiite Turkmen of Amerli, who finally defeated ISIS with the help of US air-strikes:

The fact that American air power had helped was not as celebrated. Some of the militiamen had fought the Americans after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Mr. Abdullah spoke for many when he said, “We do not like the Americans, and we didn’t need their airstrikes.”

And that’s if we save them from imminent death. I’m with James Medaille on this:

Allow me to offer one hard and fast rule: to Americanize a civil war is to lose it. Not immediately, alas. In the short term, you get “mission accomplished”; in the long term, you get defeat. As soon as America takes over, America loses. The Vietnam War was going to be won or lost by the Vietnamese. The only question was which faction would triumph. When one faction entrusted their responsibilities to the Americans, they felt less need to defend themselves. Their defense became an American responsibility. When you outsource your defense, you become defenseless.

If we didn’t learn by now that trying to control or effect change in that part of the world by proxy or directly is a mug’s game, our amnesia truly is debilitating.

I await a full explanation of the actual, specific threat that ISIS poses to the US that requires a declaration of war; I certainly expect that the president should go to the Senate for a declaration of war after a robust debate; and I want an airing of all the many unintended consequences of entering into that vortex again.

What is happening in Iraq right now isn’t a war of Islam against the West. It is Islam against itself. And by making it our war, we may simply be endorsing a self-fulfilling prophesy. If any president were elected to avoid that, it was Obama.