The Nightmare Scenario

Andrew Sullivan —  Sep 10 2014 @ 11:24am

US President Barack Obama holds press conference in Newport

As the president launches a new war against an elusive, asymmetrical opponent, with as yet no solid regional allies, fueled by pure emotion, I have to wonder who it was we elected. I’m going to listen carefully tonight – but so far, this strikes me quite simply an an almost text-book case of what someone once called “a dumb war”.

First off, the public support for war is almost entirely a function of the powerful imagery of two beheadings. It is not a sober reflection on how best to defend ourselves from Salafist terror and theocracy. It is based on little but fear and panic and hysteria:

47% of Americans believe the country is less safe now than before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That’s a significant increase from even a year after the twin towers fell when in September 2002 just 20% of the country said the nation was less safe. The level of fear across America also is up substantially from last year when 28% felt the same way.

This is not a rational conclusion. The change came almost entirely from last month:

A whopping 94 percent of Americans say they have heard about the news of the beheaded journalists – higher than any other news event the NBC/WSJ poll has measured over the past five years. That includes the 2011 debt-ceiling debate (77 percent), the 2012 health-care decision by the U.S. Supreme Court (78 percent), Syria’s reported use of chemical weapons in 2013 (79 percent) and this year’s botched execution in Oklahoma (68 percent).

That is the biggest media coup for the Salafists since the Towers fell. Americans have shown themselves to be terrified beyond measure by a group of religious fanatics controlling an area about the size of Maryland – so terrified, in fact, that they want to make Syria’s and Iraq’s civil wars our war, to own them and their outcome. George Friedman makes the sane and obvious point:

The Islamic State – engaged in war with everyone around it – is much less dangerous to the United States than a small group with time on its hands, planning an attack. In any event, if the Islamic State did not exist, the threat to the United States from jihadist groups in Yemen or Libya or somewhere inside the United States would remain.

The key thing is to have a sensible grip on what the actual threat really is, rather than reacting like scared school-children in a horror movie. And the threat is primarily to ISIS’s neighbors. How scared are they – and how determined are they to fight? Well, the Iraqis themselves still haven’t filled out a cabinet that can reconcile both Sunnis and Shi’a and Kurds in a unified push against the latest insurgency. Turkey is more concerned, it appears, with the fate of 49 hostages now held by ISIS. Saudi Arabia? Twiddling its thumbs when it isn’t fueling Salafist fanaticism. Iran? Sure, they can and will help – but only in a way likely to inflame Sunni paranoia and fuel sectarian divisions. Assad? Well, this is the scenario he long predicted, isn’t it?

The obvious response of the US should be to coax and goad and guide a regional coalition against ISIS without direct intervention. And the core of that coalition must be Sunni, or this will devolve into one more ripple in the Shiite-Sunni ocean of mutual hatred and conflict. Friedman again:

The point is that there is a tactic that will fail: American re-involvement. There is a tactic that will succeed: the United States making it clear that while it might aid the pacification in some way, the responsibility is on regional powers. The inevitable outcome will be a regional competition that the United States can manage far better than the current chaos.

But that does not seem to be Obama’s idea right now. We are declaring our commitment to destroying ISIS before the regional actors have fully declared theirs. Now the Turks and the Iraqis and the Saudis can sit back and have the US do their work for them, turning the Salafist terror away from themselves and toward the West. Having the hegemon solve their problems is win-win for them, even as we will get no thanks, and no friends, and many more enemies … if we succeed.

One reason why I oppose this new Iraq War, in other words, is that I fear that it could well increase the threat to the US, rather than reduce it. Our panicked response to two executions in a distant desert could actually lead to a far greater wave of Jihadist terror than would otherwise be the case. They’ll now be aiming for New York as much as Baghdad. We’ve all but dared them.

Then there is the domestic part – and the most depressing. Obama – despite what he did with Syria, and despite his campaign pledges – wants to launch a new war in Iraq and Syria on his own presidential authority. At a time when we desperately need a careful consideration of a war’s potential unintended consequences, a deliberative debate in the Senate on the pros and cons of this new adventure in Arabia, Obama only wants a rubber stamp for a war already underway. The Republicans, moreover, in ever more cynical fashion, will be quite happy to let Obama take all the responsibility and all of the blame for the next Middle East nightmare, while taking no responsibility for the war themselves. That way, they can blame Obama for failure, and claim credit for success, while never playing the essential constitutional role they are supposed to play.

To recap: we are going to war with no clear exit plan; we are doing so before the regional allies have been forced to take a stand; Obama is shouldering all of the responsibility himself, based on a hysterical public mood that could evaporate in a month’s time. To argue that this is a reneging of everything Obama ran on is an understatement. Even Bush went to Congress for a vote before the Iraq War. And the legitimization of panic and fear and hysteria undoes so much of what Obama had previously achieved in amending US foreign policy.

I will listen carefully tonight. I will give him a chance to persuade me. But this is such a bitter pill to swallow.

(Photo: US President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference on day two of the 2014 NATO Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales, on September 5, 2014. By Yunus Kaymaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.)