On Taking The Bait

Charles Krauthammer has a column his morning that is eerily in some agreement with yours truly on what happened in August. My view is that ISIS was deliberately baiting the US and the West through its horrific beheading videos, hoping to drag the US back into an unwinnable war, and to elevate its status as the successor to al Qaeda. Sounds a lot like Krauthammer:

As for the short run, the Islamic State knows it will be pounded from the air. But it deems that price worth paying, given its gains in An Isis propaganda photograph.propaganda and prestige — translated into renown and recruiting — from these public executions … We tend to forget that at this stage in its career, the Islamic State’s principal fight is intramural. It seeks to supersede and supplant its jihadi rivals — from al-Qaeda in Pakistan, to Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, to the various franchises throughout North Africa — to emerge as champion of the one true jihad.

The strategy is simple: Draw in the world’s great superpower, create the ultimate foil and thus instantly achieve supreme stature in radical Islam as America’s nemesis.

My inference from this is that we should not take the bait. I fully understand how hard that is, given the Jacksonian impulse in American culture, given the PTSD of 9/11, given the horrifying depravity of these Jihadist lunatics. Krauthammer’s reaction, in contrast, is to talk smack:

When the enemy deliberately draws you into combat, it is all the more imperative to show the world that he made a big mistake.

And so we are supposed to send ground troops back into Iraq in order to win back urban centers from a deeply marginalized and radicalized Sunni minority, and turn this entire thing into a US vs Jihad battle. You can see why Krauthammer admires Netanyahu so much. He doesn’t just support a permanent war, he seems to relish it. You could summarize this column with a classic Bushism: “Bring It On.”

He seems to believe that ISIS can be defeated by US forces, and the gist of the latest neoconservative gambit – hyped by the Washington Post among others – is that half-measures won’t do. Once you’ve committed to “ultimately destroying” ISIS, you have to commit to it. Don’t rule out ground troops; rally the country with Manichean rhetoric; score cheap points at home by declaring yourself more manly than the president; and react to any further ISIS grandstanding by ratcheting up the rhetoric – and thereby disappearing down yet another Mesopotamian rabbit-hole.

It is as if the lesson of the Iraq war was that we didn’t use enough firepower. Then this canard:

A common mantra is that American cruelty — Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, “torture,” the Iraq war itself — is the great jihadist recruiting tool. But leaving Iraq, closing Abu Ghraib and prohibiting “enhanced interrogation” had zero effect on recruiting. In fact, jihadi cadres from Mali to Mosul have only swelled during Obama’s outstretched-hand presidency.

Turns out the Islamic State’s best recruiting tool is indeed savagery — its own. Deliberate, defiant, triumphant. The beheadings are not just a magnet for psychopaths around the world. They are choreographed demonstrations of its unbounded determination and of American helplessness. In Osama bin Laden’s famous formulation, who is the “strong horse” now?

So we’re back on bin Laden’s horse again, are we? Of course, the implosion of American decency and horror in the last decade did not create Jihadism. But it sure didn’t help.

Bombing the crap out of a country, breaking it apart, unleashing its sectarian demons, occupying it for a decade, and then up-ending its long-standing dynamic of Sunni minority rule: that has something to do with it. More to the point: those very tactics proved that military force cannot do what Krauthammer wants it to do. The Iraq war revealed the limits of American power more dramatically than any of Obama’s more minimalist policies.

Our difference is simple. My view is that the sense of American “helplessness”, as Krauthammer puts it, is based on reality. We cannot end Jihadism ourselves or by military force alone; it has to be defeated within the Arab and Muslim world. This is not merely an abstract argument: we have a decade of experience now that proves it. What the neocons are proposing is a Likudnik strategy of brutal warfare to allegedly wipe out the enemy. It hasn’t worked in Israel – and they have far more at stake than we do. It has deepened bitterness, drawn atavism to the surface like pus, altered Israel’s democracy in profound and troubling ways, violated core Western values, and won … well, a constant low-level war which can be relied upon to flare again and again indefinitely.

America is bigger and better than that. When fanatics use brutal performance art to bait us into a trap from which we have few escapes, our task is to ignore them. That may be a very hard sell in the current climate. But if we cannot see it clearly after the last decade, we are truly careening toward the rapids.