I wish I could say that my fears have abated somewhat since returning from vacation and finding the country in a bout of total hysteria over ISIS. No, I know I have no legs to stand on when it comes to hysteria, and may be over-reacting to Obama as badly as the country seems to have over-reacted to ISIS.
But consider the following facts as they have emerged this week. The key element of any intervention – as argued by the president – is that we have clear regional allies on the ground. We don’t. The Turks are AWOL; the Saudis claim they will train some Sunni forces to fight ISIS (drawing Iran into bolstering its balancing Shiite force); the European allies are not joining the military air campaign; and the Arab world is deeply suspicious – even when faced with a movement almost every government there despises. Even Jordan refuses to say publicly it is in the fight – and Jordan may be one of the most vulnerable Sunni dictatorships out there.
So let’s be clear: we have waded into a war alone. We seem to regard the ISIS problem far more seriously than anyone in the actual region. We are therefore Americanizing this war almost as soon as it begins, which means that almost everyone in the region will be hoping for our defeat. The hatred for America is deeper than the fear of ISIS:
Even in Baghdad and across Syria, where the threat from ISIS is immediate, reactions were mixed. Members of Iraq’s Shiite majority cheered the prospect of American help. But many Sunni Muslims were cynical about battling an organization that evolved from jihadist groups fighting American occupation. “This is all a play,” said Abu Amer, 38, a government employee, who withheld his family name for his safety. “It is applying American political plans.”
So this is almost a text-book example of the dumb war Obama was elected to avoid. It vitiates everything he has said through his candidacy and presidency. Its potential consequences are utterly opaque and we have no exit plan in the wake of our defeat. And yes – there is no war in the Middle East that leads to victory. It is always some kind of version of defeat.
So you have to ask yourself why. This is a calm and smart president who has just launched a war with no provision for its cost, no end-date, no Congressional authorization, no troops on the ground who can really do the work, and no reliable allies. The worst possible reason is an emotional response to the beheadings and enormous political pressure before the mid-terms. If that’s why he acted, he deserves our contempt. But there is another reason that deserves to be taken seriously. Jeffrey Goldberg puts it this way:
The only possible way to slow ISIS’s progress, and to possibly reverse it in some more-than-negligible way, is to provide air cover and intelligence and logistics support to our hapless allies on the ground. A second reason: President Obama was careful not to speak of an imminent or specific ISIS threat to Americans, because none currently exists. But it is not implausible to argue that a Qaeda-inspired group of limitless cruelty and formidable financial resources, one that has an omnibus loathing for “infidels,” and one that has thousands of members who hold passports from countries that participate in the U.S. visa waiver program, poses a non-trivial threat to American civilians.
The first objective – containing it in Iraq – was underway before this new and open-ended war. It had modest success – although it also precipitated the bait of the beheadings, which gave us this new wave of war. See how things evolve? So the second one is the most plausible. Obama is scared that minimalism won’t be enough, that ISIS could grow in strength, that a new Caliphate could be the final result of a war to bring secular democracy to the Middle East.
So he is acting out of fear. He believes that if you hit ISIS more comprehensively now, you can perhaps keep it at bay. No such threat can be left to fester. If you’ve heard of this kind of mindset before, you’re not wrong. It’s Dick Cheney’s one percent doctrine all over again. In abandoning what he said just last year about unwinding the war machine, Obama holds that the United States must be constantly at war, bombing and drone-striking other sovereign nations in order to prevent terrorist enclaves from becoming more dangerous over time – even when they have made no direct threat to the US, even though they are consumed by their own regional conflicts. But even Cheney was forced to go to the Congress to get authorization. Obama will have no truck with that. This new emperor assesses the threat himself, makes decisions later, and informs us that, whatever we believe, we are now at war again. If no-drama Obama has caved to this kind of hysteria and over-reaction, then what future president will ever be able to stand firm and unwind the cycle? If the un-Cheney Obama has just endorsed a Cheney-like idea of what the executive branch can do on its own, he has all but assured us that a future Republican or Clinton will have a solid precedent to conduct war as if they were emperors.
I can’t believe I have to say this in the Obama era:
the only way the blight of this modern-medieval bloodlust can be turned back is if the Muslim world does it. If we do it, it comes back again more potently, fueled by hatred of the distant empire. If we do it, it gains strength. We may bomb it into some kind of submission, but it will only come back, like a virus, mutated and stronger. Why on earth do you think we are confronting ISIS anyway? It’s because we destroyed the country of Iraq, allowed al Qaeda a foothold, and ISIS exploited the shift to Shiite power in Iraq by becoming al Qaeda’s more brutal successor.
In fact, by intervening, we make a possible regional resolution of these centrifugal forces less likely. By meddling, we could postpone a potential resolution of this long, difficult struggle as the Arab Muslim world tries to come to terms with the modern world. We are actually forestalling a possible Arab future by conflating it with a fight against American intervention.
I’m trying not to despair. I know plenty of you will mock me for over-reacting. And maybe I am and this lack-luster, transparently pointless move is just a gesture to reassure a nervous public and Obama will prevent this whole thing from metastasizing. I sure hope so. I sure hope that by some miracle, this will have some effect. I hope that the Iraqis put behind their sectarian hatred and unite against these fanatics. I hope the people subjected to this new Caliphate rebel against its insanity and evil. I hope this new front doesn’t lead to a wider Shiite-Sunni war or to the collapse of the critical nuclear negotiations with Iran. I hope the president hasn’t just put out a sign to ISIS that says: “You want a war? Come and Fight America.”
But this blog was transformed on 9/11, and has been a searching, grueling attempt to find a way out of that terror and out of the huge errors we made thereafter. Obama, for me, was the only man able to get us there. And he has folded – and you can see he knows it by the wan, listless look on his face. His presidency may well now be consumed by this new war and be judged by it – just like his predecessor’s. And all because when Americans are faced with even the slightest possibility of future terror, they shit their pants and run to daddy.
You know a country gets the future it deserves. And ours may have just gotten a lot darker.
(Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama bows his head, as Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel looks on, during a ceremony to mark the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorists attacks at the Pentagon Memorial on September 11, 2014. By Martin H. Simon-Pool/Getty Images)