The Sudden War Against ISIS

I feel like this is a dream, and in my dream I am watching Chappaquiddick. The car is about to skid off the bridge, and I try to cry out Slow down! Watch where you’re going! You’re too close to the edge! You’ll never make that turn! (And have you been drinking?) But the words won’t come out, there’s nothing I can do, the fatal turn is already taken, and I watch, helpless, as the car slides silently into the water.

That’s how I feel after hearing President Obama’s ill-considered, ill-starred September 10, 2014 declaration of war against ISIS.1

Of course ISIS are very bad people, and the atrocities they commit are outrageously uncivilized. This includes the barbaric theocracies they establish wherever they rule, their flagrant mistreatment of women, their mass murders, their abduction into slavery of the survivors of their pogroms, their attempts at genocide of peoples they regard as apostates, their massacres of prisoners of war, and of course their spectacular beheadings of American reporters. These actions, and plenty of others, are abominations, and I am all for smiting them and trying to break their power. We were already doing a reasonable job of this before September 10 – in the Sinjar Mountains where they had driven the Yazidis, outside Erbil where we saved the Kurdish forces from being overrun, at the Mosul Dam, at the siege of Amerli which we raised, and elsewhere. And great if we can block them from selling their stolen oil, and disrupt their recruiting, and destroy their equipment, and kill their leaders and their followers too, and so on. Sock it to them!

But I cannot agree to a formal commitment of the United States to an officially-declared military crusade against them, expressed in maximalist terms and based on unrealistic political predictions. The President’s speech goes off the rails in his very first sentence, when he says he will lay out “what the United States will do with our friends and allies to degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS.

Never mind the squishiness of the phrase “our friends and allies” – we will get to that shortly. The more serious problem here is the definition of our war aim as ISIS’ ultimate destruction. Yes, they should be destroyed. But complete destruction is hard to achieve, especially against ideologically-driven irregulars. We haven’t destroyed the Taliban, or al-Qaeda, after many years of trying. By setting these aims, President Obama is committing us to remain at war without limit, and to keep increasing our efforts, until the last scrap of ISIS has perished. That won’t happen soon (in fact it may never happen). And even if our national interest demands ISIS’ degradation and marginalization (a proposition not proved – the President just says, vaguely, that “if left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat … to the United States”)2 – why yoke ourselves at the start to the maximum goal of complete extirpation? I hear echoes of the demand for unconditional surrender, justifiably presented to the Confederacy, and later to the Germans (twice) and the Japanese. But present conditions are not comparable, and the need for 100% capitulation, perhaps useful when at war with an actual state, is not justifiable here. And we will have a lot of needless trouble later either enforcing this demand or backing down from it.

President Obama imagines a neat and tidy war. Iraq will “stand up national guard units” and its military will “go on offense.” Never mind that this has not happened on a significant scale so far, that our experience over the past 11 years, even with massive American involvement, could not make it happen, and that it is not likely to happen now. President Obama says everything is different now – we’re going to support them “with training, intelligence and equipment” (that’s what we did before, to no useful effect), and anyway “additional U.S. action depended upon Iraqis forming an inclusive government, which they have now done in recent days.” Haider el-Abadi’s new Iraqi government was confirmed by the Iraqi parliament two days before the President Obama’s speech, and there is no evidence at all that it commands the confidence of Iraq’s Sunni population or that its military forces will now suddenly become competent, reliable, willing, effective soldiers. It is shocking that the President should regard this new, quite untested development as a fulfilling the political prerequisite for returning the United States to war in Iraq.

And President Obama recklessly assumes that the new war will be victoriously prosecuted without Americans participating in combat. “American forces will not have a combat mission,” he said. “It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.” Never mind that we already have more than 1000 troops there, in unfriendly territory or in territory that we claim to rely on others to defend, and that could become unfriendly in a heartbeat. Are they not combatants just because we call them something else? What about our pilots flying over ISIS territory, or over Syria (the Syrian government has promised to regard such flights as hostile and shoot them down with Russian anti-aircraft weapons). They will become combatants then, right up to the time when ISIS cuts their heads off on television. And then what will we do?

The President assumes all the combat will be done by local Moslems – the supposed Iraqi military, the hard-pressed Kurdish peshmerga, and the crack battalions the President imagines will arrive from Saudi Arabia, from the Gulf States, from Turkey, from Jordan (!), and elsewhere, without any evidence (that I can see anyway) that these forces are really coming. He says he will chair a meeting in two weeks to set up this coalition. “We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq,” the President says, and he’s right about this – no one is dragging us, we’re volunteering, and once again trying to drag others in to back us up. The much wiser George H. W. Bush got his coalition going first, then declared the war.

And of course the “moderate” Syrian opposition will help too. Those forces we thought too weak and questionable to back two years ago, forces that (perhaps for that reason) couldn’t overthrow their own government, are now going to overthrow ISIS, and do so without helping Assad? One wonders what the President could be thinking, to commit us to war on such a collection of fantasies. “We must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL,” the President said, “while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.” That hasn’t worked at all in the past several years – why should it work now, when Assad’s hand is arguably stronger?

And speaking of things that don’t work, how about this for a model? “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us while supporting partners on the front lines is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” If it’s been so successful, why have we had to pursue it for years? Why has it not already worked? Why are Yemen, and especially Somalia, not functioning civilized countries now? We should do more of what has worked so well in Somalia? Or how about this: “Secretary Kerry was in Iraq today meeting with the new government and supporting their efforts to promote unity.” That too has been our policy for years. Why should it succeed now when it hasn’t before? Because of a new Shi’ite prime minister whose government was confirmed two days earlier? Please.

And while we’re at it, of course we can “lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat.” Why, just look at all the other things we can do! “It is America that has rallied the world against Russian aggression and in support of the Ukrainian people’s right to determine their own destiny.” Without much success, though, up to now. Moreover, “it is America … that can help contain and cure the outbreak of Ebola.” Here the President’s boasting slides into incoherence – America has not shown it can do any such thing.

ISIS has suckered the President into doing just what they want. They want us to declare war against them, so they can recruit on that basis and hold themselves up before the Moslem world as their champion against the Great Satan. That’s why they murdered Foley and Sotloff on video – to provoke us into just what we’re doing now! President Obama plays into their hands by defining ISIS as “not Islamic” – who are we to define what is Islamic?3

And what is our exit strategy? When will we have done enough, or done all we can do? Do we have to fight with ever-increasing force (and at ever-increasing expense) until the last jihadi is vanquished? How do we recognize victory, if it ever comes? And perhaps as important, because much more likely, how do we recognize at least a measure of failure and accept it (something we have not yet learned to do in Iraq or Afghanistan)? Because if we cannot recognize failure if it comes, we will have to keep escalating forever, a strategy that never seems to work.

“My fellow Americans,” said the President, “we live in a time of great change.” But apparently some things never change, especially America’s delusion that it can do whatever it sets its mind to, and can adjust the politics of the Middle East to suit its convenience. Why, after so long and discouraging an experience there, would anyone continue to believe this, and especially that arch-pragmatist Barack Obama, who campaigned for office on his promise to end these adventures?

And where is Congress in all this, which is supposed to be the branch of government that declares a war if we have to have one? President Obama said he would “welcome congressional support,” but that he doesn’t really need it (having two obsolete authorizations for the use of force against al-Qaeda to rely on), and implicitly anyway would not have to recognize withholding of support.4 His press secretary clarified two days later that “the United States is at war with ISIL.” Is this how we hear about a war these days? In a comment by the President’s press secretary? How do we end a war started by such methods – write pleading letters to the White House press secretary?

Congress should at once repeal both prior use-of-force authorizations, disavow all this talk of war to final total victory, and authorize limited applications of force, from the air, to distress and degrade ISIS, and otherwise disrupt their operations and assist their enemies. This authority should be explicitly restricted in time and space and opponent – the President can always come back and ask for more. But it should firmly and immediately reject both the President’s ruinously expansive open-ended war aims, and the idea that he can commit the country to war on his own authority.

September 12, 2014

  1. I will call it ISIS even though the President pedantically insists on ISIL. The acronym ISIL translates the Arabic al-Sham as the Levant, a very unsuitably Eurocentric name for the area. Levant is a French word meaning the place where the sun rises, and like Middle East presupposes a viewpoint in Europe. From Iraq the sun does not rise over Syria, but sets there. Al-Sham really means Greater Syria, of which the modern Syrian state is only a part.
  2. Emphasis added.
  3. Anyway ISIS is very Islamic, right down to the massacres and amputations and misogyny and slavery. It is a gross distortion to define Islam as a “religion of peace,” sort of like Christianity only different in an ecumenical sort of way, in order to be able to claim the fundamentalist, jihadi element is something else. But that’s another rant for another time.
  4. In May of last year the President argued in his National Defense University speech that the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force should be repealed. “Unless we discipline our thinking,” he said, “our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant Presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states.”