Is Isis creepy? Yes. But would the American people, (egged on by the same cheerleaders who beat the drums for the Iraq/Afghanistan debacle — John McCain, Dick Cheney, William Kristol et al) be demanding action if Isis hadn’t released videos of a couple beheadings? Probably not. Nor would the President have felt compelled to talk tough and promise to lead a coalition of the unwilling.
But is it a good idea? Some of the more fevered warmongering suggests we have no choice, Isis is an existential threat to America. Indeed, Lindsey Graham, achieving unprecedented hysteria, said we need to do something “before we all get killed here at home.” That’s absurd.
Isis may be an existential threat to their neighbors, particularly Shia Muslims, insufficiently zealous Sunnis and minority sects in their path. They may even be a threat to the flow of oil from Iraq, though much of their funding would dry up without the spigots open. But can 30,000 Islamist extremists really threaten the United States with extinction?
No, and it is worth noting the Israelis seem more concerned about the potentially nuclear Iranians than about Isis. A few suicidal Isis nut jobs may try to enter the country to blow themselves up. Awful, but hardly enough to bring down the country. In fact, Isis said they were decapitating helpless journalists (and more recently a British aid worker) to stop our air strikes against them. On its face that looks like the air strikes have got them worried.
The journalists and aid worker went bravely in harm’s way. It is part of their job description, but they may not have understood exactly how barbarous these people are. The world now understands and, it is to be hoped, journalists and NGOs will have learned to give Isis-controlled territory a wide berth. This is a good story and a calamitous sorrow for those caught in the crossfire, but not worth losing one’s head over.
As noted, Isis clearly released the videos in part to intimidate those they regard as a threat, but also to vaunt themselves for having so far swept a feeble opposition away and as a recruiting poster. If so, the news media have cooperated in their attempts to grow their ranks by giving their atrocities breathless, endless coverage.
But the trouble with a movement so extreme is that it is self-limiting. Since they hate many of heir fellow Sunnis for insufficient austerity in religion and rabidity in branding everyone else infidels, they can’t recruit them or the apostate Shia. That being the case, it may be the wisest course to let the co-religionists of Isis decide if they want to bow down to Isis, accept being destroyed by them or fight back. A “which side are you on?” moment is overdue for the people of the region. By not heeding Lindsey Graham and rushing it precipitously, that looks a lot like one message of the Obama strategy.
The most fervent fans of intervention want a big effort from us, but why give Isis a big target? The President has been branded a reluctant warrior, but in fact he simply seems disinclined to go it alone and play into the hands of the crazies who will call it an American war against Islam. And why should we go it alone? These nuts are hardly our problem alone and rushing in where moderate Muslims fear to tread helps them, not us.
It is worth recalling that we entered the wars in which we were successful, World War I and World War II, only after our potential allies had long been begging for us to come to their rescue. By contrast, the wars in which we have fared less well were those in which we rushed in crying “Follow Me” only to discover ourselves pretty much alone in no man’s land. Pro-war commentators say we have got to get Middle East players to join us. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t they be trying to get us to join them? But first they’d have to show some enthusiasm for the fight themselves, unless we are to become mercenaries wearing a sign that says, “Will fight for oil.”
Though the President has refused to go big, a careful perusal of his remarks reveals a fairly menacing subtext. It appears he intends to proceed largely by stealth, insofar as such a thing is feasible in an iPhone world. He will use airpower to strike unexpectedly from above and indigenous allies (if any can be found) to force Isis to defend itself and possibly show itself. That in turn ought to give the air campaign and possibly special forces a chance to undertake better targeted strikes, “decapitations” of the leadership where possible. If so, good. A low profile, low risk, nerve-racking, personnel-eroding twilight struggle is preferable to the big show the zealots prefer.
It is amusing to note that relying on locals was also the preferred method of the British Empire during its heyday. Loyalists and Hessians carried a good deal of the load in America and in India the Gunga Dins often did the dying. Of course, this depends on us having willing allies who, I reiterate, seem to be in short supply. And once in the quagmire, who will throw us a lifeline?
It would be nice if cooler heads would quit telling the electorate that we are going to destroy Isis once and for all because it isn’t going to happen. And the American people already know it. Recent polling shows 62 percent want to do something nasty to Isis, but only 28 percent believe we will be able to wipe them from the face of the earth.
Obama and other fervid rhetoricians have compared them to a cancer. If so, it s one for which we don’t have the cure. Mad sects such as Isis tend to metastasize, and can be expected to continue trying to spread. But they aren’t really our cancer. They are primarily a Middle East disease, though Europe has reason to be alarmed given the growing Muslim population. On a recent Diane Rehm show Nicholas Burns injudiciously told the truth by described the problem in the region as a Sunni-Shia conflict. Just so, and which of those are we?
Better to dial back the rhetoric, quarantine Isis insofar as possible, strengthen our borders, attack them with targeted strikes over a long period and get used to living in a world where this kind of disease is never eradicated, but is kept at bay. Ebola perhaps, not cancer.
Isis is a disease in the minds of men.The carriers can be reduced in number and the folly of their ideology exposed by its failure to provide a better life. Those of us who lived with a Cold War for 45 years thought it would never end, but we rarely thought we would lose. In fact, it did end, and the other guy didn’t win. We need to educate our people, innovate, prosper, protect ourselves and wait with confidence for Medievalism to fail and Modernity to prevail.