On September 10, 2014 President Obama strode to a podium in the south portico of the White House and announced that America would be returning to full-scale combat operations in Iraq.
Though he was sure to remind us that no American boots would be on Iraqi soil, he did claim that we would carry out an extended bombing campaign against ISIS, the extremist Sunni army that has taken over vast swaths of Eastern Syria and Western Iraq. Though the United Nations Human Rights Council, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch all warned the world that ISIS had engaged in a myriad of human rights abuses- including ethnic cleansing, rape, murder, torture, and kidnapping- as late as six weeks ago the theocratic-sectarian group was considered a regional matter. The inability of the Iraqi Army to pose a credible defense force against ISIS was troubling, but it was still widely believed that an American military response was not part of the solution to the regional conflict.
The American reticence to embrace a military role in the region was understandable. ISIS was involved in a sectarian civil war in Iraq, where a Shiite-dominated central government had so alienated the Sunni population that the mere existence of the state as a cohesive structure was at risk. In Syria, ISIS was battling the forces of Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime, whom Western leaders had already said “must go” due to his use of chemical weapons against his own people. To fight ISIS in Syria would be to prop up a dictator who was himself guilty of obscene human rights abuses. In Iraq, it made little sense to re-engage militarily after having tried for a decade to cobble the country together into a functional whole.
Though the civil wars in both countries would be terrible, bloody, and wasteful, what could the Americans do? The central government in Iraq had wanted them gone by 2011 and the American people were only too happy to oblige. Iraq was, after all, thousand of miles away from United States soil, and the Americans had done what they could: the war had cost the government 800 billion dollars since 2002, a considerable amount of that directed towards post-war reconstruction. Domestically, many Americans continue to suffer from unemployment and acute forms of social deprivation. As such, it had become difficult (if not impossible) to justify the dizzying amounts of money America spends helping foreign countries while its own society shatters from within.
As such, the consensus thinking was that intervention would only make matters worse. The project of occupation and social reconstruction in Iraq had proved too costly, difficult, and bloody for even the wealthiest country in the world. A decade of insurgent violence, suicide bombings, and failed experiments in electoral democracy taught America a harsh lesson: the rest of the world, it turns out, is not so easily molded in our own image.
And then two kidnapped American journalists were beheaded by ISIS, the murders filmed and uploaded on youtube. That was, as they say, a game changer.
There they were: dressed in orange jump suits, kneeling in the desert, bald-headed, dehumanized. The image was Guantanamo in reverse: now it was the Americans who were jump-suited and shackled, reduced to less-than-human, in reception of no mercy. I was in a Dallas Airport the day the first video was released and you could just feel it: a tension in the air, a revulsion, a dizzying sense of confusion amongst the people. Why would ISIS commit such a horrific act? How had the project of exporting freedom and democracy to the Middle East gone so wrong? Why were we not looked upon as liberators?
Long-time MSNBC political commentator Chris Matthews summed up the national reaction: somebody had to pay for this. You could kill American soldiers with bombs and guns (as in Benghazi)- that was within some kind of half-acknowledged realm of insurgent warfare, immoral but at least bounded by some rational code of militancy. But to kidnap innocent journalists and make a world-wide spectacle of their deaths, to saw the heads off of men who had done nothing but try to report on what was going on in that part of the world…this was too much. Indeed, this was unbearable.
As Matthews put it, “No American president can survive if he lets Americans be beheaded on international television with impunity. Impunity! He has to strike back, as an American, it’s in our soul!”
Although the major networks refused to play the beheading clip, it circulated relentlessly across the internet, a digital dare to America to retaliate. Has one youtube clip ever started a war? Unbelievably, we can now say that yes it has.
I hardly think it’s too polemic to say that without those filmed beheadings American missiles would not be raining down on Syria and Iraq tonight. We knew of ISIS’ terrible human rights abuses before the clips, but that was within the context of Syria’s domestic politics, a form of civil violence, immoral but regional, to be rued over our morning coffee. The clip was meant not just to get our attention, but to goad us into an all-out confrontation. As conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer noted recently, ISIS knows exactly what they are doing: drawing America back into a complex and internecine war, further depleting the American empire of precious resources, and announcing that ISIS is the dominant jihadist force in the world.
And Barack Obama, the president who was elected to end the war in Iraq, the leader who was supposed to be liberal, methodical, and deeply weary of American entanglement abroad, now has his own personal war, one he will most certainly bequeath to his successor. The president’s Noble Peace Prize looks more ridiculous by the day.
At this website we have prided ourselves on maintaining a humanist perspective on the world. Indeed, our mantra since we began this publishing project was to uphold one base-line doctrine: no dead bodies. We embrace a politics of human solidarity, seeking to nurture our fellow human beings in safety, dignity, and empathy for one another.
So how should we feel about this latest conflict? In 2002, the war in Iraq (justifiably) sparked world-wide protest and a powerful anti-war movement. What should the reaction of progressive people around the world be to this latest phase of the conflict? Particularly as it is a so-called progressive, Barack Obama, who is the major force behind this military intervention.
There are, at least, two major positions that one can take on this conflict, a moral-interventionist and a pragmatic-isolationist one.
The former position, championed by the Obama administration, argues that ISIS is a political force that is morally reprehensible, even more so than the general authoritarian forces that one encounters throughout the world. The UN Human Rights Council has repeatedly warned of ISIS’ acts of heinous violence against religious minorities in the region, which include firing line executions of civilians. Shia Mulisms, Armenian Christians, Druze, Yazidis, and other minorities have all experienced persecution under their control.
ISIS’ stance on issues of gender equality are, predictably, equally as reprehensible. Haleh Esfandiari of the Woodrow Wilson Center has told us that ISIS coerces women into indentured servitude as sexual slaves for their fighters. According to ISIS’ own notes, women are not only forced to wear full-veils, but their freedom of movement outside the home is also significantly curtailed. In matters of culture, Sharia curriculum has been imposed on schools, and the teaching of national history, literature, art, and Darwin’s theories have all been outlawed. Just this week, ISIS publicly executed Samira Salih al-Nuaimi, a women’s rights advocate and lawyer based in Mosul. Her crime? She critiqued ISIS’ destruction of religious monuments on her facebook page.
The current United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein of Jordan, has called for the international community to intervene against ISIS, claiming that they intend to build “a house of blood” in Syria and Iraq. As Prince Zeid put it, ISIS’ human rights abuses “reveal only what a Takfiri state would look like, should this movement actually try to govern in the future…it would be a harsh, mean-spirited house of blood, where no shade would be offered, nor shelter given to any non-Takfiri in their midst.”
In the face of such a brutal, anti-human, profoundly authoritarian regime, how can we not intervene? The international community- from Euro-America to the Middle East, from Russia to East Asia- has a moral responsibility to stop a regime who uses murder and torture as mechanisms for governance. This is a burden that is shared by all nations who value human life, regardless of whether they be the secular-liberal nations of Europe, America, and East Asia or the theocracies and military regimes of the modern Middle East.
And yet just as the moral-interventionist position seems to be able to win the argument, the pragmatist-isolationist perspective begins to kick in. This argument tells us that to “degrade and destroy” ISIS means intervening in not one but two civil wars. We are reminded that ISIS came to power because of the terrible American mismanagement of the post-war reconstruction of Iraq, where they tried to do Empire on the cheap and leave after a scant decade in the war-torn country. When Saddam was overthrown, and the Americans failed to produce a credible government that could unify the country’s ethnic groups, a profound vacuum of power was created. The only thing preventing that vacuum from becoming an all out civil-war was the presence of the American military. Now that said military is gone, the country’s regional and ethnic forces are battling it out for control over key swaths of land and resources.
While this is a terrible and brutal reality, it is not one that the Americans (now militarily removed from the country) can do much about. And ISIS, for all their terrible brutality and bombastic rhetoric, does not present a clear and present threat to the territorial integrity, political sovereignty, or quotidian security of America. No less an authority than the secretary of Homeland Security has told us that as of this time there is no evidence that ISIS is planning to attack the United States domestically, and there is little indication that they have the capacity to do so at the moment.
Is the intervention against ISIS in fact driven largely by American vanity- so they can say that their decade long occupation, billions upon billions of dollars, and thousands of sacrificed lives in Iraq were not wholly in vain? But if such sacrifice couldn’t produce a functional state in Iraq, it is difficult to see how another round of military intervention can. The American people, as I’ve pointed out, have no interest in being in Iraq for the next century as a military and civil-administrative force. They have to work on building their own country- they can’t do that job for other countries as well.
And that is only the Iraq side of the equation. In Syria, the long-term picture looks even more problematic. There is as of yet no moderate rebel forces that the Americans could “arm.” By putting weapons into the hands of regional actors, there is a chance that they would actually end up getting back to ISIS. Furthermore, to degrade ISIS is to also prop up the Assad regime, who is the only effective military force in the region who could take back the territory won by ISIS to begin with. The Obama administration has claimed that an attack on ISIS is not an endorsement of the Assad regime, though it looks as if the Obama administration will at least be keeping the Syrian regime in the loop during the bombing campaign. Does it make sense to side with secular butchers rather than theocratic ones? Doesn’t it make sense to militarily stay out of this terrible conflict between two repressive and terrible regimes?
And just how are we going to “degrade and destroy” ISIS solely from the air? In Ar-Raqqah in Syria, the de-facto capital of the Islamic State, an entire apparatus of social government has been erected. Water, electricity, and oil are reportedly well-managed and in full supply. Corrupt local officials from the Assad regime have been pushed out and replaced with officials loyal to the Islamic State. And social services, such as road repair and educational expenses, are being provided. Simply put, the new regime is working its way into the fabric of social life. As the King of Jordan has told us, ISIS has grown in popularity not because of their extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam, but because they are paying middle-class wages to their fighters.
All of which shows just how difficult it will be to defeat ISIS as a military and political force, even if there is strong ground intervention (which so far has not been forthcoming from any international government). The best the Americans can hope for is that their arial assault is so withering that it degrades ISIS’ logistical and military capacities. At that point, perhaps Turkey will step up with ground troops, or even potentially Iran. And yet here questions of national politics loom large: how would an American-backed ground assault on ISIS, led by Turkey or other regional actors, be interpreted by the people of Syria and Iraq? And even if neighboring Arab nations were willing to invade Syria and Iraq to destroy ISIS, what regimes would they build in their wake?
And that’s if ISIS can be destroyed. As we’ve seen with our own military experiences in Afghanistan, wars rarely end in the complete destruction of the enemy. More likely than not, you are left with negotiating a settlement with your opponent, as we did with the Taliban in Afghanistan, tacitly recognizing their entrenchment within Afghani society. In two or three years, after the bombs fall, the civilians die, the chaos reigns, would America be prepared to make a negotiated peace with ISIS?
So despite the power of the moral-interventionist argument, the facts of the matter are clear and frightening: the Americans have absolutely no plan as to what to do after they’ve intervened in not one but two civil wars. More likely than not, their own acts of violence will result in unforeseen and even more violent consequences, as they did in Iraq over the last decade. Indeed, the great irony of this conflict is that the Americans are fighting a force which was nurtured and fed by their own disastrous policies in the region, going all the way back to the initial decision to invade Iraq in the first place.
America set out to destroy “terrorism” in the Middle East and have only succeeded in strengthening it, making Iraq into a cozy safe haven for the very radical forces they fear. They are the authors of their own demons, as it were.
In the end, one can do nothing but admit the obvious: there are simply no good policy options when it comes to Iraq and Syria at the moment. ISIS is a reprehensible regime whose barbarity is universally acknowledged, even by the representatives of other authoritarian states in the region. And yet to intervene against them- with no exit plan, no firm goals, few allies on the ground, and questionable international legality- hardly seems like a good option either.
It is a terrible conundrum, and all of the available options- intervention, second-party military support, or total disengagement- are likely to lead to bloodshed, suffering, and death. When it comes to the modern Middle East, it is as if America is trapped in a dizzying maze, with all corridors leading to unexpected pitfalls and blinding alleys, the way out a perpetual mystery.
The historical comparison to other areas of the world where empires have stalled and died- Vietnam, Afghanistan, etc.- are inevitable but not necessarily illuminating. In the case of Vietnam, America was fighting a largely imagined enemy, a “red scourge” hell-bent on turning the rest of Asia communist. In fact, they were battling a dedicated Vietnamese nationalist movement who had fought for the independence of their country for decades, first against the French and then the Americans. They were never going to stop fighting an outside force, in full knowledge that such an imperial actor would eventually want to go home. There was no reason to accept the American’s civil institutions, for they would soon whither away when the military forces that backed them left, as they inevitably did.
Have American generals, leaders, pundits, and analysts misjudged what is going on in Iraq and Syria as badly as they misjudged the modern nationalist movement in Vietnam? Do we really understand the forces at play in these societies, on the ground and up close?
The Vietnamese wanted a prosperous, whole, equitable country, free of foreign intervention (be it of the European or Chinese variety). Within twenty years of the end of the Vietnam War we were trading with them as partners and allies in capitalist commerce. Their bid to develop their country economically meant its inevitable re-engagement with the global circuits of capitalism, a development Americans welcomed immensely.
Twenty years from now will we be trading partners with whatever government rules over Iraq and Syria? Will we look back upon this period as a moment of intense ignorance regarding who we were facing?
And most importantly, as progressive people, what are we to feel today as missiles fly across Syria and Iraq once again? It seems whatever policy option we take, whatever road we travel, only one thing is for sure: violence is guaranteed as people on all sides will suffer. We will be up to our necks in blood. That is, in fact, nothing new: we’ve been that way for a decade now.
I can’t tell you how you should feel today. I can’t even tell you if this is the declining days of the American empire or a new intensification of it. But I can be sure in saying that America is learning a very hard lesson, one which ISIS’s very existence hammers home again and again, night after night: you cannot remold the world in your own image, no matter how much military and economic might you have.
All colonial plans eventually go array. The foreign powers always, at a certain point, want to go home. It was never their land to begin with. Their ability to sacrifice for it will always be less than the people who are content to die in its defense.
All we are left to do now is hope that American bombs, combined with diplomatic and economic efforts, will somehow lead to political moderation in the region. Rarely have bombing campaigns from outside forces done so. Given the sectarian, reactionary, populist, and anti-colonial pressures at work, one highly doubts that this latest conflict will be an exception.
As I said, we are up to our necks in blood. I doubt we are able to see clearly at all, so immersed are we in this orgy of violence.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at The University of Toronto. He studies political economy, aesthetics, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.
The visuals used in the above post include a painting by Ricky Romain, which can be found at http://www.rickyromain.com