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Weighing the Arguments on U.S. Military Action Against ISIS

There are strong arguments making the case for the persistence (and indeed the intensification) of U.S. airstrikes against ISIS targets. But equally there are strong arguments, less frequently heard perhaps, for why the United States should not continue, and should certainly not intensify, those airstrikes.
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FILE - In this Aug. 10, 2014 file photo, an aircraft lands after missions targeting the Islamic State group in Iraq from the deck of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf. Combined U.S.-Arab airstrikes at the heart of the Islamic State group's military strongholds in Syria achieved their strategic aim of showing the extremists that their savage attacks will not go unanswered, the top American military officer said Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File)
FILE - In this Aug. 10, 2014 file photo, an aircraft lands after missions targeting the Islamic State group in Iraq from the deck of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf. Combined U.S.-Arab airstrikes at the heart of the Islamic State group's military strongholds in Syria achieved their strategic aim of showing the extremists that their savage attacks will not go unanswered, the top American military officer said Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File)

In an earlier posting, the case was made that what we desperately need in contemporary America is a national conversation about the appropriate direction of our foreign policy, and about the adverse impact on conditions at home of excessive military activity overseas.

As the military campaign against ISIS builds in both Syria and Iraq, that national conversation becomes ever more essential.

There are strong arguments, now widely circulating in the general media, making the case for the persistence (and indeed the intensification) of U.S. airstrikes against ISIS targets. But equally there are strong arguments, less frequently heard perhaps, for why the United States should not continue, and should certainly not intensify, those airstrikes. With public opinion still seriously divided on the issue, though now beginning to slightly drift in favor of military action, there is genuine value to be gained by calmly setting the two sets of arguments down together, the better to be able to see their relative strengths and weaknesses. Hence, what follows:


So why should the US military be engaged in a sustained air campaign against ISIS strongholds in Syria and Iraq? The official justification for that engagement was the one given by the President in his September address launching the anti-ISIS coalition and announcing limited military action in the Middle East. It was that "if unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region - including to the United States. While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland," Barack Obama told his national audience, "ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies" and "posed a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East - including American citizens, personnel and facilities." Hence our determination "to degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIS.

Behind those generalities stand at least these six specific reasons for military action against the Islamic State.

ISIS constitutes a new level of horror. This threat is not like any other. It is even more barbaric than al Qaeda before it. If unchallenged, its regimen of beheadings, burnings and crucifixions will take us all back into the worst practices of the Middle Ages. As the President put it in that September address: "In a region that has known so much bloodshed, these terrorists are unique in their brutality." Or, to follow Graeme Wood in his recent influential article in The Atlantic: the "fighters of the Islamic State" are "authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war" (which happen to include "slavery, crucifixion and beheadings.") Something uniquely nasty is afoot in the world - something not really seen since the 1930s and the Nazis, and something that has already taken American lives in a grotesque way - something that needs to be dealt with effectively and with all due speed.

ISIS is determined to build a caliphate. That affects directly the interests of more moderate Arabic forces that are allies of ours. It even threatens non-Arabic countries way beyond its borders. As Graeme Wood said in that Atlantic article, ISIS "already rules an area larger than the United Kingdom," and if his reporting is right, because it is a caliphate, "It has already taken up what Islamic law refers to as 'offensive jihad,' the forcible expansion into countries that are ruled by non-Muslims." "Following takfiri doctrine," Wood argues, 'the Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people." If true, the parallels with Hitler - which Wood draws - are obvious, and the required response equally unavoidable.

So much US effort has gone into building a new Iraq: to see it dissipated so quickly raises questions about why all that sacrifice was necessary; and not fighting on lets down those who fought before. The United States military lost over 4000 soldiers as casualties of the Iraq war, and sent home at least 32,000 more who were physically and mentally damaged. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost at least $1.26 trillion from start to finish (and the overall "war on terror" maybe $8 trillion): so to see the Iraqi "democracy" that was left behind - not to mention its army - disintegrate so rapidly before the ISIS onslaught, is simply too much for many to bear.

The normal "pottery barn rules" apply. We broke it. We own it. We cannot walk away now. Even those reluctant to admit US culpability in destabilizing pre-2003 Iraq often quietly concede that American intervention is the backdrop to the rise of ISIS, and that in consequence the United States has a particular moral responsibility to somehow stop the rot. At the very least, as the war critic Noam Chomsky had it, defeating ISIS must start "with the US admitting its role in creating this fundamentalist monster." There were even echoes of this argument in the President's September 2014 explanation of why he, of all people, was willing to reconstruct a Bush-like coalition of the willing to engage in extensive military intervention in the Middle East - that while he was adamant that "American forces...will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq" he was equally clear that American forces were needed there "to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment." But why that need, if the United States did not already bear some underlying prior responsibility?

ISIS is a global force. We cannot ignore it. We can only resist it. Appeasement did not work in the 1930s, and it will not work again now. ISIS is not simply focused on Iraq and Syria alone. Instead, "the ISIS cancer has metastasized, as the al Qaeda cancer did before it. The two are now competing to see which can kill more people faster." As the readers of The Wall Street Journal were told in February, ISIS's "often stated objective is to 'remain and expand';" through a complex global strategy "across three geographic rings." "An 'Interior Ring' ...Iraq and...the Levantine states of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel-Palestine...; the 'Near Broad Ring' that includes the rest of the Middle East and North Africa....; and 'The Far Abroad Ring' that includes the rest of the world, specifically Europe, the U.S. and Asia."

ISIS is waging a Holy War against Christendom. Like earlier crusaders, the United States must wage holy war in return. As Bill O'Reilly told his "Factor" audience in February, echoing the imagery of a clash of crusaders used by the ISIS leadership itself, "the Holy War is here and unfortunately it seems the president will be the last one to acknowledge it." And it is a very serious and dangerous war - one that we must win over there before we lose it over here. Indeed, according to Senator Lindsay Graham at least, "the chance of getting attacked goes up every day." Which is why, as he put it on Fox News Sunday in September, ""this president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed here at home."


The arguments for scaling back US military involvement in the fight against ISIS call many of the pro-war claims into serious question. The counter-arguments include at least these.

We inflate ISIS by attacking it. ISIS is a regional force. We only make it global by fighting it. As with Al Qaeda before it, a military response by the United States falls directly into the ISIS play book. After 9/11, the United States had little choice but to pursue bin Laden - into Afghanistan at least, if definitely not into Iraq. But with ISIS, where is the immediate threat to US security that makes an all-out war necessary? There is none. As the former head of MI6 told a British audience in the summer of 2014, "the west was not the main target of the radical fundamentalism that created ISIS" since "the conflict was essentially one of Muslim on Muslim." Giving ISIS what he called "the oxygen of publicity" was bound to be counter-productive; and so it is proving. But how could it be otherwise, given what we now know about the self-sustaining nature of an open-ended "war on terrorism." When that war began, there were some 1500 acts of terror recorded throughout the world as a whole. In 2013 there were nearly 10,000. Sixty percent of those remained concentrated in just five countries - in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria - but did so now in a list that also includes New York, Washington, London, Madrid and Paris. As Christopher Ingraham reported, "After 13 years, 2 wars and trillions in military spending, terrorist attacks are rising sharply." So in such a context, it is worth asking the question. Do we make ourselves more secure by waging air-strikes on an enemy that has goaded us into war, or do we make ourselves less secure?

Going to war with ISIS gives terrorists too much influence over American foreign policy. And we were goaded into this war. ISIS knows that its status is improved in radical Islamic circles if it is attacked by the United States. At a critical moment we may come to regret, we let ISIS's exploitation of social media determine our foreign policy. The execution of American journalists undeniably required a military response: something commensurate to the act. It did not, of itself, require an open-ended commitment to full-scale war. Video of the murder of James Foley was released on August 19, and of Steven Sotloff on September 2nd. The decision to "degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIS in a military campaign that John Kerry conceded "may take a year. It may take two years. It may take three years" came just eight days later. That was way too quick. Joe Biden promised to pursue ISIS to the gates of hell; and when he said that, many of us were equally incensed. But that commitment to a new and prolonged war was made in the heat of a moment of deep national outrage; and once made, could not easily be pulled back. But just because such a commitment was made, it does not mean that it was automatically either right or wise; and in truth, it was neither. The gates of hell are, after all, an extremely long way away, and getting there is going to be extraordinarily costly in both human and financial terms.

Do we really want to endure a series of endless wars? We know about those costs because we have already visited the gates of hell twice since 9/11: first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. So to attack ISIS in the manner proposed by the President effectively opens up our third Middle Eastern war in less than two decades, and yet another huge military endeavor in what is increasingly proving to be a semi-permanent American condition - namely war itself. Just think of how many wars America has fought since 1945; and ask yourself just how many of those have we actually won? The President's request to Congress does set a three-year limit to the authorization to use military force on this occasion; but it still seeks that authorization, and it cannot by itself guarantee that, once given, the authorization will not also be regularly renewed. Indeed, it seems more likely than not that it will be renewed, because mission creep appears endemic to military engagements of this kind. Even the Afghan war - supposedly entirely over for US forces by 2014 - is now drawing US military personnel back in again. That war was not a success. Nor by any meaningful standards was the invasion of Iraq: so why should this new one be any different? We don't honor our own dead by increasing their number in more futile fighting. And we don't do our existing military personnel any favors by pretending that they could take on another Middle Eastern ground war on their own. If Lindsay Graham wants that ground war, he should be out there arguing for the return of the draft. The fact that he isn't tells us exactly what we know: that talk is cheap in Washington, in a country which ultimately has no stomach for unending military adventurism abroad.

This is not our fight alone, nor is it our fight to lead. The battle with ISIS is primarily a fight between Muslims anchored firmly in an Islamic world. It is in consequence "an ideological war," that, as Fareed Zakaria has properly argued, "America must watch, not fight." If ISIS is to be defeated, that defeat will have to come from other more moderate Arab forces based in the Middle East itself. The King of Jordan, among others, is very clear on that. "This is not a Western fight," he told Zakaria, 'this is a fight inside of Islam where everybody comes together against these outlaws." He wants "international support and involvement, but is wary of Western troops." And well he might be: for when western armies lead the fight, their very presence helps discredit the moderate local forces they are there to support, by allowing them to be presented by their local critics either as tools of American imperialism or as too weak to fight alone, or as both. ISIS knows that. That is presumably why they have worked so hard to provoke an American military response. The former US soldier Emile Simpson got it right in ways that Lindsay Graham so far has not. Drawing on his military experience in Afghanistan, he argued just two days after the Obama address that, "the lessons of the past decade suggest that a clearly bounded extension of US military action means taking responsibility at most for the initial phase, not the permanent defeat of ISIS in which the west should play only a supporting role." And even that role is better orchestrated through existing international institutions rather than through ad hoc coalitions of the willing. NATO is certainly available for that purpose even if the UN Security Council is not.

Right now we are locked in a series of contradictions: fighting a war of choice initiated by a president hitherto keen to reduce America's role in the world; supporting the Saudi's when their modes of punishment are as barbaric as those of ISIS; and condemning Iran when Iran is part of the fight against ISIS. The starkest example of that contradiction occurred on the very day that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared before the US Congress, implying the need for military action against Iran. Simultaneously, The Wall Street Journal - on its front page - reported the beginnings of an Iraqi army offensive against ISIS outside Tikrit. It reported assistance from an outside power, "throwing drones, heavy weaponry and ground forces into the battle." The outside power was not the United States. It was Iran. The grounds forces were Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The major external ally to the United States in the military again against ISIS - the Sunni radicals - is currently, Shiite Iran - the very country that Netanyahu would have us believe is our major enemy in the region! He might be comfortable solving that conundrum by telling members of Congress that "when it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy." But the sounder lesson to be drawn is surely the one we learned the hard way in Iraq after 2003: namely that the trick in Middle Eastern quagmires is not to thrash about or to charge forward. The trick is rather not to enter them in the first place; and if inadvertently already in, then to slowly and carefully step out.

We are being whipped into a new panic by an unholy alliance between ISIS and Fox News. Both are presenting events currently underway in Syria, Iraq and now Libya as moments in a Holy War, and as a replay of the Crusades. We need calmer counsel to prevail. Cleveland is not under attack. By endlessly criticizing the President for not labeling ISIS as "Islamic terrorists," the journalists at Fox News regularly slide over the extent to which ISIS's main barbarities are inflicted on other Muslims - Shias - and discount the regularly demonstrated condemnation of ISIS by leading Islamic institutions and figures. And when O'Reilly, Hannity and their kind quote Graeme Wood's Atlantic article with such enthusiasm, they do more that stoke the flames of a growing Islamophobia here in America. They also reinforce what is the greatest weakness in the Wood piece: the impression created there that the ISIS reading of the Qur'an is the only possible accurate one, and that Islam as a whole is "literalistic, backward-minded, and arcane" when in truth it is none of those things. The President is right. Terrible things have been done in the past in the name of all religions, including Christianity; and terrible things are being done now by ISIS to other Muslims, and not just to Christians, in the areas which ISIS controls. So there is literally nothing to be gained by blaming every adherent to a particular religion for the excesses of a terrorist few. The alliance between Bill O'Reilly and the ISIS leadership is indeed an unholy one. The war they mutually advocate is equally unholy; and we need to say so.


It is because the arguments for scaling back US military involvement in the fight against ISIS are so much more convincing than those for persisting in our present course - let alone more convincing than those for increasing our military involvement - that current political developments in and around Washington DC should concern us greatly.

The counter-arguments to war need to be aired - in as strong and regular a manner as possible - precisely because of the electoral and governmental consequences of staying silent. For we are into the next presidential election cycle, whether we like it or not; and the dynamic now emerging there is one that will - if not reversed - take the United states inexorably into yet more military adventurism in the Middle East. Why? Because each Republican presidential hopeful is currently outbidding the others in their hawkishness, with Lindsay Graham setting the pace; and we can expect Hillary Clinton - vulnerable as she is on Benghazi - to inevitably follow. And you only have to look at the list of foreign policy advisers surrounding the Republican front-runner - Jeb Bush - to see that the neo-cons are on the way back, and to realize that we face the possibility of history once as tragedy and twice as farce. Are we really happy to see Paul Wolfowitz and John Bolton back in positions of influence in Washington DC, after the mess they left behind the last time they were there? I sincerely hope that we are not.

Between now and the general election in 2016, we can expect leading Republican politicians to treat any manifestation of Presidential restraint by Barack Obama as further evidence of why ISIS is growing, rather than as a rational response to a complex problem that cannot be solved by American military means alone, let alone as a rational response to a complex problem that military means deployed too extensively can only make worse. We can also expect leading Democratic politicians to tack to that Republican wind, even though to do so will be both immediately electorally damaging and, over the longer period, internationally dangerous. We saw what happened to Democratic candidates when the whole party tried to distance itself on the President ahead of the mid-terms. We don't need that distancing again.

What we need instead is a growing and sustained voice - within and beyond the Democratic Party - pressing for a resetting of the structure and practice of the anti-ISIS coalition: shifting its leadership into the hands of Arab governments; putting local military forces at the heart of the fight; redirecting American efforts into denying ISIS access to global social media; and establishing sharp (and ever increasing) limits on both the direct and indirect involvement of US military personnel in the fighting on the ground.

First posted, with full academic citations, at

This posting follows others of relevance here

The full argument is in David Coates, America in the Shadow of Empires. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

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