Happy Armchair Warriors The recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, have thrown the debate about ISIS into overdrive, particularly among the presidential candidates. Several strands have emerged from these discussions, but I think that their taxonomy is not often clearly laid out. I would therefore like to try to do this. IS military parade in Mosul Photo credit: Raqqa Media Center / AP I think that there are three inter-related strands to the discussion, which I summarize below: Military action against ISIS in Syria and Iraq Protecting the border (including the related issue of profiling) Data privacy Today, I would like to discuss the case for military action against ISIS. The argument here is that, in order for the world to defend itself against terrorism, ISIS must be defeated in its homeland. ISIS must be denied territory. This position is supported by, among the major Republican candidates, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie. Less clear are the positions of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, who are both reluctant to engage in further foreign interventions, but who also make belligerent noises about ISIS. The only candidate who is consistently and unambiguously against military escalation is Rand Paul.
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Happy Armchair Warriors
The recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, have thrown the debate about ISIS into overdrive, particularly among the presidential candidates. Several strands have emerged from these discussions, but I think that their taxonomy is not often clearly laid out. I would therefore like to try to do this.
IS military parade in Mosul
Photo credit: Raqqa Media Center / AP
I think that there are three inter-related strands to the discussion, which I summarize below:
- Military action against ISIS in Syria and Iraq
- Protecting the border (including the related issue of profiling)
- Data privacy
Today, I would like to discuss the case for military action against ISIS.
The argument here is that, in order for the world to defend itself against terrorism, ISIS must be defeated in its homeland. ISIS must be denied territory. This position is supported by, among the major Republican candidates, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie.
Less clear are the positions of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, who are both reluctant to engage in further foreign interventions, but who also make belligerent noises about ISIS. The only candidate who is consistently and unambiguously against military escalation is Rand Paul.
The undercard of the Republican debates, however, features the most aggressive proponent of escalation, Senator Lindsey Graham. Graham is the only candidate in either party proposing “boots on the ground.” He has recently reiterated this stand in an editorial in The Wall Street Journal entitled “How to Defeat ISIS Now – Not ‘Ultimately.’”
Photo credit: Getty Images
He wrote the article with his Senate colleague, and fellow happy warrior, John McCain. Since they are such vocal advocates of escalation, let’s use their article as the standard bearer for the position. As the title implies, Senators McCain and Graham presume that defeating ISIS should be a goal of American foreign policy, a goal that they clearly link to the fight against terrorism:
In his address on national television Sunday night, President Obama insisted that he has a strategy to destroy…ISIS. But what Americans see instead is an incremental, reactionary, indirect approach that assumes that time is on our side. It is not. The danger is growing nearer: from attacks in Paris and Beirut, to the bombing of a Russian airliner, to the Islamic State-inspired shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.
The Senators implicitly claim that only by defeating ISIS in its heartland can we protect ourselves in San Bernardino. They apparently don’t feel that this linkage requires justification, just treating it as a self-evident truth. But it is far from obvious that ISIS’ control of territory materially increases its willingness and ability to commit the type of attacks that we have recently seen in Paris and San Bernardino.
Territory controlled by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq as of late 2015 – click to enlarge.
I have seen three arguments put forth by the proponents of attacks on ISIS:
- ISIS’ prestige is enormously enhanced by its occupation of territory and its declaration of a caliphate. Among other things, it is a demonstration to the devout that God is on their side. This is an essential recruiting tool for the movement.
- ISIS uses its controlled territory to plot assaults – “Apocalyptic terrorists cannot be allowed to have sanctuary in ungoverned spaces, from which to plan attacks against the West,” to use the wording of the Senators – and train attackers.
- ISIS uses the financial resources arising from its territory – taxes and natural resources, such as oil – to further its terrorist activities.
These are the arguments for why ISIS must be defeated militarily in order to weaken its ability to commit acts of terror. But there is a forth element required to make the argument complete, as even the Senators admit. The fourth element is that ISIS must be replaced with stable regimes that can and will permanently repress the group or any of its successors.
Let’s examine each of these four elements in turn.
To my mind, the validity of the first step comes down to the following question: Which is the more effective recruiting tool for ISIS, (a) the prestige of declaring and holding a caliphate or (b) the ability to point to bombs falling on Muslim brothers? Although I cannot, fortunately, put myself in the mind of an Islamic terrorist, I don’t think that there is any doubt that (b) wins.
It is obvious that the terrorist attacks are “blowback” against military action against ISIS. This is clearly seen in the bombing of the Russian plane, which was only targeted after Russia commenced military action in Syria. The terrorists in Paris were reported to have shouted references to Syria and Iraq during their spree.
Syria lies in ruins – nearly every bomb dropped in the region drives more recruits into the arms of extremist groups like IS
Photo credit: Khaled Tellawi / Shaam News Network
A recent terrorist knifing in London also involved the attacker shouting references to Syria. I think that only the deliberately obtuse could deny that blowback anger makes a better recruiting poster than territorial occupation.
I am equally unconvinced of the validity of the second element. The San Bernardino terrorists, for example, were “inspired” by ISIS, but never trained nor plotted from this area. Certain of the Paris terrorists had trained or fought in Syria, but I can’t see that this was essential to the attacks they committed.
The reality is that these are low-tech assaults upon soft targets. The idea that the attackers require an ungoverned sanctuary to carry out their plotting or training is nonsense. Almost any suburban living room would serve.
San Bernardino attackers Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik – quite possibly inspired by ISIS, but they certainly didn’t need the self-anointed Caliphate to commit the attack. Islamist fundamentalist ideology cannot be eradicated militarily.
Photo credit: Reuters
The third argument – the financial one – is probably the strongest, but even this one fails to compel. I repeat, these attacks are low tech assaults upon soft targets which do not require a great deal of financial support. The San Bernardino attackers, for example, were able to fund themselves, with a little help from an online “P2P” lender .
The attacks in France were more expensive, but even they would not have required anywhere near the financial resources of an ISIS. Although ISIS requires state-like revenues to support its military actions, this is not true of its terrorism.
The Failure of Nation-Building
But it is with the last element that the proponents of military action against ISIS really fail to make their case. Our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq – both places where we defeated our enemies militarily, as the proponents of military action against ISIS somehow forget – shows that we cannot win the war against ISIS unless we can also win the peace.
Otherwise, our enemies will simply melt away, waiting for the inevitable slackening of our resolve to re-emerge, just as the Taliban have done in Afghanistan and just as the Sunni supporters of Saddam Hussein did in Iraq (before becoming, among other things, ISIS).
Senators McCain and Graham acknowledge this in their article, which contains quotes such as:
Iraqis must win the peace, but Americans have a major stake in their success, and a unique role to play in helping them. The only way to do so is to be present.
At the same time, Islamic State’s ability to spread is directly related to the collapse of political order. Unless America does more to help these countries make the transition to just and inclusive governments, Islamic State will find havens to pursue its evil ends.
So the U.S. should lead an effort to assemble a multinational force…[to] destroy Islamic State in Syria. Such a force could also help to keep the peace in a post-Assad Syria, as was done in Bosnia and Kosovo. Here, too, if the West wins the war and leaves, it should not be surprised if violence and extremism return.
In other words, what the happy warriors have to offer is the same old “nation building” mantra that the neoconservatives have been chanting forever, combined with an apparent willingness to garrison these regions in perpetuity.
And right on cue they have defaulted to Bosnia and Kosovo as the lone alleged success story for this strategy, which is in fact no success at all and where we have recently been treated to Kosovan parliamentary debates featuring tear gas attacks from the opposition, as proof of the vibrant democracy we have fostered.
Parliamentary debate, Kosovo-style: tear-gassed by the opposition.
Photo credit: AFP
But probably the most amazing thing about the article is the total lack of proportionality. Although tragic, the 14 deaths and 22 injuries in San Bernardino would have been, in the Detroit of my youth, about an average tally for a hot summer weekend. Yet in response to this, Senators McCain and Graham want us to embark on a Pax Americana which has been shown to work exactly nowhere.
Looking at this, it is hard to resist the notion that they are spoiling for a fight and since they can’t claim that ISIS is developing weapons of mass destruction, San Bernardino will have to do.
Although Senators McCain and Graham would lead us into a massive overreaction, this should not be interpreted as an endorsement of the current policy of the Obama administration (and, by extension, the proposed policy of Hillary Clinton, which is basically the same with a “no-fly zone” added to show that she is more butch than her former boss).
Obama’s policy uses enough military action to expose us to “blowback” attacks and keep the ISIS recruiters busy, yet is insufficient to actually achieve military victory. From the standpoint of the America’s interests, this is not as barmy as the proposals from the happy warriors, but it isn’t much better.
It should be noted that American politicians are not the only ones pursuing this dubious logic. Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the UK’s David Cameron have also decided that the best way to fight terrorism is to put their countries in harm’s way for more of it.
Even Francois Hollande, on behalf of a country not known for its martial appetite, has joined in. It is hard to see this as anything but the deplorable universal tendency for politicians to need to do something, no matter how misguided.
The UK government’s reaction to the Paris Attacks
Cartoon by Steve Bell
Conclusion – We Have no Dog in this Fight
I continue to believe, as I stated way back in September 2013, that we don’t have a dog in this fight. San Bernardino doesn’t change the calculation. ISIS will eventually collapse under its own homicidal and parasitical weight, probably with the help of one or more of its neighbors, whose inactivity and divisiveness we currently underwrite.
Then ISIS will be replaced by something better…or worse…it is impossible to know in this region. In the interim, we and our European friends should focus our efforts on isolating ourselves from the madness. And we certainly should not go out of our way to draw further fire.
Map by Discover History
Image captions by PT