As though refusing to admit that President Bush could have out-done him when it comes to the waging of a series of terroristic wars abroad in the service of phantom “national security” goals, President Obama has launched his version of a war in Iraq—and Syria. To be sure, the Islamic State, the target of the U.S. military, is a brutal and destabilizing force in the Middle East, and the horrified global reaction to its onslaught on existing states and particularly minorities within those states speaks in part to the fact that we don’t have good models for how to contend with non-state actors behaving in this dangerous fashion.
But if we are in search of a rational response to ISIS that is likely to prove productive, I think that we can rest assured that the President’s bombing campaign and arming of Syrian “rebels” is probably going to be inadequate.
Middle Eastern leaders cut from a variety of cloths seem comparatively unified in their fear of ISIS at the moment—although some of that fear might be posturing, in the knowledge that it distracts from their own butchery, as in the case of Assad, in Syria, or the Israeli government—and we can hope that many of their citizens and subjects feel similar loathing.
But the fact remains that U.S. bombing campaigns, never quite as clean and precise as our rogue security services would have us believe, have a way of serving the cause of their targets in the long term even if their violence might cause momentary dismay. An attack by outsiders—particularly when those outsiders have a history of launching brutal wars of aggression—has a way of rallying disparate elements of any society.
And an attack by Obama’s patchwork coalition lacks the imprimatur associated with a proper police or military action undertaken with more global consensus under the aegis of the United Nations. That such a consensus is so difficult to secure is in itself, of course, a testament to the devotion with which the U.S, the USSR, China, Britain, and France work to sabotage the legitimacy and logistical capabilities of the United Nations, by way of reserving power to themselves.
But let’s think about this coalition that the President has assembled. It includes Britain, the former colonial power in Iraq, and our key ally in our bloody imperial misadventures. Several other European countries are involved, and Australia and Canada are preparing to participate.
But the Obama administration has been particularly concerned to trumpet the participation of allies variously described as “Arab” or “Muslim” by way of showing that we’re all in it together to defeat ISIS. These include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.
Call me a cynic, but to me this coalition represents part of the problem. These are not nice governments. They are not democracies. They are not states that rule with the consent or participation of their people. On the contrary, they are regimes that have worked hard to undermine the Arab Spring and other manifestations of democratic feeling in the Middle East. Their rule, and our complicity in it, helped to spawn Al Qaeda and its ilk, the actions of which are given legitimacy by their excoriations of the machinations of these monarchies.
It is no coincidence that Al Qaeda and ISIS alike emphasise their charity and concern for the people of the regimes they attack. This is designed to position them, however wrongly in most eyes, as a counter to the irresponsible, bloated, monarchic police states against which they contend.
The military forces of these despots might be of use in the short term when it comes to halting ISIS. But my fear is that in the long term what looks too much like an imperial war involving all the wrong actors will serve to buoy, if not ISIS, then whatever nihilistic, fundamentalist movement inevitably replaces it when the political, social, and economic grievances of people in the region go unanswered by the “authorities”.
To be sure, there are no easy answers to this conundrum. But it’s striking how little debate has occurred about the proper course of action in the United States. It was left to the comedians to ask some serious questions: John Oliver poignantly questioned the rationale behind using drones, and Jon Stewart skewered the lack of debate in the United States over military action, and the outlandish claims of Republicans that ISIS will “kill us all”.
As a nation we clearly have a problem of perspective and imagination when our reaction to any threat is to launch the drones and bombs. The actions of ISIS might be reprehensible, but their existence demands explanation and suggests that there are factors behind their emergence that will not be answered by any number of missiles launched by the U.S. and its authoritarian allies. And there are people living in countries who have been attacked by the United States who will wonder why ISIS’ rampage falls into one category, when the extrajudicial killings of the Obama administration, or the murderous war of “Shock and Awe” waged by the Bush administration fall into another.
Our response to this latest threat to peace in our world should cause us to take a long, hard look at our “friends”, and also at our own significant role in the violence and destabilization that spawned ISIS.