Fighting an Enemy We Don’t Understand

When I talk about our goal of writing about things that other people are discussing, but are discussing in the wrong way, one of the subjects that jumps to mind is ISIS. This article on Politico is a step in the right direction, looking at our ISIS response from an Israeli point of view.

Essentially, we act as though ISIS burst onto the scene in 2014 out of nowhere and we discuss them as if they’re Al Qaeda. This is partly because of the bizarre partisan influenced discourse we have. First, Republicans had no interest in acknowledging more bad effects of the Iraq War, which anyone who has even a hint of honesty and intelligence about them needs to acknowledge was an unmitigated disaster. The rise of ISIS is closely related to one of the most ludicrous bits of Republican spin-doctoring: the Flypaper Theory. For those of you who weren’t paying attention to the drivel being put forward then, or need a refreshed, the Flypaper Theory was a post-hoc justification for the Iraq War, presented as a grand strategy, that turning Iraq into a cauldron of jihad we would attract all the terrorists there and could fight them on Iraqi soil instead of here in America.

Yes, this was a thing people actually claimed with a straight face. In addition to not actually being a strategy, and being morally despicable even if it was, and completely misunderstanding terrorism, it was also one of the worst features of the Iraq War. In the “it’s a feature, not a bug” pantheon of excuses, this was the Samsung Galaxy Note 7. It was one Vladimir Putin bought into, allowing Muslim extremists to leave Russia and become foreign fighters on the erroneous thought that it would be better to have them in Syria and Iraq than in Russia. Of course, when they returned to Russia… well, that’s another story. But to wrap this part of it up, the Flypaper Theory was a disaster and Republicans did a very good job of not speaking about ISIS until they felt they could pin it on Barack Obama.

Likewise, Democrats didn’t want to speak about ISIS because of the need to keep up the belief that EVERYTHING IS FINE under the Obama Presidency. This is part of the same odd feeling that leads many Democrats to legitimately think Obama is one of the all time great Presidents. I’m on record as being a fan of the former President, but in many ways the world became a more dangerous place under his stewardship. Whether it’s his fault or not is debatable, but Democrats chose to avoid that debate by pretending everything was great. Thus, no discussion of the growing power of jihadis.

So that’s why we avoided discussing them before they seized a large amount of land. The problem is then we had no way of discussing it other than treating them like they’re Al Qaeda. They are not Al Qaeda. Whereas AQ mostly focused on large, statement making attacks, ISIS is about bodies, and carnage. Whether or not that’s effective is a much more complex issue, and certainly depends on a discussion of goals (obviously, it’s caused a lot of innocent people to be killed).

As one of the most illuminating parts of the Politico article points out, this is, unsurprisingly, not working:

In the view of the Israeli military and intelligence units I visited over several days in late April, the U.S. strategy in Iraq and Syria may be making the situation only worse. We’re radicalizing the local population and spreading the hardest-core militants to sow havoc in neighboring Lebanon—which the officers I spoke with fear may already be on the verge on collapse—and Jordan. Still others are escaping the onslaught to Europe and possibly America.

We’re trapped into picking either/or options, where we either treat it as a military issue or as a law-enforcement issue. The problem is that it’s mostly both. There’s no choice between hard or soft power, we need to use both. We don’t want to treat them as a state, but treating them only as a terrorist organization isn’t effective. And, of course, so much of this gets caught into the same dichotomous, partisan conversation we feel the need to make every issue.  The perils of this are pointed out. First, the Republicans:

Trump promised to “bomb the shit out of ISIS.” But the American-led military campaign against the group—like the brutal attacks committed by Assad’s forces and its Russian military allies—may simply be radicalizing a new generation of terrorists bent on attacking Western countries.

As part of the sad decline of the Republican Party into a group with absolutely zero credibility on foreign policy or national security, the answer to everything is bombing.  If you think there’s another answer, you’re “soft.” Unfortunately, the Democrats are not much better. As part of their obsessive need to boil everything down to identity politics, any attempt to discuss Islamic terrorism must be embroiled in needs to sniff out and avoid “Islamophobia.” This leads to pretending that there’s, like, 20 terrorists in the world and every other Muslim on Earth just wants to practice a religion of peace and love.

“Take Mosul, for example. Mosul is a million-citizen city and the largest estimate said [there were] 8,000 militants. You can’t control a million-people city with 8,000 people if you don’t have some support within the population.”

Well, it may be difficult to figure out how to deal with a group called Islamic State if we’re mainly focused on combating Islamophobia. It’s important we don’t return to the immediate post-9/11 days where looking even vaguely Middle Eastern was dangerous. But at the same time we need to make it acceptable for people to discuss Islamic terrorism without treating them like hate mongers.

What’s the solution? I don’t know. The article discusses some ideas, including a modern day version of containment, which, much like the original containment, certainly includes some tricky moral issues. But it’s a necessary discussion. When we fought Communism we were able to debate things such as rollback vs. containment. We’re not even close to having actual, serious debates on ISIS. Because we’re still talking about it all wrong.


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