I just spent a moment re-reading the president’s speech on ISIS from a month ago. It’s well-constructed, although ultimately substanceless in terms of making the case to do this (guess having public opinion behind you for the moment obviates that task) and it’s worth noting that this is really the only argument he gives for involvement:
In a region that has known so much bloodshed, these terrorists are unique in their brutality [emphasis mine]. They execute captured prisoners. They kill children. They enslave, rape, and force women into marriage. They threatened a religious minority with genocide. In acts of barbarism, they took the lives of two American journalists — Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff.
So ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East — including American citizens, personnel and facilities. If left 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, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies. Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners — including Europeans and some Americans — have joined them in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.
I may have missed something, but does this argument actually wash? Is ISIS really that unique? The Taliban actually did commit genocide against a racial minority, after all, not just a threat. al-Qaeda has killed journalists–Daniel Pearl comes immediately to mind–not to mention 3,000 people in New York. Admittedly, we did actually wage war against those two specific groups, but they actually did kill off a lot of Americans before we did it. The rest are, unfortunately, not uncommon at all. So I have to wonder, is this really the logic of fighting a multi-year war sans Congressional approval? In essence, simply being bad people is now a sufficient cause for war, and an ill-defined, long-term war at that. A direct action to strike back at the people responsible would be merited. But destroying the entirety of ISIS? There is simply no logic here.
Now, I had no illusions that Obama would be a dove. I did not suspect that he’d be so willing to use force as often as he has, though the makeup of his staff and his long-time goal of cultivating “centrist” opinionmakers in Washington who happen to be reliable hawks were reliable indicators. Still, it’s still sort of shocking to me that this war seems to be based entirely on horror and disgust, which, while entirely understandable and merited, do not reliably tend to produce good foreign policy. Obama’s argument here makes no real logical sense, and the second part essentially concedes that it’s not necessary for national security, which means that there’s really no argument here whatever, so it has to be read as an indication of his emotional state. He simply hates these guys, which again, is the right response. But launching a war based on emotional reactions is eerily reminiscent of Bush, and a strategy of airstrikes and guiding allies to fight the bad guys is so similar to Vietnam so as to make no difference, only it’s even less likely to work without ground troops. Obama knows he loses the base if combat troops set foot in Iraq, but he went forward anyway. This has to be interpreted as, again, an emotional decision, not a logical one. Larison is right that simply calling the whole thing off would make the most sense, but given that the ISIS war isn’t about anything other than reaction, political ass-covering and emotion, I tend to doubt it.
Remember when everyone talked about how Obama was so cool-headed, strategic and logical? It’s been a while since I heard it too. Probably around the time his foreign policy approvals were in the positive zone.
The “War on ISIS” has not managed to turn around Obama’s problems with the public (h/t Political Wire):
As Mr. Obama broadens the military offensive against Islamic extremists, the survey finds broad support for United States airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, but it also demonstrates how torn Americans are about wading back into battle in the Middle East. A majority is opposed to committing ground forces there, amid sweeping concern that increased American participation will lead to a long and costly mission.
With midterm elections approaching, Americans’ fears about a terrorist attack on United States soil are on the rise, and the public is questioning Mr. Obama’s strategy for combating the militant organization calling itself the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Most respondents say the president has no clear plan for confronting the group, and that he has not been tough enough in dealing with it.
Yes, the airstrikes are popular, at least for the moment. But the reason they are–the ISIS beheadings of journalists–were themselves a reaction to Obama’s initial decision to widen his initial “protect the Yazidis” bombing to strike directly at ISIS. Given the mumbly/incoherent PR work from the Admin. immediately after those murders, it really does seem as though they expected no response, as though it would always turn out like Libya did, with no reprisals or meaningful resistance, and they were not prepared. And these new bombs will undoubtedly produce even more similar responses, followed by more bombs. Khadaffy was a little occupied to send America a message, but ISIS has no such problems. This is going to create a vicious cycle for sure, and whatever else happens Obama will only take shit from it. Democrats, for reasons of partisanship as well as personality, will pretend this is not happening, as they have whenever Obama’s done one of these, so any successes against ISIS will not be amplified. They will probably not turn violently against Obama unless ground troops are actually deployed–one reason I believe he does truly want to avoid them, though post-2011 he’s often found himself “forced” into hawkish action by his own bureaucracy–but the right-wing faction will amplify any failures and at best mumble congratulations over successes, meaning there’s only political downside in this for Obama. Once again, the absolute dumbest thing a Democratic president can do is to escalate a conflict in the Middle East, the politics line up firmly against it. Best I can figure is that Obama and his top staffers are desperate to avoid something like Rwanda happening again, which is understandable, though the notion that freedom bombs could have played any positive role there is mistaken.
I can’t say I predicted this exact thing once the freedom bombs started dropping. But I knew as soon as I read about this particular war that it would not solve anything for Obama, and indeed it has not. He stupidly got himself into this by listening to the Clinton JV team he has advising him, and it’s the predictable escalation that these things often are. Unfortunately, while this seems to me like a clear-cut argument to avoid “humanitarian” intervention, future Democratic pols will probably only take from this the need to be more hawkish. It’s goddamn depressing.
So once again it’s freedom bombs and training “vetted” insurgents for us. I would make a joke about how foreign policy elites have no new ideas but this is so pret-a-porter that it’s hardly necessary.
So I’ll just ask these questions:
- Does anyone think this actually “fixes” Iraq?
- Does anyone actually think ISIS actually has any sort of staying power? The Nazis could never have ruled a multinational empire with their ideology for any length of time, but they posed a real threat to the West. ISIS does not.
- If not 1 and 2, what’s really at stake here? More “missionaries with machine guns” type shit, or is it just about oil? Both? It’s likely Obama sees this in legacy terms but to my mind he’s effectively blown his by getting back into the vicious cycle.
It’s eerie to see it laid out like this:
It’s been a year since he’s even broke even. And it’s clear that our year of intractable foreign crises can’t fully be blamed: this slide began last year. The key drop happened about a year ago, which was the time of the Syria debate. Then a little bounce back after that happened, followed by an even steeper drop.
What’s interesting is that this is entirely a second-term phenomenon, if you check the link you see that Obama’s approval ratings have been lame forever, but his actively terrible foreign policy ratings are rather new. It’s not even a matter of hawkishness per se, as the first term included the Libyan operation. I’ve been thinking recently about what’s different between the two terms of Obama, and probably the most interesting one is that Libya was sold self-consciously as an international, burden-sharing operation, while both Syria and the new Iraq thingy have been sold as American first and last. This is easy enough to explain away as the increased influence of Samantha Power, Obama’s UN Ambassador who hates the UN and loves unilateral action. (Just read her books.) The Libya bombing was a bad idea with bad results, but Americans were at least marginally willing to go along because of the work the Administration did to get allies on board. Obama’s second term has had the strong implication that America has to handle every world crisis alone, which is just about the worst argument you can make to the public at this time. They just won’t hear it, and I think this is where you see Power’s influence quite strongly. She’s a genocide scholar who unsurprisingly wants to stop what she sees as imminent genocides, immediately. On a side note, my wife (who is a genocide scholar as well) tells me that these are the last people in the world that you’d want setting foreign policy, almost universally they tend to be extremely hawkish and despise realism and practicality. We can in addition say they tend to ignore the political dimension as well.
You also begin to see just how much ground liberal hawks have had to give up between the disastrous outcomes of past adventures they support and the political realities they’ve helped to create. Obama seems to have absorbed the public’s severe distaste for ground troops or nation building and I believe him when he says there will be no troops. However, at some point liberal hawks will have to just confess that Iraq destroyed their worldview, since at present it can only offer bombs to any kind of crisis they want to go to work on. The question of “What comes next?” can no longer be answered. Compare this with the misguided but at least robust worldview of the Clinton-Blair days, where that question was UN Peacekeepers, basically. Didn’t work so well, but it was something, unlike the utterly intellectually unsatisfying liberal hawk worldview of today, where contradictions have been heightened to such an extent that all that remains is sanctimony and contempt for the limitations of power. Can’t wait for Hillary ’16!
Check out this must-read post by a State Department worker who’s written a scathing book about our reconstruction boondoggle in Iraq — and is now being persecuted by the same State Department who claims to fight for the rights of bloggers (in far-away lands, natch) to report on the evils of their own regimes:
On the same day that more than 250,000 unredacted State Department cables hemorrhaged out onto the Internet, I was interrogated for the first time in my 23-year State Department career by State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) and told I was under investigation for allegedly disclosing classified information. The evidence of my crime? A posting on my blog from the previous month that included a link to a WikiLeaks document already available elsewhere on the Web.
As we sat in a small, gray, windowless room, resplendent with a two-way mirror, multiple ceiling-mounted cameras, and iron rungs on the table to which handcuffs could be attached, the two DS agents stated that the inclusion of that link amounted to disclosing classified material. In other words, a link to a document posted by who-knows-who on a public website available at this moment to anyone in the world was the legal equivalent of me stealing a Top Secret report, hiding it under my coat, and passing it to a Chinese spy in a dark alley.
These are not people steeped in, or particularly appreciative of, the finer points of irony. Still, would anyone claim that there isn’t irony in the way the State Department regularly crusades for the rights of bloggers abroad in the face of all kinds of government oppression, crediting their voices for the Arab Spring, while going after one of its own bloggers at home for saying nothing that wasn’t truthful?
I’m nearly done with the book on neoconservatism that I previously described here and here. It’s going quickly now because I’m in the foreign policy section, and as a person who became politically engaged around 2003, much less of it is new to me. But there was a good little bit on why the neocons settled on Iraq rather than Iran as a test case for their theories: roughly, it was because everyone hated Saddam and the neocons figured people would get less bent out of shape if he were the target. All the other “national security” explanations, like the terror links and WMD, all applied as much or more to Iran. It was a purely pragmatic choice to push for conflict with Iraq instead, though one suspects it was merely a choice of ordering to these guys.
It occurred to me at this point that maybe part of why Iran wasn’t chosen to go first was because there are ideological complications. The neocons are obsessed with form over substance: they favor democracy in the sense of elections, not in the sense of liberal institutions like free speech, separation of powers, and so on. They favor religiosity but they don’t care what the religion is, just so long as it is peaceful (i.e. not anti-American) and complements the all-important civic religion. They favor finding “the center” of all public policy debates and sticking to it, which in effect means their politics are contentless. (Think about all the violent shifts in David Brooks’s politics since, say, 2005 as an example of this tendency.) It’s the neocon trademark, the closest thing they have to a universal principle, that there are no principles, just “principles” that are for the benefit of the filthy proles who need their religion to feel important, their democracy to feel in control, and their capitalism to feel like they can succeed. When you look at it that way, it’s clear what their gripes are with Saddam, a secular, quasisocialist autocrat. But Iran looks like a dark reflection of the society they want to build, one that satisfies their biggest premises while being fundamentally unacceptable in its final form. It sits there, quietly mocking their theories, day after day. It’s no wonder it drives them completely insane. Another way of saying all this is that it’s a refutation of their theories about political philosophy and human nature. Really, their only gripe with Iran can be its orientation toward America and Israel. They have no other basis for complaining about anything else. If we were living in a parallel universe where Iran was exactly the same in every way except that it accepted Israel’s right to exist and was nicer to America, not only would the neocons not consider Iran threat numero uno, but it would undoubtedly be held up as a model for the region, despite the oppression, thuggery and theocracy. After all, that stuff flies in Iraq and the neocons universally consider that a success story.
(P.S. The image is allegedly a political cartoon about Iran–supposedly what the Uncle Sam character is thinking in the speech bubble–caught my eye as strange and funny, but one which merely proves that political cartoons are inane in any language. We all know that George W. Bush would beat a drum and yell the name of a country he wanted to attack. The pertinent NSC meeting minutes will bear this out I’m sure, once they’re declassified around 2102 or so.)
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