To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Monday, September 15, 2014

ISIS’s Decapitations Shouldn’t Make Us Lose Our Own Heads About Going To War Again In The Middle East

Times editors were too classy to work a decapitation reference into the headline it gave Tom Friedman’s column on Sunday, but that’s what anyone concerned about war fever raging in Washington right now could have used.  “Don’t just do something, sit there!” is one of those insipid 12 steps “slogans;" in the case of US military action v ISIS it’s wise counsel. 

Noting that Obama was "drummed into" pledging military action "by the sudden shift in public opinion after ISIS ghastly videotaped beheadings of two American journalists," Friedman says that whatever course of action Obama pursues, that plan can only end well “if we are extremely disciplined and tough-minded about how, when and for whom we use our power.” The ISIS challenge makes Iraq---the gnarly reality we met in that country only after we got there, not the neocon delusion that took us so naively into it--- look simple, with every variable in the equation raised to an exponential level of complexity.

Our staying power is ambiguous, our enemy is barbarous, our regional allies are duplicitous, our European allies are feckless and the Iraqis and Syrians we’re trying to help are fractious. There is not a straight shooter in the bunch.

Prudence and caution are certainly much merited. “Before we step up the bombing campaign on ISIS, it needs to be absolutely clear on whose behalf we are fighting,” Friedman advises, explaining that

ISIS did not emerge by accident and from nowhere. It is the hate-child of two civil wars in which the Sunni Muslims have been crushed. One is the vicious civil war in Syria in which the Iranian-backed Alawite-Shiite regime has killed roughly 200,000 people, many of them Sunni Muslims, with chemical weapons and barrel bombs. And the other is the Iraqi civil war in which the Iranian-backed Shiite government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki systematically stripped the Sunnis of Iraq of their power and resources.

Never forget, this is a two-front war: ISIS is the external enemy, and sectarianism and corruption in Iraq and Syria are the internal enemies. We can and should help degrade the first, but only if Iraqis and Syrians, Sunnis and Shiites, truly curtail the second. If our stepped-up bombing, in Iraq and Syria, gets ahead of their reconciliation, we will become the story and the target. And that is exactly what ISIS is waiting for.
This seems like sound analysis, informed by an understanding of ethnic and sectarian dynamics and by America’s sorry historical experience in making them part of our calculus.  But as much as the diagnosis seems strong, the prescription is a bit too soft focus, too “cultural,” a bit too enamoured of social media in the way that someone of a certain age trying to be “cutting edge” can often sound.
ISIS loses if our moderate Arab-Muslim partners can unite and make this a civil war within Islam — a civil war in which America is the air force for the Sunnis and Shiites of decency versus those of barbarism. ISIS wins if it can make this America’s war with Sunni Islam — a war where America is the Shiite/Alawite air force against Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. ISIS will use every bit of its Twitter/Facebook network to try to depict it as the latter, and draw more recruits.
We keep making this story about us, about Obama, about what we do. But it is not about us. It is about them and who they want to be. It’s about a pluralistic region that lacks pluralism and needs to learn how to coexist. It’s the 21st century. It’s about time.

However accurate and incisive we are in assessing what we’re getting into at the front end, the ISIS situation is the living definition of a “hot mess.” It’s protean, molten, shape-shifting, whatever word you want to use. And the conditions it is exploiting---failed states, sectarian rivalries, demographic crises --- represent a perfect storm. As this intervention progresses, the trick will be to constantly reexamine where we are and where the situation is at any given moment, and to avoid false narratives and analytic equations that fail to capture the complexity and power of a phenomenon that seems less a function of earthly politics and culture than something supernatural. 

It's hard not to hear echoes of Yeats’ Second Coming: The vast and troubling “image out of Spiritus Mundi” emerging from “a waste of desert sand... A shape with lion body and the head of a man, a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun"… a “rough beast, its hour come round at last,” 
slouching “towards Bethlehem to be born”

And Baghdad. And Aleppo. And Damascus. And Beirut. And Jerusalem. To say nothing about New York and Washington.

ISIS surely epitomizes the worst “filled with a passionate intensity.” It makes Al Shabaab, Al Qaeda, even the murderous 1979 "Guillotine Edition" of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, look mild. And even if the best do find the conviction needed to take the movement on, addressing every rip, snarl and surge of ISIS's “blood dimmed tide” will require an analytic clarity that has eluded us so far. Moving fast on our end could, as some argue, nip ISIS in the bud, whatever that bud might be given its fluid nature. But a fast strike, absent focused and targeted follow up, could also spin ISIS in a direction that might make it even more difficult to destroy downstream, if in fact that is even possible. The smart people on this, like Michael Tomasky, are advising us to be grown ups, accept a harsh truth, and settle for containment. 

Better to sit on our hands for a little while longer then before thrusting them into the “widening gyre.” No matter how furious and inflamed ISIS's beheadings may have made the American electorate, going in without a precise and coodinated plan A, and the flexibility that can help us shift to Plan B, Plan C and even Plan D if we need to, is the wrong way to start this next round. In the case of ISIS, timing isn't everything. The crucial factor here is sequencing---choreographing coordinated and complicated moves on multiple fronts. And getting that right will take considerable time to plan.


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