ISIS has become the scare du jour of world politics. While ISIS is a profoundly disturbing phenomenon for which the world should develop some sort of response, the problem is that the Islamist movement has become a useful foil for many varied political interests from Israel to the U.S. Islamophobes among the Euro-nationalist far-right and the U.S. Tea Party have latched onto ISIS as their political gravy train. Bibi Netanyahu, ever alert to memes he can exploit to promote Israel’s interests, made the memorable, and profoundly mendacious statement: “Hamas is ISIS and ISIS is Hamas.” Senator Bill Nelson, who has a huge elderly Jewish constituency and is allied closely with the Israel Lobby, said this today:
“Any group that sets them [sic] up as a religious caliphate and says that they will not stop until the black flag of ISIS is flying over the White House — I take that pretty seriously,” he said.
No ISIS leader has ever made such a statement. But Nelson appears to be watching FoxNews, because it claimed ISIS said so. The fact that a major national political leader would air such nonsense is disturbing. There is enough to hate about ISIS without making things up out of whole cloth.
Then we have the tried and true Wall Street Journal, always good for a bit of Islamophobic hysteria. This is the headline for Ryan Crocker’s op-ed: Islamic State Is Getting Stronger, and It’s Targeting America. The neo-cons are on the warpath demanding that we “eviscerate” ISIS, that we engage in some sort of a counter-jihad. Which is just what both the world and America need, yet another war against Islam in the Mideast.
Similarly, Israeli media have reported that a freed French journalist held hostage by ISIS identified the Belgian museum attacker as an adherent of ISIS. While the journalist, who worked for the right-wing French daily Le Point, did say Mehdi Nemmouche tortured and abused him and others while he was held in custody, he never made any statement about the alleged terrorist’s affiliations. So when Nemmouche left Syria was he affiliated with ISIS? Why did he leave? Had he broken with ISIS? Had ISIS broken with him? And if so, why?
The implication of this Israeli reporting was that the attack which killed two Israeli intelligence agents may’ve been the work of ISIS. In fact, no one knows whether Nemmouche was acting on his own or on behalf of another Islamist group. Any speculation to the contrary is just that.
Open Democracy has published an incisive piece raising uncomfortable similarities between ISIS and Israel’s religion-derived claims of authority and sovereignty. And thank God for this still small sane voice in Congress:
“It’s fear-mongering. It’s what happened after 9/11. ‘Oh my god, they’ve got these planes crashing. Now they’re going to take over America.’ That’s nonsense,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the only lawmaker who unequivocally dismissed the idea that Islamic State militants pose a direct threat to the United States. An indirect threat, yes, he said, but not more.
“We overreacted to 9/11. Most of the people that did 9/11 were Saudis. Why the hell didn’t we invade Saudi Arabia? There wasn’t one Iraqi involved in 9/11,” Harkin said. “We just keep jumping from one mistake to another. I have a feeling we’re going to do the same thing with [the Islamic State].”
All this leads to the next logical question: what threat does ISIS really pose to U.S. national interests? If it doesn’t pose such a threat, then what should our response to it be? Does it threaten other interests or values that are important to us? And what will be the outcome of any form of intervention we choose to take?
Last September, Pres. Obama was on the verge of assaulting Pres. Assad of Syria for alleged use of chemical weapons. In the meantime, a new and more dangerous foe has arisen to take his place as the Arab bogeyman: ISIS. The group was hardly a gleam in Assad’s eye a year ago and now it’s the foremost enemy of western civilization.
It seems to me that stopping America’s reckless pursuit of war against Assad was beneficial to our stance in the world. The question is whether taking on ISIS will lead to good or ill for U.S. foreign policy objectives. To what extent will turning ISIS into the “mother of all evils” help or hinder our objectives? The first Pres. Bush turned Saddam into precisely such a demonic figure. But at least his objectives were somewhat limited thanks to the GOP realists who directed his foreign policy apparatus.
His son tried to complete the unfinished business of the Gulf War to disastrous results. So the question arises: which role will Obama embrace? Will he pursue limited objectives and then have the discipline to withdraw when they are achieved (even if his political opponents deride him for withdrawing)? Or will he gradually get sucked into a expanded presence in Syria and Iraq, as he has in embracing much of Bush’s counter-terror policy (drones, targeted killings, etc.)?
The jury is very much out on this. My hunch is that there is a very real chance Obama could allow himself to get sucked into yet another Mideast quagmire.
Note that a year ago we almost took down Assad. Now he doesn’t look so bad in comparison to ISIS. During that past year many right-wing Americans saw Iran as our number one foreign enemy. Now that ISIS is massacring Shiites, the enemy of my enemy looks a whole lot more like my friend. In other words, Iran is almost looking good by comparison with ISIS. My point is that in the Mideast those you view as your worst enemy become, sometimes in only a matter of months, your ally.
Imagine had we gone to war against Iran when Bibi Netanyahu wanted us to. Would we be able to call upon Iran to act as a stabilizer in the region against the depredations of ISIS? If you overreact in one situation it drastically reduces your flexibility when the next crisis emerges. The ideologues and Arab-haters always forget that.
Let’s take a cold, hard look at ISIS. Though it has coldly and brutally executed western citizens, in broad terms it doesn’t endanger any direct U.S. interest. Indirectly, you may say that we’ve made such a huge investment in Iraq, that threatening that investment as ISIS does, harms our interests. But throwing good money after bad in trying to salvage a dysfunctional, sectarian Iraqi state, may not be the best use of our resources. If Iraq’s leaders can’t manage to form a government and mount a response to the ISIS threat, then why should be come like the cavalry to the rescue? What business is this of ours?
My problem with the U.S. as Mideast policeman is that we refused to play a constructive role when the Arab Spring promised to topple authoritarian regimes and replace them with populists who bore the promise of democracy. Why have circumstances changed now that ISIS threatens to topple other authoritarian Arab leaders and replace them with Islamist authoritarians? In other words, we had a chance to encourage precisely the sorts of governments that would’ve more close reflected our values than their strongmen predecessors. Yet we refused to act. Now, all of a sudden we think those same authoritarian leaders are fine because Islamists might take their place.
This, as I’ve said many times here, is a totally dysfunctional approach to the region. We don’t base our policy on creating societies reflecting democracy and tolerance–positive values we claim to embody. Instead we base it on stopping the worst guy out there from taking power. Instead of sharing a dream, our policy is “anything but them.” How will that inspire anyone to embrace our views or emulate our values?
As a sidebar, I wanted to raise some questions about the tragic case of Steven Sotloff. I’ve asked a number of journalists covering the region what they knew of his case. Two veteran reporters told me they find it almost impossible to believe that ISIS didn’t know Sotloff was Jewish. After all, these are savvy, modern insurgents who know how to use the internet. Sotloff’s reporting included subjects on Jewish themes. He was a citizen of Israel (first traveled there on a Birthright trip).
If ISIS did know that Sotloff was Jewish, then when it killed him it didn’t kill him as a Jew. But rather it killed him as an American. The Islamist group may hate Jews, but it hates the west and Arab leaders more. This means that ISIS has made a deliberate choice of who its enemies are and right now that isn’t Israel. Which means Netanyahu’s attempt to conflate Hamas and ISIS is a total fraud. Both groups have particular interests that are specific to their particular situations. Hamas wants Palestinian freedom. ISIS wants something else entirely. Distorting reality as Bibi does harms Israel’s interests and harms the prospects for creating any equilibrium or stability in the region.