Seeking Enemies

The editors of Bloomberg, in reaction to President Obama’s bomb strikes against ISIS, the “Islamic State”, in Iraq, write that he’s doing the right thing for the wrong reasons:

President Barack Obama’s decision to launch airstrikes against Islamic State in Iraq was correct — though not for the reasons he gave. This jihadi movement is a major threat to the U.S. and its interests in the Middle East. That’s what justifies use of force against it.

Announcing the action, Obama stressed his determination to keep the U.S. out of a new war, and said the airstrikes were an exception to his policy of non-involvement. He said the threat of genocide against the Yazidi people and the risk to U.S. personnel stationed in the Kurdish capital Erbil had forced his hand.

Those were reasons to act but not the main reason. Caution in the use of force is always wise, and Obama is certainly right that Americans don’t want to fight another war in the Middle East — but let there be no illusions about the larger danger posed by Islamic State.

If we are to wage war against all enemies, it might be prudent to make a prioritized list.

Rather than the right thing being done for the wrong reasons I think that bomb strikes against the Islamic State are the wrong thing for the right reasons. Wanting to save Iraqi Christians, Yezidi, and, indeed, all Iraqis from the tender mercies of the Islamic State is benign. Taking actions that won’t protect them, might kill them, and isn’t supplemented by anything other than the hope that the government of Iraq will get its act together is, well, less benign.

Napoleon once said if you start to take Vienna, take Vienna. If you set out to save Iraqis fleeing the Islamic State, do it. Don’t impose limits, restrictions, and caveats that will prevent you from achieving that objective. I don’t think that Americans support the measures that would be necessary to accomplish the objective. We shouldn’t pretend that they do.

13 comments… add one
  • Ben Johannson

    There’s an article in the LRB touching on this. I think it’s worth reading, assuming everyone hasn’t already:

    For America, Britain and the Western powers, the rise of Isis and the Caliphate is the ultimate disaster. Whatever they intended by their invasion of Iraq in 2003 and their efforts to get rid of Assad in Syria since 2011, it was not to see the creation of a jihadi state spanning northern Iraq and Syria run by a movement a hundred times bigger and much better organised than the al-Qaida of Osama bin Laden. The war on terror for which civil liberties have been curtailed and hundreds of billions of dollars spent has failed miserably. The belief that Isis is interested only in ‘Muslim against Muslim’ struggles is another instance of wishful thinking: Isis has shown it will fight anybody who doesn’t adhere to its bigoted, puritanical and violent variant of Islam. Where Isis differs from al-Qaida is that it’s a well-run military organisation that is very careful in choosing its targets and the optimum moment to attack them.

  • Ben:

    I don’t think that ISIS is quite as formidable as Mr. Cockburn suggests. The way I see it Pat Lang might well be correct: a significant component of the ISIS forces is probably seasoned former Iraqi army officers, mostly Sunnis and Ba’athists to boot who had no future in the Iraq constructed by the U. S. and the Maliki government. The notion that government could reform to include them is ludicrous.

    They are bolstered by morale, good financing, and lots of equipment picked up on the way and, most of all, the lousy Iraqi army and the less formidable than expected Kurdish militia.

    My point here is that I don’t think that ISIS could stand up to our military and, consequently, they don’t pose a direct threat to us. The threat they pose is to the various weak and incompetent countries of the region.

  • Guarneri

    It’s my understanding that various national security advisory groups who have briefed both Congress and the president believe that ISIS has both the intent and capability of reaching the US. Is the view that this is simply incorrect?

  • They’ve stated the intent and anybody who can afford a plane ticket can reach the U. S. The question isn’t intent or reach but what they can do when they get here.

    This goes back to the point I’ve made several times about critical success factors. We’ll continue to be vulnerable as long as we insist on showing our throat.

  • steve

    Short term vs long term. Maybe you need boots on the ground to save Iraqis right now. Maybe you don’t. However, it is extremely likely that if we do so now we will “need” to do so again. If Maliki is unwilling to change his govt, I am not that thrilled about using our people and resources to keep him on his throne. IS has not attacked us, and I am not all that convinced they are a threat to the US. To regional stability, maybe, but not us. Also, I think you misunderstand modern combat. Air power alone is seldom decisive, but when allied with ground troops it makes a huge difference. If the pest merge has the will to fight, it could make a major difference.

    In short, I don’t see the point in making a major effort to save most of Iraq if it is not willing to change. I think the Kurds are a bit different case.


  • jan

    In the Bloomberg article posted, it referred to Obama’s cautious nature to use force because “Americans don’t want to fight another war in the Middle East.” However, as Ron Fournier pointed out today, presidents often have to “deal with the world we have not what we want.” Actually that’s the way most people have to deal with their own lives, too!

    But, Obama speaks in ideological rhetoric, sprinkled with political correctness and espousing ideal outcomes where seemingly he wants people to simply shake hands, accept their losses and go home without further ado or killing each other. It’s kind of a no-muss-no-fuss kind of leadership, which, in the words of Obama’s 2012 opponent, seems to be one of “managing our decline.” Or, in the case of Iraq, it’s one of helplessly standing by as ISIS creates “Children’s Parks,” where they take young ones, behead them and stick their heads on pikes. It’s beyond revulsion when you hear about the heinous acts being committed in the aftermath of our much heralded departure.

    Another astute observation by Fournier was calling President Obama, “Commander in Chief of Underestimation,” as Obama’s erroneous assumptions and reflections on growing crises always seem to fall under the headings of unexpected and it’s not my fault.

    I wonder who is really running the show in DC, anyway!

  • Also, I think you misunderstand modern combat. Air power alone is seldom decisive, but when allied with ground troops it makes a huge difference.

    Of course. I understand it but I wonder if President Obama does. But that’s irrelevant to what’s being done in Iraq since there explicitly will be no ground troops. At least not of ours. If you mean Iraqis, I think you’re overestimating the morale and capabilities of the Iraqi army.

    When you rule out ground troops from the outset, all that your opponent needs to do is disperse and lay low.

  • Also, I think that there’s something you don’t understand about the Maliki government. It’s not what he’s willing to do but what he can do. He’s just following the standard playbook in his part of the world and any foreseeable Shi’ite Iraqi leader will do the same thing. Given Iraq’s demography any even notionally democratic government there will have a Shi’ite leader.

    If we had wanted a federal system in Iraq or anything other than what it is in place, we should have insisted that their constitution be written that way. It baffles me why you would conquer a country and occupy it and then let them create a government constructed any tomfool way they wanted it.

  • Ben Wolf

    I never understood why we failed to impose a constitution on Iraq as MacArthur did Japan. Different culture so perhaps it wouldn’t have taken, but I can’t believe it would not have been better than what the Shi’a cobbled together.

  • Guarneri

    It seems to me that even though our southern border is nearly impenetrable a few could get through and take out some shopping malls, maybe some power stations, schools or even take a shot at an airplane. That would bring an economy to its knees.

  • How will lobbing a few bombs in Iraq stop that?

  • Guarneri

    I don’t think it will. But it seems to me that the first step in the logic tree is to accept that “the homeland” is vulnerable. You can then move to “we will take the chance it won’t happen/accept the losses” or “what is our best choice among bad choices?” I think that’s the cold hard reality.

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