Sunday, September 14, 2014

Pound the War Drums

I didn’t watch President Obama’s speech about ISIS on September 10, but by the time I got around to reading the text of it online, I mostly knew what was in it. Not much of it is encouraging. I wrote about my concerns about our involvement with the situation in Iraq (and now Syria) before, and, based on Obama’s speech, just about everything that I was concerned might happen is now going to happen. If you’ve both read my previous blog entry on Iraq and watched/read the speech, you probably know what I’m talking about. But for those who don’t and might stumble across this blog post, and just for the sake of putting my thoughts out there in a more thorough manner now, let’s go through the speech and see just what is so concerning.

The whole speech, when examined closely, is pretty incoherent, and that’s particularly obvious with the opening remarks. Obama first talks about how successful our counterterrorism strategies have been since he took office, and how we’re safer as a country. In the long run, anyway, that’s pretty doubtful. The drone war Obama has presided over is certain to breed more anti-American hatred, and likely more terrorism. The fact that we’ve succeeded in damaging al-Qaeda and killing Osama bin Laden does nothing to keep new terrorists from emerging when we’ve bombed and killed numerous innocents in Yemen and Pakistan. Supporting the military dictatorship in Egypt probably doesn’t help our popularity, either; nor does standing up for Israel in the UN. So the idea that the counterterrorism strategy we’ve pursued in the last few years is actually making us safer, at least in the long run, is enormously doubtful.

Obama then segues to talking about ISIS, and how they threaten American interests and Americans. Of course, intelligence experts have pretty much all concurred that ISIS poses no immediate threat to the American homeland, which Obama even kind of admits later on (“we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland”).  As evidence, he largely cites the fact that ISIS leaders have threatened America—but that proves nothing. To grain credibility, ISIS desperately wants us to see them as a threat and despise them; the fact that they make threats doesn’t indicate those threats will actually be carried out successfully. Not to mention their threats have been largely because of our intervention already, which makes the case for greater intervention a little dubious.

After stating that we need to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” ISIS (good luck on that front), Obama begins laying out a plan. Not a very good one, though. The first part is expanded airstrikes that go beyond defense and into offense. There’s pretty broad agreement that airstrikes are not enough to destroy ISIS, as even John Kerry has said. So why, if ISIS is such a big threat to us, are we limiting ourselves to airstrikes? They’ve already beheaded American captives in retribution for our current airstrikes; are more bombings really the answer? Moreover, Obama states that he intends to expand this air campaign into Syria if necessary. But aside from being dangerous (flying over areas of war has this vague possibility of having your plane get shot down, not that there’s any recent event to remind everyone of that), without either UN approval or the Assad regime’s assent, airstrikes in Syria would be illegal under international law. Not that American violations of international law are exactly anything new.

The second part of this master plan is to “increase our support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground.” This essentially translates into pouring more military advisers into Iraq and providing more arms to the “moderate” Syrian rebels. Neither of these are particularly good ideas, to say the least. Sending more military advisers into Iraq basically paves the way to sending in actual combat troops—a step which Obama has promised repeatedly not to take, but which, even if he keeps that promise, his successor might be less reluctant about, particularly if we already have American troops in Iraq in a “non-combat” role.

As for arming the Syrian rebels, this seems a particularly counterproductive move. Obama rules out cooperating with the Assad regime, but if ISIS is really so crucial to eliminate, why don’t we try to negotiate some kind of agreement—even a purely temporary one—between Assad and the “moderate” rebels like the Free Syrian Army? Neither of them wants ISIS to take Damascus, and the fact that Assad is still in power after years of civil war is a testament to his army’s abilities. So why continue to aid those who fight that army, diverting it from fighting ISIS, particularly when the arms we provide could end up falling into ISIS’ hands anyway?

Further, Obama doesn’t even mention Iran as a potential ally, despite the fact that it, too, has demonstrated its opposition to ISIS. If ISIS really poses such a threat, why aren’t we turning to regimes that, while terrible, obviously don’t pose a real threat to us? No one with any credibility thinks Iran or Syria poses a threat to the United States, so if ISIS is really such a grave threat, we should be eager to cooperate with them. The fact that we’re not raises some important questions about what our real motivations are here.

The third part of the Obama plan is to “draw on our substantial counterterrorism capabilities to prevent ISIL attacks. Working with our partners, we will redouble our efforts to cut off its funding; improve our intelligence; strengthen our defenses; counter its warped ideology; and stem the flow of foreign fighters into – and out of – the Middle East.” All of that sounds fine in theory, but none of it really lines up with reality. As previously stated, there’s no credible evidence that ISIS is planning an attack on American soil—if their goal is really to create an Islamic caliphate, it’s hard to imagine why we’d be among their biggest concerns. Of course, the likelihood of their attacking us is significantly higher if we directly involve ourselves in fighting a war against them. And if Obama thinks that waging its third war in Iraq in twenty-five years is the best way for the United States to win the hearts and minds of those who hate us, his understanding of the situation is impressively bad.

Part four is to continue providing humanitarian assistance to those in the region. Fair enough. The United States should provide humanitarian aid, and as I’ve said before, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be involved in some broader plan to deal with ISIS—but the rest of this plan is incredibly badly put together. It’s after laying all of this out that Obama asserts that he has the authority to do all of this without Congressional approval. This is perhaps the most troubling part of this speech—I’ve generally disagreed with Republicans and right-wingers when they talk about Obama being arrogant, but if any move in his presidency shows hubris, it’s this one. This is the president telling us that he’s going to involve the country in a conflict overseas that may, in the words of his own Secretary of State, “take a year…may take two years…may take three years.” And that he’s going to do so without even trying to get Congress’s approval. Even Bush got Congress’s approval before going to war in Iraq. I’ll let that speak for itself.

When I wrote my last blog post about Iraq, I had some grave concerns, but I didn’t expect things to get this much worse this quickly. This is essentially the president unilaterally declaring war, and putting forward a plan that is a recipe for a conflict that will drag on for years, endanger American lives, and probably do very little, if anything, to create a more stable situation in the Iraq-Syria region.  ISIS poses a threat to Iraq, Syria, and other Arab nations in the region—so let them fight their own war. Sure, ISIS should be wiped out, and if we can help protect innocent civilians, great—but this strategy isn’t likely to do much of either. Instead, it’ll probably gain ISIS street cred among other anti-American jihadist groups, and ensure that ISIS will be more than happy to kill Americans when it gets the opportunity.

There are a number of things about this whole situation that are deeply troubling. One is that the president has basically announced that we’re going to war—which he’s unilaterally decided—and instead of being different from the norm, like it used to be, that barely elicits a response. Another is that Obama seems to have prepackaged the War on Terror in a way that has convinced most liberals to at least acquiesce to it. The most disturbing thing, though, is that essentially we’re playing right into ISIS’ hands—they wanted to get a rise out of us, and they did. This is not a good time to be an American. This is not a good time to live on this planet at all. 

Note: Originally this blog stated that the Syrian rebels massacred Christians, and linked to a source. However, I have judged that source unreliable, and have not been able to find a reliable source to back up the massacre it alleged. I apologize to everyone for the error.

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