This week the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS, but let’s go with ISIS) released video in which journalist James Foley, missing for two years, was forced to condemn the United States and then beheaded.
President Obama rightfully said he was “appalled” by the murder of a decent, hardworking journalist. And he condemned ISIS, because they are loathsome and anti-human. It’s true and important to say that – but that’s the easy part.
The harder question is what to do about the alarming new-old enemy of this al Qaeda offshoot, and what do in response to Foley’s death. Obama described the horror of ISIS, and said the U.S. would be “vigilant and we will be relentless” while not specifying any plan of action.
At the end of the long dark day, the the best plan is not to get involved in yet another Iraq quagmire. One American who bravely, but deliberately, endangered himself by covering the war in Syria, is not enough of a reason to slide back into this endless, disastrous war.
The question of how Foley got into the hands of ISIS at all demonstrates the limited knowledge of even foreign policy experts. Foley was believed to be in the custody of loyalists of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
Perhaps that was mistaken information. Perhaps he was abducted again. Or, more disturbingly, perhaps Assad gave Foley up for some reason. Maybe this means that Assad and the rebels who interventionists folks like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) wished to arm are closer than we think.
As to Iraq, the temptation for a limited humanitarian mission to save the Yazidi was more understandable. Several thousand of the minority group seen as apostates by ISIS are now safe thanks in large part to the State Department-designated terrorist group the Kurdish independence group PKK.
The airstrikes which helped the rescue effort were pretty low on the list of objectionable actions for an anti-interventionist. And even more unobjectionable were the food and aid drops. But addicts can’t be trusted to indulge just a little bit more. The potential for yet another full on occupation is there. Foley’s death only underlines this.
It hasn’t yet changed minds in Congress. The hawks are still hawks, and the more sensibly cautious remain sensibly cautious. But it’s easy to see that changing. So far, since the day U.S. troops pulled out of the country, there have been 84 airstrikes against ISIS. Worse, there are now 800 U.S. troops on the ground, with talk of sending 300 more.
Though President Obama upped the war in Afghanistan, and sent drone strike all over the Middle East, he is a Democrat, and is therefore a soppy peacenik in the mind of his most unreasonable critics. If he doesn’t act against ISIS now that they have claimed the life of an American, his detractors will pounce.
We don’t need another Iraq. The U.S. has cried wolf on “essential” wars too often. The grim stability of Saddam Hussein was better than hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, a nasty civil war, and now the slasher movie that is ISIS.
Some will argue that the U.S. invasion makes the government particularly culpable for what happened next. But then, weren’t they also culpable for former-ally Saddam? The farther back you go, the more the U.S. is entangled in the Middle East, and this entanglement breeds more anger and resentment. America advocates for freedom but has a long, cynical history in foreign matters.
People argue you sometimes need to ally with a Stalin to beat a Hitler, but the myriad unnecessary wars, coups, and secret arming of groups over the past few decades makes that seem iffy. The Mujahideen freedom fighters trying to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan turned into al Qaeda. Saddam was a villain, unless he was fighting Iran. Manuel Noriega was a friend, and then he wasn’t.
Certainly, there are moderates in Syria who want to be free of the tyranny of Assad and the hell of ISIS. Unfortunately, there is no reason to suggest the U.S. or anyone else can accurately identify who will stay “the good guys” for the duration. In most cases, there isn’t even any such thing.
The terrorist PKK playing such a heroic part in the rescue of the Yazidi — while U.S.-trained Iraqi forces reportedly ran, leaving many weapons to fall into ISIS hands — demonstrates that the world might just be too gray for bombs and invasions. Cartoon-villains like ISIS certainly deserve a few big missiles, but nobody can predict the consequences of launching them, or how much further U.S. will tumble into a conflict.
And certainly, getting drawn into another eight years of war and failed nation-building is something the U.S. must not do.
Blowback is real. The CIA knew it and feared it in 1953, after they overthrew the Iranian government. 9/11 confirmed that U.S. actions can have deadly consequences for innocent U.S. citizens. As frightening as they are, terrorist groups — even ISIS — have motivations beyond their disturbed religion and their hoped-for theocracy.
Either cynically or sincerely, they have used, and they will use again, the interventionism of the United States to garner support for their horrible causes. Foley’s forced video statement blamed Iraq intervention for his death, and he said “When your colleagues dropped that bomb on those people, they signed my death certificate.”
You cannot prove whether or not ISIS would exist without U.S. intervention. But it’s hard to argue that an eight year war improved much for the people of Iraq, or for the people of the United States.
Now we need to make sure that in 10, 50, or 100 years time, there are no fresh motivations for making war against the U.S., or for killing innocent journalists. We need to go cold turkey on intervention and empire sometime, and now is as good a time as any.