The ISIS problem in Iraq and Syria is getting worse. The most recent reports suggest there is a steady stream of recruits not just locally, but from Turkey, traveling into the country to fight. The threat ISIS represents (a growing, financially self-sustaining terror state that is destroying countries, imprisoning thousands, and brutally murdering thousands more) clearly merits a response. But that does not mean all responses are equally appropriate — nor does it mean that the most militaristic response is going to do what it should.
President Obama’s current plan is sort of the worst of all worlds — it is aggressively kinetic, but non-committal; heavy on rhetoric but light on follow-through; big on an end state (“defeating” ISIS) but not on how to get there (air strikes won’t do it). The legal foundations for it are iffy, at best, fraught with America’s thoroughly broken Congress and with Obama’s own overblown rhetoric about his predecessor’s war powers. And perhaps worst still, President Obama has appealed to America’s experiences in Yemen and Somalia as success stories to emulate in Iraq.
One year ago, when the White House announced the closure of 20 US embassies due to a threat by Yemen’s al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), spokesman Jay Carney said the group telling reporters that AQAP “poses the greatest potential threat to the United States.” He said this despite AQAP not successfully even attempting an attack on the U.S. for more than three years, despite the complete lack of any noticeable follow-through from any terror branch against any US facility, and despite months of claims by the White House that their Yemen strategy was working.
The reality was that such an overblown response to what turned out to be a very limited threat against the US embassy in Sana’a was just free advertising to AQAP. The US has a history of this: one could argue that America’s obsession with and ignorant resume inflation of American terror-cleric Anwar al-Awlaki actually raised his profile within AQAP, promoting him from what was essentially middle management to an operational role in the organization before his death in a drone strike.
That never made the threat from AQAP immaterial — they launched worrying attacks both on Americans in Yemen, the government of Yemen, and directly on US territory. But it does suggest that the US does not always contextualize the threats it sees from these groups properly. AQAP is a group that needs to be countered and contained, but “defeating” it is an unreachable goal with the current policy and current Yemeni government.
You can see a similar dynamic in play in Somalia: the U.S. has had varying levels of success in containing and limiting the threat al-Shabab can pose from its hideaways in the countryside, but without a solid, functioning government and without a massive, overwhelming ground presence it really cannot do much beyond that. It wasn’t enough to prevent or halt the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, or even various bombings throughout Mogadishu, Baidoa, or even Kampala… even if it is enough to keep the group mostly contained inside Somalia.
But containment is not in the cards for ISIS — both President Obama and Secretary of John Kerry have said in unambiguous terms that ISIS will not be contained, but “defeated,” or “crushed,” or in some other way permanently erased from the Middle East. They say this because ISIS “poses an imminent threat to the US,” according to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. The threat posed by ISIS faces “every interest we have,” Hagel said later, “whether it’s in Iraq or anywhere else.”
“This is beyond anything we’ve seen,” he added.
Almost on cue, the neoconservative war pushers in DC began drafting grand, expensive, dangerous plans to “defeat” ISIS.
But there is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of all this rhetoric against ISIS: it cannot possibly be true. Inflating the threat posed by AQAP from a regional one mostly about political and economic stability (with a moderate risk of direct, small-scale threats against the US directly) to an existential one against the US is a great way to rally support for a policy, but it is not an accurate or honest assessment of the actual challenge and threat these groups pose. Michael Tomasky put it best yesterday: “A president has to sound like John Wayne. It’s depressing and appalling. If he doesn’t go cowboy on us, the war hawks will call him a weakling.”
The threat from ISIS is real. The enslavement of 35 million people across two mostly failed states is a serious problem. The chance that ISIS — so radical even al Qaeda has split from it — would have territory, a tax base, oil assets, and so on, from which to plan and launch strikes elsewhere is terrifying. And the horrible way they’ve treated the people they’ve conquered could only lead to more chaos and death should they ever attain even the paper legitimacy of solidly controlling enough territory to have a quasi-state.
But however real the threat from ISIS is, it is not an existential threat to the US. ISIS poses no danger of destroying or even significantly disrupting our economy or way of life. They can cause tremendous chaos, throw energy markets into a death spiral, and brutalize millions of people near important shipping lanes, but those are not existential threats.
Why do Americans view security threats from the Middle East in such apocalyptic terms? For all the world it sounds like another al Qaeda organization, the Abu Sayyaf Group. Just like in Yemen, Somalia, and Iraq, Abu Sayyaf piggybacked on widespread local discontent with the central government, and essentially co-opted (for a time) the Moro independence movement. Though rarely noticed in the US, Operation Enduring Freedom — the war to topple the Taliban, supposedly ending on December 31 of this year — also had a major operation in the Philippines to counter ASG, as it’s known, starting in 2002.
Abu Sayyaf was fond of brutal murders, conquering territory, and of abducting Americans and threatening them with beheading in return for ransom. The U.S. would assist the Filipino government with massive campaigns to sweep islands of the terrorist group, and even launched raids to attempt to rescue abducted Americans. It mirrored, in many ways, the behavior ISIS now employs in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. But just like the equally brutal cartels in Latin America, Abu Sayyaf never received the blanket media coverage that ISIS has. Yet despite their ongoing threat — they still kidnap and engage in unbelievably brutal acts — they are not viewed as the pressing global security concern that ISIS is. And they probably offer an even better model for how to contain and counter a terror group than Yemen or Somalia ever did.
I suspect this is due to cognitive bias: We in the West are trained to see the Middle East as a constant source of existential threat — so when a brutal group that is horrific but not terribly unique in the grand scheme of insurgencies emerges, we tend to default to apocalyptic language to describe it, even when that language is wholly inappropriate and might even risk delegitimizing the effort to contain and counter them.
If ISIS truly represented that grave a threat to America — beyond anything we’ve seen (according to the Defense Secretary who lived through the Cold War), touching everything Americans care about globally, then we would not have two battalions of special operators and a few hundred air strikes on the menu for countering them. NATO’s campaign in Kosovo was more intense. Going by the neocons, even 25,000 troops is not how you respond to a legitimately existential threat. Not even close. An existential threat requires mobilization as a response: not 25,000 but 125,000 troops deployed to counter and defeat the threat. Not a few air strikes here and there but blanket coverage to permanently destroy their capacity to gather, organize, and travel. Not just some SOF teams but an expansive special operations mission to hunt down leaders, cells, and key nodes and destroy them.
What’s on offer instead is more of the same: tepid, limited ground incursions backed up by some air power and drones. It is not a response to an actually existential challenge.
The reality is that ISIS poses the same sort of threat AQAP or Al-Shabab or Abu Sayyaf or even the Zeta Cartel does: very real, with horrible consequences for their own countries and extremely disruptive effects regionally, with the possibility of damaging, horrific, yet still relatively small scale attacks against the West. It is a threat that must be countered.
Yet the inflated government rhetoric, cynical war mongering by neoconservative activists, and feckless coverage by our vaunted media are creating a house of cards that has every possibility of collapsing into nothing. Creating hysteria over ISIS, when a sober, considered response is needed is not just irresponsible — it is probably counterproductive. And we will see the fruits of that self-destructiveness over time if we are not very careful in reigning in expectations.