What to do about ISIS?
by playthell benjamin
As the Iraqi’s struggle to form a viable government under Haider al-Abadi, who replaced a disgraced Al Maliki as Prime Minister, fanatical Muslim Jihadists in ISIS – Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – gobble up more and more of Iraqi territory in its ruthless march toward Baghdad, destroying Christian and Shia shrines and beheading “non-believers”, it is time for us to question the decisions of our policy makers.
We need to ask: What exactly is going on there? What was the role of the US in creating this tragic mess that is destroying the nation of Iraq as it existed before the Bush invasion? And what do we do now? This matter should be examined without regard to past ideological positions and guided by the paramount objective of formulating a policy that best serves US interest. However, given the complexity of the situation in the Middle East identifying the best policy options is easier said than done.
Looking at the situation on the ground in Iraq from a historical perspective, one is forced to wonder if the professional historians are right when they argue unanimously that history does not repeat itself. It certainly seems so when observing American foreign policy over the last half century. The historical record reveals a recurring pattern of the US attempting to impose its will on the politics of other nations, especially Third World countries that are presumed to be easy pickings.
It is a record cluttered with spectacular failures – Iran, Vietnam, Afghanistan and now Iraq. In Vietnam the US picked the wrong side and the result was a multibillion dollar debacle that resulted in the deaths of over a million Vietnamese and many thousands of Americans; the poisoning of the environment in Vietnam with “Agent Orange;” a crisis in American society and thousands of walking wounded who never recovered from their service in that war.
It was such a blunder that the US abandoned the selective service draft, thereby removing the requirement for military service among the more educated and affluent youths of the nation. This eliminated a major source of anti-war activism of the sort that wreaked havoc on the nation’s college campuses’ during the Vietnam War.
With an all-volunteer army we now have an armed force largely composed of the “have nots ” – the kids who years ago would have come out of high school and gone to work in a factory – thus there has been little protest from American youths. US corporations that used to provide industrial jobs have become multi-national conglomerates with global interests that are beholden only to their investors, not national states. Thus they have exported their jobs overseas and decimated the US manufacturing sector because they can reap greater profits from non-unionized industrial slaves in foreign countries. Hence for many poor working class American youths volunteering for the military appears to be their only route to advancement in life…if they survive America’s constant wars with their body and brains intact.
We have now been involved in constant wars in the Muslim world for a generation, whether backing one side in a conflict or directly waging war. Yet our policy makers appear to have learned nothing! Just as the decision by President Eisenhower to overthrow the constitutionally elected government of Muhammad Mossedeck in Iran by a CIA led military coup in 1953, led directly to the Islamic Revolution in Iran that the US constantly agonizes over today; the decision to overthrow Sadam Hussein and install and American backed Shia government in Iraq has led us to the ISIS crisis where Islamic Jihadists are threatening to take control of Iraq and establish an Islamic Caliphate under Sharia Law.
So what should the US government do now? To begin with US policymakers should be made to take an oath similar to the Hippocratic Oath required of medical doctors: “First do no harm!” That would be an auspicious start given the blunders of previous US administrations, especially the last Bush man. It is essential that the policy makers are open minded and objective in their analysis, ideology must take a back seat.
The danger of allowing ideology to obfuscate reality is ever present and was at the root of the Invasion of Iraq by George Bush – a clueless neophyte in foreign policy matters who was hoodwinked by the cabal of advisers handpicked from the Project for a New American Century, a think tank founded by “Dirty Dick” Cheney and his ideological cronies. (See: How the Iraq War Was Hatched in a Think Tank*)
It was because of the ideological obsessions held by these advisers, which were spelled out in position papers written at PNAC, that the US attacked Iraq in the aftermath of the massive 9/11 terrorist attack carried out by the affluent sons of well to do Egyptians and Saudi Arabians, America’s closest allies in the Arab world. Instead of examining the misbegotten US policy of arming and training Islamic militants – then known as the Afghan Mujahedeen – in terrorist tactics to be employed against the Soviet Union, out of which grew the Taliban and al Qaeda, who later used them against us, Bush was persuaded to invade Iraq!
The Bushmen callously took this nation into a war of choice against an unoffending country – which according to established international laws that govern the relations of sovereign nations is a crime – in order to achieve the long standing ideological objective of overthrowing its leader Sadam Hussein.
This is what happens when politicized intelligence colored by ideology becomes the basis for policy making – it is the same path that led us defeat in the Jungles of South East Asia. If Bushmen had listened to the leading scholars on the Mid-East region in the CIA and the academic community – such as Professor Juan Cole -we would have never invaded Iraq and they would have discovered that secular Arab strongmen like Sadam were the frontline resistance against the Jihadists. If they had heeded the warning of the Arab League that an American invasion of Iraq would “open the gates of hell” history could have taken a far different, less costly and destructive course over the past decade.
For instance, what if the US and formed an alliance with Sadam against al Qaeda? I would argue that US forces would have captured Osama within a year and two wars waged over a decade – at a cost of four trillion dollars, untold destruction of the invaded countries, and legions of wrecked families who lost loved ones on both sides – could have been avoided. Instead, just as in Iran and Vietnam, a misguided incompetent American policy has resulted in just the opposite of their stated objectives.
Are we going to repeat these historical blunders yet again and at even greater cost? The alternatives before President Obama are limited and distasteful. Hence the question before the architects of our foreign policy is which are the lesser evils? Now that the US has abandoned Al Maliki, the Prime Minister that our actions put in power, and is now supporting Haider al-Abadi, the handpicked choice of the Iraqi President in a process that al Maliki initially protested as “unconstitutional” before resigning for the sake of national unity, the question is what now?
One thing is certain: No half-assed rag tag army commanded by a government in disarray is going to defeat ISIS, a highly disciplined force driven by religious passion, armed with state of the art American weaponry and hundreds of millions of dollars to support their mission among men for whom devotion to Allah trumps the comforts of earthly status or personal wealth. Hence this money will be used to combat the “Great Satan” and his minions in the Muslim world. That’s how they are managing to support an armed force that some experts on the region estimate at 50, 000 men.
This state of affairs leaves President Obama two choices: arm the Kurdish militias with the most advanced American heavy weaponry and let them fight it out with ISIS, or form an alliance with Iran and let their elite Revolutionary Guards lead the fight to crush ISIS. In the first instance it would spell the end of the unitary Iraqi state, because the Kurds will seize their long sought independence in a separate state which a grateful US could not oppose.
The other alternative would permanently expand the power and influence of Iran in the region…. a development the US has long opposed. Furthermore an alliance with Iran, although clearly in the US national interests, would enrage Israel – who has tried their best to goad the US into a war with Iran – and thus mobilize the Israel Lobby against the President. Once that happens it would alienate a cowardly Congress and the President’s agenda for the remainder of his Presidency will be dead in the water.
Yet the alternative to arming the Kurds or forming an alliance with Iran who, like the US, passionately oppose ISIS, is to reintroduce American troops in Iraq; a policy most Americans would vigorously oppose – since we are still withdrawing our troops from that hell hole of our making – or just stand by and watch the murderous Islamic fanatics in ISIS take over a large swath of the oil rich Middle East.
Alas, no thinking person who understands what is at stake in the Middle-East can oppose all forms of American military action, although it should be limited to air strikes and covert operations in cooperation with Iraqi government forces, especially in situations where there is eminent danger of genocide such as ISIS’ attempts to exterminate religious minorities such as the Christians.
However it is long past time for American foreign policy to be driven by an objective cost/benefit analysis based on actual US interests. We can no longer afford to indulge ideological fantasies such as Senator John McCain is given to; a surreal vision of American military dominance of the world that would commit this nation to perpetual wars that gobble up financial and intellectual capital this nation desperately needs for our own internal development.
Benjamin is a veteran political journalist out of Harlem NY. His essays can be read on his blog site Commentaries on the Times.