Obama ISIS Plan Is Nonsense
Washington's foolish approaches to the Islamic State will not destroy
them or discourage others from following in their footsteps.
The American people’s reaction to Muslim thugs of the “Islamic State” ritually knifing off the heads of people who look like you and me boils down to “let’s destroy these bastards”—which is common sense. But our ruling class, from President Obama on the Left to The Wall Street Journal on the Right, take the public’s pressure to do this as another occasion for further indulging their longtime preferences, prejudices, and proclivities for half-measures in foreign affairs—the very things that have invited people from all over the planet to join hunting season on Americans.
This indulgence so overwhelms our ruling class’s perception of reality that the recipes put forth by its several wings, little different from one another, are identical in the one essential respect: none of them involve any plans which, if carried out, would destroy the Islamic State, kill large numbers of the cut-throats, and discourage others from following in their footsteps. Hence, like the George W. Bush’s “war on terror” and for the same reasons, this exercise of our ruling class’s wisdom in foreign affairs will decrease respect for us while invigorating our enemies.
The WSJ’s recommendations, like the Obama administration’s projected activities, are all about discrete measures—some air strikes, some arming of local forces, etc. But they abstract from the fundamental reality of any and all activities: He who wills any end must will the means to achieve it. As in Bush’s war, as is the custom in Washington nowadays, our ruling class’s several sectors decide what actions they feel comfortable undertaking about any given problem, while avoiding reasonable judgment about whether these actions will actually fix the problem. This is the very definition of irresponsibility. But they call it “strategy.”
Irresponsibly Avoiding Debate
Our Constitution prescribes that war happens subsequent to votes by elected representatives. By debate and vote, presumably they reconcile the war’s ends with the means to be employed. But to reconcile ends and means is to banish illusions and pretenses. Yet because these are what our ruling class lives by, leaders of both parties have joined to preclude such debates and votes. They granted congressional funding for the one part of Obama’s venture with regard to the IS that required it—arming some of the Sunni rebels against Syria’s Assad regime—while avoiding votes on what precisely that or any other part of the venture means. This is textbook irresponsibility.
To reconcile ends and means is to banish illusions and pretenses.
Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA), a Marine veteran, objected: “We need to crush ISIS and not work on arming more Islamic radicals. Just what would arming these people accomplish?” To prevent massive numbers of Republican congressmen from joining this common-sense question, the House Armed Services Committee’s bill requires the administration to answer it in a report to Congress some time in the future, but not now. The fact that the administration and the leaders of both parties—the ruling class—did not make reasoned answers to the key questions the primary premise of their request suggests not so much that they are hiding these answers from others as much as that they themselves have not addressed the questions.
In the Senate, the ruling class avoided any vote at all by placing the money for arming the Sunni rebels into the Continuing Resolution for keeping the government open. This device, which reduces the senators’ choice to funding everything the the ruling class wants or “shutting down the government,” has become the principal way by which the ruling class dispenses with the Constitution.
Experience Says We’re Crazy
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV)’s common-sense objection to arming the Sunni rebels might as well have been voiced by any ordinary citizen for all the effect it had: “Our past experience, after 13 years, everything that we have tried to do has not proven to be beneficial, not proven at all. So what makes you think it’s going to be different this time? What makes you think we can ask a group of Islamists to agree with Americans to fight another group of Islamists, as barbaric as they may be?”
The WSJ notwithstanding, while the ‘moderates’ will take U.S. money and arms, no amount of ‘vetting’ will or can cause them to fight the IS for us.
The answer is that our ruling class does not think, as much as it indulges its imagination and believes its own spin. A prime example of which is the Wall Street Journal’s lead editorial of September 17. Never mind that the Islamic State’s Sunni subjects welcome the ritual beheaders who rule over them because these are Sunni as well. “The brutality,” writes the WSJ, “has created conditions similar to those that preceded the Sunni Awakening in Iraq in 2007—the revolt by ordinary Sunnis and their tribal leaders in Anbar province against al Qaeda.” This follows the Bush administration’s spin concerning the so-called “surge.” In fact however, Iraq’s Sunnis sought America’s protection in 2007 not against any other Sunnis but against the Shia death squads that had begun massacring them in large numbers.
According to the same fantasy, conducting air strikes today against the IS in former Iraq and Syria would encourage its Sunni-Wahabi fighters to defect to the ranks of U.S.-supported “moderate” Sunnis. This neglects not only that the flow of fighters in the region has always gone only in one direction—away from the less pure and less brutal to the purer and most brutal Islamists. It also neglects the incommensurability of the two sets of fighters’ objectives. The “moderates” are mostly Syrians interested in governing Syria, while the Islamic State’s fighters are led by Saddam’s Iraqi cadre, have fighters from all over the world, and have pan-Islamic objectives. Joe Manchin is right. The WSJ notwithstanding, while the “moderates” will take U.S. money and arms, no amount of “vetting” will or can cause them to fight the IS for us.
While Obama limits himself to unexplained confidence that Sunni Arab states will join in fighting the IS, the Journal supposes to know why they have not done so yet, and why instead they have been helping the jihadis: because our aid to the right Sunnis in 2012 and 2013 was “microscopic and half hearted.” This was the aid being brokered by the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and cut off by mortar shells expertly aimed by we know not whom. But the WSJ knows who’s to blame for the Sunni Arabs’ failure to meet the ruling class’s expectations: “Some Conservatives.”
Get Your Heads Out of The Sand
Like the Bush administration, Obama and the Journal are grasping at what they imagine to be a vast reservoir of inherently moderate Sunni peoples and governments. Just show them how pro-Sunni America really is, and this vast moderate wave will submerge the terrorist threat to America. Thus the Journal writes that we dare not just make war on the IS that makes war on us. No. “Sunnis will not support the campaign against Islamic State if they think our air strikes are intended to help the regime in Damascus and its Shiite allies in Beirut and Tehran.” You see, the real game lies in making nice to Sunnis.
Believing in the saving power of a ‘moderate Sunni’ wave is as politically correct though patently silly as believing in global warming after years of record cold.
Obama has made clear that he envisages a very limited, tightly targeted air campaign against the IS. It goes without saying that this cannot possibly hurt it severely. But, were the U.S. government somehow to mount a serious air campaign, nevertheless the inescapable fact remains that the IS can be finished off only on the ground. But how? By whom? Obama stays away from the question. The Journal, however answers: “the Kurds, the parts of the Iraqi military that aren’t dominated by Iran’s militias, and the moderate Sunnis in Syria and Iraq.”
This is beyond dumb. Believing in the saving power of a “moderate Sunni” wave is as politically correct though patently silly as believing in global warming after years of record cold. All know that the Kurds will fight only for Kurdistan. The Iraqi army has proved beyond doubt that, as a fighting force, it exists only insofar as it is composed of Shiite militias. But our inward-looking, bipartisan ruling class refuses to deal with reality. War consists of massive killing that dispirits the survivors. Yet our ruling class refuses to consider how many of what categories of people will have to be killed in order to end this war with the peace we want. War does not tolerate solipsism.
Yet again, consensus within the ruling class is setting America on course to demonstrate impotence. Its preferences, prejudices, and proclivities guarantee that the Islamic State and those among us whom it inspires will be a growing problem as months and years pass. Harsh consequences will follow until a political vehicle for the expression of the American people’s common sense comes into being.
Angelo M. Codevilla is a fellow of the Claremont Institute, professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and the author of To Make And Keep Peace, Hoover Institution Press, 2014.