ISIS, son of surge
In today’s New Yorker, one of the several liberal hawks in the stable, George Packer, dons his favorite style – more in sorrow than in anger, burdened by the tragic task of bringing civ to the uncivilized, etc. – and asks what are the lessons of the fall of Saigon for Obama, facing ISIS. The short answer is that Packer gets an F – he seemingly is incapable of learning a lesson that goes against his burning desire to benefit all humanity by way of the Pentagon. Because of course we must, Packer thinks, get into the struggle against ISIS. And he hopes our president will be clear about what that means: “But he also needs to tell the country bluntly that there will almost certainly be more American casualties, and that the struggle against —against radical Islam generally, but especially in this case—will be difficult, with no quick military solution and no end in sight.”
Now, another person might think, hmm, no end in sight, struggle against radical Islam in general, American blood – well, the lesson of Vietnam is we not engage in anything that pointless. But not our masterthinker.
Why America is supposed to struggle against radical Islam is pretty unclear, especially as America – as Packer haughtily overlooks – is allied to radical Islam and has been for a long time (which is maybe why Packer doesn’t even talk about Saudi Arabia, much less the UAE). But not to worry, at least the struggle will be long and without any clear purpose. Sounds like a plan!
The rhetoric of the liberal hawks is the same old same old, same with the old hawks, but it is starting to penetrate the public and get them ready for another episode in America’s pointless wars. The terms in this episode, like the last one, will be that those who oppose the war actually support ISIS, and chopping off heads, etc.
So, here are the futile facts. It is today's hawks who physically supported ISIS by making sure the Syrian rebels were good and armed, including arms that came from Libya. And it is by no means apologizing for ISIS to wonder about the meaning of the fact that ISIS, which at its largest is a twentieth the size of the Iraqi army, rolled over that army. The Iraqi army, remember, was armed with billions of dollars worth of US weapons and trained through other billions of dollars worth of aid. Thirty billion is an often mentioned figure. And what did they do? Why, they fled, in their hundred thousands, from ISIS's thousands. And what did the conquered population think? Well, as far as I can tell, the Sunni majority in the regions ISIS conquered are definitely glad not to be subject to the Shia militias protected by the Maliki government or the minions of that government who made a habit of kidnapping, torturing and killing Sunnis in the old fashioned way.
And why did this situation come about? More generally, of course, it was the occupation. But more particularly, the Sunni-Shiite split was ratified and frozen by the surge. You remember the triumphant surge, trumpeted in the press as our victory in Iraq? It came in two parts. One was surrender to the Sunni insurgents in their territory, plus bribery of the tribes. The other was creating physical barriers separating neighborhoods in urban centers. This accelerated and put an official stamp on the segregation of Sunni and Shiite, which, before the occupation, was officially verboten. From that segregation naturally arose a consciousness, among both parties, of themselves as separate entities. This, of course, has led to the current situation, which is a combination of ISIS and a good old fashioned Sunni rebellion. Ba’athist military men, not exactly a mainstay of “radical” Islam, joined ISIS. They joined because they wanted to fight the power in Baghdad.
So, Packer is proposing that we agree to fight a nebulous enemy instead of a specific and complex one, in a landscape devoid of any history except the American one – which consists of Americans heroically rescuing their Vietnamese pals, or their Iraqi pals, etc.
Here are the questions the war hawks should answer: how can you couple defeating ISIS and reconciling the Iraqi Sunnis with the Iraqi Shiite state; how can you fight against Syria while simulataneously asking Syria to fight against ISIS; how can you defeat an enemy that has morale and skill with a foreign force from the air; how can you restrain the landgrabbing of your allies, like Kurdistan; how can you restrain the resourcing of ISIS by your other allies in the Gulf?
My prediction is that none of these questions will even be asked, and that an empty and ultimately disasterous moral gesture will take thousands of lives and produce exactly nothing.
But at least we will have done something! And isn’t that the sweetest little sop to our narcissism?