For the second time in thirteen years, the United States stands on the brink of declaring “war” against a nascent state entity deploying brutal acts of visually shocking violence, resentment of Western and Israeli power and wealth, militant Sunni Muslim fundamentalism, and whose grandest strategic ambition appears to be tempting the United States to act as a catspaw against whom the entire dar al-Islam might coalesce as a more or less unified nation.
If you’re like me, and I know I am, you’re more than a bit weary of war, and that war in particular. We’ve expended what feels like an appalling cost in lives and injuries, and what is uncontestably an appalling cost of money, being effectively at war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban for thirteen years and in Iraq for eleven years. And now, less than eighteen months after formally withdrawing from Iraq, the political change worked there at such a great cost in blood and treasure imperiled. Worse, it’s now imperiled by what would in a past era have been dismissed as bandits and thugs.
And the political jockeying and posturing on the issue is tiresomely familiar and repetitive. We should go back to war, no we shouldn’t go back to war, we look weak, no we don’t look weak, so what if we look weak, aren’t the Russians going to do something about this.
Now, about the Russians — news flash: no, they aren’t going to do anything about ISIS because a) why would they and b) they’re too busy accidentally seizing bits of eastern Ukraine — and we clearly aren’t going to do anything meaningful about that, either, because maybe we don’t really care about that all that much, we’d just as soon not go to war with Russia if that could be avoided, and so maybe we can just learn to live with Russia gradually nibbling away at Ukraine’s eastern border, until it can’t anymore.
And therein lies an object lesson: if we aren’t going to do anything about Russia seizing bits of Ukraine because really, why should we care about it and the costs of fighting the apparent adversary exceed whatever benefit might be gained, then maybe we can have that same attitude about ISIS*.
That’s a tough proposition for me to swallow on an emotional level. ISIS are really bad dudes. It’s easy to characterize Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as little more than a thug who has enjoyed more than his fair share of battlefield success and whose enterprise is doomed to self-destruction. After all, if the charismatic, wealthy, and politically savvy Osama bin Laden could not get himself acclaimed Caliph, what possible chance does al-Baghdadi have of getting someone who is not directly looking at the business end of one of his soldier’s rifles to thus acclaim?
Dismissing al-Baghdadi that way ignores the fact that he has assembled a leadership team that includes people with substantial military, financial, and even civil administrative experience. And they’re putting it to use, providing basic policing services, mail delivery, and maintenance of financial ties with the mainstream banking world. They’re taxing and profiting from oil being drilled and shipped out of their territory to the tune of two million dollars a day. In other words, they’re offering and paying for a government, in a way that does not directly involve the payment of taxes by their subjects. It’s not a democratic government, and as I’ll discuss below, it’s a pretty damn brutal government if you get crosswise of it, but if you keep your head down and do your job you may very well be all right on a day to day basis.
Compare this to bin Laden and his successor and former lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri, who held themselves out as principally political thinkers and would-be leaders rather than military figures or state-builders. Bin Laden awaited a massive uprising of Muslims proclaiming him Caliph but declined to assume the title unilaterally, believing that the proclamation must come from the whole of the dar al-Islam. How disappointed he must have been to have earned more scorn than praise from the Muslim world after 9/11. But taking a cue from Napoleon, and the lesson from bin Laden’s lack of acclamation, al-Baghdadi has simply proclaimed himself “Caliph Ibrahim” and he’s proceeding from there.
Where al-Qaeda pulled off massive bombings, most powerfully in the September 11, 2011 attacks on the United States, ISIS has inflamed Western passions not so much by seizing effective control of territory in northeastern Syria and northern Iraq as by beheading two American journalists in less than a month. The very concept of beheading seems medieval-to-barbaric, and could not be better-calculated to inspire fear and loathing.
But as inflammatory and awful as the beheadings are, they are but individual accents on a long list of human rights offenses perpetrated by ISIS. Crucifixions and mass executions. Attacks on unarmed civilians — including children and a decagenarian. Kidnapping and raping women, and even raping young girls as part of an ethnic cleansing. Drafting child soldiers. Forcing women to take the veil and forcing Christians to convert to Islam or assume dhimmi status (including the payment of a heavy ‘tax’) seem trivial by comparison.
If human rights abuses were the real reasons we went to war, we’d have all the cause we needed against ISIS. But the prevention of human rights abuses is quite obviously a pleasing tissue wrapped over a real truth: war is about power, not morality. Human rights abuse is not the sort of reason we go to war, and our recent track record on things like torture isn’t the best. Realism prevails: we will readily look the other way about human rights abuses when economic or strategic imperatives for involvement are absent from the picture.
So if ISIS succeeds in conquering all of Iraq, would the resulting regional political situation really be so different from the 1980’s? Remember that time — Syria and Israel were vying for dominance through proxies in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia’s king was selling us oil and buying our weapons while doing things quietly to appease the more radical religious elements of its population, Egypt was under the control of a predictable if unlikable military dictator with only the barest pretense of democracy, and Iran and Iraq were at war with one another and fending off subversions sent their way from Saudi Arabia and Egypt and thus too busy to think about achieving regional dominance, while every Arab state in the region pounded on their chests about Israel bullying Palestinians while putting down an intifada, but obviously never really intended to do anything about it. To me, this description of the Middle East is rather like Garbage’s eponymous first album: it still sounds contemporary and cutting-edge, but in fact the album is nearly twenty years old. So too with chaos in the Fertile Crescent: thus it has been for a century, to the strategic net advantage of the West.
So while we’ve got lawmakers agitating for war, and the President dismissing containment in favor of destroying ISIS, there’s no particular reason to think that as awful and illiberal as ISIS is, the terrible things it does to people under its power will matter a whole lot to those of us who aren’t under its direct control. Which is probably why there really isn’t much political support for more than air strikes and arming the Kurds, and even that is mushy: the idea of putting Western boots on the ground is proving politically unpopular in North America and Europe alike. After all, ISIS isn’t about to stop pumping or selling the oil: especially if they are going to establish themselves as a formal nation-state, they need the money! And if they can’t get it, then are they ever going to amount to much more than an overgrown gang of motorcycle bandits?
So the key here is convincing the entities that have the ability to block money from entering ISIS’s coffers to do so. Oil can flow out of ISIS’s territory north through Turkey, west through Assad-controlled Syria, east through Iran, or south through Iraq. Not a single one of those nation-states has the remotest incentive to see ISIS succeed in establishing itself. It seems to me that all they need to do is turn the oil away for long enough to starve ISIS out of its ability to provide governmental apparatus and they’ll be reduced to an assemblage of several thousand religious zealots with little more than small arms and some stolen armored personnel carriers.
I suppose I can be convinced otherwise; I understand that that we in the west are politically weary of war does not necessary mean that we can lay down our arms. If ISIS is a real strategic threat, then yes, we need to take it out. But I’m not convinced that it is a strategic threat. I’m not convinced that ISIS can’t be lived with for a while and ultimately contained — whether that is accomplished by playing it off against regional rivals or put into stagnation by limiting its income from oil sales — that may be a better, cheaper, and more effective way of preventing it from turning in to a real strategic problem and to me that looks like something we ought to try before we start dropping bombs and sending in humanitarian advisors which will inevitably lead to boots on the ground in Iraq again. The last time we tried that, it was a long, bloody, expensive slog to achieve middling results at best.
Until someone convinces me that there is an imperative to do otherwise, I’m once bitten, twice shy. Let’s try containing these hooligans before we get ourselves sucked in to yet another full-blown war.
UPDATE, SEPTEMBER 11, 2014: It would appear that President Obama thinks differently about this issue than I. He’s sending 475 “advisors” to Iraq to train and dispense intelligence to Iraqi and Kurdish ground troops, and providing unidentified military aid to unidentified rebel factions in Syria, and continuing air strikes against ISIS, albeit now publicly acknowledging that this is happening. I note that he did not and does not intend to ask for Congress’ permission to do any of this, notwithstanding legal requirements that he do so, and apparently no one particularly wants him to. Depressingly, this sounds familiar. The President’s announced strategy has earned criticism from the left for not committing enough force to make a difference and from the right for not gathering together a sufficient coalition of allies. (For example, Turkey.) And nothing about isolating the flow of oil money. Sending military advisors and equipment may not always necessarily be a prelude to fully joining war, but it’s painfully easy to see how it could become so in this case. Since this is to be the strategy, let us all hope it will be successful notwithstanding whatever misgivings we may have about it.
* The entity headed by al-Baghdadi first came to my attention under the name ISIS, an acronym for “the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.” Since then, I have heard it also referred to as ISIL, “Islamic State of Iraq andthe Levant,” which underlines its opposition to the existence of Israel but downplays its activities in the ongoing Syrian civil war; as well as simply “The Islamic State” or “The Caliphate,” which reveal its pretense to imperial global-power status. As I am not sure that the entity has achieved the status of de facto statehood yet as it does not seem that there is a durable and delegable monopoly on the use of force within ISIS territory, and as I am not convinced that whatever overt claims of anti-Israeli aggression are particularly sincere, and as only a tiny percentage of Muslims not in proximity to the business end of ISIS’ weaponry have acknowledged al-Baghdadi as Caliph, I have elected here to continue use of ISIS and al-Baghdadi as opposed to the titles-in-pretense “The Caliphate” and “Caliph Ibrahim.” And I hardly want to assign a mighty title like “Caliph” to such a man, given that he appears to be making a bid for the “Adolf Hitler Award for Decade’s Greatest Perpetrator of Evil on the Planet, 2010-2019.”
Burt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.