In an interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times on August 8 (www.nytimes.com/2014/08/09/opinion/president-obama-thomas-l-friedman-iraq-and-world-affairs.html?), President Obama stressed that the US was only fighting the Islamic State (IS, or ISIS) in Iraq as a partner, not as Iraq’s or the Kurds’ air force. “We will be your partners, but we are not going to do it for you. We’re not sending a bunch of US troops back on the ground to keep a lid on things,” Obama said his officials are telling everyone. Now, less than three weeks later, the strategic picture changed. US air strikes temporarily stalled the IS advance, but its expanding territorial control (now about equal in area to Jordan) and the beheading of an American reporter led Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to declare IS a threat “beyond anything we’ve seen.” Washington was reported to be contemplating increasing the number of US advisers. There is even talk of carrying out air strikes in Syria.
We have witnessed this sudden turnaround many times before, haven’t we? The pattern is all too familiar. First, the President and other top US leaders soft-pedal talk about a modest direct role in a conflict: no boots on the ground, just a few air strikes to create better odds for our side. Then the characterization of the threat changes, from local to regional and even global (see the comments of Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among others, at www.nytimes.com/2014/08/23/us/politics/us-isnt-sure-just-how-much-to-fear-isis.html). What was once called a terrorist group now is an insurgency, with grand ambitions that may carry to our doorstep. This change is followed by dropping talk of partnership and political reform in our ally’s capital. Now the threat takes on highest priority. Congress follows the administration’s lead by abandoning its responsibility to authorize war or otherwise challenge the commander-in-chief.
Once the stakes have risen in the minds of decisionmakers, the US role becomes paramount. After all, if not us, who? The US thus becomes the victim of its unilateralist impulse. When presidents of both parties have decided to intervene abroad—in Korea, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Grenada, and Iraq, for example—they always acted in the name of national security and were quite prepared to go to war without allies. When they accepted offers of help, it was only on the condition of total US control of war making. War “by committee” was unacceptable, as Donald Rumsfeld famously said in relation to the first Gulf War. What the US wants are “coalitions of the willing”—governments willing, that is, to follow US orders.
Now the US faces having to deal with the IS largely on its own. The “we” in Obama’s interview with Friedman includes no one else but us—unless, that is, you include Syria, whose dictator has already thrown down the welcome mat at the prospect of the US becoming involved in its civil war and bombing IS soldiers. Everyone else is writing checks or cheerleading from the sidelines. Such a situation, as John Feffer recently wrote (http://fpif.org/bombing-caliphate/), is fraught with peril. US bombs will kill a certain number of IS fighters, but how many more recruits will IS gain as a result? How much more likely will an attack on a target in the US become as Washington makes the war on IS its own? How much less likely will a political settlement of Iraq’s internal struggle be? Trying to level the playing field unilaterally with bombs and advisers is a sucker’s game.
Where are US allies in this supposedly monumental battle—not just the Europeans in NATO but the Japanese, the Koreans, and the Australians? Where are the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, the Turks? (Well, we know where they are.) What about the Saudis, who have played an artful double game by supplying low-cost oil to the US and doing business with Israel while nurturing the Salafi Sunni terrorists whom the US now faces as IS? (See www.nytimes.com/2014/08/23/opinion/isis-atrocities-started-with-saudi-support-for-salafi-hate.html?). (Oh yes, the Saudis wrote a check for about a half billion dollars to the UN for humanitarian relief—quiet money!) Chuck Hagel may think the IS threat is “imminent” and must be “destroyed,” but why has no one else said so? And why hasn’t the US brought this “threat to international security” to the United Nations?
ISIS is evil, but it isn’t a threat on the order of Nazi Germany. If it were, presumably many countries would line up with Washington. Moreover, the IS threat is to regional states and people of every religion. If they believe their survival is on the line, they will respond accordingly. The Kurds, the Iranians, the Saudis, even those Iraqis who haven’t run away are all well armed and well trained, and have the numbers, to deal with IS. Let them protect themselves. The US is again playing sheriff without a posse.