FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The ISIS Panic

by

The grotesque beheading of James Foley is stirring passions in Washington policy circles.  From the highest levels of the Obama administration to the media pundits, emotions are flaring over what the United States should/could do.  The act in itself has changed nothing insofar as IS’ threat to the United States and its significance for Middle East politics are concerned. It is the mood that has been transformed. Irresistible impulse is displacing cool deliberation.

The flood of commentary, as usual, reveals little in the way of rigorous logic but much in the way of disjointed thinking and unchecked emotion. Also as usual, tactics eclipse strategy. Secretary Hagel pronounces IS the gravest threat from Islamist militancy “beyond anything we have seen….an imminent threat to everything we have….a 9/11 level threat.”  General Dempsey asserts that IS poses an “immediate” threat and cannot be “defeated without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria and use all means at our disposal. General John Allen who commanded American forces in Afghanistan, calls on President Obama to wipe out ISIS – whatever it takes. That is to say, a feat neither he nor his nine fellow commanders never came close to achieving in Afghanistan.   Rick Perry, as headlined in the NYT, warns that the immediate danger is not on the Euphrates or Tigris but the Rio Grande where IS infiltrators already have entered the United States (presumably disguised as Honduran teenagers).  Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the self-appointed joint chiefs  of “bomber command,” vociferously demand that we hammer IS – although it is not clear where IS stands on the priority list of the many bad guys the hawkish duo insist we must bomb.begging slogans6

These bits of fragmentary diagnosis and prescription – even the sober ones – are not very helpful.

Let’s get down to basics: national interests, threat assessment; measures of a successful policy. We cannot interpret what it means to “defeat” IS until we specify exactly what it is we are worrying about. Is it terrorism launched against the United States (a la 9/11) from the territories they control? Is it toppling the Baghdad government? Toppling the Kurdish government? Invading Jordan or Saudi Arabia? Presenting a long-term terrorist threat in the region that will destabilize governments we want to be stable? These variations of the threat present very different kinds of challenges. They affect American interests in different ways in different magnitudes. They are susceptible to different types of action – by the U.S. or by others.

Airstrikes are only pertinent to threats 2, 3 and 4, with the likelihood and degree of their effectiveness still highly uncertain. “Boots on the ground?” Well, we had a very large force in Iraq for eight years and that did not prevent the emergence of IS from the wounded body of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. This enemy is even more formidable. Nor could a new invasion protect the United States from direct terrorist acts. Complete elimination of IS from the territories they occupy is a near impossibility; moreover, to eliminate it permanently as General Allen demands is even more improbable. That is the dilemma we’ve faced with the Taliban in Afghanistan and which for more than a decade we have refused to recognize much less try seriously to solve.  Moreover, territorial control for training bases, indoctrination centers, planning cells, etc. is greatly over-rated.  Al-Qaeda did not need very much to set in motion the 9/11 attacks. The operational planning and coordination was done in Hamburg and the tactical execution managed from New Jersey.

There is a more general lesson to be learned from this latest exercise in ad hoc policy-making by press conference.  The insistence of senior officials to speak at length in public on these complex, sensitive matters when there is no set policy is inimical to serious planning and diplomacy.  If they feel compelled to react to events to satisfy the media and an agitated populace, they should just say a few well chosen words and then declare themselves on the way to an important meeting – preferably not in Martha’s Vineyard.

Silence, though, is taken to be tantamount to death in the egocentric media age where image is all – confusing random motion with focused action.  The ensuing storm of static in our public space is invasive.  It destroys the ability to reflect, to assess, to ponder, to imagine.  We have come to ‘think’ in sound bites as well as to talk in sound bites.  This is the ultimate endpoint of a political culture where we spend more time trying to sort ourselves out than actually doing anything.

To put it bluntly, there is a persuasive argument to be made that the country would be well served if our leaders observed a moratorium on public statements for several days – ignoring the vain media, the not very knowledgeable or insightful pundits, and the blow-hard politicians – and devoted themselves to some concentrated hard thinking.  Serious governments, especially that of a super power, do not conduct their foreign relations in a state of histrionics.

We should be able to do better job of policy analysis than what we have seen to date re IS – and what we have seen during the entire GWOT era. The failure to meet a reasonable standard of sound deliberation and skillful execution has produced a national tragedy. That is an embarrassing commentary on the state of the American government.

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

 

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
February 24, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Pierre M. Sprey - Franklin “Chuck” Spinney
Sleepwalking Into a Nuclear Arms Race with Russia
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Exxon’s End Game Theory
John Laforge
Did Obama Pave the Way for More Torture?
Ajamu Baraka
Malcolm X and Human Rights in the Time of Trumpism:  Transcending the Masters tools
Paul Street
Liberal Hypocrisy, “Late-Shaming,” and Russia-Blaming in the Age of Trump
Vijay Prashad
A Foreign Policy of Cruel Populism
John Chuckman
Israel’s Terrible Problem: Two States or One?
Matthew Stevenson
The Parallax View of Donald Trump
Stan Cox
Can the Climate Survive Electoral Democracy? Maybe. Can It Survive Capitalism? No.
Ramzy Baroud
The Trump-Netanyahu Circus: Now, No One Can Save Israel from Itself
Chuck Collins
Wall Street Hopes You’ve Forgotten the Crash Already
Edward Hunt
The United States of Permanent War
Pete Dolack
The Bait and Switch of Public-Private Partnerships
Elliot Sperber
Why Resistance is Insufficient
Brian Cloughley
What are You Going to Do About Afghanistan, President Trump?
Binoy Kampmark
Warring in the Oncology Ward
Yves Engler
Remembering the Coup in Ghana
Jeremy Brecher
“Climate Kids” v. Trump: Trial of the Century Pits Trump Climate Denialism Against Right to a Climate System Capable of Sustaining Human Life”
Franklin Lamb
Another Small Step for Syrian Refugee Children in Beirut’s “Aleppo Park”
Ron Jacobs
The Realist: Irreverence Was Their Only Sacred Cow
Robert Koehler
Costa Rica’s Peace Journey
Andre Vltchek
Lock up England in Jail or an Insane Asylum!
Paul DeRienzo
Three Years Since the Kitty Litter Disaster at Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
Eric Sommer
Organize Workers Immigrant Defense Committees!
Steve Cooper
A Progressive Agenda
Andrew Stewart
The 4CHAN Presidency: A Media Critique of the Alt-Right
Edward Leer
Tripping USA: The Chair
Nyla Ali Khan
One Certain Effect of Instability in Kashmir is the Erosion of Freedom of Expression and Regional Integration
Rob Hager
The Only Fake News That Probably Threw the Election to Trump was not Russian 
Mark Dickman
The Prophet: Deutscher’s Trotsky
Christopher Brauchli
The Politics of the Toilet Police
Charles R. Larson
Review: Timothy B. Tyson’s “The Blood of Emmett Till”
February 23, 2017
Dave Brotherton
Trump, Moral Panics and Resistance
Jonathan Cook
One State: Trump Has Reminded Palestinians What It Was Always About
Bill Quigley
Ten Examples of Direct Resistance to Stop Government Raids
Linn Washington Jr.
Bigot Boy Business: Trump Exposes His Ignorance and Intolerance, Again
John W. Whitehead
The Illusion of Freedom: the Police State Is Alive and Well
Ralph Nader
Restricting People’s Use of Their Courts
David Macaray
Women As Labor Union Organizers
Kathy Kelly
Friendship in Defiance of War
Doug Weir
Why Did the US Use Depleted Uranium Weapons in Syria?
Steve Horn
Former GOP Congressional Staffer Follows Revolving Door, Now Latest Keystone XL Lobbyist
Binoy Kampmark
From Rights to Repentance: Norma McCorvey and Roe v Wade
Thomas Knapp
The Target of the “Border Adjustment Tax” is You
Chris Zinda
Open Letter to Neoliberal Environmentalists
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail