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ISIS and the American Way of War


What better gift for the War On Terror-Industrial-Complex (WOTIC) than the rapid rise and initial success of the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS? A patchwork of brutal know-nothing thugs, IS militants can’t wait to impose a twisted version of “Shariah” on their unwilling victims, and to terrorize actual and potential opponents through mass executions and videotaped beheadings. Just as eagerly, IS’s self-declared ‘enemies’—neocons in DC and NATO warriors in London and Brussels—can’t wait to escalate their budding war against these people, the inevitable and horrifying collateral damage be damned.

Reality has not been kind to the WOTIC. US troops left Iraq several years ago (inside-the-Beltway fantasy is another matter). Most US military personnel are slated to depart Afghanistan before long.  (Joseph Kony and abducted Nigerian girls?) The growing US military role in Africa is potentially juicy but too muted at present to excite much. The toppling of Ghaddafi proved a disaster (though don’t look for an admission of this from official Washington or its hangers on). Obama hasn’t yet made all the same mistakes in Syria (just some of them), though not for lack of encouragement and needling by the War Party.

Extrajudicial executions by drones are sweet (take that al-Shabab!), but like eating candy, the satisfaction is fleeting (how many times can you whack the “leader” of the Pakistani Taliban and still get the same buzz?). The latest Israeli crimes against the imprisoned inhabitants of Gaza were fun to watch, but like televised sports, also not wholly fulfilling. The ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine provides ample opportunity for Putin-baiters and Russia-haters, but it’s not like unleashing the Joint Special Operations Command.

Groups like ISIS, as Patrick Cockburn and Tom Engelhardt, have made clear, don’t just appear out of thin air. They’re built, constructed out of wrong-headed Western (especially US) foreign policies stretching from the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (along with irresistible assistance to warlords and sectarians) to the failure to enthusiastically support Arab Spring democrats. Add the waging of indefinite counterterrorist and counterinsurgency wars and we have the New Enemy Creation Process.

Al-Qaeda was insufficient, US elites needed to war against the Talibans in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Saddam Hussein was not enough, George Bush’s “bring ‘em on” engendered new and revitalized old Sunni and Shia militias. The PLO was an inadequate boogieman, American policy demonized Hamas too. Columbian drug runners were inadequate, Washington added the FARC. When Muammar Ghaddafi had to go, NATO got tribal gunmen (and “Benghazi”) in the bargain. When Bashar al-Assad’s time was up, the jihadis poured forth.

Propagating an endless steam of new enemies transforms war into a permanent enterprise that generates trillions in debt, billions in profits, and millions of security clearances. New bureaucracies are built. Old ones are strengthened and expanded.  Militarization transforms formerly civilian police forces and once quiet international borders.

No doubt war-mongering politicians and pundits have plagued humanity since the Peloponnesian War. American war profiteering is older than the American Republic. Imperial interventions began with the War of 1812 (if counting the slaughter of Natives, American colonists have been at it since one of their first forays on to Cape Cod). Perennial preparations for war have been a central feature of American life since the Truman administration.

What’s changed is that the American way of war—once subject to the constraints of time and space—has been liberated from its earthly shackles. American war has, like much of the US economy, gone digital, global, untethered by democratic control. US foreign and defense policy has become a New Enemy Creation Process: always hungry, ever alert. The Islamic State is almost too good to be true for the War on Terror-Industrial-Complex.

Obama will reportedly “declare war” on the Islamic State on September 10. (It’s somewhat surprising his advisors didn’t suggest waiting an additional day to maximize historical resonance). Unnamed “senior administration officials” and “military planners” tell the New York Times that the campaign against IS may last “at least 36 months.”

The CIA spent most of the 1980s across the border in Pakistan in support of armed groups that would later become al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Group, and the Taliban; the US military has been in Afghanistan since 2001. US military forces and intelligence agencies have been in, over, and around Iraq—with varying degrees of lethal intensity—since 1990. There is no reason to believe the ongoing war against IS won’t be as boundless or last as long, that is, without limits in time or space.

US peace groups are profoundly familiar with the institutional, political-economic, and ideological changes necessary to stop creating new enemies. The American public is dog-tired of endless war. If only the former could energize the latter.

Steve Breyman is a former grassroots environmental health organization executive, New York climate change bureaucrat, and US State Department Fellow. Reach him at


Steve Breyman was a William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow in the Clinton State Department, and serves as an advisor to Jill Stein, candidate for the Green Party presidential nomination. Reach him at

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