Why Obama “Must” Bomb ISIS

Every national peace group (large and small, new and old, religious and secular) opposes Barack Obama’s war against ISIS in Iraq, and its recent extension to Syria. Their opposition extends to Obama’s Congress-sanctioned arming of “moderate” Syrian rebels (for which legislators found half a billion dollars).

The anti-war movement’s antagonism is sturdy and reasoned. It’s based on irrefutable historical, political, economic and cultural analysis focused on the past thirteen years of bloody, wasteful, failed war on Afghanistan and Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen, Libya and Somalia. Find some here, here, and here.

The groups don’t merely oppose more war. They also advance positive agendas of alternatives to bombing. United for Peace and Justice (an umbrella coalition under which many US peace groups cohere) recommends five “better choices”: (1) make diplomacy and humanitarian assistance the priority; (2) seek improved relations with Iran to end the fighting in the region; (3) work through the United Nations to halt the flow of financing and weapons to ISIS; (4) re-start UN-directed negotiations to end the civil war in Syria; (5) mobilize to solve the real problems in the region—poverty, hunger, drought, joblessness.

David Swanson of World Beyond War (and Secretary of Peace in the Green Shadow Cabinet) has these suggestions as to what “What to Do About ISIS”: (1) stop bombing; (2) stop shipping arms; (3) be skeptical of humanitarian claims; (4) apologize to ISIS leader al-Baghdadi for brutalizing him in Abu Ghraib; (5) make restitution for damages inflicted on Iraq; (6) apologize for advancing war in Syria; (7) begin withdrawing US forces from overseas; (8) work through the United Nations; (9) have the US join the International Criminal Court, etc.

Sound as this advice is, policymakers are unable to take it. For Obama, Congress and the Pentagon, there is no alternative to airstrikes on the Islamic State, and to arming Syrian rebel moderates. Add the structure of US national security policy—its institutions, practices and tools—to alliances with authoritarian regimes, past mistakes and ‘policy momentum,’ corporate power, the ideologies and worldviews of officials, and the lack of genuine American democracy. The sum of these addends restricts decision-makers’ options to war, and more war.

Consider the five-point program—”How to Combat ISIS Without Bombs”—put forward by Win Without War (WWW; another coalition that includes Global Exchange, Pax Christi, Tikkun, Peace Action, Greenpeace, NOW, and numerous other groups):

* Hit ISIS economically

* Crack down on ISIS’s weapons supply

* Address political grievances of local populations

* Lead a multinational international response

* Provide humanitarian aid.

Like the recommendations above, policies predicated on these alternatives are vastly superior to blind plunging ahead with airstrikes and weapons deliveries. Each, however, runs up against deep-grained US foreign policy standard operating procedures and non-military options foreclosed by past mistakes.

ISIS’s Finances

To “hit ISIS economically” requires cracking down on those who finance the organization and the banks that store the loot. The War on Terror spawned several new offices to restrict the funding of designated terrorist organizations and individuals across DC in the Departments of Homeland Security, State, Commerce and Treasury. This effort (unlike that aimed at Mexican drug cartels) made some inroads (it’s hard to independently know how significant), but not without bogus “material support for terrorism” charges being leveled against several charitable organizations and generous individuals. In the face of strong paper regulations forbidding banks to service terrorists and other organized criminals, Wall Street averages about a major scandal a year since 9/11.

Two factors complicate the mission of squeezing terrorist finances: (1) considerable funding for jihadi groups comes from individual citizens of erstwhile US allies in the Persian Gulf (a problem dating from the proxy war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan), although there’s little or no evidence that ISIS is dependent on foreign donors; and (2) ISIS is to a large extent self-financing.

US efforts to get Saudi Arabia and other Gulf oil sheikdoms to shut down the money funnel have run into obstacles at the very highest levels of government; presidents and secretaries of state are unwilling to jeopardize relations with the hydrocarbon kingdoms over the matter. ISIS’s wealth (some estimates have it as high as $500 million) is the result of kidnappings for ransom, robberies, protection rackets, and illicit sales of Syrian and Iraqi oil. The group is said to demand 10-20% of receipts from businesses in the towns and cities it controls.

Win Without War suggests targeting the “Turkish, Iraqi, and other oil dealers who are purchasing the oil on the black market“—a sensible course of action—but Turkish authority (let alone US) does not extend far along its 750 mile border with Syria and Iraq where smuggling of all sorts has been a way of life for decades (Turkey’s war against its Kurds made licit livings difficult to make). And the estimates of $1-2 million per day for ISIS coffers from oil sales appear wildly overblown.

Restrict ISIS’s Weapons Supply

Win Without War wisely recommends that President Obama pressure Turkey to restrict the flow of weapons and foreign fighters across its border with Syria. Obama recently talked with the new Turkish president about doing just that. And he convinced the UN Security Council to criminalize participation in armed jihad. But as with crude oil smuggling—and the trafficking of contraband over the US-Mexico border—attempts to interdict the flow of militants and weaponry across long, rugged international boundaries against the efforts of determined professional smugglers leads to hugely expensive, frequently brutal, only partially effective, metastasized and militarized border control-industrial complexes. Consider too that weapons (and oil) smuggling is highly lucrative and leads to official corruption and the obstacles become clear.

That considerable heavy US weaponry—including tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery—already fell into Islamic State’s hands following the Iraqi Army’s humiliating defeat in Mosul (and more recent defeats in Anbar) at the hands of what were once lightly armed extremists did not deter Obama or his bipartisan supporters on Capitol Hill from deciding to send more lethal assistance, and to train handpicked Syrian rebels in its use. They were not deterred either by the knowledge that some unknown but nontrivial number of formerly “moderate” Syrian insurgents now fight for ISIS and other non-preferred networks.

Cruise missile attacks and bombing sorties (including by the boondoggle F-22, it’s first use “in combat”) appear to politicians and bureaucrats the superior option; they supply deep gratification for those who see them as legitimate tools, that sense of satisfaction anti-smuggling efforts experience rarely.

Local Political Grievances

Win Without War would have Obama attempt to heal the wounds inflicted on Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis by their Alawite and Shi’a dominated governments so as to deprive ISIS of local support. They point to the “Anbar Awakening”—where the US Army used suitcases of $100 bills to sway tribal militia leaders from their support of al Qaeda in Iraq—as a model.

The US invasion and occupation of Iraq, de-Baathification, and bungled reconstruction paved the way for Shi’a dominance of Iraqi politics. Washington appears to understand the need for the Iraqi political system to fairly include Sunnis. This is why John Kerry engineered the replacement of Nouri al Maliki by Haidar al Abbadi. But years of support for the sectarian al-Maliki whose policies deeply alienated Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds will not be easy to undo. And the prospects for resolution of the Syrian civil war, called for by WWW, seem lower at present than they did earlier this year at the failed peace talks in Montreux.

Washington can’t even sort out its own “local political grievances;” fixing the mess it made of Iraqi politics is inconceivable. It’s far easier just to bomb the bastards.

Multilateral International Response

WWW suggests building a coalition that would reduce the recruitment of Westerners to ISIS rather than one that supports US airstrikes against the militants. The peace activists understand ISIS thrives because of conflicts in Syria and Iraq “fueled by foreign interests,” and thus urge Obama to involve “all the parties including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and others.”

The War on Terror-Industrial Complex prefers to spy on “radical” imams and mosques to reforming its foreign policy or engaging with communities from which potential Western jihadis come. US foreign policy has worked to isolate Tehran since 1979, ratcheting up the pressure of sanctions periodically as during the last few years over Iran’s nuclear research program. John Kerry can’t make up his mind whether to include Iran in the anti-ISIS coalition; he shut Iran out of the Paris conference he organized but then backtracked within a day or two muttering about a possible role for Iran against the Wahabis.

Humanitarian Aid

WIW recognizes that the Obama administration has provided more assistance to Syrian refugees than any other government. But US aid has been no where close to what’s needed to meet the needs of the millions—1.4 million in tiny Lebanon alone—short of food, clothing, shelter, medicine and schools. Elected national Americans leaders are always able to find enough money to wage war, but never able to find enough to alleviate misery.

The US did next to nothing on its own to aid the starving Palestinians in the Yarmouk refugee camp outside Damascus. And the US has failed to support the democratic Self-Administration Zones in northern Syria, even though as Michael Beer of Nonviolence International reports, these “autonomous governments are secular, have a 40 percent quota for women in leadership positions, and are committed to a united Syria and a pluralist Syria.”

At the same time, US humanitarian aid is considerably greater than that provided by its Gulf Arab coalition partners. Rather than solicit support for its bombing campaign, the US ought to cobble together sufficient donors to meet the needs of the innocents displaced by war in Iraq and Syria.


Barack Obama and the US Congress just made the same mistake in regard to Islamic State that George Bush and the US Congress made regarding al Qaeda following 9/11: they ‘declared war’ on a smallish bunch of brutal criminals thereby elevating their status and opening the flood gates of recruitment after being attacked by the Great Satan. They stepped right into the trap set for them by al Baghdadi: the beheading videos were designed to elicit a violent response from Washington. It worked: ISIS is now the organization of choice for aspiring jihadis.

Obama and Congress are unable to choose diplomacy and humanitarian aid over war with ISIS for several interrelated reasons. First, most of those who make and implement US national security policy have distorted and fantastical worldviews.  They believe the US can act as both world policeman and benign hegemon. They justify most any level of violence and collateral damage in service to policy ends—”destroy ISIS”—impossible to achieve. They see US bombs as problem solvers, and disregard all contradictory evidence.

Second, today’s policy has implications—some very long lasting—for tomorrow’s, as yesterday’s has for today’s. Policies gather momentum and lose malleability over time. Policies enroll supporters, generate enormous sums for contractors, and shunt aside dissenters. Decisions made, weapons bought, money spent, bureaucracies shaped during the War on Terror echo into the future. US policy has become little more than a New Enemy Creation Process. Even if Obama (and it’s clear he does not) or the next president wanted to make a clean break, to finally bring an end to the War on Terror, it would, and will be, a very difficult undertaking.

Third, the failure of Congress and the American people to rein in presidential war making powers, to challenge even the serial illegal actions of successive presidents, reduces the prospects for the stem to stern overhaul of US policy necessary to follow the sane advice of peace groups. Fourth, the interests vested in the War on Terror-Industrial-Complex represent some of the most powerful political-economic actors in the country; their hold over policy cannot be underestimated.

Surprise as to the lopsided authorization for Obama’s direct war against ISIS and indirect war against al Assad evaporates in light of this analysis. Reasonable observers may have thought that thirteen years of experience, pain, shame and waste would be sufficient to at least teach officials what to avoid this time. Yet here they go again complete with deployment of “boots on the ground” regardless of the president’s claims to the contrary.

Steve Breyman is author of Movement Genesis and Why Movements Matter. He is a former William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow at the US State Department. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu


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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 breyms@rpi.edu

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