ISIS War Debates I: Why Is This Our Fight?

The Nation, Jan 14, 2016:

This war is already lost. None of the US governing class’ shifting war aims—stabilizing the region, defending human rights, ending terrorism, establishing democracy—can be achieved. There is no future “diplomatic” solution that justifies continuing the waste of life, treasure, and national honor.

Our ongoing intervention in the Middle East cannot succeed for the same reason that it could not succeed in Vietnam: We are foreign invaders, brutal enough to alienate the people of Iraq and Syria but not brutal enough to subjugate them. By expanding and re-escalating the war with enough US troops and bombs—and bribes to every warlord in sight—we might (with or without the Russians) degrade and perhaps even destroy, the Islamic State organization in Iraq and Syria. But it would leave the region an even more ungovernable wasteland of death and destruction and hatred of Americans.

ISIS is but one of many groups using that hatred as a ladder to power. In order to hammer down others who would inevitably pop back up in this grisly game of whack-a-mole, the United States would have to indefinitely maintain a heavily armed presence in the region. The cost would be enormous, and American voters—who have not even been willing to pay higher taxes to support the current level of occupation—will have no stomach for it.

We cannot predict the consequences of a complete US withdrawal. But we do know that without the American presence, extremists would no longer be able to position themselves as the Islamic defenders against Western crusaders. Moreover, if ISIS really is the existential threat to the region that the bipartisan Washington war chorus says it is, then, if left to themselves, the Sunnis and Shiites, Turks and Kurds, Iranians and Saudis would be compelled for their own survival to join together to take it down. Their combined armed forces are at least 15 times larger, and are far better equipped, than the army of ISIS, which does not even have an air force. If the prospect of an ISIS caliphate is not enough of a threat for them to unite, why is this our fight?

Leaving would be logistically complicated and probably, at times, undignified. It would cost money up-front; we have obligations to people we would have to compensate and probably resettle. But the longer we fight, the more expensive it will be.

Meanwhile, the costs at home are piling up. We are diverting vast resources from an economy that is becoming less equal, less fair, and less competitive. We are exhausting our moral capital. Fear-mongering fans the flames of bigotry and frightens the public into ceding civil liberties in the name of national security. Endless war means the endless erosion of our democracy.

Despite the grisly sensationalism of the pro-war media, most Americans think the invasion was a mistake and oppose the redeployment of troops. At least a third of the electorate has consistently opposed any US military involvement at all. This should certainly be enough of a base upon which to build an anti-war constituency.

But with or without an anti-war movement, we will eventually pull out. The question is how many more people have to die before we do.


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