The Escalation Follies
When you think about it, from the moment the first bombs began falling on Afghanistan in October 2001 to the present, not a single US military intervention has had anything like its intended effect. Each one has, in time, proven a disaster in its own special way, providing breeding grounds for extremism and producing yet another set of recruitment posters for yet another set of jihadist movements. Looked at in a clear-eyed way, this is what any American military intervention seems to offer such extremist outfits—and ISIS knows it.
Don't consider its taunting video of James Foley's execution the irrational act of madmen blindly calling down the destructive force of the planet's last superpower on themselves. Quite the opposite. Behind it lay rational calculation. ISIS's leaders surely understood that American air power would hurt them, but they knew as well that, as in an Asian martial art in which the force of an assailant is used against him, Washington's full-scale involvement would also infuse their movement with greater power. (This was Osama bin Laden's most original insight.)
It would give ISIS the ultimate enemy, which means the ultimate street cred in its world. It would bring with it the memories of all those past interventions, all those snuff videos and horrifying images. It would help inflame and so attract more members and fighters. It would give the ultimate raison d'être to a minority religious movement that might otherwise prove less than cohesive and, in the long run, quite vulnerable. It would give that movement global bragging rights into the distant future.
ISIS's urge was undoubtedly to bait the Obama administration into a significant intervention. And in that, it may prove successful. We are now, after all, watching a familiar version of the escalation follies at work in Washington. Obama and his top officials are clearly on the up escalator. In the Oval Office is a visibly reluctant president, who undoubtedly desires neither to intervene in a major way in Iraq (from which he proudly withdrew American troops in 2011 with their "heads held high"), nor in Syria (a place where he avoided sending in the bombers and missiles back in 2013).
Unlike the previous president and his top officials, who were all confidence and overarching plans for creating a Pax Americana across the Greater Middle East, this one and his foreign policy team came into office intent on managing an inherited global situation. President Obama's only plan, such as it was, was to get out of the Iraq War (along lines already established by the Bush administration). It was perhaps a telltale sign then that, in order to do so, he felt he had to "surge" American troops into Afghanistan. Five and a half years later, he and his key officials still seem essentially plan-less, a set of now-desperate managers engaged in a seat-of-the-pants struggle over a destabilizing Greater Middle East (and increasingly Africa and the borderlands of Europe as well).
Five and a half years later, the president is once again under pressure and being criticized by assorted neocons, McCainites, and this time, it seems, the military high command evidently eager to be set loose yet one more time to take out barbarism globally—that is, to up the ante on a losing hand. As in 2009, so today, he's slowly but surely giving ground. By now, the process of "mission creep"—a term strongly rejected by the Obama administration—is well underway.
It started slowly with the collapse of the US-trained and US-supplied Iraqi army in Mosul and other northern Iraqi cities in the face of attacks by ISIS. In mid-June, the aircraft carrier USS H.W. Bush with more than 100 planes was dispatched to the Persian Gulf and the president sent in hundreds of troops, including Special Forces advisers (though officially no "boots" were to be "on the ground"). He also agreed to drone and other air surveillance of the regions ISIS had taken, clearly preparation for future bombing campaigns. All of this was happening before the fate of the Yazidis—a small religious sect whose communities in northern Iraq were brutally destroyed by ISIS fighters—officially triggered the commencement of a limited bombing campaign suitable to a "humanitarian crisis."
When ISIS, bolstered by US heavy weaponry captured from the Iraqi military, began to crush the Kurdish pesh merga militia, threatening the capital of the Kurdish region of Iraq and taking the enormous Mosul Dam, the bombing widened. More troops and advisers were sent in, and weaponry began to flow to the Kurds, with promises of all of the above further south once a new unity government was formed in Baghdad. The president explained this bombing expansion by citing the threat of ISIS blowing up the Mosul Dam and flooding downriver communities, thus supposedly endangering the US Embassy in distant Baghdad. (This was a lame cover story because ISIS would have had to flood parts of its own "caliphate" in the process.)
The beheading video then provided the pretext for the possible bombing of Syria to be put on the agenda. And once again a reluctant president, slowly giving way, has authorized drone surveillance flights over parts of Syria in preparation for possible bombing strikes that may not be long in coming.
The Incrementalism of the Reluctant
Consider this the incrementalism of the reluctant under the usual pressures of a militarized Washington eager to let loose the dogs of war. One place all of this is heading is into a morass of bizarre contradictions involving Syrian politics. Any bombing of that country will necessarily involve implicit, if not explicit, support for the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad, as well as for the barely existing "moderate" rebels who oppose his regime and to whom Washington may now ship more arms. This, in turn, could mean indirectly delivering yet more weaponry to ISIS. Add everything up and at the moment Washington seems to be on the path that ISIS has laid out for it.
Americans prefer to believe that all problems have solutions. There may, however, be no obvious or at least immediate solution when it comes to ISIS, an organization based on exclusivity and divisiveness in a region that couldn't be more divided. On the other hand, as a minority movement that has already alienated so many in the region, left to itself it might with time simply burn out or implode. We don't know. We can't know. But we do have reasonable evidence from the past 13 years of what an escalating American military intervention is likely to do: not whatever it is that Washington wants it to do.
And keep one thing in mind: if the US were truly capable of destroying or crushing ISIS, as our secretary of state and others are urging, that might prove to be anything but a boon. After all, it was easy enough to think, as Americans did after 9/11, that al-Qaeda was the worst the world of Islamic extremism had to offer. Osama bin Laden's killing was presented to us as an ultimate triumph over Islamic terror. But ISIS lives and breathes and grows, and across the Greater Middle East Islamic extremist organizations are gaining membership and traction in ways that should illuminate just what the war on terror has really delivered. The fact that we can't now imagine what might be worse than ISIS means nothing, given that no one in our world could imagine ISIS before it sprang into being.
The American record in these last 13 years is a shameful one. Do it again should not be an option.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, to be published in October, is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single Superpower World (Haymarket Books).