Not very long ago, “Islamic state” might have referred to a Western stereotype of “Mohammadean” passivity and fatalism. Today, while the West sometimes seems to have been overtaken by the condition or some version of it, the phrase now stands for something rather else in public discussion: It conjures images of a different kind of nihilism, an active form perhaps better described as annihilism and xenomisia, producing acts that naturally provoke a reciprocal counter-annihilism. Whether that reaction will be lasting and, furthermore, can be matched efficiently to means, remains, to say the least, unclear.
Terrorism analyst Brian Fishman warns against “BS[-ing] the American People About Iraq, Syria, and ISIL,” focusing on proposals to “roll back” ISIL (or ISIS, or the Islamic State (IS), or “Daesh“), some of them attempting to apply the model from the initial, SOF-on-horseback phase of Operation Enduring Freedom. According, for instance, to Colonel Pete Mansoor (ret.), Petraeus’ Executive Officer in 2007 (and thoughtful witness to and analyst of the prologue to the Iraqi Surge), even the President’s very limited plans would seem to require 10,000-15,000 troops “on the ground,” if mainly in support roles. Fishman sees a danger, less from such analysis than as a result of its being over-hyped and under-considered, of “mission creep”:
Advocating the defeat of ISIL over the short-term without acknowledging what will be necessary to achieve that end is a recipe for mission creep. Mission creep is a recipe for policy failure because the American people will not allow sustained investment in a policy they did not commit to originally.
It is not even clear, as a matter of fact, that the American people (or any people) will usually allow sustained investment even when, according to all the polls and to the votes of elected and re-elected representatives, we actually do commit to a policy as solemnly, lawfully, and unitedly as we know how. That lesson is one lesson that we can draw, and draw again, whether or not we should, from performance over time in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, and, if we are of a mind for lessons, from Lebanon, Vietnam, Korea, and numerous other campaigns and battles all the way back to the founding of the American republic (which will be found far from alone under the general topic of democratic unreliability). The lessons have been so well-learned, it has lately seemed, that risk of any kind has been beyond us: We could not or anyway did not muster the will for strikes against the Assad regime in the period following the mass atrocity at East Ghouta, measures which, as we observed in detail a year ago, the President had concluded we “should” take, but which, he very ingloriously found, we were not willing to approve. Fishman, like the President and his supporters, converts the latter fact into a replacement for the former value: If we could not have, then we should not have. Furthermore, we should not “BS” ourselves or anyone else: best never to get started; best never to mislead desperate would-be allies; in the meantime dishonest to blame the President or any leader, or perhaps any analyst, for correctly assessing our constitutional incapacities.
All the same, justifications will remain for a war hawk to go ahead anyway, whether or not the country appears capable of acting: First, saying we should attempt something, except that we lack the will, and for only that reason should not make the attempt, risks if it does not already represent self-fulfilling prophecy, and a devastatingly self-extending self-indictment. Some would use the word cowardice; others might adopt more polite terminology borrowed from clinical psychology. To employ Fishman’s terms, we would be observing our “broken discourse,” the incapacities of our “political institutions,” and the somewhat pathetic maneuvers of a president – doing “less than he should (and maybe would) if he could manage the domestic politics and the U.S. Congress better” – and simply giving up. However we choose to put the matter, we cannot know just how far we have sunk into national apathy, despondency, and aboulia until we are put to the test.
The second argument, from the perspective of a hawk or, less prejudicially, from the perspective of someone convinced of the initial “should,” and further convinced that the “should not” is part of systemic failure that sooner or later will demand correction, putting down a marker now will qualify as necessary, honorable, and prudent, not just for the purpose of setting oneself apart from those easily overcome by fear and doubt, but also because, two or ten years from now, or the day after the sufficient provocation, whatever form it takes, even the counsel that is no longer implementable may still serve as a model for the one found to be necessary.
As for now, even if we are not yet ready to insist, like Hussein Ibish, on that necessity, trusting in courage to discover resources not readily apparent to the already morally defeated, reasonably serious proposals or proposals from serious people deserve to be addressed on their own terms. Fishman’s post begins to explain why overselling a theoretically limited intervention may be dangerous. What specifically, however, is wrong with General Allen’s plan to “Destroy the Islamic State Now,” or with Ambassador Hof’s plan for a 100,000-soldier Syrian National Stabilization Force – aside from the possibility that we may not have our feelings all in order, or that small-minded partisans may have nurtured the hope of using one or another scandal against a sitting president or future nominee?
Allen, who commanded Marines in Anbar province so may be taken to know something about his topic, happens to take cognizance of war weariness, but treats it as somewhat irrelevant:
IS must be destroyed and we must move quickly to pressure its entire “nervous system,” break it up, and destroy its pieces. As I said, the president was absolutely right to strike IS, to send advisors to Iraq, to arm the Kurds, to relieve the suffering of the poor benighted people of the region, to seek to rebuild functional and non-sectarian Iraqi Security Forces and to call for profound change in the political equation and relationships in Baghdad.
The whole questionable debate on American war weariness aside, the U.S. military is not war weary and is fully capable of attacking and reducing IS throughout the depth of its holdings, and we should do it now, but supported substantially by our traditional allies and partners, especially by those in the region who have the most to give – and the most to lose – if the Islamic State’s march continues.
Hof, who received the rank of Ambassador under the Obama Administration, but left to become a lacerating critic of Obama Syria policy, is not directly focused on IS, but rather on a large, multi-national effort mainly employing Syrians as “boots on the ground” in the pseudo-Caliphate’s Levantine holdings:
There is no doubt that Syria ultimately will have to be pacified and stabilized by a force willing and able to restore order, enforce peace, protect civilians, and respond to proper civil authority. Inevitably, there are discussions of roles involving the United Nations, NATO, the Arab League, and perhaps others. Yet this is a job for Syrians. The United States, its allies, and its partners should help build and shape the requisite capabilities. The time to get started is now.
If there is nothing wrong with such plans on their own terms, taken separately or together, then our inability to consider them tells us something worth knowing about the state of our “broken discourse” or of the broken spirit that prevents us from repairing it or its ruptured foundations – and, most of all, from doing what otherwise we would recognize should be done and someday must be done. If there is something wrong with those plans, however, then either specific problems or misconceptions will presumably be addressable, or the larger flaws will tell us something about what is wrong with our political and military elites, or with their picture of the world and how it works. Fishman’s analysis, however valuable and articulate, would be revealed as too backward-looking, and the period of “don’t just do something – stand there” in U.S. policy as never likely to last for very long: “What is to be done?” (“What should be done?”) takes precedence when entire peoples face destruction, and the battle, whether or not we wanted it or knew we wanted it, has already been re-joined.