What’s So Funny about Degradation and Ultimate Destruction?

If I find the time, I will finish and publish a more developed piece on America’s stance toward the Islamic State, partly in response to a post on by Adam Elkus and Nick Prime that, in the process of proposing a theory for understanding and formulating American anti-IS strategy and policy, happened to link to a post here.

In the meantime, I have been engaging in discussion at Crooked Timber relating to a commentary by John Quiggin that I believe completely misstates the bases of American Middle East policy in a familiar way. The comments reprise many past themes at this blog, but I hope they may also help advance the discussion, or at worst clear away some brush.

My first comment:

The key false or at best badly and misleadingly overstated assumption underlying the linked article as well as the main argument highlighted in the OP is that US policy has ever or could ever have been to “govern the affairs of millions of people on the other side of the planet.” At no time, even during the height of the “nation-building” phase of the occupation of Iraq, has the US sought to “govern the affairs” of the people of the Middle East. Governing the affairs of the people of the Middle East would require an investment of blood and treasure that the US has never contemplated. It’s not precisely an absurd concept, but it does not resemble the American neo-imperial concept as actually implemented.

The US has predictably – or consistently – acted when Americans have perceived their core interests endangered by events in the region. These interests mainly concern preservation of the international political-economic order against significant disruptions, especially by major war. Otherwise, Americans have mainly sought, like everyone else, to influence events that occur below that threshold in one way or another, with mixed results, since we have many competitors.

Contrary to the professor’s claims, which mainly focus on the US failing to achieve goals of relatively little actual interest to the US, the strategy has been overall quite successful for around 70 years, and the “trillions of dollars” may be deemed, as in fact they have been deemed by the American body politic, a worthwhile investment (for an economy with a ca. $17 trillion annual GDP). The strategy seems less successful than it has been because its fundamental tenets are simply presumed, and most of the public discussion instead revolves around aspirational matters – Arab-Israeli peace, liberalization in law, politics, and society, and so on.

In that last connection, there is of course nothing wrong with concern for the welfare of the people of the Middle East, but there is violent disagreement, not least among the Middle Easterners themselves, about the shape and content of progress or potential progress. At present, the US seems quite under the spell of a soft imperialism of low expectations. Americans do not expect things to go well for the people of the region anytime soon, regardless of what America attempts, nor do they see much profit to the US in escalated involvement, but American core interests are still affected or potentially imperiled by events there. So, America will continue to be involved, despite generally being disposed to limit and if possible to decrease its involvement, amidst uncertainty as to the region’s and the world’s willingness to cooperate.

Second comment, replying to “Ronan(rf)” – who seemed mainly to agree with me, but raised questions about whether IS represented “any large body of ideological opinion”  in the region. Rather than delve into the problem of the representativeness of “the Islamic State” for radical Islamism generally, I tried to stress what I have been arguing is the main point for America or Americans at this juncture:

Ronan(rf), there is, of course, much more to be said on this topic – whole libraries to be dedicated to it, with a new special collection to be dedicated to what IS can be said to represent, but I agree with you, not least because IS has directly provoked the US and allies via political murder, producing not just a potential cause of action, but a corresponding political requirement for it.

Third comment (with corrections) replying to roger gatham – who offered an I think somewhat representative “American anti-war left” position:

By your own account, the statement of mine that you call a misstatement qualifies as at least literally true in two ways: Those “elites” whom you hold entirely responsible for Operation Iraqi Freedom are Americans, and in your depiction of the American system, make American policy. You also indicate that the American citizenry in general succumbed to the sales pitch. So, from the other point of view, in which American policy represents what Americans in general want, or recognize as affecting their core interests, they were finally on board with OIF.

More to the point, the notion of enduring American interests embedded within an American grand strategy or “clear and consistent rationale” somewhat bypasses the question of how a political system produces decisions or what people tell themselves about how decisions are made and what they mean. A core interest is not an interest that changes according to fluctuations in popular opinion or movement from one political administration to another. That a substantial number of Americans who were convinced about the justification for OIF in 2003 were unconvinced by 2013, or whether OIF was well-implemented and conducted, has no bearing on whether OIF emerged in relation to American core interests and a clear and predictable or consistent rationale derived from them. To use your metaphor, those interests are deeper than “the grass roots.” They are the ground in which the roots are rooted. From this perspective also, the 2002-3 decision on Iraq did not occur in isolation, in some fit of elite pique, but was a continuation or sequel to the Gulf War, whose prologue in turn was the determination, already re-affirmed through military action (the Tanker War), that free flow of oil through the Persian Gulf and, relatedly, non-domination of the region by any competitor were “vital” American interests, the term that used to be more in fashion before today’s “existential.”

On this latest chapter, you misstate the policy as it has been repeatedly articulated, though the difference may initially appear trivial to you. The policy is “to degrade and ultimately destroy,” not simply to “exterminate” IS. The difference is the difference between a long term strategy involving indirect action, and something simple and immediate. At the same time, to the consternation of war hawks and of some regional allies, the policy is not really to overthrow the Assad regime, but to bring about a settlement in Syria viewed as impossible without his departure, yet likely including elements of the regime itself. Supporting a small, disciplined and CIA-certified Jihadist-free force that in some future process might represent our position – i.e., for an inclusive government that can preserve Syria’s territorial integrity and protect civil peace – is a far cry from actively seeking to “overthrow” Assad.

Part of the difficulty in finding rebel forces in any large number to support is how constricted American policy is in this regard – including by congressional design, which reflects a strong sense of wariness on the part of your public customer. On this note, whether actions to contain and “degrade” IS, mainly focused in Iraq, including for legal reasons, happen to benefit or to be seen to benefit the Syrian regime in the short-term is quite secondary. We know it is secondary because we decided last year in a very public and democratic, if never fully formalized process, that we would not engage in acts of war against the Syrian regime. The appearance of policy contradiction originates on the ground or perhaps at the grassroots both over there and over here. We are prepared to kill and take casualties of our own in fights with IS and AQ. We have not reached that determination in relation to Assad, whether or not we should have or whether or not some of us think we should have.

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    1. […] same intro for this post as for the last one. I don’t yet have time to work out a “real” post, but want to archive useful […]

    2. […] Now to current events, as we return to the original point of my intervention under the Quiggan post. […]

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