The terrorist group known as ISIS or ISIL has committed some atrocious acts, beheadings or throat slittings of innocent Westerners from the United States, Britain and France. This suddenly prompted a change in public opinion in these three countries, which now support air strikes on the facilities or oil rigs controlled by this spin-off of al-Qaeda. In the United States, a strong majority of Americans opposed strikes on Syria in 2013 and now supports them – even though they are illegal and will prove ineffective.
The politics of emotion have won and abolished the lessons that the failure of the war on terror should have taught leaders, citizens and all kinds of political decision makers. France, which famously opposed the war in Iraq in 2003, is now in the forefront, at least the rhetorical forefront, of this new misguided war. This war could push the whole world into a Huntington corner and ignite a “clash of civilizations” which did not exist before the Soviet and American forays into Afghanistan.
With these air strikes, the West is playing into the hands of the very terrorist groups it wants to “degrade and destroy” as Obama put it at the UN. Bin Laden explicitly described his terror tactics as drawing the United States, and the West generally, into an endless war which, he thought, would rally Muslims to his cause – in other words, his terror tactics and the vicious attack on the World Trade Center and a few other targets within the United States aimed at sucking the United States into war. Bush complied with this wish, for his own domestic and international reasons, but he agreed with his worst enemy in thinking that the war would be endless. Although Bush and Bin Laden were total enemies, they cooperated in the creation of a Huntingtonian monster. Afghanistan was attacked and occupied, but the war is not over; terrorism is flourishing, and Obama’s drones have not resolved the problem, but rather led to more terrorism and more innocent deaths.
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“Quick fixes” are long-term disasters.”
A small band of terrorists managed to trick the only remaining superpower in the world into an endless asymmetrical war that cannot be won. Not winning a war when you are militarily and economically so much more powerful than your enemy means losing it. Bush lost the war on terror he started and Obama got trapped in Afghanistan and could not extricate the United States from Iraq. He then resorted to military attacks to deal with never-ending terror threats. His kill list and use of drones alienate a majority in the Muslim world, and, with Guantanamo, serve as recruiting agents for the many groups making up the terrorist hydra.
Obama seemed to have correctly gauged America’s war fatigue and realized that Iraq and Afghanistan were too costly in human lives and money terms. Yet he, like Hollande and Cameron, has once again fallen in the terrorist trap. It is perfectly understandable for people who hear about beheadings to feel horrified and to want some kind of vengeance or punishment for the criminals.
Yet one can wonder whether American media did not play into the hands of ISIS by actually broadcasting the videos of these abject crimes. Terrorism feeds off the media, and ISIS wanted to terrorize Western public opinion, which it did with terrible expertise and the help of precisely these Western media. In Europe, the media did not show the videos of the atrocities, yet reporting about them was enough to create support for air strikes. One atrocity in Algeria, when a French mountain guide was beheaded, convinced a majority that air strikes were the answer. In other words, the terrorists terrorized the West into launching a new bout in the war without end, realizing Bin Laden’s dream.
Air strikes are not effective by themselves – as many experts have said. When combined with troops on the ground, they may defeat an enemy, but they do not stop the endless war. Mostly, while military forces bash the terrorists, the political context disappears. Public opinion may like the images of facilities destroyed – though sometimes empty houses are bombed or civilians are unnecessarily killed. The complexities of the context are pushed aside and therefore this makes a viable long-term solution impossible.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar financed some of the groups now targeted by the United States and its coalition, which includes these two countries. When did those countries stop providing Sunni terrorists with money and weapons? If air strikes in Syria ensure the victory of Assad, will it lead to another bout in the war to attack him too? What kind of coalition can exist between Iran and Saudi Arabia? Will Iran cooperate with the United States and then become the next target? Destroying ISIS is likely to promote other terror groups like al-Qaeda in Syria, so this would be a pyrrhic victory for the United States.
Once again, a complex political problem cannot be bombed into a solution, however much one may want to take revenge for atrocious crimes.
It would have been possible to lean on Saudi Arabia so that money and arms stopped flowing to the terrorist groups that have chosen gruesome tactics; it would be possible to enlist Turkey in the drying up of the transport of oil; it would have been a good idea not to let Iraq become a Shia dictatorship under Maliki, the former US puppet who became one of Frankenstein’s monsters. The United States is not the only Frankenstein in this latest dance of terror; local actors are also active monster producers. Assad of Syria, though an enemy of the Saudis and Qataris, also bears a heavy responsibility.
Air strikes may be preferred by the defense sector and satisfy the thirst for revenge, but they cover up a kind of cluelessness about what to do in the Middle East. They seem to be an immediate response and solution to a problem. Yet dealing with symptoms never cures a disease, if the underlying causes are not treated.
It is possible to contain ISIL and not to add fuel to the fire. The officers from Saddam Hussein’s army who are fighting alongside so-called Islamist extremists used to be totally opposed to al-Qaeda. Sunni groups even cooperated with the United States in Iraq to fight these terrorists, so it is clear that changing political situations explain their choice. Working out political solutions with all the major actors in the area: Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Kurds would take much longer than spectacular air strikes. Yet how long has it been since Bush and Ben Laden started their dance of death? Aren’t “quick fixes” particularly ineffective and extended over long periods? “Quick fixes” are long-term disasters.
The war on terror produced more terror and will never end. The Bush-Bin Laden impasse seemed to have disappeared in the dustbin of history, yet history has no real garbage cans, only long tails. France drops a bomb from time to time, achieving nothing positive but endangering the lives of its citizens, who are more exposed to terror attacks at home or abroad. Ditto for Britain. The US bombs Iraq and Syria every day, thus slouching toward the Huntington nightmare and fulfilling the wildest dreams of agents of terror.
Revenge is bad policy even if psychologically it is perfectly understandable. The tools for defeating the ISIS terrorists exist: They are economic, political and diplomatic. The United States was tricked into support for Islamist extremists by Saudi Arabia, and it paid a heavy price for this in 2001.
Showing true leadership for the United States would mean blocking the financial flows and arms shipments from one of its allies to one of its enemies. It would also mean stopping the game of arming the enemies of my enemies, for weapons always find their way into the hands of my worse enemies. The late Chalmers Johnson explained how “blowback” works; it would be time for the United States, France and Britain to think before they act. There are no magic bombs, and blowback ensures the war on terror never ends.