Seemingly before the question, "Do I, as an American, have any reason to panic over the emergence of this group, ISIS?" has even been asked, it's been answered: "YES, YES, YES, EVERYONE HEAD TOWARD YOUR ANXIETY STATIONS!" And so on Wednesday night, President Barack Obama will lay out some sort of strategy for dealing with ISIS -- a strategy that may boil down to, "Hey, let's have another open-ended, crazy war!" But maybe that will make you feel better. You are, after all, panicking, right?
Whence came all of this panic? Just for funsies, how about we all take a deep breath and try to figure that out. At the risk of spoiling the ending, I'll tell you right upfront: The call is coming from inside the country.
Let's start with the understatement of the year: To know ISIS is to loathe ISIS. It's a vicious, completely unrestrained death cult that has sunk to depths of depravity and cruelty so profound that it has even turned the stomachs of other death cults. The Islamist militants who make up ISIS (or ISIL or the Islamic State -- take your pick!) operate in the hopes of achieving utterly hallucinatory ambitions, which they seek free from the hindrances of what normal people might call a "moral compass." They seem to be playing a game of cruelty one-upsmanship with themselves. They terrorize and they rape. They behead journalists on YouTube. They have scary black flags and guns and, perhaps worst of all, social media consultants. And, no, they cannot be left alone; they must be confronted.
Here is a thing that ISIS is not, however: an existential threat to the "homeland" of the United States. Or even a credible threat. But don't take my word for it. Per the Associated Press:
The FBI and Homeland Security Department say there are no specific or credible terror threats to the U.S. homeland from the Islamic State militant group.
An intelligence bulletin, issued to state and local law enforcement, says while there's no credible threat to the U.S. as a result of recent American airstrikes in Iraq, officials remain concerned that Islamic State supporters could attack overseas targets with little warning.
Leaving aside the uncertain fortunes of lone wolves and dumb luck, that seems about right to me. Remember the Ebola Panic Flow Chart we shared on these pages a few weeks ago? It can easily be modified to suit the needs of everyone worrying about ISIS. Are you currently located at an "overseas target," adjacent to ISIS' base of operations in Syria and Iraq? Do you have any plans to visit one? If the answers are no, then there's no reason for your concern about ISIS to blossom into panic about ISIS.
Sadly, this helpful advice arrives too late for many of you, judging from some of the polling numbers rolling around in the news transom:
What happened to make 90 percent of any poll's respondents come to believe that ISIS poses a threat to the United States? ISIS had some help from American politicians who want to win and retain seats in Congress and the fearmongering thought-leaders who want to aid and abet those ambitions. Speaking of, here's former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, in the Sept. 8 Wall Street Journal, encouraging you to be terrified:
A name can say a great deal about the intentions of our enemy today. The group on the march in the Middle East began calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Then it chose the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the latter term including Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories as well as Syria. Now it's simply the Islamic State, geography unspecified. They already are a state, in that they carry out government functions in occupied territory. You can bet that their aspirations include Saudi Arabia and its holy cities of Mecca and Medina. With their gains in Iraq, nothing but sand separates them from the Saudi border.
It is hard to overstate the threat that this organization poses. I call it al Qaeda Version 6.0. The Islamic State is far better organized, equipped and funded than the original. They are more experienced and more numerous. Several thousand carry Western passports, including American ones. All the terrorists have to do is get on a plane and head west. But perhaps the most important asset they possess is territory. For the first time since 9/11, a determined and capable enemy has the space and security to plan complex, longer-range operations. If we don't think we are on that list, we are deluding ourselves.
ISIS keeps changing its name! It's on the march to Mecca and Medina! From there, the world, including these shores! Given the fact that there's never been a terrorist organization that's come within an ocean of pulling off this feat, I'm really skeptical.
If we take a realistic look at ISIS, here's what its fighters have accomplished. First, they've managed to find shelter in Syria -- arguably the most cracked-up and chaotic nation in the world right now -- where they benefit from the fact that there is an ongoing civil conflict between the Bashar Assad regime and multiple rebel groups (of which ISIS is one). Additionally, they've also exploited the disordered Iraqi government, which up until recently was run by Nouri al-Maliki and his patented ability to sow sectarian conflict and distrust among his own constituents.
ISIS has not claimed any sort of enviable territory in this world, and it's not poised to do so anytime soon. It thrives only within states that are overrun with dysfunction. Within this limited sphere of influence, ISIS has declared that it has established a caliphate. But with the exception of those who currently have ISIS' guns pointed at their heads, this is not a declaration that anyone has any obligation to go along with. In fact, as Human Rights First's Michael Quigley points out in The Hill, the fact that ISIS has obligated itself to maintain its pretend caliphate actually limits its ability to threaten much of anyone:
ISIS is a regionally focused insurgent group that is committed to establishing an Islamic State. While ISIS is a very sophisticated and highly disciplined group that has gained control of considerable resources, this doesn’t change their strategic objective -- to secure the fragile caliphate they proclaimed on June 29th. Despite having nearly 100 Americans and even more European fighters with Western passports, ISIS's recruitment efforts suggest that it cannot yet afford to have these fighters depart the battlefields in Iraq and Syria, for to do so jeopardizes their most important objective -- their raison d'être -- the Islamic State itself. ISIS is a very capable and extremely dangerous group, but their strategy is less like al-Qaeda's and perhaps more akin to the Taliban when they sought to gain control of Afghanistan.
And ISIS doesn't even demonstrate that it has the capabilities of the Taliban. ISIS' chief military victories in Iraq have come against forces that met ISIS' advances by turning tail and running away. As we saw in August, when ISIS was run off from the Mosul Dam, it would seem that any time ISIS fighters face a military force with a modicum of competence, they become quite ordinary. It was in response to this strategic defeat at the Mosul Dam that ISIS elected to release the video of journalist James Foley's execution. And that's the one thing that ISIS actually has demonstrated that it can do well, even in defeat -- theatrics.
Unfortunately, our elected officials, in turn, have amplified ISIS' message with theatrics of their own, transforming the normal emotions you should feel at the sight of an innocent man's execution -- anger and disgust and calm resolve -- into panic. Here's Wednesday's Politico:
In campaigns across the country, Republicans are seizing on what they call the Obama administration's feckless response to Islamic State militants as part of a broader case to voters to turn against Democrats in November. Their argument: Barack Obama is a disengaged figure whose power needs to be checked.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has a new TV commercial that opens with a brief clip of an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militant firing a weapon, with the narrator intoning that "these are serious times." In New Hampshire, Senate candidate Scott Brown is out with a Web ad that plays President Barack Obama's ill-spoken "We don't have a strategy yet" line and brands the president a foreign policy "failure." And last weekend, Iowa Senate hopeful Joni Ernst, in a speech to fellow veterans, bemoaned "the president’s inability or unwillingness to present a strategy aimed at eradicating the growing threat" of ISIL.
Ironically, it's not the Obama administration's disengagement that's fueled the rise of this latest round of hysteria. Rather, it's been their fumbling willingness to join in and countenance the idea that ISIS truly is a dire threat to the homeland.
That's Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey telling reporters that they agree with the notion that ISIS is a "9/11-level threat" and more -- literally "beyond anything we have seen," a group that could, if it achieves its ambitions, "fundamentally alter the Middle East and create a security environment that could threaten us." Hagel and Dempsey, in so direly warning, close the door on the Obama administration's ability to do anything other than proceed with frenzy and alarm. There's no opportunity now to be realistic about ISIS. Any response that falls short of whatever is deemed popular and appropriate for an imminent sequel to the Sept. 11 attacks will now be greeted with a line that begins, "But even your own secretary of defense believes that ISIS is 'beyond anything we have seen.'"
Nice work, guys.
That our two warring political factions have turned ISIS into an unending fountain of dread and anxiety is bad enough, but it's further exacerbated by the fact that we are not actually having a legitimate strategic debate about what should be done about ISIS. As The Huffington Post's Sam Stein reported, just about everyone from Dick Cheney to your Aunt Lorraine agrees on the same strategy:
Though it's hard to notice under the barrage of back-and-forth sniping, politicians have rallied around the same basic set of prescriptions. Under the formula, the United States would:
1. Seek to put together a coalition of like-minded nations willing to confront the Islamic State
2. Encourage political reconciliation in Iraq and government restructuring in Syria
3. Ramp up military involvement in both those regions
4. Bolster Sunni moderates in the Middle East
5. Resist sending American troops into combat while still bolstering U.S. personnel in the region
Legitimate disagreements remain over how to achieve these broadly shared objectives, and there are obvious disputes over how to define specific missions. (What is "troops on the ground"?) But the general schisms tend to be more about tone and timing than substance.
When it comes to explicating the substantive differences between each side's prescriptives, there is no there there. The only distinguishing characteristic in the inter-party "debate" is the level of histrionics. It's a battle of who wants it more -- who can do the thing everyone agrees should be done the hardest and loudest. It's a battle where being "strong and wrong" and embarking on a potentially idiotic path is incentivized. And these histrionics are entirely driven by the cold, amoral calculations of election-year politics.
Again, don't take my word for it. Here's Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who apparently became briefly bound by Wonder Woman's Lasso of Truth whilst standing in front of reporters:
It's an election year. A lot of Democrats don't know how it would play in their party, and Republicans don't want to change anything. We like the path we're on now. We can denounce it if it goes bad, and praise it if it goes well and ask what took him so long.
So that's the midterm election in a nutshell at this moment: One party might be lured into doing something potentially stupid to defeat ISIS, in response to the frenzied rhetoric of another party whose members will openly admit they aren't even sincere in their desire to see the Obama administration bring about this defeat.
This is very unfortunate for anyone who wants Wednesday night's ISIS strategy explainer from President Obama to be coming from a place of calm common sense, steered by the guide star of "Don't Do Stupid Stuff." I'm looking to hear about how the United States is going to erode ISIS' support, how we'll use international law enforcement and diplomacy to combat their network, and how we'll disrupt their ability to gain recruits. I'd prefer that Obama described, at length, his plan to re-engage with the Iraqi government and reinvigorate that institution's ability to govern its multi-sectarian citizenry justly and equitably, because it's the atrophy of this engagement -- not the troop withdrawal -- that has been this administration's larger post-Iraq War failure and greatest contribution to ISIS' rise.
In contrast to another declaration of an open-ended, mission-creepy, exit strategy-bereft, constitutionally suspect war, these are the ingredients of a sensible response to the threat posed by ISIS. Sadly for all of us, while a strategy of calm resolve may help defeat ISIS, it's not going to help affluent politicos achieve their personal electoral ambitions. So panic on.
PREVIOUSLY, on THE HUFFINGTON POST:
Americans Panicked Over ISIS Threat That Experts Say Isn't Imminent
The Debate Over What To Do About ISIS Isn't Much Of A Debate
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