Thursday, September 11, 2014

ISIS and Obama

It makes me sad, really. Obama came into office wanting to make peace -- in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Washington. But factional anger has defeated him everywhere. Republicans have fought him tooth and nail, sometimes at least for rational goals but other times in spasms of paranoia like the blowups over "death panels" and Fast and Furious. The Shiite politicians we empowered in Iraq mouthed the phrases of unity and democracy but in practice sought only to enrich their clans and shoot lots of Sunnis. In Afghanistan our goals were blocked by our alleged friends in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and by the tribalism, corruption and violence that has been the Afghan reality for 500 years. Obama's diplomacy has accomplished pretty much nothing; all his achievements have come from partisanship, drone strikes and Navy SEALs.

Obama has been sucked back into the Middle East vortex by the same basic forces that sucked in Bush. When the Trade Center went down, a chorus of voices said that the underlying problem was a Middle East dominated by thuggish dictators, religious fanatics, terrorists, and the Israel/Palestine conflict. The only way to keep America secure in the long term, they said, was to create a more economically vibrant, politically stable Middle East. Meanwhile a swath of Arab exiles was telling everyone who would listen that the "Arab people" longed for Western-style democracy and freedom but were being blocked by thugs like Saddam; remove a couple of bad dictators, they said, and a thriving, grateful Arab world would emerge.

Instead of that gleaming dream, what emerged from Shock and Awe was civil war in Iraq, anarchic chaos in Libya, worse thugs in Egypt, bloody repression in Bahrain, the fading of whatever hope there ever was for peace in Israel/Palestine, slaughter in Syria, and now ISIS. I think the fear that westerners fighting with ISIS will go home and launch terrorist attacks in Europe or the US is legitimate; I will be surprised if there are not a few such actions. But haven't we learned that we have no power to remake the Middle East in our image? Suppose we do "degrade" ISIS, allowing other elements to regain control of the spaces it controls. Who will those elements be? Will they make the region any more stable? The main rivals of ISIS in Syria are the local al Qaeda affiliate and the criminal regime of Assad; degrading ISIS will only help them. Allegedly we are going to train "moderate" militias to take on the fanatics and the government, which if it succeeds will only divide the country even further and prolong the fighting even longer. Who are we trying to kid?

I understand the pressure Obama is under. He commands vast military power, and all around him are people demanding that he "do something" about the ongoing slaughter. Only a truly hard-hearted man could resist forever, and Obama does not have that kind of steel.

So here we go ahead, dropping bombs in pursuit of impossible dreams.

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