Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Price of Intervention

The Islamic State is not a rootless terroristic entity like al Qaeda, with vague dreams of future revolution. It is a functioning government that controls territory, collects taxes, and makes war on its enemies. Like France. One of the terrorists attacking the Bataclan nightclub shouted, according to witnesses,
Now you will pay for what you are doing in Syria!
The Daesh did not target France because they "hate its values," a stupid phrase that showed up again in the last Republican debate. They targeted France because French planes are bombing them in Syria. This is a war between states, not a random event.

I think it is important to emphasize this because neither in France nor in the U.S. has the nature of the Middle Eastern conflict really been explained to the voters. According to The Times, some Parisians last night were asking, "Why us, again?" This strikes me as a good indication of the disconnect between what our governments are doing and what people are thinking about. The Islamic State would probably not be interested in killing French people if France were not waging war against them. Our own undeclared war against the Islamic State is exposing us to the same risk of terrorist attacks that France faces, although in practical terms it is of course much harder for the Daesh to attack across the Atlantic.

Since just about everybody hates the Islamic State, with its appalling record of massacres, rapes, slave markets, mass extortion, and so on, how do they survive? They survive because defeating them is not anyone's first priority. The Obama administration has tried to organize an anti-Islamic State coalition, but really nobody's heart is in this fight. The Saudis and the Gulf states are supposed to be part of this coalition, but they have moved all their planes south to attack Shiites in Yemen; to keep even nominal Saudi support against the IS, we have to support that horrific campaign, which is killing a lot more civilians than soldiers or Iranian agents. The Turks are also supposed to be our allies in this fight, but they also worry a lot more about Iran, and more about the Kurds than either. When the Turks finally sent some planes to Syria they attacked, not the IS, but Kurds that the US has supplied with weapons. The Israeli government keeps insisting that the Islamic State is of no consequence, and that the real danger is the axis running from Iran through the Syrian government to Hezbollah in Lebanon. (The IS has sent suicide bombers to attack Hezbollah.) The one country in the region where they hate the Islamic State as much as the US and France do is Iran.

I think one of the main reasons our policy in Iraq and Syria is incoherent is that we keep dividing the parties into good and bad guys according to our own notions of good and bad, which so far as I can tell are not shared by anyone in the region. If we were really serious about defeating the Islamic state we would ally with the thuggish Syrian government and their Iranian and Russian supporters and tell the Turks, Saudis and Israelis to keep out of the way or else. But in our calculus Iran, Vladimir Putin and the Syrian government are bad guys, and Turkey and the Saudis are good guys, so we refuse to do that. Plus it would enrage Israel and create lots of other problems.

I cheered earlier this week when the Kurds, reinforced by Yazidi volunteers, drove the Daesh from the city of Sinjar where fanatics had been enslaving women and carrying out mass executions. But I thought it was telling that the Times headline read Kurdish Fighters Retake Iraqi City, when in fact the Kurds had never been in Sinjar before. It used to be part of the Shiite run Iraqi state, and in Baghdad they were not at all happy about its falling into Kurdish hands. Not only that, but there are forces in the city loyal to at least three different Kurdish factions, and they have already started to squabble about credit for the victory and control of the city. There are no neat lines to be drawn in this conflict between good guys and bad guys, or even between allies and enemies.

If we are going to make war against a dangerous enemy, shouldn't we do it in a serious way, with an actual plan for winning? Obama really doesn't want to be involved in this mess, but he is trapped by foreign commitments and domestic politics into "doing something." He has taken some consequential steps. He engineered a change of government in Iraq and made it clear that the US would not support a Shiite regime that wrote off the whole Sunni populace. He has provided arms and air support to the Iraqi government, the Iraqi Kurds, and Kurdish fighters in Syria. We have repeatedly bombed every Islamic State target we can find, including the infrastructure of their oil wells. But none of this has really changed the situation on the ground, in the face of Iraqi incompetence, the massive unpopularity of the brutal Syrian regime, and the indifference of our allies.

If we are going to wage war against enemies who have the power to strike back against us anywhere in the world, shouldn't we at least have a policy that makes sense? And shouldn't someone in power make a real effort to explain to our citizens what we are doing and why? I look in vain across the political landscape for anyone in power who is honest about the situation and what it would take to change it. I think that on Syria Donald Trump makes more sense than Obama, which is a sentence I never imagined myself writing.

I hate the Islamic State, and I would support fighting it if we had a policy that made any sense. But we don't. To invite terrorist attack on our people by getting involved in a war we have no real desire to fight and no plan to win is crazy.

I wonder if the Paris attacks will make any difference to this -- after all, France is a NATO ally, so now that they have been attacked we are obliged to come to their defense. But any effort to do more will inevitably run smack into all of the complications I just laid out and probably dozens of others I don't even know about. So all in all I doubt it.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

"If we are going to make war against a dangerous enemy, shouldn't we do it in a serious way, with an actual plan for winning?"

You might be amazed how much of warfare in history has been carried out unseriously and without plans for winning - particularly in the Middle East.

From the disastrous Christian Crusades to retake the Holy Lands, all the way up to the recent war with Iraq that made the rise of ISIS possible, the overwhelming trend has been to just "Wing it and see what happens". Predictably, it typically hasn't ended well, even when the wars "succeeded".

But when you don't care enough to wage serious war, or if do care but are overwhelmed by emotion to the point of abandoning logic, what else do you expect to achieve? The French people by and large don't care to fight ISIS anymore than anyone else. They have no major motivations to do so, other than fulfilling political agreements with allies, and now perhaps lashing out in anger at being attacked.

The same sort of mentality was present in Europe when the Ottoman Turks first pushed across the straights from Anatolia into the Balkans. For decades they made war on European Christians, snapping up land, destroying trade, and waging bitter war against weak single targets while all their potential allies were busy with other concerns.

Concerned parties called for help, tried to rally Europe, but Europe just let events unfold. Byzantium fell and there was great anguish, but no action. The Balkan states fell and only a few parties seemed to care. The Venetians waged a desperate 20 year war against the Sultan, continually trying to rally the other Italian states and the Pope to defend Europe, and no one listened. When Turkish raiders started appearing in Northern Italy, some finally realized their plight and began to panic and try to organize, but it was far too late. The Venetians had been crippled by the continual loss of vital ports, and with them the greatest Western sea power available to contest the Turkish onslaught. Without naval superiority, Europe had no real chance of stopping the massive Turkish armies.

I imagine most Europeans are loath to get involved against what they see as a distant threat that doesn't concern them, and I imagine they will tend to remain that way until they are undeniably, directly threatened into taking action - at which point, it may be a bit late.