Casus Contendentes (Now With Update)

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Ordinary Times. Relapsed Lawyer, admitted to practice law (under his real name) in California and Oregon. On Twitter, to his frequent regret, at @burtlikko. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

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110 Responses

  1. LeeEsq says:

    My opinion is that the best way for the United States and other Western nations to deal with the the current political and social problems coming from Muslim-Majority or at least substantially Muslim countries is to follow Truman’s containment policy with Communist countries. Our economic and diplomatic dealings with them should be the minimal we could get away with under globalized circumstances. This does include having a generous refugee policy for the victims of Islamic extremist organizations like Boko Haram and ISIL just like we did for people from Communist countries.

    This strategy is good for several reasons. It avoids all the ethical and economic problems of intervention. It allows for Muslim-Majority countries to work out these issues on their because any real, substantial change is going to have be internal rather than external. At the same time, a generous refugee policy wouldn’t mean that we are completely abandoning innocent people to the brutality of ISIL and Boko Haram or forgetting our values as a liberal democracy to cynical realpolitik.Report

  2. Michael Cain says:

    Random minor question that popped into mind… I seem to recall that bin Laden couldn’t trace his descent from Mohammed, so was disqualified on religious grounds from being Caliph. al-Baghdadi has made a point of emphasizing that he has the right ancestors.Report

    • Kolohe in reply to Michael Cain says:

      Osama recognized Mullah Omar’s claim to the title. (and/or encouraged him to claim the title – I can’t remember if Omar, claimed the mantle before meeting OBL or after)Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Kolohe says:

        Omar was acclaimed Amir al-Mu’minin (by his own troops in a carefully-staged bit of political theater). Some say this is the equivalent of “Caliph” and others say it is something else, a different sort of theocratic leader. To a Muslim, the distinction in offices might be quite important; I am not Muslim or culturally Arabic to know for sure.

        I should also think that to a Muslim, the assumption of such ancient and noble titles by men as cruel, illegitimate, and violent as Omar and Al-Baghdadi must be cause for tremendous embarassment. Think about how we Westerners dislike it when obvious military dictators like Abdel al-Sisi assume the honorable title of “President.”Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to Kolohe says:

        OTOH, in Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country, you have the Little Caliphs kindergarten franchise business. Whose imagery appears to have taken great pains to include both girls and boys.

        My impression, with a large helping of ignorance, is that “Caliph” may have positive connotations there, but not the “ancient and noble” untouchable except in a deeply religious context sort of respect. Looking at worldwide numbers, a large majority of practicing Muslims seem to be in either North Africa or well to the east in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia. Certainly it’s possible to draw the conclusion that there’s a relatively small number of extremists in the Middle East killing each other, but it’s just not a big deal for Islam as a whole.

        Like I said, I’m far too ignorant. I will admit that, following along the line of a completely different thread on a different post, I’d be much happier if the US had spent a trillion dollars over the last decade-plus electrifying parts of its transportation system instead of f**king around in the Middle East, so that it didn’t matter so much that this particular religious fight is taking place on top of a large portion of the world’s proven oil resources. That’s a parochial view, but I won’t apologize for it.Report

  3. Michael Drew says:

    I can’t disagree with this prescription all that vehemently, though as I’ve said I’m open to a case about ways to use limited U.S. power to pursue a strategy to diminish the group’s capabilities and holding and defeat their primary ambitions.

    But let’s keep in mind that the decision that was both the ultimate cause of this situation and that ramped up the costs of the efforts expended in our ““war” against a nascent state entity deploying brutal acts of visually shocking violence,” to the appalling levels you mention and which were born mostly by a few within our society, the decision also that elevated the level of engagement in that war (I believe mostly for purposes of public spectacle, to burnish perceptions that we were in fact “at war,” being led by a “war leader” who was responding to a warlike act with acts recognizably attendant to a conventional war) to what could be visually recognized as “war” — was made not thirteen years ago, but instead almost exactly twelve.

    That’s not highly relevant to a discussion about what to do about this situation. But for my part it’s worth remembering (because in my opinion public discussion of this has not featured much reflection on this point at all) what the reason is that this is happening over there, and what the reason is that our material and emotional resources for dealing with challenges like this are so strained, and that those are the same reason – a decision about going to war that was made in 2002 and 2003, not in 2001.Report

  4. North says:

    I am in absolute shock that Obama’s letting himself be lured back into this morass. Of all the things he’s done this one seems the most counter intuitive. He’s always preferred his inactive crouch on most things, why the fish would he ever consider playing Bush Minor redux when he was elected almost explicitly as the Anti Bush Minor.Report

    • Kim in reply to North says:

      He’ll let Iran fight it out on the ground.
      Trying to rebuild Iraq was a mistake.
      Clarke’s “bomb everything” plans don’t do completely horrid things.Report

  5. Citizen says:

    Policy wise the liberal democracy may just be along for the ride:

    In the balance it is much easier to dispatch/corrupt a caliph than a Inverted Totalitarianism. Only after the fear well has ran dry will the high priests bring Islam into the fold.Report

  6. Rufus F. says:

    Does ISIS want to go to war with the US? Assuming they do, how much harder will that make containment?Report

  7. Michael Drew says:

    Apropos of a different conversation:

    @jaybird isn’t saying people would be right to think that, just that in fact they’re likely to, so Palestinians need to craft better narratives.Report

  8. Michael Drew says:

    One other distinction I’d want to make here would be that if(!) the U.S. were goaded into war by seeing two (or more) American journalists beheaded on video (and not broadcast on network merely due to the discretion of the media), it’s not at all clear that that would suggest that “human rights abuses” would be the abstract reason for the action. Because the policy and the the impetus for crafting a policy were starkly different when many non-Americans were being beheaded on video. The impetus and policy changed markedly when it was Americans being beheaded.

    Interests are self-regarding. A nation can be criticized for inconsistency if it claims to act to defend human rights but does so only once its own citizens are the humans having their rights violated. OTOH, it can;t be criticized for inconsistency about human rights claims if it claims to act to defend its own interests against violations (of the rights of its citizens but not of other humans).

    So the issue with acting in response to the beheadings of Americans is not that it’s not the case that nations go to war to protect humans rights. They (mostly) don;t, but acting in that way does;t suggest such a motive. It would suggest a determination that countenancing public violations of citizens rights in this way rises to a level of national interest worth going to war over (or does so in conjunction with other facts about the situation that also implicate national interests). Whether spectacles like this rise to that level of national interest – or whether ISIS does for other reasons – is the point where criticism and debate are entirely appropriate. Because by its behavior, it’s rather clear that a general claim to be acting (mainly) pursuant to human rights abuses is not being made. (Though that does’t negate any claim to in fact be acting to defend human rights once a national-interest determination has been made. It just renders it, as always as you say, an ancillary not determinative reason for action.)Report

  9. James Hanley says:

    Aa much as I despise our neo-colonial kingmaking in the Middle East, and as much as ISIS is a product of our meddling and as such an object lesson in the nearly inevitable suboptimal results of such meddling, I think we have to act against them.

    These guys are not merely internationally irritating and domestically brutal dictators. Their goal is the destruction of all infidels, which to them also includes most Muslims. They will provide a harbor for terrorists, or purposely promote/export terrorism on their own. They are, through our own stupid doing, a national security threat.

    We should not intervene to the extent of trying to control the territory or pick the winners in these civil wars. We should just pick one loser, ISIS, destroy them, ruthlessly, and leave the battlefield to the other contestants.

    It’s not going to give us a great outcome. It’s just going to prevent our worst outcome.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

      I have heard a fair number of people agree with that goal, but say that the use of western ground forces in significant numbers would be disastrous, and that while western air support can be helpful to the task, the dirty work on the ground has to be done by forces from the region. Clearly that would be a much slower, more uncertain strategy for accomplishing the mission, though. Do you agree with them and think it’s worth showing that patience/trust that the job can be done regionally, or do you advocate that we go in and do the job ourselves?Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Michael Drew says:

        If it can be done that way I support it. And I think it probably can, based on our experiences in Bosnia and Libya. Fewer boots on the ground means less temptation to try to occupy and control territory, which I think would be a grave error. But it does mean commiting to the reality that we aren’t going to have real control over who wins, that we’ll be recreating what’s happening in Libya.

        That’s not a great outcome for a president with two years left in office. He’ll be excoriated from the usual directions.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        I think for this president that excoriation will be preferable to going back on his commitment to get out in a big way, implicitly admitting he was wrong even to try to do it or in any case in how he did it, and to not getting to be the guy who functionally got us out, whatever the defects and consequences of the way he did it.

        Which is not to say there won’t be boots on the ground when he leaves, but they’ll be in the three figures or very low four figures, not in upper-four or five figures. Which to him will be enough to claim he 1) did get out & stay out, but 2) still dealt with the fallout thereof.

        Whether 1) & 2) will be reasonable claims will depend entirely on events and one’s perspective, but that’s how I’m reading the balancing of political evils being done right now.Report

    • Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

      Yeah, this seems prudent. And, by all means, use this as a golden opportunity to strengthen our relations with Iran.Report

  10. Michael Drew says:

    I’m just going to keep making notes here as I read.

    The reasons we wouldn’t necessarily propose to take the same approach with ISIS as we do with Russia are at least two-fold (which doesn’t necessarily imply any particular policy wrt to ISIS):

    1. Various smart commenters I have seen have said straight-out that the reason force is not on the table wrt to Russia/Ukraine is mutual assured destruction. You just don’t have a war with Russia. Otherwise, force would in fact be on the table, as the precedent is hardly much different from Saddam/Kuwait 1990, and you’d hardly want the justification for that action to be broken down to the clearest demonstration that the only determination there was oil. (This is faulty thinking as far as I can tell, because it would imply that you wouldn’t resist militarily even if you were being invaded by them – all the more so if you’re a small state without much of a deterrent of your own. We have a deterrent for whatever their inclination to go nuclear might be if we used force. Part of me thinks that thinking that MAD takes all other use of force or threat thereof off the table as tools of U.S.-Russia relations, may actually be destabilizing in the modern environment, but a larger part of me certainly sees the value in just not even entertaining going down that road. In either case, it’s a factor that distinguishes the Russia problem from the ISIS problem.

    2. We didn’t create the situation in Ukraine, and openly take responsibility for it by the terms of our own Secretary of State at the time (we break it we own it). This goes to national credibility. We took on a responsibility of our own devising when we invaded in 2003; not to attend to this issue in Irq now would be an abrogation. That’s not to say that it might no be worth going ahead with that abrogation – again, none of this implies a particular path wrt to ISIS. But it is a distinguishing fact about what’s happening in Iraq from what’s happening in Ukraine.

    Again, neither of these distinctions imply we will or should do any given thing wrt to ISIS, but they’re reasons why our approach to ISIS might not follow our approach to Russia.Report

  11. Jaybird says:

    My take on the original “Mission Accomplished” was that we should go in, decapitate, and leave. When they put up the banner, I thought that that was a signal that we would then pack up and go home.

    Instead we did the whole “Pottery Barn” thing where it was said that since we broke it, therefore we had a responsibility to buy it. And, by “buy it”, we meant “nation build”.

    So we stayed and nation built. And, within a year or so of pulling out, we’ve got this situation here. Would the same thing have happened if we just decapitated and left the first time? I don’t know… I don’t know how much reason I have to believe that everything would be better now versus everything would have been as bad as now, merely accelerated (or, maybe, the bad stuff would have been accelerated through). All that to say… I dunno whether our meager attempts at nation-building were worse than just upping and leaving.

    Anyway, we’re here now… and the argument is that we go in, decapitate ISIL, and leave.

    I certainly understand the appeal. I just doubt that it will be that simple.

    So if I wonder what will happen if we do nothing, I imagine that ISIL will find themselves in power and pulling their bullshit fundamentalism on everybody they can… and that just doesn’t strike me as sustainable in even the middle term. The Iraqi people will slough off ISIL though a rebellion of a thousand little cuts (the way they rebelled against US soldiers) and, if they don’t, then they will have demonstrated that this is a government that they don’t mind so much, all things considered.

    In either case, I don’t see how our intervention would amount to anything more than “yet more meddling”.

    (But, again, I do see how the thought of going in, decapitating, and leaving is tempting.)Report

    • Kim in reply to Jaybird says:

      ISIL isn’t terribly well supported by the populace, and we have pawns in the Kurds and the Iranians. The Taliban was considerably more supported (and they had much more of a history of rebellion/guerilla warfare).Report

  12. neal says:

    War with Russia? You are not old enough to have played that game.
    Usually proxies. Or just bomb shelters. And spies, lots.

    Not so much ideology as worldwide pathogenic incursion. Nukes are really for the end of life as you know it. Of course, scientists tried to be a bit more surgical. Orbital stuff, and such.

    That is why they want to be up there, or deep down in the sea. This is the real deal.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to neal says:

      I know nothing of the prospect of war with Russia, @neal ? I too grew up playing that game, when I was a lad my family raised me in a land where technologically advanced aircraft were built, for my family’s breadwinner was one of those builders. Yes, I know a thing or two about the Cold War and the threat of global annihilation as the penalty for a significant-enough foreign policy missstep by either side, having lived half my life under that shadow. I do not long for its return.Report

  13. A few thoughts.

    One: “We” won’t be doing anything as far as “I” am concerned, because “I’ am not in the military. Therefore, when we talk about whether “we” should go in, a lot of times it’s someone else. Maybe my nephew in law, or my nephew, or a cousin of mine–the first is in the army the other two are (I think) in the reserves. Along with thousands of people I don’t know. Or maybe it’ll “just” be air support. But it’s not going to be me and it’s probably not going to be me nor is it going to be a lot of the people here who are going to risk their lives if “we” go in to destroy ISIS.

    Two: In 2001-2003, I remember hearing how Al-Qaeda was one of the worst things ever because unlike our other enemies, it didn’t represent a state but rather a decentralized movement that couldn’t be targeted. Now ISIS is even worse than Al-Qaeda because while Al-Qaeda was just a decentralized movement, ISIS appears to be emerging as a geographically delimited almost-state that has a defined base of operations. For the record, I’m not accusing Burt of doing this. It’s just how I seem to hear it talked about on the mainstream and Newshour media. Maybe the mainstream media and punditocracy are wrong. Maybe they’re right. Maybe some of them are wrong and some are right.

    Three: The be-headings really are awful. Just like they were 12 years ago.

    None of the preceding is really to say that the US should or shouldn’t destroy ISIS or try to contain it. I don’t know what should be done.Report

  14. Patrick says:

    Not a single one of those nation-states has the remotest incentive to see ISIS succeed in establishing itself.

    Not a single nation state in the EU has the remotest incentive to see Russia whittle away at Ukraine, either, but unfortunately I doubt the EU is going to say, “Okay, Gazprom, we’re not buying any more gas from you until Putin backs the hell off”.

    Because I have to assume that in that match of chicken, the EU would win. It would just be economically expensiveReport

    • greginak in reply to Patrick says:

      Apparently there has been some cooperation between us and Iran in combating ISIS. At least according to Juan Cole. That is likely a good thing in a couple of ways.Report

      • Kim in reply to greginak says:

        Iran REALLY REALLY likes backchannels (they’ve got about eight different ways to flee the country, run by different factions).
        Any cooperation now builds trust for later plans, whatever they may be.

        And Iran, as a functional democracy, is a good model for the Arab countries.Report

    • James K in reply to Patrick says:


      ISIL is hardly Russia. Russia may be a wanign power, but it is still a power. ISIL is not.Report

      • Patrick in reply to James K says:

        That’s a fair point, James, but in this specific case I think the EU’s relative inaction is more based upon “we don’t want to pay the price of giving up Russian oil and gas” more than anything else.

        Which is remarkably like one of our primary drivers in foreign policy, tisn’t it?

        If ever there was an argument for weaning the world off of petrochemicals it’s all the geopolitical externalities that aren’t reflected directly in the price of the good.Report

  15. Kolohe says:

    It seems like the administration is going to treat the ISIS-held territory the way it has treated the equivalent areas in Somalia and Yemen. And those are pretty close to perfect parallels. However, the Kurds throw a curveball into a parallel desired endstate. In both Yemen and Somalia, the endstate is a government that controls all the territory that is drawn on the maps for those respective countries. However, in Iraq, there is no going back to having the Iraq central government exert control over the Kurdish areas. Plus, increasingly, there doesn’t seem to be any going back to the Syrian central government controlling all of what is, on paper, Syria.

    It seems to me that Hillary is going to have to do the unenviable task of finally redrawing the maps in that part of the world.

    (of course, we could always just completely stay out of it)Report

    • Kim in reply to Kolohe says:

      Yeah. Tell that to the senators who got elected by oil money.
      If you think we can possibly stay out of our backer’s business,
      you got another thing fucking coming.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Kim says:

        Oil money is only buying US politicians to be able drill (baby drill) in North America. WIth the long standing detente on nationalization of assets in the Middle East, the multi-nationals don’t need to buy western politicians on that front (just Middle Eastern ones).

        Middle East policy at this point is mostly dictated by inertia, then by Team politics, but very little if any by corporate interests. (who, again, have shown they’re willing to make deals with anyone).Report

      • Kim in reply to Kim says:

        CFG is run by Saudi Arabia. There’s plenty of politics that the Sauds can afford to play in America.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Kim says:


        Now that 9/11 is fading into myth and legend, the Saudi’s no longer buy US airtime reminding everyone that they were on our side during the Cold War. And on the flip side, now that US oil production is on par with Saudi production (and significantly exceeds it if one includes Canukistan), relative Saudi geopolitical leverage is decreasing. (on top of that, they themselves couldn’t afford to do a oil curtailment anymore).Report

      • Kim in reply to Kim says:

        Club for Growth. I trust you can figure out the Senator i’m referring to.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Kim says:

        The Junior senator from PA is a bog standard conservative republican who is actively seeking to increase oil and especially nat gas production in his state – hardly in the interests of Middle Eastern oil barons.

        His former employer overwhelming gets its funding from Wall Street ideologically aligned big shots (as well as everyone’s favorite bros); there’s no evidence of any foreign funding (although to be fair, they and their ilk are notoriously opaque about funding). Still, all they do is tow the bog-standard WSJ party lion on tax cuts and deregulation, never dipping into issues of foreign policy. And naturally, funding Republicans who believe in the same thing wrt to tax cuts and deregulation (which is most of them)

        If the NAT GAS bill didn’t die on the vine well before it was ripe, maybe you’d have some evidence of a voting pattern that was in line with Saudi interests. The only thing you may have is that he is a tiny teeny bit less pro-Israel than the median conservative Republican, but one wouldn’t figure that out from his issues page.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Kim says:

        all they do is tow the… party lion

        Before or after the party?Report

  16. Saul Degraw says:

    I am more or less on Professor Hanley’s side. ISIS seems to be the worst or most extreme when it comes to Jihadist belief. They are the Jacobins of the Islamic world.

    That being said, a three year war can be a huge drain on resources and I wonder what damage it will do to the economy. It seems like we are caught in a quagmie and perhaps going after ISIS will start a band of goons who are more extreme than ISIS and we will get bogged down more.Report

  17. We have always been at war with Westasia!Report

  18. Damon says:

    You know, 20 years ago I thought our FP was pretty stupid. Now it’s moved to mind numbing stupid, dangerous to our country insane. We’ve destabalized Egypt, Lybia, Syria, Ukraine, trashed Iraq and Afganistan, killed a shedload of civillians, tortured hundreds, squandered billions of dollars, put thousands of our people through trama (battle, ptsd, wounds), supported our “enemies”, not to mention lost any moral standing we had left in the world. And now, we’re talking about putting troops in Estonia to use as deterent against a Russian invasion. WTF? There comes a time when you realize you’ve screwed it all to hell and need to leave. All our efforts have turned to ash. Anyone suggesting with that track record that we should be “doing something” is crazy. Walk away. Contain. Time for the locals to step up. If they can’t….wait a generation.

    If we want to do something, get the Isrealies to do it for us. Everyone hates them anyway.Report

    • Kim in reply to Damon says:

      Bah, you have no hope left, do you?
      The army is not the only way that America can help.
      And it is our obligation to help, if we would call ourselves human beings.Report

      • Damon in reply to Kim says:

        After watching 30 plus years of FP “failures” call me cynical on our ability to “help”.

        And no, there is no “obligation” to help. We can if we choose.Report

      • Kim in reply to Kim says:

        What are those words? “Never Again”
        … we have an obligation to help (I do not include you in this we, as you aren’t jewish).Report

      • Damon in reply to Kim says:

        The words “never again” are just that…words.

        How many similiar actions have taken place, maybe not on the same scale, but nonetheless? Cambodia, Rawanda. Those are two I can think of. Nothing was really done.

        If you have an obligation to do something because of your religion, then get thyself to Isreal and join up.Report

      • Kim in reply to Kim says:

        I guess I’m nothing then.
        I am currently engaging with the Israeli issue on multiple fronts, the one you’re probably most familiar with is the boycott.
        My money goes towards fixing problems, including ones in far off lands.
        Sometimes the fixes are personal, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes you take longterm views, and eggs get broken.Report

      • Damon in reply to Kim says:


        Kudos to you for stepping up and trying to make a difference.Report

  19. Saul Degraw says:

    A bigger cause for depression and a sigh on both counts:

  20. notme says:


    The US has only been at war with al-Qaeda and the Taliban for as long as they have been at war with the US. Given that they seem want a conflict we may have no choice but to defend ourselves for as long as it takes. ISIS are religious zealots and you can’t reason with them any more than you could al-Qaeda.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to notme says:

      I do not propose reasoning or negotiating with them. I propose starving them of money.Report

      • notme in reply to Burt Likko says:

        If the British plan was implemented today it would still take sometime to starve them of resources assuming that you could get everyone to agree. All it takes is one country to help them break the sanctions and it won’t work.Report

      • Chris in reply to Burt Likko says:

        10+ more years of slow, costly war wreaking even more havoc on the lives of Iraqis and Syrians? That’ll work for sure, just like it did last time.Report

      • notme in reply to Burt Likko says:


        And Obama’s strategy(?) of ignoring ISIS has worked so well up to this point.Report

      • Chris in reply to Burt Likko says:

        You got a strategy for fixing the God Awful Shitty Mess that is Syria? Because you can bomb every single member of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and all you’ll do is create a vacuum for one or more of the many other Islamist groups fighting in Syria and (in some cases) Iraq to fill. Rinse and repeat.

        Without fixing Syria, which would require either propping up the Assad regime or overthrowing it and engaging in another decade or so of violent nation building, what are we supposed to do?Report

      • notme in reply to Burt Likko says:


        So since we can’t fix everything perfectly the US shouldn’t do anything?Report

      • Chris in reply to Burt Likko says:

        So your answer to my question is a cowardly no, in the form of a dodge. Figured.

        It’s entirely possible that there are actions we could take, particularly in concert with Iran, and perhaps even Assad and non-Islamist rebels at the same time, to undermine ISIS, without making things worse. I don’t know what those actions are. I’m not sure anyone knows what they are for sure. I certainly don’t, and you clearly don’t either. But there is no guarantee that the vacuum it creates will only make things worse. There’s no guarantee that putting boots and weapons on the ground doesn’t create a groundswell of support for ISIS because once again we’re seen as invaders. There’s no guarantee we don’t create a major humanitarian crisis in Syria, that we don’t vastly increase Iran’s influence in Iraq (planting the seed for some even more serious sectarian strife in the not-too-distant future).

        My one hope, at this point, is that blindly partisan folks like yourself don’t push so hard against anything whatsoever that the Obama administration does, without having any real plan of their own (as you clearly do not), that we end up just recklessly blundering into a situation with no real plan, no real end game, and make things even worse than doing nothing would.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Burt Likko says:

        The fundamental mistake folks like notme make is to think that there is surely some available solution to these complex problems that the US could apply if our leaders just had the intelligence and will to do so. They do not understand that not all problems are tractable, especially when the problems are the consequence of humans acting on the bases of conflicting fundamental values.

        The US has only been at war with al-Qaeda and the Taliban for as long as they have been at war with the US

        Al Qaeda and the Taliban have been at war with the West for a much shorter time than the West has been at war with, or colonizing, the Muslim Middle East. It’s very nationalistically reassuring to tell ourselves we’re only reacting to their provocations, but over in the Middle East they’re telling themselves the same thing. And since the West carved out the borders that exist over there without consulting with the locals, and propped up friendly authoritarian governments, they’ve got rather a better story to tell. They’ve yet to redraw our borders or provide financial/military support to a locally despised autocrat, eh?Report

      • notme in reply to Burt Likko says:


        Obama has bungled the ISIS problem enough already that it is now harder than it was a year ago when people were urging him to support moderate groups with light weapons and training. Oddly enough supporting those groups now wasn’t ok back then but now seems to be part of his golf course strategy. He wasted a year playing golf and pushing amnesty for illegals.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Burt Likko says:

        If only Obama had said things like “Bring ’em on!”, we’d all be hanging up “Mission Accomplished” signs.Report

      • Chris in reply to Burt Likko says:

        notme, still no strategy, then? If all you have is “Obama screwed it up,” then you’ve got nothing. You can only make things worse. You are why this country’s politics is so dysfunctional.

        And of course, arming the less radical rebels can’t possibly have negative consequences. ISIS running around with American tanks and armored personnel carriers that they took from a largely American-trained and equipped army… That would never happen with less organized and less well-trained militias!Report

      • notme in reply to Burt Likko says:


        My choice would have been to help the other rebel groups last year so that hopefully ISIS wouldn’t be so strong now.

        It is sad that you can’t admit the Obama frittered away the past year doing nothing and now you worry that any action may have bad consequences seemingly as an excuse to do nothing.Report

      • Murali in reply to Burt Likko says:


        I’m pretty sure Obama was arming and training so called moderates last yearReport

      • Chris in reply to Burt Likko says:

        notme, see what Murali said, but also see that I am not defending Obama. I’m pointing out that you can’t do anything but criticize Obama. You have nothing to add to any conversation on the topic. You clearly don’t even know the facts on the ground.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Burt Likko says:

        It is sad that you can’t admit the Obama frittered away the past year doing nothing and now you worry that any action may have bad consequences seemingly as an excuse to do nothing.

        Picked this up over at the Dish. Dick Cheney, 1991:

        What kind of government? Should it be a Sunni government or Shi’i government or a Kurdish government or Ba’athist regime? Or maybe we want to bring in some of the Islamic fundamentalists? How long would we have had to stay in Baghdad to keep that government in place? What would happen to the government once U.S. forces withdrew? How many casualties should the United States accept in that effort to try to create clarity and stability in a situation that is inherently unstable? I think it is vitally important for a President to know when to use military force. I think it is also very important for him to know when not to commit U.S. military force. And it’s my view that the President got it right both times, that it would have been a mistake for us to get bogged down in the quagmire inside Iraq.

        I know, I know. Cheney’s official view is that Obama screwed the pooch by withdrawing troops from the quagmire inside Iraq.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Burt Likko says:

        One other thing. Obama doesn’t fritter, he dithers.Report

  21. Kolohe says:

    Since you brought it up again, I’m thinking that cutting off the oil money is not so straightforward. If there’s *one* enduring structure in place after nearly 25 years of war, sanctions, and other economic disruption, it’s the rat lines used by smugglers of convenient allegiance that are able to transport all matter of materiel, men, and money.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Kolohe says:

      I read the article that you cited, @kolohe , and it provided a very interesting insight into the quasi – feudalism that underlies a great deal of society in the Fertile Crescent. But I did not see the term red lines used anywhere, nor was that concept explored. To the contrary, it’s suggested that to the extent anyone is able to get on top of overt civil authority, they will do so by relying not upon convenient allegiances, but rather long standing tribal and clan based loyalties, personal relationships, and identification of common enemies. If ISIS remains successful at exporting oil for profit, it will do so because it will have managed to encapsulate those long standing, quasi-feudal, personal loyalty based networks. Providing people in the region with a common enemy, perhaps in the form of flying robots and fearsomely powerful aircraft piloted by (pilots who are perceived as) Christians, we may actually assist their ability to identify a greater enemy than themselves to those who would otherwise suppose then, and thus reach the top of the hierarchy of loyalties.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Freedom of action for insurgents is assured as disparate sections of the social network are activated like a contagious disease. The lack of a strong central government promotes the process. The network expands as more and more areas develop their own tribal power centers connected to each other by kinship and tribal alliances. It should come as no surprise that homegrown and foreign insurgents are able to exploit “rat lines” between areas of operation. The social connections already exist and need only be activated as communications and support links in the overall tribal network rally to the cause and organize for conflict. (em added)

        and you and I and the article are in complete agreement on how ISIS can successfully fund itself.

        I’m not entirely in agreement on the blowback argument though. Ongoing drone strikes can certainly be a negative on population-centric warfare (just look at Pakistan opinion polling on their perceptions of the US), but taking out columns of vehicles and fighters in the open desert is a very different proposition than using air power against command nodes in populated areas. (not to say hitting stuff in the middle of nowhere can’t go wrong though.

        ISIS is already itching for a fight with the US and the rest of the west for some reason. Contrast with, say the al Nusra front who were heretofore the worse of the worse but ever since James Foley’s death, have been releasing people captured in Syria, deliberately sending a message “Hey, death to America, and all, but we’re not *those* guys”. Hitting ISIS targets is unlikely to have blowback, because everyone has already said ‘fish those guys’.

        Where the plan is still very weak though, is “what happens next”. Getting rid of ISIS through airpower is straightforward enough, and the Kurds have a good handle on their own territory, but the rest of the upper Euphrates is going to be a political dumpster fire for years, if not decades. The southern shi’a based government has demonstrated manifest inability to govern the area, and I don’t anyone who has faith in this newly minted government (except for the official pronouncements from the US State Department and their counterparts in other allied nations). And as I said before, de facto independent Kurdistan is good enough for now (it’s a sign of Erdogan’s political maturity – or maybe his weakness until the most recent election – that he’s let it go that far), but de facto sovereignty without de jure sovereignty is going to lead fairly quickly to a cap on economic growth.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Where the plan is still very weak though, is “what happens next”.

        We totally have that coveredReport

      • greginak in reply to Burt Likko says:

        I think the “what happens next?” answer after ISIL gets beat down is we declare victory and scoot. There isn’t really an end game for putting all the countries together, they want for the Kurds to be secure and stable which is a reachable and decent goal. They hope Syria will chillax and Iraq will be functional but those are optional and vague hopes at best. However just saying that doesn’t work well in speeches.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Burt Likko says:

        “However just saying that doesn’t work well in speeches.”

        That’s a mighty weak excuse. The President is currently term limited, and, based on the bellicosity of the Republcan caucus and the me-too ism of the Democratic one, has a fairly free hand to both act and tell the truth on what he is doing.

        This administration started strikes based on imminent threat to US interests (like the consulate and, using a bankshot, the integrity of one of the major river dams). And that was fair enough*. But now, the ostensible reason for action is that we saw the same sort of mostly anarchic terror state evolve in Afghanistan in the lead up to 9/11, and we are trying to nip that in the bud a lot earlier this time. (right? that’s why we’re in there? Please correct me if I’m wrong).

        The problem is if we just bomb and bolt, we’re right back to where we were about a year or so ago. And where we were in Afghanistan in the late 90s. So, theoretically (that is, based on this administration’s own theories on how stuff works in the world), the problem will just reconstitute itself. The same way various disaffected Sunnis from all over the world morphed into AQI when Saddam stopped hanging around, splintered off to go elsewhere in the Arabian peninsula and Horn of Africa as the Awakening happened, scooted over the Syria when that opportunity arose, and now are back in Iraq. They have been different teams over the years, with different players but they are all playing the same sport (with many of the same coaches)

        Beating down ISIS in the absence of an imminent threat (or an actual attack), and without building up host nation capability the way we are in Somalia and Yemen**, or any other good plan for what happens next, is danger close to redoing 2003 all over again.

        *Even though it did seem a little slow if that was the real reason – it was only when the Kurd militias fell in the outlying areas that the administration deems a clear and present danger. Contrast with his Libya operation where the airstrikes happened when the opposing army was still on the march, not already having overrun ‘good guy’ positions.

        **which itself has been a long slow slog with mixed results and an uncertain future.Report

  22. Stillwater says:

    Regarding the update, an NPR “specialist” today mentioned in passing that ISIS is Al-Queda, which made me laugh a bit and joke about how our official policy seems to be that anyone who’s Muslim and opposes the US is AQ. But I got to thinking about what that claim might mean since usually those types of comments, made by those types of people, aren’t flippant. WHen I got home this evening I read that Obama is claiming that since IS is AQ, he doesnt’ need any additional congressional authorization for war the use of military force in Syria or Iraq or who knows where else.

    I smelled a rat, then found it. So I got that goin for me…Report

  23. Barry says:

    Burt: “So the key here is convincing the entities that have the ability to block money from entering ISIS’s coffers to do so. Oil can flow out of ISIS’s territory north through Turkey, west through Assad-controlled Syria, east through Iran, or south through Iraq. Not a single one of those nation-states has the remotest incentive to see ISIS succeed in establishing itself. It seems to me that all they need to do is turn the oil away for long enough to starve ISIS out of its ability to provide governmental apparatus and they’ll be reduced to an assemblage of several thousand religious zealots with little more than small arms and some stolen armored personnel carriers.”

    Somehow I doubt that ISIS is moving much oil. That’s a bulk commodity.

    The likely biggest source of money is Saudi Wahhabis, which leads into the problem that ISIS has a lot of enemies, but they also hate each other, and are happy to use ISSIS and each other against each other and ISIS.Report

  24. George Turner says:

    Our approach has a host of problems and inconsistences. Supporting the FSA may have worked a year or more ago by filling an ecological niche so a worse infection doesn’t set in, but that ship has sailed. ISIS and al Nusra now so dominate the opposition that anyone else still fighting Assad must be pretty much okay with them taking over in the aftermath of a total victory. If Assad is defeated, any “moderates” who deserve the term will probably go back to their homes and shops, leaving the radicals free to carry out whatever purges they want. And of course the FSA said a few days ago that they’ve signed a cooperation pact with ISIS. So there really isn’t any moderate Syrian opposition to arm, or won’t be once Assad’s regime is destroyed.

    Second, since the “moderates” aren’t going to engage against ISIS but will instead cooperate on coordinated attacks against their common enemy, the Assad regime, boosting the moderate forces is helping an ISIS ally. It’s somewhat like trying to stop Hitler in 1942 by sending lend-lease armaments to Mussolini. It’s not going to help, and indeed just takes pressure off ISIS on their western front.

    In a book about how children need pretend violence, a comic book writer explained that the comic book fights are so that the reader can see who is really on who’s side, since the characters may talk and talk about who is a friend and an enemy, but it’s all talk until the fighting starts and the real truth becomes apparent. Applying that logic to US fighter aircraft engaging front-line ISIS targets in Syria, where are we going to be telling pilots to try to eject if they get hit, FSA territory, ISIS territory, or Assad’s territory? I think I’d try for all I’m worth to get into Syrian army country before pulling the loud handle, since the FSA would probably sell me to ISIS for a bunch of RPG’s and some Nutella, and ISIS would just try to top their previous decapitation video. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Syrian government warns US pilots to try to eject over Syrian territory for their own safety, as a way to derail the current Western narrative regarding the regime. It speaks to who we should be fighting with and who we should be fighting against.

    Perhaps it would make more sense to view eastern Iraq as the hammer, western Syria as the anvil, and push ISIS westward till it’s squashed. That could lay the groundwork for a longer-term fix, since the problem with Syria is that it has too many Sunnis. The problem with Iraq’s parliament is that it doesn’t have nearly enough Sunnis. Shift 6 to 8 million Sunnis from Syria’s control to Iraq’s, and you get a Syria that’s not paranoid about two-thirds of its population being Sunni, a high percentage of which are convinced that Shia, Alawites, and Christians are the devil, and an Iraq that’s roughly balanced between Shia and Sunni, and forced to compromise and find ways of working together instead of locking each other out.

    One thing we need to keep in mind is that if Assad loses, the Alawites and Christians, along with a very large number of moderate Sunnis who sided with them, are toast. In fact, Lebanon is probably toast as well. I certainly have no love for Assad’s regime, but like most Syrians who are not thrilled with the regime, politics goes out the window when it’s either kill or be tortured, killed, crucified, and beheaded in front of your own children by violent religious fanatics. If regime change is going to result in mass genocide and an expansion of the killing into neighboring countries, which it will, then it’s not time to change the regime.Report