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Casus Contendentes (Now With Update)

We found a modus vivendi with this extremely unsavory character, so why would Caliph Ibrahim by any worse as a practical matter?

We worked out a modus vivendi with this extremely unsavory character, so why as a practical matter should some thug calling himself “Caliph Ibrahim” be any worse as a diplomatic adversary?

For the second time in thirteen years, the United States stands on the brink of declaring “war” against a nascent state entity deploying brutal acts of visually shocking violence, resentment of Western and Israeli power and wealth, militant Sunni Muslim fundamentalism, and whose grandest strategic ambition appears to be tempting the United States to act as a catspaw against whom the entire dar al-Islam might coalesce as a more or less unified nation.

If you’re like me, and I know I am, you’re more than a bit weary of war, and that war in particular. We’ve expended what feels like an appalling cost in lives and injuries, and what is uncontestably an appalling cost of money, being effectively at war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban for thirteen years and in Iraq for eleven years. And now, less than eighteen months after formally withdrawing from Iraq, the political change worked there at such a great cost in blood and treasure imperiled. Worse, it’s now imperiled by what would in a past era have been dismissed as bandits and thugs.

And the political jockeying and posturing on the issue is tiresomely familiar and repetitive. We should go back to war, no we shouldn’t go back to war, we look weak, no we don’t look weak, so what if we look weak, aren’t the Russians going to do something about this.

Now, about the Russians — news flash: no, they aren’t going to do anything about ISIS because a) why would they and b) they’re too busy accidentally seizing bits of eastern Ukraine — and we clearly aren’t going to do anything meaningful about that, either, because maybe we don’t really care about that all that much, we’d just as soon not go to war with Russia if that could be avoided, and so maybe we can just learn to live with Russia gradually nibbling away at Ukraine’s eastern border, until it can’t anymore.

And therein lies an object lesson: if we aren’t going to do anything about Russia seizing bits of Ukraine because really, why should we care about it and the costs of fighting the apparent adversary exceed whatever benefit might be gained, then maybe we can have that same attitude about ISIS*.

That’s a tough proposition for me to swallow on an emotional level. ISIS are really bad dudes. It’s easy to characterize Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as little more than a thug who has enjoyed more than his fair share of battlefield success and whose enterprise is doomed to self-destruction. After all, if the charismatic, wealthy, and politically savvy Osama bin Laden could not get himself acclaimed Caliph, what possible chance does al-Baghdadi have of getting someone who is not directly looking at the business end of one of his soldier’s rifles to thus acclaim?

Dismissing al-Baghdadi that way ignores the fact that he has assembled a leadership team that includes people with substantial military, financial, and even civil administrative experience. And they’re putting it to use, providing basic policing services, mail delivery, and maintenance of financial ties with the mainstream banking world. They’re taxing and profiting from oil being drilled and shipped out of their territory to the tune of two million dollars a day. In other words, they’re offering and paying for a government, in a way that does not directly involve the payment of taxes by their subjects. It’s not a democratic government, and as I’ll discuss below, it’s a pretty damn brutal government if you get crosswise of it, but if you keep your head down and do your job you may very well be all right on a day to day basis.

Compare this to bin Laden and his successor and former lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri, who held themselves out as principally political thinkers and would-be leaders rather than military figures or state-builders. Bin Laden awaited a massive uprising of Muslims proclaiming him Caliph but declined to assume the title unilaterally, believing that the proclamation must come from the whole of the dar al-Islam. How disappointed he must have been to have earned more scorn than praise from the Muslim world after 9/11. But taking a cue from Napoleon, and the lesson from bin Laden’s lack of acclamation, al-Baghdadi has simply proclaimed himself “Caliph Ibrahim” and he’s proceeding from there.

Where al-Qaeda pulled off massive bombings, most powerfully in the September 11, 2011 attacks on the United States, ISIS has inflamed Western passions not so much by seizing effective control of territory in northeastern Syria and northern Iraq as by beheading two American journalists in less than a month. The very concept of beheading seems medieval-to-barbaric, and could not be better-calculated to inspire fear and loathing.

But as inflammatory and awful as the beheadings are, they are but individual accents on a long list of human rights offenses perpetrated by ISIS. Crucifixions and mass executions. Attacks on unarmed civilians — including children and a decagenarian. Kidnapping and raping women, and even raping young girls as part of an ethnic cleansing. Drafting child soldiers. Forcing women to take the veil and forcing Christians to convert to Islam or assume dhimmi status (including the payment of a heavy ‘tax’) seem trivial by comparison.

If human rights abuses were the real reasons we went to war, we’d have all the cause we needed against ISIS. But the prevention of human rights abuses is quite obviously a pleasing tissue wrapped over a real truth: war is about power, not morality. Human rights abuse is not the sort of reason we go to war, and our recent track record on things like torture isn’t the best. Realism prevails: we will readily look the other way about human rights abuses when economic or strategic imperatives for involvement are absent from the picture.

So if ISIS succeeds in conquering all of Iraq, would the resulting regional political situation really be so different from the 1980’s? Remember that time — Syria and Israel were vying for dominance through proxies in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia’s king was selling us oil and buying our weapons while doing things quietly to appease the more radical religious elements of its population, Egypt was under the control of a predictable if unlikable military dictator with only the barest pretense of democracy, and Iran and Iraq were at war with one another and fending off subversions sent their way from Saudi Arabia and Egypt and thus too busy to think about achieving regional dominance, while every Arab state in the region pounded on their chests about Israel bullying Palestinians while putting down an intifada, but obviously never really intended to do anything about it. To me, this description of the Middle East is rather like Garbage’s eponymous first album: it still sounds contemporary and cutting-edge, but in fact the album is nearly twenty years old. So too with chaos in the Fertile Crescent: thus it has been for a century, to the strategic net advantage of the West.

So while we’ve got lawmakers agitating for war, and the President dismissing containment in favor of destroying ISIS, there’s no particular reason to think that as awful and illiberal as ISIS is, the terrible things it does to people under its power will matter a whole lot to those of us who aren’t under its direct control. Which is probably why there really isn’t much political support for more than air strikes and arming the Kurds, and even that is mushy: the idea of putting Western boots on the ground is proving politically unpopular in North America and Europe alike. After all, ISIS isn’t about to stop pumping or selling the oil: especially if they are going to establish themselves as a formal nation-state, they need the money! And if they can’t get it, then are they ever going to amount to much more than an overgrown gang of motorcycle bandits?

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.

I suppose I can be convinced otherwise; I understand that that we in the west are politically weary of war does not necessary mean that we can lay down our arms. If ISIS is a real strategic threat, then yes, we need to take it out. But I’m not convinced that it is a strategic threat. I’m not convinced that ISIS can’t be lived with for a while and ultimately contained — whether that is accomplished by playing it off against regional rivals or put into stagnation by limiting its income from oil sales — that may be a better, cheaper, and more effective way of preventing it from turning in to a real strategic problem and to me that looks like something we ought to try before we start dropping bombs and sending in humanitarian advisors which will inevitably lead to boots on the ground in Iraq again. The last time we tried that, it was a long, bloody, expensive slog to achieve middling results at best.

Until someone convinces me that there is an imperative to do otherwise, I’m once bitten, twice shy. Let’s try containing these hooligans before we get ourselves sucked in to yet another full-blown war.


UPDATE, SEPTEMBER 11, 2014: It would appear that President Obama thinks differently about this issue than I. He’s sending 475 “advisors” to Iraq to train and dispense intelligence to Iraqi and Kurdish ground troops, and providing unidentified military aid to unidentified rebel factions in Syria, and continuing air strikes against ISIS, albeit now publicly acknowledging that this is happening. I note that he did not and does not intend to ask for Congress’ permission to do any of this, notwithstanding legal requirements that he do so, and apparently no one particularly wants him to. Depressingly, this sounds familiar. The President’s announced strategy has earned criticism from the left for not committing enough force to make a difference and from the right for not gathering together a sufficient coalition of allies. (For example, Turkey.) And nothing about isolating the flow of oil money. Sending military advisors and equipment may not always necessarily be a prelude to fully joining war, but it’s painfully easy to see how it could become so in this case. Since this is to be the strategy, let us all hope it will be successful notwithstanding whatever misgivings we may have about it.


* The entity headed by al-Baghdadi first came to my attention under the name ISIS, an acronym for “the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.” Since then, I have heard it also referred to as ISIL, “Islamic State of Iraq andthe Levant,” which underlines its opposition to the existence of Israel but downplays its activities in the ongoing Syrian civil war; as well as simply “The Islamic State” or “The Caliphate,” which reveal its pretense to imperial global-power status. As I am not sure that the entity has achieved the status of de facto statehood yet as it does not seem that there is a durable and delegable monopoly on the use of force within ISIS territory, and as I am not convinced that whatever overt claims of anti-Israeli aggression are particularly sincere, and as only a tiny percentage of Muslims not in proximity to the business end of ISIS’ weaponry have acknowledged al-Baghdadi as Caliph, I have elected here to continue use of ISIS and al-Baghdadi as opposed to the titles-in-pretense “The Caliphate” and “Caliph Ibrahim.” And I hardly want to assign a mighty title like “Caliph” to such a man, given that he appears to be making a bid for the “Adolf Hitler Award for Decade’s Greatest Perpetrator of Evil on the Planet, 2010-2019.”


Burt LikkoBurt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.

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110 thoughts on “Casus Contendentes (Now With Update)

  1. 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.


  2. 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.


      • 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.”


      • 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.


  3. 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.


  4. 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.


  5. 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.)


  6. 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.


    • 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?


      • 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.


      • 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.


  7. 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.


  8. 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.)


  9. 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.


    • I know nothing of the prospect of war with Russia, ? 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.


  10. 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.


  11. 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 expensive


      • 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.


      • 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.


  12. 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)


      • 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).


      • 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.


  13. 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.


  14. 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.


      • Kim,
        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.


      • Damon,
        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.


  15. Burt:

    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.


      • 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.


      • 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?


      • 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.


      • 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?


      • Chris:

        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.


      • 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!


      • Chris:

        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.


      • 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.


      • 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.


  16. 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.


    • I read the article that you cited, , 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.


      • 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.


      • 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.


      • “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.


  17. 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…


  18. 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.


  19. 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.


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