America’s Never-Ending Wars in the Middle East

Nov 10

“Those who are elected ought to vote on what we do,” said Admiral Mike Mullen, former Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking on The Colbert Report. He wants Congress to debate America’s latest military forays into the Middle East. Yet the halls of Congress remain silent, and the mainstream media are once again uncritically accepting whatever narrative is being pushed by the purveyors of America’s never-ending wars in the Middle East. We have seen this movie before. The price tag, according to Costs of War, is $4.3 trillion and counting. Since the declaration of the war on terror, 6,800 American soldiers have been killed, 970,000 wounded. The wars have also killed 220,000 civilians and made 6.3 million people war refugees. Yet the war continues with very little introspection on our part.

One may contend that the genesis of ISIS (or ISIL) dates back to U.S. invasion of Iraq.Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who broke away from al-Qaeda and on whom the U.S. government once had a $25 million reward for any tip leading to his arrest, can be considered the ideological godfather of ISIS. However, the group entered into the consciousness of most Americans only after gruesome beheading videos made media waves. This has tipped a slight majority of Americans (53 percent) to now support yet another war in the Middle East.

It bears reminding that in 2003, 72 percent of Americans supported going to war with Iraq, titillated by spurious claims of mushroom clouds and weapons of mass destruction. Yet a decade later, most Americans wanted U.S. troops out of Iraq. The fickle public is once again the victim of fear mongering. The unsuspecting public cheers on as bombs and missiles generate shock and awe. As the media echo chambers glorify the sounds and fury of war, the public is assured that only the “bad guys” are dead. If anyone dares to question the death of civilians, they are branded as propagandists for terror. Very little time is spent questioning the efficacy of the war, and there is virtually no discussion about what happens the day after, assuming that the war on terror can actually be won anytime soon.

The Global Terrorism Database (GDT), a service provided by National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, records approximately 125,000 cases of terrorist incidents committed by 2,437 groups between 1970 and 2013. Over the past four decades, nearly half of the incidents of death from terrorism have occurred in the 12 years since the declaration of the so-called “war on terror” in 2002. Data also show that terrorism is not only being committed in the name of Islam, by well-known groups such as al-Qaeda; just as ominously, it is also being perpetrated in the name of Christianity by lesser-known groups such as the Lord’s Resistance Army, and by non-religious actors such as the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Between 2002 and 2011, the Lord’s Resistance Army ranked fourth in the number of fatalities linked to it, while the Communist Party of India (Maoist) ranked fifth. Ranking at the very top of the list are the Taliban, with whom the U.S. launched “peace talks” in 2013.

Undoubtedly, ISIS gained currency in the cauldrons of Syria’s bloody civil war, which has killed nearly 200,000 people, with of half of them being civilians. The conflict has displaced 6.5 million people, and over half of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million is in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. President Obama called for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to step down, but he has never enacted any strategy to make this possible or — more importantly — offered any plan regarding what happens the day after. ISIS swept into Iraq partly because the Obama administration showed no will to confront the sectarian nature of Iraq’s democratic government, despite that government’s survival depending upon U.S. largesse. The parochial worldview of the Iraqi government alienated and radicalized Iraq’s Sunni minority. Only after ISIS captured vast Iraqi territories did Obama put pressure on Iraq’s Nuri al-Maliki to step down. Too little, too late.

ISIS is a terrorist group. But is it America’s responsibility to defeat them, particularly given the fact that no case has been made regarding the extent to which they pose a threat to the homeland? Saudi Arabia and Iran both claim that ISIS represents an existential threat to them. Why are they not cooperating with each other to defeat ISIS? A Shia-Sunni rapprochement led by Saudi Arabia and Iran would be far more effective and less costly than the over $10 million per day that the U.S. is currently spending on bombing ISIS. Who will ultimately pay for this war effort?

“ISIS is a response to state monopolization of violence,” noted Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, a professor of religion at Reed College in Portland. If indeed so, then this threat cannot be defeated via more state violence (i.e., military might) only. U.S. efforts to combat al-Qaeda have not diminished the threat from terrorism, as evidenced from the GTD data. Osama bin Laden’s absence has not defeated terrorism. It has created a power vacuum that has been filled by groups more radicalized and more ruthless than al-Qaeda. Once again the absence of a day-after strategy remains the Achilles heel. America keeps playing the terrorist Whac-a-Mole. There is no grand strategy, only arbitrary lurches from crisis to crisis.

That Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt, is opposing ISIS is an irony and hypocrisy. Governments in both states have enabled ISIS, Saudi Arabia through bankrolling its puritanical version of Islam (pejoratively labeled “Wahhabism”), and Egypt by brutally suppressing the aspirations of the Arab Spring. Moreover, can Saudi Arabia really claim any moral high ground given the fact that in Saudi Arabia beheadings are a public spectacle?

While Muslim religious leaders have indeed unequivocally condemned ISIS, they have not yet taken stock of the fact that the extreme conservatism fanned by many clerics and Islamist groups continues to enable ISIS to recruit globally. The penchant that hardline clerics and Islamist groups have for denying religious pluralism and their constant projection of victimhood have, in perverse ways, conspired to create the cesspool from which ISIS is successfully recruiting. Simply condemning ISIS is not enough. Muslim clerics and organizations must reexamine their message and methods. Factors ranging from the disempowerment of women to a lack of tolerance for unorthodox views are helping radicalize individuals and society. It is from this cesspool that ISIS and other militants are drawing sustenance.

Bombs and missiles cannot defeat terrorism, because they play into the narrative of the terrorists that the only effective response to state monopolization of violence is more violence. And so the cycle repeats. In the words of Admiral Mullen, the U.S. must prepare for a multi-decade military entanglement in the Middle East. And yet there is hardly much will to debate this generational commitment to an open-ended war. Tragically, there’s only the fervor to cheerlead.