THE ISIS PANIC

September 3, 2014 – 11:26 am


Michael Brenner on the futility of America’s ad hoc policy-making by press conference.

The grotesque beheading of James Foley is stirring passions in Washington policy circles. From the highest levels of the Obama administration to the media pundits, emotions are flaring over what the United States should/could do. [Journalist James Foley was killed on August 19, 2014.]

The act in itself has changed nothing insofar as ISIS’ threat to the United States and its significance for Middle East politics are concerned. It is the mood that has been transformed. Irresistible impulse is displacing cool deliberation.

The flood of commentary, as usual, reveals little in the way of rigorous logic but much in the way of disjointed thinking and unchecked emotion. Also as usual, tactics eclipse strategy. Secretary Hagel pronounces ISIS the gravest threat from Islamist militancy “beyond anything we have seen… an imminent threat to everything we have… a 9/11 level threat.”

General Dempsey asserts that ISIS poses an “immediate” threat and cannot be “defeated without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria and use all means at our disposal. General John Allen who commanded American forces in Afghanistan, calls on President Obama to wipe out ISIS - whatever it takes. That is to say, a feat neither he nor his nine fellow commanders never came close to achieving in Afghanistan.

Rick Perry, as headlined in the NYT, warns that the immediate danger is not on the Euphrates or Tigris but the Rio Grande where ISIS infiltrators already have entered the United States (presumably disguised as Honduran teenagers). Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the self-appointed joint chiefs  of “bomber command,” vociferously demand that we hammer ISIS - although it is not clear where ISIS stands on the priority list of the many bad guys the hawkish duo insist we must bomb.

These bits of fragmentary diagnosis and prescription - even the sober ones - are not very helpful.

Let’s get down to basics: national interests, threat assessment; measures of a successful policy. We cannot interpret what it means to “defeat” ISIS until we specify exactly what it is we are worrying about.

Is it terrorism launched against the United States (a la 9/11) from the territories they control? Is it toppling the Baghdad government? Toppling the Kurdish government? Invading Jordan or Saudi Arabia? Presenting a long-term terrorist threat in the region that will destabilize governments we want to be stable? These variations of the threat present very different kinds of challenges. They affect American interests in different ways in different magnitudes. They are susceptible to different types of action - by the US or by others.

We should be able to do better job of policy analysis than what we have seen to date re: ISIS - and what we have seen during the entire GWOT (Global War On Terrorism) era. The failure to meet a reasonable standard of sound deliberation and skillful execution has produced a national tragedy. That is an embarrassing commentary on the state of the American government.

Airstrikes are only pertinent to threats 2, 3 and 4, with the likelihood and degree of their effectiveness still highly uncertain. “Boots on the ground?” Well, we had a very large force in Iraq for eight years and that did not prevent the emergence of ISIS from the wounded body of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

This enemy is even more formidable. Nor could a new invasion protect the United States from direct terrorist acts. Complete elimination of ISIS from the territories they occupy is a near impossibility; moreover, to eliminate it permanently as General Allen demands is even more improbable.

That is the dilemma we’ve faced with the Taliban in Afghanistan and which for more than a decade we have refused to recognize much less try seriously to solve. Moreover, territorial control for training bases, indoctrination centers, planning cells, etc. is greatly over-rated. Al-Qaeda did not need very much to set in motion the 9/11 attacks. The operational planning and coordination was done in Hamburg and the tactical execution managed from New Jersey.

There is a more general lesson to be learned from this latest exercise in ad hoc policy-making by press conference. The insistence of senior officials to speak at length in public on these complex, sensitive matters when there is no set policy is inimical to serious planning and diplomacy.

If they feel compelled to react to events to satisfy the media and an agitated populace, they should just say a few well chosen words and then declare themselves on the way to an important meeting - preferably not in Martha’s Vineyard.

Silence, though, is taken to be tantamount to death in the egocentric media age where image is all - confusing random motion with focused action. The ensuing storm of static in our public space is invasive. It destroys the ability to reflect, to assess, to ponder, to imagine. We have come to ‘think’ in sound bites as well as to talk in sound bites. This is the ultimate endpoint of a political culture where we spend more time trying to sort ourselves out than actually doing anything.

To put it bluntly, there is a persuasive argument to be made that the country would be well served if our leaders observed a moratorium on public statements for several days - ignoring the vain media, the not very knowledgeable or insightful pundits, and the blow-hard politicians - and devoted themselves to some concentrated hard thinking. Serious governments, especially that of a super power, do not conduct their foreign relations in a state of histrionics.

We should be able to do better job of policy analysis than what we have seen to date re: ISIS - and what we have seen during the entire GWOT (Global War On Terrorism) era. The failure to meet a reasonable standard of sound deliberation and skillful execution has produced a national tragedy. That is an embarrassing commentary on the state of the American government.

Note: Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. The above article was posted at CounterPunch.

+ + + + +

  1. 5 Responses to “THE ISIS PANIC”

  2. When you consider that it took the awol coke head that cheated his way into office, two years to invade Iraq, I don’t think Americans will mind if President Obama takes his time on handling this. I don’t think he gives a shit how those two pussies, “lindsy” graham and the hamburger flipper McCain want to proceed. As far as that useless bitch, fienstien, they should throw her sorry, lame ass out of the democrat party.
    Personally though, I would simply locate all ISIS camps and then send over a fleet of B-52’s to wipe their sorry ass’s off of the face of the earth. I wouldn’t send any people over, just big fucking bombs.
    Just my opinion…

    By nobsartist on Sep 3, 2014

  3. I don`t know anyone who could behead someone.
    Then again, I`m not sure I know any psychotic individuals.
    I don`t think an entire culture of people can have possibly devolved this low I do believe that individuals who just want to kill are responsible.
    I want to see the people brought to justice as quickly as anyone else but It is really difficult for me to understand blasting a whole city to rid a handful of insane murderers.
    The cretins responsible for these beheadings fully understand how evil westerners view this.We cannot comprehend the act and I just cannot imagine there are many indiviuals who could carry out something like this without remorse. Sane persons would be struck dumb committing this heinous act . Can there really be entire countries of people who can do this or are we chasing a handful of psychopathic murderers ?

    By sluggo on Sep 3, 2014

  4. I think that the Islamic State is an excellent idea and think that all muslims should go and live there. Let’s put all the savages in one pleace and leave them to it

    By oilygarage on Sep 4, 2014

  5. That is a decent article.

    I don’t know how somebody could fire missiles into a school or blow up somebody’s family with a drone. I couldn’t.

    By Jon on Sep 4, 2014

  1. 1 Trackback(s)

  2. Sep 3, 2014: Talkin’ About My Revolutions » THE ISIS PANIC

Post a Comment