As we reflect on the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that shook our nation, it appears little progress has been made in the “war on terror.” The gruesome beheadings of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by the shadowy Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) are testimony to that. But the sad reality is that too many U.S. actions, both before 9/11 and since, have inflamed the problem of terrorism. And both liberal and conservative hawks are now pushing for more of the same.
Remember that al-Qaeda and Osama bin-Laden got their start with U.S. support in the 1980s in Afghanistan. This fact was acknowledged by none other than the very “establishment” bipartisan 9/11 Commission report. Al-Qaeda and bin-Laden were backed by the U.S. in a war that was supposedly to defend democracy for the Afghan people. But the real purpose was to advance a top U.S. geopolitical aim, defeating the Soviet Union. Close to 3,000 Americans paid the price for this on Sept. 11, 2001. The Afghan people have paid a terrible price throughout and continue to do so.
That U.S. military venture laid the seeds for what we’re seeing today. ISIS is just the latest incarnation of vicious, reactionary extremism wrapped in a distortion of religion, funded by key U.S. allies – Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular.
On Thursday night, President Obama announced an expanded military campaign reaching into Syria as part of a strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS.This is a dangerous development.
Administration officials say the Syria campaign could last three years or more. Antony Blinken, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told CNN, “It’s going to take time, and it will probably go beyond even this administration to get to the point of defeat.” That is disturbing. We recall that during the Iraq quagmire, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld talked of a “long, hard slog.”
Last week, the president announced a new “core coalition” for the military campaign against ISIS. The coalition is composed of the U.S., Britain, Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Turkey. Coalition of the willing?
That announcement came on the sidelines of a NATO summit meeting in the UK. The New York Times noted: “But some diplomats said they were uncomfortable using a summit meeting of the 28-nation alliance as a backdrop for a smaller group with no NATO imprimatur and, except for Turkey, no named Muslim partners.”
That raises the question of why the NATO meeting did not officially sign on. Is it possible that some members, looking at the chaos and rise of extremist militias in Libya following the 2011 U.S./NATO bombing campaign, were not eager to launch another military venture in the region?
After in-person lobbying by Secretary of State John Kerry, the Arab League announced support for national and international measures to stop ISIS. It did not specifically endorse U.S. military actions but, according to NBC News, “diplomatic sources” said the Arab League statement “could be read as a tacit agreement to back Washington’s campaign against the group.” It is widely reported that some Arab rulers, most notably Saudi Arabia, were angry that Obama had so far refused to directly intervene militarily in Syria. The Saudis, aiming to advance their own power in the region, are hot to topple Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime. Does this Arab League agreement represent a deal with the Saudis and others with their own agendas, to carry out regime change in Syria?
Have we learned nothing from the disastrous military regime-change operation in Iraq? Or from the air-war regime-change operation in Libya that has left the country in a state of collapse and beset by extremist militias?
In addition to the much-publicized beheadings of the two U.S. reporters, ISIS has spread death and devastation in the territory it controls in Iraq and Syria, including beheadings of civilians, rape and other abuse of women, ethnic cleansing killings and expulsions. It does demand world attention and action. But what action?
From Afghanistan to Libya to Iraq, military interventions have not brought “success” even by U.S. policymakers’ terms. (Nor have drone assassinations in Yemen and Somalia or the killing of Osama bin-Laden, cited as positive examples by the president in his speech Thursday.) They certainly have not made those countries more secure or stable or democratic. They have not ended terrorism there or elsewhere: after each of these ventures, terrorism has sprouted new and more virulent shoots. They have not made our country safer. In short, they have been horrible failures. They have, however, cost millions of innocent lives, and billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars – while racking up unimaginable fortunes for corporate war manufacturers and contractors. Indeed, from the point of view of war profits alone, does it even matter who’s winning, as long as they’re fighting with our weapons?
The president announced efforts to cut off funding flowing to ISIS and related groups, and to block people from other countries from traveling to the Middle East to fight for ISIS. These are good and vital steps. Of course, the administration ought to be self-critical about the fact that it contributed to the problem by backing an unclear, shifting array of “rebel” groups in Syria, helping turn a democratic movement into armed chaos, thereby helping give birth to ISIS. And these positive steps are likely to be undermined by ramped up moves to do more of what helped cause the problem in the first place – aid supposedly “moderate” rebels in Syria.
The Friends Committee on National Legislation has put forward excellent recommendations for what the U.S. should do. Initially addressed to the crisis in Iraq, they apply to Syria as well. We urge you to read their statement in full. Because of the urgency of the situation, we include the recommendations here:
In the short term:
* Provide humanitarian assistance to those who are fleeing the violence. Continue to air drop food and much needed supplies in coordination with the United Nations.
* Bring the bombing campaign to an immediate end and set a strategic frame for U.S. interests in Iraq. Already the purported justifications and goals of U.S. military engagement have changed from genocide prevention to rolling back the Islamic State. Such dangerous mission creep increases the prospects of protracted U.S. military intervention in Iraq.
* At a minimum, members of Congress should insist that the president seek congressional authorization before taking any further military action.
* Stop channeling more weapons into an already volatile situation. ISIS is well-armed in large part because the group has captured U.S. weapons provided to the Iraqi government. Further arming the Kurdish or Iraqi army only adds fuel to an already raging fire.
In the medium term:
* Work regionally to impose an arms embargo against all armed actors in Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait are key regional players who have provided weapons to the armed opposition, including ISIS, in Syria. The U.S. has provided weapons to Iraqi security forces despite widespread human rights violations, and many of those weapons have ended up in the hands of ISIS.
* Work through the UN Security Council to impose financial sanctions against armed actors in the region. Cutting off financial support can go a long way toward to blunting extremist violence.
In the long term:
* Work for a political settlement to the crisis in Iraq and Syria. These two conflicts are intricately connected and should be addressed holistically. Return to the Geneva peace process for a negotiated settlement to the civil war in Syria and expand the agenda to include regional peace and stability. Ensure Iran’s full participation in the process.
* Address both political and economic grievances of the population – particularly among vulnerable populations where ISIS is most likely to feed off the desperation of Sunni-majority and other marginalized communities. Strengthening long term political and economic security will help to build a stable and non-sectarian society in Iraq.
* Support Iraqi civil society efforts to build peace and reconciliation at the community level. Deep sectarian and ethnic divisions have long been exacerbated by U.S. military intervention and the current crisis. Sustainable peace will require peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts from the ground up.”
The Friends Committee urges, “The U.S. must break out of this cycle of violence – acting immediately to address the crisis at hand and save civilian lives, but in a way that will help to unravel, not deepen, the entrenched conflicts behind the violence. Military action cannot address these root causes of violence.”
We couldn’t agree more. We urge you to contact the White House and your senators and congressional representative and ask them to take these steps and turn away from military action.