ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or alternatively, ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is really really evil. They’re so evil that al-Qaeda has disavowed them. When your extremist jihadist army is too evil for the guys behind 9/11, that’s really evil. I apologize for my tone here; ISIS (or ISIL) continues to murder journalists, and slaughter innocent civilians. They really are a horror show.
So the consensus on all the Sunday morning political talk shows was, as usual, that Something Has to be Done, and whatever the Obama administration is doing is too little, ineffective, and not part of an overall coherent strategy. Is ISIL a genuine threat to American interests? That question tends to get dismissed pretty quickly. They’re really evil; of course they’re a threat.
Right now, the American response is to bomb ISIL positions, a kind of military action which Congress has not specifically authorized, not that they’re in any huge hurry to do anything of the kind, Article One Section Eight of the Constitution notwithstanding. But Rand Paul published an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal attacking both the President’s actions and those members of his own party (pace John McCain and Lindsay Graham), who are arguing for a continued American military presence in Iraq. Wrote Paul: “shooting first and asking questions later has never been a good foreign policy.” Paul isn’t convinced that Isis is a threat to America. Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee issued an utterly contemptible response to Paul’s op-ed, questioning his patriotism and saying he supported policies that would “make America less safe.” I’m grateful to my good friend Adam Blackwell, who called this contretemps to my attention, as well as Ezra Klein’s response on the invaluable Vox.com: “the DNC response recalls “the brain-dead patriotism-baiting that Democrats used to loathe” when they were subjected to them by Karl Rove and his proxies.” Dead on.
Paul doesn’t say what he thinks we should do, or what he’d do if he were President (something he would very much like to see happen). But like his father before him, Rand Paul is never more interesting than when he comments on foreign policy, precisely because he doesn’t care what the Washington conventional consensus is.
The Sunday talk shows are invaluable as a guide to what All the Smart People Think, mainstream Beltway wisdom. I always watch This Week on ABC, and it drives my daughter insane: “why do you watch this? It’s terrible!” She’s right, but I watch nontheless–it’s good to know what the Establishment is up to. Washington always wants the President to Do Something, to Show Leadership, to Project American Will. That’s why the mainstream media turned cheerleader so quickly in the leadup to Bush’s Iraq invasion. It’s why Hans Blix couldn’t get a major media outlet to listen when he was busy shouting from the rooftops how Saddam Hussein did NOT have WMD, something Blix knew with some certainty, because he was the guy tasked by the UN to go to Iraq and look for them. So that’s Beltway wisdom: always certain, usually wrong.
When Rand Paul writes about how disastrous that 2003 invasion proved, and how invading Iraq destabilized the region, freeing up human cockroaches like ISIL to crawl out from under the fridge and start blowing stuff up, he’s absolutely right. And so our foreign policy has become almost entirely reactive. Threats emerge, hands are wrung, the President is blamed for those threats, and generally it turns out that there’s not much we can do, except the limited measures the President anyway prefers.
The larger question, of course, is whether or not there are legitimate American interests at risk in Iraq and Syria. The reason there might be is this: about a hundred Americans, and over a thousand Europeans have joined ISIL. (I’m calling them ISIL instead of ISIS for reasons I’ll explain later). That’s the fact that’s being cited on all the talk shows. There are a hundred American guys going over there! What happens when they come home! They have passports! They’re terrorists! They’re going to do terrorist-y things over here! Not so fast, writes Zack Beauchamp on Vox.
The first American jihadist ISIL guy to be killed over there is a guy named Douglas MacArthur McCain. No kidding; he was named for one of the greatest of American generals, and shares a last name with John McCain. Who was he? He was from a Milwaukee suburb. Had a few traffic tickets. Was described as a goofy guy, kind of lost, searching for something. I also read about the British citizen who they think was the guy who beheaded journalist James Foley. He supposedly became a jihadist because his rap career wasn’t taking off.
And so I read about these guys, and no, I’m not a national security expert. I’m an aging playwright who used to teach theatre history. But they sure sounded familiar. They remind me of a friend of mine in high school who joined the Children of God. They remind me of the Baader-Meinhof guys. They remind me of the SLA. You remember them; the folks who kidnapped Patty Hearst? My brother’s junior high school English teacher, Emily Harris, was in that group. Smart, disaffected, searching, lost.
In other words, the Americans and Western Europeans who are running off to Syria and joining ISIS may well be simply the latest iteration of the ‘bored nihilist hipster’ crowd. You want to reject mainstream suburban values? One way to do it is to become Kurt Cobain and write some of the greatest music of the last fifty years. Another way is to run off into the wilderness. The possibilities are endless. Get a tattoo, dye your hair, get multiple piercings, drop out of school, try heroin, rob a convenience store. But if you really want to piss off your parents, try joining a group of jihadist terrorists. Way more hardcore than playing Tour of Duty all night. This way, you can really shoot a real weapon. Drive around in a Toyota pickup waving an AK around. Wear a bandana and talk jihad, send home letters about the glorious pan-Islamic caliphate you’re bringing about. And maybe shoot some people, too. That’s hardcore, man.
That’s why I’m calling them ISIL, instead of ISIS. Isis was an Egyptian goddess. ISIL sounds like the thing painters set their canvas on to paint. I don’t want terrorist to sound even a little bit cool. ISIL sounds stupider.
So what happens when they come back to the US, those who survive. Well, not much. First of all, they’re going to be easy to identify, easy to track, and easy to follow. They’re already pretty easy to keep tabs on, because they love to tweet. Doug McCain was, by all accounts, a pretty bright kid, who was lost and needed something to give his life meaning. He found it in Islam, and that’s great. Then he found a greater fulfillment in the darkest corners of the Islamic world, and became a killer, a savage nihilist. It’s a tragedy. My heart breaks for his family. But he wasn’t ever much of a threat to America or to American interests.
So what should we do about ISIL? I’m not convinced they’re much of a threat to American interests. Iraq has a very large, superbly trained and equipped army. They also don’t seem very interested in fighting for the glory of Iraq. The Kurds are semi-autonomous, much better fighters than Iraqi general forces, and motivated–they’ve seen enough of Isis up close to know what they’re dealing with. If some limited bombing strikes can provide support for Kurdish forces, that might be worth trying, if we can manage it without infuriating Turkey, which does not want a Kurdish state on its southern border.
I also think that the US might have a larger humanitarian role to fill. If NATO forces, or UN peacekeepers can be persuaded to get involved, we might be able to fight ISIL effectively, without at the same time supporting Assad’s brutal regime in Syria, or further destabilizing the hopelessly corrupt and inefficient Iraqi government, such as it is. Who knows; perhaps the threat of ISIL could even provide an opportunity for some very careful and nuanced diplomacy with Iran, since ISIL is a Sunni force and Iran generally supports endangered Shiites.
So our options are limited, and the role the US can and should play is a complicated one. So far, I’m willing to support President Obama’s general approach. But Rand Paul should also be listened to. To the degree that it’s possible for both President Obama and Senator Paul to be right about foreign policy, that might be a middle ground worth further exploration.