On good authority I pass along to you a judgement of the people of the Middle East: America raped the Arab world, and the offspring is ISIS.
Barack Obama saw it coming.
Listen to his prescient 2002 speech, delivered months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when he was an Illinois state legislator:
“I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. …
“But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors. …
“I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than the best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”
I invite you to imagine yourself a small Iraqi child—say a boy of five or six years—as U.S. war planes first roar overhead, U.S. tanks clank and rumble through your village, and American troops hurry through on their way to Baghdad.
Now, fourteen years later, it is 2016, and you (as that former Iraqi child) have grown into young manhood while watching Americans kill and maim literally hundreds of thousands of your civilian countrymen—perhaps one or both of your parents, perhaps one or more of your sisters and brothers, perhaps members of your extended family tribe, almost certainly friends and other villagers you had known.
That scenario serves as one answer to a question you might have heard, and that I heard, again, just yesterday from an acquaintance who was reacting to last month’s bombing in Brussels:
“Why does ISIS hate us so?….us and our European allies?”
The Great Satan: It is true, of course, that recruits to ISIS (like al-Qaeda recruits before ISIS) do not come exclusively from the youth of Middle-Eastern countries actually ravaged by the American military. Many al-Qaeda and ISIS recruits, for one prominent example, have come from our staunch ally Saudi Arabia, a country unscathed by our recent wars but ruled by wealthy oil sheiks bankrolling jihadist imams, who preach—throughout Sunni Muslim communities in the Middle East—that “America is the Great Satan.”
From the point of view of our young man on the ground in Iraq—whether he be of the Sunni persuasion or is a Shia Muslim—who could be surprised if he passionately agrees that America is the Great Satan? Who could be surprised that his hate for the America that has slaughtered his countrymen before his eyes has been further fueled by what he has heard in the mosque from jihadist imams?
“The invasion of Iraq…was seen as a rape of the Arab world,” in the words of Kamel Daoud, editor of the Algerian daily newspaper Le Quotidien d’Oran.
More from Kamel Daoud on the lineage of terrorism, as quoted in TIME magazine:
“In every myth, the monster has a father and a mother. And so it is with ISIS: its father is George W. Bush’s America. And its mother is Saudi Arabia. The former provided it with pretext in the disastrous invasion of Iraq. This invasion was seen as a rape of the Arab world. It was based on a lie—the false link between Sept. 11 and Saddam Hussein—and it destroyed the West’s moral superiority. As for ISIS’s mother, this strange theocracy is simultaneously allied with the West through the Saudi royal family and opposed to the West by an ideology that is the product of a vicious clergy. Saudi Arabia remains the ideological factory for jihadism with an industry of theologians it supports financially. They propagate their vision through books and TV channels throughout the Arab world and far beyond. Saudi Arabia is both a victim and a source of terrorist ideas.”
If America’s perceived “rape of the Arab world” coupled with broadcast of jihadi hate for the West accounts for legions of ISIS recruits from the youth of the Middle East, there are additional circumstances explaining Europe’s home-grown terrorists. Last month’s mass murders in Brussels were committed by ISIS suicide bombers from the Brussels ghetto called Molenbeek, “an old industrial area near the city center,” according to a report published in BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK. The same poverty-swamped neighborhood spawned the ISIS Paris attacks of last November, reports the magazine, as well as half a dozen other terrorist atrocities in Europe during the past two years.
Brussels is one of Europe’s wealthiest cities, and it is the headquarters of NATO and other organizations that, ironically, exist to promote international security. It is a city of fine restaurants, good schools, leafy parks and safe middleclass neighborhoods.
And it is a city that encompasses the Molenbeek slum, where a quarter of Brussels’ people live, BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK tells us. Of that 25%, about 40% are Muslims, “the children and grandchildren of North Africans and Turks who came in the 1950s and ‘60s to work in Belgium factories.” The factories are long since closed. “Unemployment in Molenbeek is near 30%…” The magazine quotes Dirk Jacobs, a sociologist at the Free University of Brussels: “Social inequality is no excuse (for terrorism). But it has created a fertile ground.”
Belgium’s constitution has inadvertently contributed to that tragic fertility:
“[O]rganized religions deemed to offer ‘social value’ are officially recognized by the government, which pays clerics’ salaries and pensions. But when Islam was granted official status in the 1970s, Belgium accepted Saudi Arabia’s offer to finance new mosques and send Saudi-trained imams to officiate. Unlike in other European nations where home-grown Muslim institutions have taken root, no effort was made to pay for infrastructure and clergy linked to Belgian society. …Many Belgian mosques today operate outside the state-authorized system and are run by foreign-trained followers of the radical Salafist sect…”
One Belgian scholar who has made an in-depth study of jihadist recruitment tells the Bloomberg reporter that “many recruits, including the leaders of the Paris attack and the two Brussels suicide bombers, were petty criminals…
“Strict Muslims shun alcohol—yet Paris suspect Salah Abdeslam…had owned a bar in Molenbeek with his brother, who blew himself up in Paris.”
In a paper published just days before the Brussels terror of last month, this scholar concluded that, for such “petty criminals”…
“…joining [ISIS] is merely a shift to another form of deviant behavior. …It adds a thrilling, larger-than-life dimension to their way of life—transforming them from delinquents without a future into mujahedeen with a cause.”
Perhaps. But one wonders if such alcohol-imbibing, less-than-strict Muslims would choose to blow themselves up in the act of blotting out the lives of others who are not strict believers, such as the Christians who lived across the canal that bounds Molenbeek on one side. Had the imbibing Muslims lately been converted to the true faith by fire-breathing imams, who might have promised them a reward in heaven if they atoned for their sins by martyring themselves? Or, had visceral hate of European culture and the privileged Brussels residents across the canal, who simultaneously surrounded and rejected the poverty-swamped people of Molenbeek, impelled these “petty criminals” to take with them as many Europeans as possible when they made their only possible escape from their own dead-end lives?
We cannot know. All that the magazine article can tell us is that the lives of many of Western Europe’s Muslims make them good prospects for recruitment to jihadist violence.
Post-Brussels, as after the Paris terrorist attacks of last November, politicians and journalistic pundits have shouted that we of the Western world must do much more of what has not worked in the past. “Bomb them back to the stone age,” is the cool and considered solution offered by one prominent presidential candidate. Not to be outdone, several leading politicians have responded, in effect, “Yes!—and let’s put American boots on Syrian and Iraqi ground!”
This council confirms an observation made early on, when George W. Bush first engulfed us in war: to one who holds a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. America’s military might is the world’s largest hammer, and our political and pundit classes cannot seem to envision a better answer to terrorism than pounding more spikes into the Middle-East.
In the meantime they say we must turn back Muslim refugees attempting to flee ISIS terrorism—refugees who are fleeing because ISIS practices with vengeance a fevered form of the Muslim faith that is clearly rejected by most of these refugees. They want to come here because they don’t want to be there.
Some European politicians have joined the chorus: “We must stop welcoming thousands of migrants and regain our national sovereignty,” writes Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far right National Front party. A variation on that theme propounded by one American presidential candidate who is clearly angling for evangelical votes: the U.S. should accept “only Christian refugees from Syria”—surely a worthy Christian sentiment!
“In the U.S.,” reports TIME, “Republican governors, lawmakers and presidential candidates jockey to see who can be tougher on both ISIS and the traumatized Syrian refugees suddenly considered a dire threat.”
Do you detect hysteria in the air?
Joe Klein, in his political commentary for TIME (with my emphasis added):
“[T]here are no simple answers to Islamic terrorism. There aren’t even any difficult answers. It’s an unsolved puzzle, a massive conundrum. The use of military force has been counterproductive, but the absence of a forceful response dooms us to a potential loss of fundamental freedoms, a life lived without heavy-metal concerts and soccer matches and trips to the mall. [In this list of potential terrorist targets, is Klein perhaps indulging a bit of sarcasm?] …But It seems clear there are few people running for president…who are even asking the right questions, much less providing possible answers to the most threatening problem of our age.”
Really?….”the most threatening problem of our age?” Then why are the nations most exposed to ISIS terrorism apparently not the nations most concerned? If those in the neighborhood of ISIS—Turkey, the Kurds, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Israel—do not regard ISIS as their “most threatening problem,” should we? Snippets from recent readings:
- The Turkish government is demonstrably more worried about Kurdish militancy: most of Turk military strikes have attacked Kurds, not ISIS.
- The Kurds, meanwhile, are apparently more interested in seizing territory for a future Kurdistan, rather than fighting ISIS—although, when militarily engaged against ISIS the Kurds are said to be very effective.
- Iran is Shi’ite, so bitterly opposed by the Sunni Muslims who constitute ISIS; and although Iran supports Iraq’s combat with ISIS, Iran is preoccupied with its contest with Saudi Arabia for dominance of the region.
- Iraq appears to combat ISIS half-heartedly, its Shi’ite majority exhibiting little will to displace ISIS in the Sunni regions of the country.
- Saudi Arabia, devoutly Sunni, is the soil from which grew the hyper-militancy embraced by ISIS; and although the Saudis have engaged in limited air strikes against those renegade forces, they primarily focus on the ongoing power struggle with Iran, and with the civil war in Yemen.
- Israel has not militarily engaged ISIS, regarding it as a threat that ranks well behind Iran, Hizballah and Hamas.
The nation states of the Middle East were created when European colonial powers of the early 20th Century absorbed territory from the disintegrating Ottoman Empire and drew boundary lines on maps of the region. Today the people of that region continue to identify themselves by reference to traditional tribal, ethnic, religious and sectarian divisions. An Arab’s or Persian’s commitment to a territory bounded by lines drawn by former European overlords is weak at best. One suspects that the reliance of Western foreign policy and diplomacy on agreements between Western nations on one hand and nation states of the Middle East on the other hand is most likely to prove irrelevant during a prolonged period of inter-tribal/ethnic and inter-religious/sectarian stress and conflict, such as the region is now experiencing. Without reference to accepted territorial bounds, how do negotiators come to agreement on what is to happen on the ground? Or, if agreement is reached, how can the titular “leaders” of Middle-Eastern nation states enforce such agreements when they are ignored by competing power centers—tribal, ethnic and sectarian?
Barack Obama, who has inherited the cauldron that he warned against in that 2002 speech—the Mid-Eastern cauldron left to him by his predecessor in office—has been bitterly excoriated for his reluctance to grasp that scalding cauldron with both hands. A reflexive resort to our aptitude for militarism is what springs first to the minds of his critics, our would-be leaders. The political pressure on our president to fight it out with Syria’s Assad and simultaneously with ISIS, Assad’s bitter enemy, has been enormous. It is my hope that someday historians will explain to Americans how much we owe to the wisdom of our clear thinking, coolheaded president, who has so far avoided a third American disaster of blood and treasure in the Middle East—and has done so while pursuing our nation’s long term interests.
The remainder of this essay draws heavily from THE ATLANTIC issue of April 2016 and its account of President Obama’s thinking, as candidly expressed in his long series of interviews with the magazine’s national correspondent, Jeffrey Goldberg. Whereas TIME magazine columnist Joe Klein ranks ISIS as “the most threatening problem of our age (see Klein as quoted more fully above), Barack Obama sees it differently: “ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States,” he tells Goldberg. Very well, so what would constitute an existential threat? The President continues:
“Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it. …
“As I survey the next twenty years climate change worries me profoundly because of the effects that it has on all the other problems we face. If you start seeing more severe droughts; more significant famine; more displacement from the Indian subcontinent and coastal regions in Africa and Asia; the continuing problems of scarcity, refugees, poverty, disease—this makes every other problem we’ve got worse. That’s above and beyond just the existential issues of a planet that starts getting into a bad feedback loop. …
“Climate change is a political problem perfectly designed to repel government intervention. It involves every single country, it is a comparatively slow moving emergency, so there is always something seemingly more urgent on the agenda”
Currently Syria and ISIS have crowded to the front of a long line of “seemingly more urgent” items on the agenda. Also near the front of the line: North Korea’s atomic weaponry and its aggressive attitude; the possibility of Russian assault on a NATO ally; the potential failure of Pakistan’s central government, and consequent seizure by Taliban terrorists of Pakistan’s nuclear-tipped ICBMs; our national economy plunging into recession, or—still worse—a world-wide depression. From the ATLANTIC article: “Few presidents have faced such diverse tests on the international stage as Obama has.”
However, with good reason we want to know if ISIS, at the head of this line, is getting due attention, and what is the president’s strategy. Goldberg credits Obama with willingness to act unilaterally when a particular challenge presents a direct threat to national security: “He has…become the most successful terrorist hunter in the history of the presidency, one who will hand his successor a set of tools an accomplished assassin would envy.”
Drones are the most frequently used tools in Obama’s assassination tool box. Quoting from John Brennan, Obama’s CIA director:
“[S]ometimes you have to take a life to save even more lives. …The president requires near certainty of no collateral damage. But if he believes it is necessary to act, he doesn’t hesitate.”
Witness Obama’s decisions to send Navy Seals and other forces into Pakistan, without asking, to kill Osama bin-Laden and other al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. As one analyst put it immediately after the Paris attacks, “The muscle of the Obama strategy is all hidden from public view, because it involves sneaking and spying and cold-blooded executions, not the sort of things…that Americans like to hear.
“But that doesn’t mean that this shadow war is without effect. During the same fortnight that ISIS turned so bloody, U.S. drone strikes…took out the head of the ISIS franchise in Libya and may have eliminated the notorious executioner known as Jihadi John. [And] U.S. commando forces are raiding across a broad range of the Middle East…as silent as butterflies and as deadly as cobras.”
Beyond continuously eliminating terrorist leaders one-by-one and thus disrupting the enemy’s command structure, the Obama strategy calls for disrupting the flow of money to ISIS. It has been estimated that ISIS takes in $40 million per month in oil sales. Recently U.S. airstrikes destroyed more than 100 oil-tank trucks in eastern Syria, and ISIS oil refineries are frequent targets, as well.
Decoupling from the Middle East
According to ATLANTIC correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg, the president regards the nation’s recent achievement of energy independence as our opportunity to decouple American foreign policy from a previously perceived need to rely upon the vast oil reserves controlled by Middle Eastern autocrats with whom long-standing relationships have offered little more than access to oil. This new freedom to decouple means, as well, that we no longer need to attempt solutions to Middle Eastern problems that are beyond solution. Or, in the president’s opinion, the path toward solution to these problems requires thinking in those regions to evolve beyond traditional tribalism and its conviction that other tribes and ethnic groups and religious adherents are to be feared and fought. Recognizing that people of that part of the world cannot be forced onto such a path toward belated entry to the 21st Century, President Obama believes we cannot solve their problems.
In our president’s opinion as articulated by Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor, it follows that,
“…by keeping America from immersing itself in the crises of the Middle East [we avoid the trap of] overextension [in that part of the world], which would ultimately harm our economy, harm our ability to look for other opportunities and to deal with other challenges, and, most important, endanger the lives of American service members for reasons that are not in the direct American national -security interest.”
If the ongoing disaster in the Middle East arises in the first place from the insertion of massive American military might by Georg W. Bush and Dick Cheney, what might have been America’s alternative reaction to the 9/11 terrorist triumph in New York City? Barack Obama, in his 2002 speech referenced at the top of this essay, warned us of the disaster that would follow an invasion of Iraq. Events have proven him correct.
But the 41-year-old Illinois legislator did not suggest an alternative path forward. Shall we here attempt to puzzle it out? What would have been the antithesis of the Bush/Cheney knee-jerk resort to tit-for-tat mayhem?
Consider what might have been the potential consequences of this strategy: instead of spending in excess of $3.7 trillion in prosecuting our post-9/11 wars—which has been our monetary cost so far—what if a sizeable fraction of that amount had been spent on high-profile programs for materially improving the lives of the mass of people in the Middle East?
After World War II, remember, America extended a brawny helping hand not only to devastated allies, but also to our defeated enemies, Germany and Japan. (In Europe that helping hand was known as the Marshall Plan, as proposed and outlined by George C. Marshall, President Truman’s Secretary of State.) In all, more than twenty countries were offered generous economic aid. A major and enduring consequence of those programs is that Germany and Japan were converted, almost immediately, from defeated enemies into staunch allies, whose top-tier prosperity today is rooted in the economic recovery funded for them by U.S. tax payers. There is much detail omitted in this telling, including the stimulus to our own economy that resulted from seeding the recovery of future trading partners. The central lesson to be learned is that indulging a natural urge to punish our WW II enemies, after their defeat, could not possibly have produced a better outcome for us, for them, or for the world, than our generous compassion has, in fact, produced. (And, note: those massive post-war spending programs were the product of a bipartisan effort, with a Democrat in the White House and Republicans in command of both houses of Congress.)
Of course the U.S. attacked Germany and Japan ferociously in the aftermath of December 7, 1941. Those nations were industrial powers, equipped and motivated to crush us if they could. We had to humble them before we could help them.
But contrast the socio-economic strength of Germany and Japan in 1941 with the abject economic weakness of Middle-Eastern nations when renegade terrorists from that part of the world, on September 11 of 2001, spectacularly brought down those sky-scraping twin towers in NYC. None of the Middle-Eastern “powers” of that time (nor of this time) were (or are) capable of attacking and defeating the American homeland. Thus with no odor of bribery or payment of protection money, Bush/Cheney and their Secretary of State, Colin Powell, could have negotiated with the top executives of Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and with Kurdish leaders, and even with Iraq’s sadistic Saddam. Through a process of fully public and transparent bargaining, our leaders might have engaged their leaders with a proposition something like this:
Based upon the size and state of your existing economy, the U.S. will make asset transfers to your country (half grants, half long-term loans) in annual amounts calculated as capable of being absorbed in economic development without generating problematic inflation.
Each year, as a condition required for continuation of our financial aid, you will allow our technocrats to measure changes in the economic wellbeing of your citizens as well as changes in the state of your economy. The results of these measurements will determine whether, or in what amounts, our asset transfers to your nation will continue (the unspoken implication being that evidence of corrupt or incompetent misuse of the transferred assets can be detected through these measurements).
The U.S. is simultaneously making this same offer to every underdeveloped nation in the region, including each of your neighboring countries (with the unspoken implication that a refusal of the offer would tilt regional economic advantage toward those nations accepting).
Suppose some nations accepted the offer while others rejected it. What could have been lost by a mass communication to citizens of a rejecting nation?—perhaps fly-overs dropping leaflets that detail what was offered by the U.S., and what was refused by their leaders. Would such a tactic help to bring other hesitating national leaders to decision?
Now return to that imagined scenario at the beginning of this essay. See yourself, once again, as a five or six-year-old boy in a hardscrabble Iraqi village in the year 2003. The U.S. aid program begins, instead of a massive U.S. invasion. In the years that follow the life of your family, and the lives of families around yours, and village life generally, all steadily improve.
Now it is 2016.
Could that young man, who had been the child you imagined, be persuaded that “America is the Great Satan?” Would that young man now be a likely recruit to the ranks of ISIS? Would ISIS even exist?
Without bloodshed, without the 224,000 deaths directly attributable to warfare in the region, so far, and without the hundreds of thousands more maimed or injured, and without 7.8 million civilians having been displaced, and with something significantly less than the current $3.7 trillion in monetary costs of our post-9/11 wars (and possibly with a net trade-related gain for our country), we could now be gazing, with well-earned satisfaction, upon a prosperous, relatively peaceful Middle East.
We could have recreated a version of the Marshall Plan.*
However, to complete a set of effective policies, we must make one more excursion back to the days immediately following 9/11. We must deal with al-Qaeda, and its potential metastasis into ISIS if al-Qaeda were to go unpunished.
Yes, the regional economic development that we will have berthed and nurtured will have drained the swamp of poverty and resentment wherein ISIS would otherwise be fishing for recruits; but al-Qaeda terrorists must not, in 2002, continue their operations without due punishment, lest they be regarded as successful in their criminality. A civilized society must deal with terrorists as criminals without that society, itself, committing mass criminality by waging
*Which is exactly what some of us were urging on our government back then, in our post-9/11 letters to newspapers, to our president, and to our elected representatives.
warfare in which tens of tens of thousands are sacrificed in order to punish a relative handful of criminal terrorists. We must choose a way other than the mass criminal acts of Bush/Cheney.
Barack Obama has shown us how that might have been done fourteen years ago: drones, commando raids, special ops carrying out death sentences. But the Obama procedures can and should be amended to align them more tightly with respectable and responsible judicial standards:
- Where capture is feasible, it should be attempted as a first resort (as it was in the case of Osama bin-Laden); and the captive should be brought to trial.
- If the capture/execution mission results in the death of a targeted criminal, immediately thereafter (at the latest) the legal case against this terrorist operative should be made public.
- When possible without jeopardizing the success of a capture/execution mission, the legal case should be released to the public in advance of the mission.
- When it is feasible to convene a genuine trial without the accused in attendance, but with representation by a defense attorney, and without jeopardizing the capture/execution mission, the trial should precede any capture/execution mission. (If the accused is captured, a guilty finding of the original trial may be appealed.)
Measures such as these would establish standards of justice that will serve as restraints on what might otherwise become precedents for extralegal, unrestrained executive powers to determine whether an un-convicted accused lives or dies at the whim of a future U.S. president.
Consider the risks in the absence of such standards and restraints when contemplating who among the current crop of presidential candidates might be wielding unrestrained powers of life and death a year hence, even if the next president’s exercise of such power were at first limited to actions growing out of the iconic issues stirring anti-establishment populism now roiling the U.S.—the issues of illegal immigration, Muslim residents in Western nations, and Muslim refugees from Middle-Eastern terror.
Thanks mainly to G. W. Bush and Richard Cheney we missed our chances to defuse those iconic issues in the first years of this century. If we now yield to populist demands, here and in Europe—demands that Muslims be barred and expelled, and that Mexicans be fenced out and expelled—we will be (1) yielding to the grand strategy of ISIS in its eagerness for a war of civilizations; and (2) we will be creating a hostile nation on the other side of our long southern border.
Let’s close with some wise council from Madeline Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State. Writing shortly after the Paris terror of last November, and under the heading “Refugees are not the enemy,” she had this to say (in part):
“I am deeply disturbed by the calls to shut (our) doors to properly vetted Syrian refugees fleeing terrorism and persecution in their native land. These calls are motivated by fear, not facts… We have always been a generous nation, and have in place a rigorous process for refugee resettlement that balances generosity with security. It works, and it should not be stopped or paused. …
“[These] Syrian people do not want to leave their country but have no choice. The U.S. must do its part to alleviate the crisis by resettling some refugees. …
“Our enemies want to divide the world between Muslims and non-Muslims, between the defenders and the attackers of Islam. By making Syrian refugees the enemy, we are playing into (the) hands (of our real enemies). Instead we need to clarify that the real choice is between those who think it is okay to murder innocent people and those who think it is wrong.”