Here’s a quotation from the president’s speech on Wednesday, September 10, broadcast from the White House:
Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents. And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor by the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple.
Here are some thoughts in response to that passage. These thoughts don’t count as the strategy everyone from the president on down says we need. They do indicate what we should stop doing if we want to arrive at some reasonable plans. The best plan would have been not to drop the hornet’s nest on the ground in 2003. We called that act Shock and Awe. We not only dropped the nest, we kicked it hard. The consequences will be with us for a long time.
Let’s take a close look at President Obama’s remarks. Many people all over the world think the United States government is a terrorist organization, too. Do we measure terrorism by the number of innocent people killed? How many innocents did we kill in Afghanistan and Iraq? What people think you are, or how many innocents you kill, are not good criteria for making political judgments. That’s apparent, as nothing in the president’s remarks distinguishes the United States from ISIL.
Second, I’m not sure many would agree that the key element for statehood is recognition by other governments. Further, states commonly include people who do not recognize the government that rules over them. The key element for statehood in practice is not recognition or consent. The key element for statehood is enough military power to hold territory. ISIL has demonstrated that it has enough military power to hold quite a lot of territory. That’s why we are talking about the organization.
ISIL holds an area bigger than the state of Pennsylvania, and it is fighting effectively to take more. It has disarmed our Shiite allies in Baghdad through most of Iraq, almost everywhere except the country’s northeastern and southeastern provinces. It does not matter whether ISIL is a state, or whether it is Islamic, or whether it is terrorist. Our judgments about how to respond to its military successes have to be based on our own needs, our own interests, our own capabilities, and a realistic evaluation of what is achievable. I don’t see any of that kind of reasoning coming out of Washington.
The reasoning and argumentation that emerges from Washington is extraordinarily muddled and self-serving. We had no idea what we were doing when we went into Iraq in 2003, and we still don’t know what we are doing. Just as success begets success, incompetence apparently begets incompetence. We lost this war the moment we started it. To face that truth, and to explain to ourselves how we came to make such a catastrophic mistake, might be the best way to deal with the defeat. The way our leaders have dealt with the catastrophe to this point doesn’t look so promising.