First of all: Syria and ISIS. ISIS – these are bad people, very nasty, insanely cruel people. So is Boko Haram. So are some of the Mexican drug cartels. Obviously, the most important difference is that ISIS is attempting to carve a fascistic fundamentalist state out of parts of Syria and Iraq. Putting aside humanitarian issues – for if humanitarian issues were a real trigger for US involvement, we would have had troops stationed in northwest Africa ever since 1994 – what harm does it do to us, to you, to me, to the American economy, to our prestige, if ISIS takes over eastern Syria and western Iraq? It would not be a good thing, certainly, but why do we consider it such a bad situation that we are leading an air war and committing some troops (the equivalent of the “advisors” we sent to North Vietnam in the early ‘60’s) to help a motley bunch of countries, dubious allies and the enemies of dubious allies, to defeat ISIS?
The economy? Oil, of course. But thanks to the exploitation of shale oil, oil is not as important an issue for the US economy as it was when it was a lame rationale for the Iraq invasion ten years ago. We have become a petroleum exporter instead of an importer. Are the oil reserves of ISIS’ territory worth a war which will cost the taxpayers billions of dollars? Much of the oil supply we rescue from ISIS will revert to governments, Iraq and Syria, which ally themselves with Iran. (Speaking of which – if there is any geopolitical readjustment in that part of the world which would benefit the US national interest, it would be the establishment of an independent Kurdistan, secular, acquisitive, Western-leaning and stable.)
Prestige? Our prestige will suffer more from engaging with ISIS on a limited basis (half-hearted military action, as we have painfully learned, is not a prestige-builder) and, perhaps, failing, than from standing coolly by and encouraging our allies in the neighborhood to wage a war which does, vitally, effect their national interests. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Emirates, thanks to billions in military aid from us and other NATO countries, have large, modern, well-equipped military forces. For us to take on the air war against ISIS, and send in soldiers, while they just make a few token sorties, does not add to our prestige; it makes us look like chumps.
The other issue, of course, is the beheadings. There always are a few people – Americans included – who knowingly place themselves in danger, motivated by good intentions, terms of employment, danger zone bonuses, or a sense of duty (and a few stupid people, who don’t know what they’re getting into). Some of these brave (or, occasionally, clueless) adventurers suffer hardship and some die. Such events, unfortunate, horrible as they are, generally do not become casus belli (unless, of course, it is in the national interests for us to make them so). What is different about the cruelties inflicted on our citizens by ISIS is that, thanks to YouTube and a strange impresarian bent to the ISIS craziness, is that they are presented as theater. As world theater. Perhaps as the first example of world theater.
The visceral reaction to filmed and disseminated horrors such as beheadings and the burning alive of the Jordanian pilot – even among those who, like myself, have avoided watching them – calls out for a response, calls out for punishment, calls out for revenge. Just as any works of art, they are presented to the world to induce an emotional reaction. The intended reaction, one can only speculate, is fear; instead ISIS is inspiring intense anger and hatred. Still, what we are reacting to is not the horrors themselves, but the public performance of them, the theater.
Just today, I read about a Bangladeshi secularist blogger who was hacked to death on a street in Dhaka. Horrible. Poor guy. Now I’m imagining that it was an American reporter in Dhaka, who had written a story that touched a raw fundamentalist nerve, who had been hacked to death. I would be outraged. What is the world coming to! Now, I am imagining that the attack on the blogger, or the imaginary one on the reporter, was not only not spontaneous, but carefully planned and filmed, that the victim faced the camera, faced the world (including his family), and in anguish died a bloody, gruesome death while his grinning murderers strutted and preened and smugly, self-righteously pontificated. “Outrage” does not describe the feelings generated by such behavior. If I could kill them all by pressing a button, I believe I would.
But in the eyes of the state, what has occurred is simply a murder. James Foley was an American killed by ISIS. If he had been shot by a firing squad in an unknown prison yard instead of publicly beheaded makes a difference to you and me – even though we rationally might try to will it not to – but in terms of policy, what the government’s reaction should be to the murder of that American, should not be based on emotion, but on the national interest. That is one of the primary reasons we have a government – to keep an eye on the ball, on the big picture, and to stem any impulse towards rash and self-destructive behavior on the part of its citizens. To engage in war because of a successfully cathartic theater performance (and, something I have not even mentioned, but is crucial – the complicity of the media in disseminating the performance and bolstering its dramatic impact with) is the sign of a weak, indecisive and timid government.
That’s enough for today. I’ll get to Ukraine in another post.