There’s an eerie sense of dé·jà vu about the western bombing campaign against the Islamic State jihadists in Iraq and Syria.
Had we not been there before, we might conceivably be persuaded by the grave commander-in-chief pose of Obama, the grainy black-and-white videos of direct hits on what look like Lego blocks and the war hype dished up by the fatally gullible American media.
But we have been there before – and we know how it ends. The cruise missiles are the same cruise missiles and the bombers the same bombers. The global security and western values that the campaign is supposedly defending are the same ones that were left in tatters the last time around.
Not even the enemy is new. The jihadist group calling itself Islamic State is nothing more than the mutant offspring of America’s rape of Iraq and Afghanistan (with a grope of Pakistan in the process) a decade-plus ago. Like Hamas in Palestine, Islamic State is nature’s way of saying: You fucked up.
So, what are the similarities?
Neglect and connivance: For three years, the west ignored the civil war in Syria and the resulting humanitarian disaster, allowing what began as an uprising for human and civil rights to degenerate into a sectarian nightmare and a breeding ground for jihadist fanatics.
In the Eighties, the U.S. ignored Saddam Hussein’s grisly human rights record and sponsorship of terrorism, preferring to covertly support him in his war against Iran. By the time the war ended in 1988, Iraq was a seething, fractured country ruled by a despot.
It’s all about us: Western neglect of the goings-on in Syria came to an abrupt halt when the Islamic State began beheading western journalists and posting the videos on YouTube. Appalling as those actions were, they were no more atrocious than the documented executions of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians. It took the flamboyant executions of whites for the west to notice.
Were it not for the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., Saddam would have been able to continue his depredations uninterrupted and the Taliban would have been free to inflict its depravities on the Afghani people. It took a terror attack on a bastion of the west to arouse the neo-conservative appetite for global democracy.
Lies and deception: In 2003, it was the incontrovertible evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the imminent threat they posed that justified the immediate and massive invasion of that country. It hardly needs mentioning that there were no such weapons and there was no such threat.
Lacking legal justification for bombing Syria and doubtful about public support for a lengthy campaign, the Obama Administration recently manufactured its very own imminent threat – the so-called “Khorasan Group,” which was supposedly poised to launch terror attacks on western targets. As journalist Glenn Greenwald persuasively pointed out earlier this week, the Khorosan Group, which appeared out of nowhere in spoon-fed media reports by the administration and disappeared as soon as was decent, was more a fiction of the White House than anything else.
“As usual, anonymity was granted to U.S. officials to make these claims,” Greenwald wrote. “As usual, there was almost no evidence for any of this. Nonetheless, American media outlets — eager, as always, to justify American wars — spewed all of this with very little skepticism.”
Mission creep: Even before the bombing of Syria began (though Islamic state in Iraq had already been targeted,) America’s top general took a step backwards from Obama’s commitment that there would not be “boots on the ground,” acknowledging that a few, not-too-polished boots might in fact be necessary.
And even while under the western blitz, Islamic State fighters have managed to create havoc in the Kurd enclave in northern Syria and fight their way to the Turkish border. Which proves the maxim that the only thing that is certain about war is that it won’t go as planned.
Compare that with the March 2003 by U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney that “My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” Or the illusorily upbeat statements by Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz that invading Iraq would be a walk in the park. Obama is being a lot more circumspect, which is commendable, but his actions are those of a dead man walking
International coalition: Once again the U.S. president has put together an international coalition to dispel the (entirely correct) impression that white men with absolutely no understanding of the Middle East are trying to impose their own solution. That is not so much a throwback to 2003, when Tony Blair was one of the few leaders persuaded by Bush junior’s hype, but to the grand coalition put together by Bush senior for the First Gulf War in 1990.
Not that the coalition partners of the time did much fighting, mind you – U.S. troops accounted for some 75% of the coalition’s forces – but they, especially Saudi Arabia, did contribute funds. That is likely to be the situation this time as well – an international fig leaf for what is predominantly a western force and some cash on the side.
None of the above in any way endorses or condones the Islamic state, of course. It is a barbaric, brutal and totally ignorant phenomenon that must be opposed and uprooted. But, by resorting to the tried and failed methods of the past, America is once again setting itself up for failure and humiliation.
What is required is new thinking and fresh understanding. Islamic State grew from fertile ground and it will only be defeated when the factors that sustain it are removed. Those include tolerance for religious extremism (not only Muslim) and Middle Eastern autocracy, growing disparities in wealth and social status and western pusillanimity regarding just about everything to do with the Middle East.
Decades of western kowtowing to Israeli criminality and extremism may not be a direct cause of the rise of the Islamic State, but it has had the effect of traducing western values in the eyes of Muslims everywhere. If those values are useless in the face of half-a-century of Israeli occupation, what chance is there of their being adopted by the discontents of the Arab world?