No good will come of this: Obama’s speech on Islamic State

By : September 12, 2014

President Obama has promised air attacks in Syria, and increased air attacks in Iraq. He sounded disturbingly like President Bush in his September 10th national address, optimistically announcing deeper American involvement in the chaos of Iraq and Syria.

“We will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL”

Degrade, sure. Destroy one organization whose name will probably change anyway, maybe.

But destroy militant Islam with airstrikes? Not gonna happen.

When Obama promised to destroy Islamic State, his listeners surely took him to mean not just this one enemy, but whatever powerful, armed Islamic forces threaten our perceived interests in Syria and Iraq (and in other Middle Eastern nations, if this crisis expands).

What will Congress say?

Does anyone think that most members of Congress, especially its leadership, will support or oppose more war based solely on their perception of the national interest? Does anyone think Congressional reps will spend more time consulting with foreign policy experts and scholars than with political advisors? Not gonna happen.

Despite a typically pusillanimous Congress, it is unfortunate that our country has, de facto though not quite de jure, repealed the War Powers Act of 1973 and the Constitution’s war powers clause. Both political parties have created an Imperial Presidency  that allows one man to start wars. It’s good to be king.

More air attacks, more weapons, more support, more enemies

More air attacks will kill some militants and will also surely increase the number of men incensed enough to join our enemies. Some of the weapons given to sketchy groups will be captured by the people we are fighting, or sold to them on the black market.

If your family were starving and needed money to flee battles and escape cruel Islamic State rule, and President Obama gave you a nice shiny new American anti-armor weapon, would you fire it at an American vehicle captured by Islamic State, or would you sell it?

As Reuters has pointed out, many of our expensive August 2014 air attacks in Iraq were aimed at destroying expensive American military equipment that our pals in the Iraqi army left behind. This should be the stuff of satire, not headlines.

How big is Islamic State anyway?

Why is this not discussed? When Islamic State drove our expensive Iraqi army allies into retreat earlier in 2014, Stars and Stripes reports, “a stunned world watched several hundred Islamic State militants and their allies send divisions of Iraqi soldiers in full retreat.”

Later it was guessed that Islamic State’s juggernaut, moving rapidly towards Baghdad itself, was only about 12,000 soldiers strong. That is fewer soldiers than in a modern infantry division, and they were presumably far less organized, trained, and equipped.

Despite a decade of our costly training, the Iraqi army abandoned its weapons and fled out of fear of such a small force, and there is no hope that more American money and trainers can quickly make them an effective fighting force.

Even people in Washington seem to have panicked at the thought of Islamic State’s irregular soldiers. Defense Secretary Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff spoke of “end of days” apocalypse. Perhaps they were merely prepping the American public for President Obama’s speech.

This week, the CIA says that Islamic State is now perhaps 30,000 strong. Even if the CIA happens to be telling the truth this time, and to actually have their facts right, Islamic State is still not organized, still not trained, and still not large. Not even close to large enough to hold the vast areas they have overrun while the Syrian army was otherwise busy and the Iraqi army was retreating.

What about Islamic State’s barbarism?

President Obama’s condemnation of Islamic State’s barbarism is proper, and the world should condemn it and try to end it.

But does barbarism always demand American military intervention? Apparently not, since even our allies in the region engage in beheadings, torture, the killing of POWs, the shelling of civilian targets, and the abuse of civilians. We do not attack all of the nations and armed groups in other parts of the world committing similar violations. Out of discretion I will not mention the fact that rogue elements of the American military and security apparatus have committed occasional human rights violations themselves.

What about the threat to America?

President Obama said “While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies.”

If threats are enough to unleash American attacks, North Korea better hunker down.

If President Obama’s action is justified by the threat of terrorist attacks here in America, aren’t we spending our attention and money in the wrong place? Reuters estimates that a mission involving a single aircraft striking Islamic State forces can cost $100,000, money which arguably makes us less safe, and which could have been spent on security here.

Our reliance on the Iraqi army

Over a decade, under calmer circumstances, we have spent billions trying to rebuild that army that President Bush disbanded, only to see them hastily retreat from a small irregular force. I hope by now that even George W. Bush and the smug men he sent to run Iraq understand that they should never have disbanded the Iraqi army that Saddam Hussein left us.

Fox reports that training the Iraq army could cost another $100 billion over the next decade.

Is military involvement simpler now than in 1991 and 2001? No!

The Middle East is dramatically more complicated and less stable than it was for either of the wars the two Bush presidents started against Iraq. Today there are far more complex relationships among the factions, and more factions.

Today the region is more chaotic than before. There’s the Arab spring, the Sunni revolt ignited by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, a decade of civil war in Iraq and Afghanistan, a civil war in Syria, splintering and realignments among Islamic militants, and a governance crisis in Egypt.

In addition to that chaos — no matter how much flag waving Obama did in his speech — there is today a weakened America, whose own military has been somewhat degraded by two long wars, whose military budget is stressed, and whose national debt has increased by our financing those two wars with borrowed money.

American exceptionalism

Does anyone not see President Obama’s call to arms as pandering to American hubris? While he should be seeing to it that other nations and organizations do most of the heavy lifting, instead he said that only America can make the world right. “Our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden. But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead.”

Those who know history are condemned to watch others repeat it

Increasing our military involvement is lunacy, but governments are known for continuing bad policies.

During the Viet Nam War, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara once agreed to a particular bombing campaign and then asked a question of the Air Force that should have awoken even him from his bureaucratic stupor: “If this bombing doesn’t work, what should we bomb next?”

If it repeatedly doesn’t work, and it repeatedly makes things worse, try not doing it any more.

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