Monday, June 30, 2014

ISIS: Terrorism on Twitter

ISIS via social media
As if eager to get their fifteen minutes of fame, ISIS rebels recently began posting videos of their crimes in Iraq and Syria via social media. While the images are horrific, what they prove above all is that the ISIS rebels are devoid of honor, truth, or justice. They have no cause and no high aim; they are merely on a joyride of violence and murder for its own sake.

The immediate response after seeing such pointless violence and cruelty is to do something - anything - to stop ISIS. It's just an instinctive response. Yet however easy it is to understand the visceral anger and disgust ISIS inspires, we need to respond with our intellect and not just our emotions. Unfortunately, based on the comments made by US citizens on social media sites, it seems that the experience in Afghanistan and the total mistake of the Iraq war have not been enough to teach hawkish 'Mericans that it's better to think first and shoot later.

This is a sad take-away, but there's no other conclusion to reach after reading comment after comment bashing President Barack Obama for taking too much time to act. "We gotta do something" is the demand (without proposing what we should do). Of course, there is the usual solve-everything-with-troops camp, led by John McCain and Dick Cheney. These two hotheads - and their "bomb them all!" supporters - are always eager to push the US into war without stopping to consider whether it's the best move for the country and/or whether the sacrifice will be worth it.

image: Amnesty International
Looking at the comments from another angle, I was surprised by the genuine shock many US citizens express in seeing atrocities like this. I say surprised because any informed person knows that atrocities like this have been going on in some combination of countries every day of every week of every month of every year for decades. Just consider some of things that have happened in the last year or two:
  • Nigeria: Vigilante groups hunt down and kill Muslims with machetes and axes.
  • Sudan: Government forces bomb entire villages, driving 300,000 people from their homes.
  • Myanmar: Government-sanctioned mobs have killed thousands of Rohingya Muslims, including a day-long massacre in which 28 children were hacked to death.
  • Ukraine: Russian-backed thugs in the eastern end of the country kidnap, beat, and 'disappear'  civilians at will. 
  • North Korea: Prison guards torture and starve between 80,000 and 120,000 inmates, many of whom are guilty of nothing except being relatives of someone the government wanted to punish.
  • Venezuela: Protesters are regularly kidnapped and beaten by government forces. Over 40 people are known to have been killed in the last year.
  • Israel: Israeli troops arrested 700 Palestinian teens (some as young as 12) and subjected them to solitary confinement, death threats, and sexual assaults.
  • Mexico: Drug gangs drive into villages to round up every relative of whistle blowers (even children), execute them, and dump them in mass graves.

The point of this list is not to dismiss such atrocities; no one should ever do that. Rather, it is to demonstrate that the situation with ISIS is not some unprecedented crisis. And that raises a question: why the shock and determination to thoughtlessly jump into Iraq? Why not Nigeria, Ukraine, or Sudan? The only explanation I can think of is that, due to ISIS posting their crimes to social media, a whole lot of Americans are having this violence shoved under their noses for the first time. Maybe they're used to having such tragedies reported only in places they can ignore them: non-Fox News media and 'pinko-liberal' organizations like Amnesty International. Knowing this kind of violence is a constant part of the global landscape does not make witnessing it via video any less disturbing but, someone lacking that perspective is probably more likely to experience out of control emotions.

This emotionalism is why President Obama must proceed with caution regarding ISIS, especially in terms of whether to commit our resources and/or the lives of our soldiers. Places like Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia are just as horrifying as ISIS/Iraq. If America jumped into every one of these messes with the haste hotheads like McCain and Cheney would have, our country would be financially destroyed and we'd have ten times as many slain and maimed soldiers as we do now. And maybe we'd also be facing two or three more examples - akin to Iraq - where billions of dollars and thousands of lives were squandered to accomplish little or nothing.

Sending troops into a war zone cannot be done lightly or in a state of emotional furor. It's a decision that must be weighed carefully. As proof of this, ask yourself how different things might be now if we'd used a little more caution before initially invading Iraq. Might we have had time to learn there were no weapons of mass destruction? Might we have realized Cheney and MCain's vows that the Iraq war would be over in a few weeks were gibberish which proved neither of them had any idea what they were talking about? Might we have headed off the Iraq war before it started? If so, how many lives and how much money would we have saved? Chew on that before you advocate how President Obama needs to stop thinking and rush headlong into another Iraq war.

For thoughtful Americans pondering how - or whether - we should respond to ISIS, the images of ISIS' crimes on social media undeniably stir up a lot of thoughts and feelings. On the one hand, it's hard to turn away from these images. On the other hand, it's just as hard to ignore that we've already given Iraq more time and money and blood than any other problematic area in the world...and it's still falling apart. What more can we do?

cartoon: Dave Granlund
Part of deciding whether we should go in and - if so - how far involves answering some contextual questions: Whose fault is this mess with ISIS? Did we create it? If so, do we have a moral obligation to clean it up? Of course, Cheney, McCain, and the mindless rabble of the Tea Party blame President Obama for the situation, saying he pulled US troops out of Iraq too soon. This is a patently absurd position if, for not other reason, than the inordinate length of the Iraq War. We were there plenty long. More importantly, however, Obama correctly identified that the way to motivate Iraqis to step up to the plate was to tell them we were on our way out.

It worked; Iraq was stable (albeit not perfect) when we left. It also remained stable for a good period of time after we left. Nevertheless, the Tea Party blames Obama for the current situation. But then, since they blame him for everything, their opinions aren't very credible. (I'm surprised they haven't demanded a Congressional commission investigate whether Obama orchestrated Luis Suarez biting Giorgio Chiellini).

Petty partisan politics aside, what happened to transform a stable Iraq to what we have now? There's plenty of people whose actions may have simply made Iraq unfixable and the violence we see inevitable. There's the French and British imperialists who - with their usual witless bumbling - set up this cauldron of badly drawn borders in the first place. Some might say George Bush hopelessly destabilized Iraq with his pointless and incompetently managed invasion (replete with embarrassing human rights abuses that tarnished America's image worldwide). Others point to Bashar al-Assad, whose policies in Syria gave rise to rebellion and who later stoked ISIS for political camouflage. Any or all of these views may be valid, but at some point we have to get beyond the past and focus on the here and now. And - in the here and now - I believe Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's idiotically sectarian administration is to blame for the current situation.

It's hard to imagine any way Maliki - whose rule is another sad legacy of the Bush administration's crummy policies in Iraq - could be a worse leader. In the religious and ethnically splintered Iraq, he refused to reach out to Sunnis and Kurds. Instead, he insulated himself and political power behind a Shiite phalanx. This created the kind of environment in which groups like ISIS thrive. At the same time, he neutered the military that was successfully built during the US presence (particularly after Obama told Maliki he'd better get his act together because the US had had enough). Maliki has been charged with replacing experienced military leaders with political yes-men. He's also charged with weakening and demoralizing the Sunni fighters who had been keeping a lid on groups like ISIS up to now. Maliki also alienated the Kurds, who are now the only bloc in Iraq with the military muscle to stand up to ISIS. Whoever else you point your finger at (my choice would be Bush), ultimately the real blame goes to Maliki. This is his mess, and he needs to clean it up.

As such, Obama is totally right to hesitate and/or tell Maliki straight out: "We did our bit; you're on your own." At minimum, there are a lot of questions we would need to answer before we help Maliki in any way. Such as: Is it wise to back Maliki's Shia-only government? What do we gain by doing so? Will we alienate the Kurds and Sunnis by doing so? (The answer to that question is most definitely "yes"). If so, is that in our best interests? Would our help only keep Maliki afloat until his poor policies inevitably produce some new crisis? Most damning of all, why should we help someone who refuses to heed sensible advice from us and other powers? Answering these questions doesn't reveal a lot of upside to wading back into the morass of Iraq, especially to help a regime that is probably not going to end well no matter what we do.

So going back to the emotional "we gotta do something" reaction many people in the US are having. I'm not so sure we gotta do anything. After a lot of time, money, and sacrifice, the US finally left Iraq and Maliki in about as good a place as was realistically possible. And he blew it. So - unless something game-changing happens - I feel the US should stay out of this. Let's count on Maliki's all-too-healthy sense of self-preservation and - while we're watching to see how that plays out - we should think about whether it's a good idea to build relations with the Kurds. They seem likely to come out of this debacle as autonomous, organized...and oil rich. They might be a much better ally than whatever becomes of messy, sectarian Iraq.

While it's tough to wash ones hands of such a terrible situation, there is a very small, very dim glimmer of hope amid all of this. By flagrantly showing the world in full color video just how depraved it is, maybe ISIS has shot itself in the foot. While Maliki, the Sunnis, and the Kurds don't trust or like each other, it's a sure bet they distrust and dislike ISIS even more. Further, Iran is unlikely to savor the idea of ISIS creating a caliphate "two doors down". Even Assad seems to realize he's created a monster. While none of these players needs to be told how heinous ISIS is, a picture is worth a thousand words. Is it too optimistic to hope that the images posted on Twitter and YouTube could become a catalyst for some kind of temporary regional coalition against ISIS? If Maliki, the Sunnis, the Kurds, Iran, and maybe Syria presented a united front, then ISIS could very quickly find that its fifteen minutes of fame are up.

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