ISIS and some reckoning about Bush’s invasion of Iraq

Liberals never collectively said ‘I told you so’ about the invasion of Iraq in 2003. We should have. As it turns out, that story is not over. The post-occupancy analysis made it very clear that Hussein was bluffing, And that George W. Bush’s pressure to find some excuse to invade Iraq caused intelligence analysts to see what he wanted to see. Furthermore, there was no relationship between Hussein and Islamist terrorists.

In 2014, I was disturbed to hear that ISIS had taken over Mosul (I wrote about it in this blog in June 2014). I was disturbed that ISIS had gained control over both oilfields and oil pipelines; and therefore a steady stream of revenue. I was also disturbed that the Iraqi national forces gave up the fight so easily. President Bush spent more than 100 billion US tax dollars from 2003-2008 to rebuild an Iraqi Army. But clearly this ‘post-Ba’ath’ army had little commitment to really defend Iraq as a whole nation. They took off their uniforms, abandoned their M16s and humvees, and hitched rides back to Baghdad. When Republicans complain about wasteful government spending of hard-earned American tax dollars, I think the Iraqi army’s rout at Mosul in 2014 is the worst case I have ever heard of. It is also a reminder that warfare is always a political process. If the troops do not believe in the political arguments of their side, they will lose no matter how well-armed they might be.

Martin Luther King Jr. made this argument in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech on April 4, 1967. The ARVN (South Vietnamese military) seemed uncommitted to the cause of defending their US-allied military dictatorship against the North Vietnamese communists. If they didn’t want to defend South Vietnam then what was America doing there? And wouldn’t it be better to spend those tax-dollars on education and jobs for poorer Americans? King was a committed pacifist, because he understood the nature of political conflict and the limited effectiveness of violence. Today, a president who spouts racist and sexist remarks—a president who promotes violence through his words—should consider how quickly he is eroding his own authority to role at home, and defend his country from outside threats.

ISIS is a present threat to US security, and to the security of our allies. They are also fascists, and I believe that Americans are committed to opposing fascism on principle. But to oppose them means a political struggle above all else. To rephrase Clausewitz, military operations are a subset of politics, and military force should be used as a subset of a political process—and only when combat does not strengthen the political cause of the opposition. The failure in Mosul shows the serious limitations of using an army when they do not believe in the political cause of the people who pay them. So before ‘bombing the crap out of ISIS’ we need to understand them, and how to fight them on their turf.

Here is one example. ISIS is known for posting videos of their activities. They overlay praise-music with video footage of them dynamiting Shi’ite shrines. It is forbidden in Islam to destroy places and icons that are being actively revered by people of other faiths. So ISIS’s destruction of actively-used Shi’ite shrines is haram (forbidden by Islamic law). ISIS’s claim to credibility is that they are the ‘true’ Islamic government. To attack their credibility, we need to challenge them on Islamic terms. That means the foreign-policy wing of the US government needs to understand Islam well enough to wage the political war through Shari’a jurisprudential arguments. We cannot defeat this intolerant threat if Americans are perceived as being similarly intolerant. Trump’s bigoted tone weakens our position against ISIS.

Bigotry makes America politically clumsy. We missed and badly misinterpreted an opportunity with the Taliban sixteen years ago. Westerners still make the mistake of thinking that the destruction of the Buddha statues at Bamiyan was “senseless.” I don’t agree with the “sense” that the Taliban argued at the time, but it was definitely sensible and profoundly different from ISIS today. Before destroying the Buddhas the Taliban argued that 1) Buddhists had not been revering the statues at Bamiyan for decades, so it was legal to remove them. But more importantly: 2) a German historical agency had just offered to spend more than $100 million to restore the statues. Meanwhile, no international agency had offered help with the serious famine which had set in in Afghanistan by 1999. The Taliban were appalled by this prioritization of art-preservation over the preservation of human life, and they wanted to call international attention to this hypocrisy. Unfortunately the international reaction remains under-(hypo)critical of this event. I read the Taliban’s arguments in the New York Times. This was not classified information, not hard to find. In some very important ways, the Taliban destruction of the Buddha statues at Bamiyan was the opposite of the ISIS destruction of Christian, Shi’ite, and Yazidi sites in Iraq. The Taliban were arguing for the importance of human life over the veneration of objects. ISIS, on the other hand, is committing genocide in a distinctly fascistic way. The US government could still use the 16-year-old Taliban arguments not just to condemn ISIS as un-Islamic, but to recruit the Taliban and perhaps even some al Qaeda factions to work with us against ISIS. If we simplistically dismiss the Taliban as ‘the bad guys,’ then we are being politically clumsy.

A fourth disturbing thing about ISIS. One of the videos they posted in 2014 shows them stopping a car at one of their checkpoints. While one ISIS guard is at the car, another checks the driver’s identification cards against information he has in a laptop. Based on whatever he finds on the laptop, the ISIS guards take the man out of the car and shoot him. What did ISIS indicate by posting this video? 1) they are brutal. No surprise there. 2) they seem to have an extensive Iraqi government database, and the ability to use it in the field. 3) they are organized ans systematic.

Later in 2014 I read that one of the major groups that came together to form ISIS was the government workers whom L. Paul Bremer dismissed in 2003 during his “de-Ba’athification program” in Iraq. I would have doubted that analysis if I had not seen that ISIS video; because actual Ba’athists were supposed to be committed secularists. That is why there was virtually no possibility that Hussein’s Ba’athinst government would have had anything to do with al Qaeda in 2001 or earlier. However, perhaps after the defeat of Hussein, and being thrown out of government, and living as unemployed people in an occupied country for a decade, maybe some former Iraqi civil servants and soldiers have decided that a Sunni Islamic militant path is the only effective way to fight the US backed, Shi’ite-partisan government in Baghdad. ISIS does in fact share two ideological traits with the Ba’athists: pan-Arabism, and anti-colonialism. But is this what happened? If we are going to fight ISIS politically, US intelligence analysts better understand this sequence of events with great clarity, and US political leaders need to heed the actual events, no matter how unexpected.

It is clear that ISIS is very organized, as if it is made up of people who are used to working in an organized government. Unlike the Taliban, who started out as vigilantes fighting corruption, or al Qaeda, who started out as adventurers seeking to overthrow the Saudi kingdom, ISIS has sought to be recognized as a government from the beginning. This makes sense especially if a fairly large fraction of ISIS is former government workers, who know how to operate a regime, maintain an identity-card database, and secure oil-facilities to maintain a revenue-flow.

I am not saying that the Bush Administration deliberately created ISIS. But there is very strong evidence that the Bush Administration inadvertently created ISIS by overthrowing Hussein and indiscriminately firing people from the Iraqi government and military who were somehow associated with the Ba’ath Party.

Now let us return to the winter of 2002-2003. Tens of thousands of Americans in San Francisco alone demonstrated against an imminent Bush invasion of Iraq. Worldwide, twenty million were demonstrating against an Iraqi invasion in the first weekends of March 2003. At the time we lived near downtown San Francisco, and the drone of aircraft overhead was constant for three months as ‘Homeland Security’ monitored demonstrators rather than focusing on actual security-threats. Unlike Vietnam, these were tens of thousands of people protesting before any war had begun. Part of my concern was that a war in Iraq would divert attention away from the actual security threat of al Qaeda. That also turned out to be correct. Al Qaeda continued to attack in Bali, Spain, Turkey, and Britain in over the next seven years. Only when the Obama Administration came in and turned attention back to al Qaeda did the US manage to reduce that security threat.

So I say this to Republicans who want to dismiss us Liberals as ‘special interest groups’ (that is a verbatim quote of George W. Bush’s reaction to the pre-invasion anti-war protests). We were right. Stop sneering at us. I have heard for years about Liberals being condescending; but in fact we did not sneer at Republicans for the mistake of Iraq. We grieved. We counted the dead, when Republicans refused to do so. Eventually Republicans themselves decided Iraq was a waste; now I am not sure if Republicans are willing to collect the tax-dollars necessary to care for America’s wounded veterans (and definitely not for the Iraqis whom we have harmed). Liberals are dismissed and sneered at for studying obscure subjects (like Islamic political thought) and objecting to warfare as a first option, rather than as a last resort within a larger political conflict. Rather than sneer at us, I invite Republicans to have the courage of humility; the courage to listen this time.

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