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Americanasaurus and the March to War in Syria

The 6 fictions we have to stop telling ourselves about Obama, the Islamic State, and what the United States can and can't do to save Iraq and Syria.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

George Kennan once compared democracy (a.k.a America?) to a large, lumbering prehistoric animal. "But I sometimes wonder whether in this respect a democracy is not uncomfortably similar to one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin: he lies there in his comfortable primeval mud and pays little attention to his environment; he is slow to wrath — in fact, you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed; but, once he grasps this, he lays about him with such blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat."

We’re clearly not yet on the verge of plunging into another pointless Americanasaurus charge much like the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

But last night’s airstrikes in Syria do represent an important escalation and expansion of the war against the Islamic State (IS) and other jihadist forces. And it’s imperative that we bring additional clarity to the problem of coordinating ends and means, and defining what our goals are, to avoid such an eventuality. Mission creep usually results from a certain amount of hysteria, a lack of clarity or confusion in goals, and, most complicating, a miscalculation of the means at our disposal with which to achieve those goals.

Here are five myths related to taking on the Islamic State that we need to start, well, demythologizing.

No. 1: Airstrikes Without Boots on the Ground Can’t Be Effective.

That really depends on what your immediate objectives are. If the goal is to hit strategic targets quickly — including command and control, leadership targets, weapons depots, training facilities, and transportation hubs — a surprise blow can be effective. What’s more, the participation of several Arab nations (Sunnis all) sends an important signal, particularly on the eve of the president’s effort at the United Nations to marshal international support. It signals that this isn’t the West at war with the Arabs yet again, but that there is regional participation, particularly Sunnis taking on Sunnis. Finally, for an administration that, on Syria at least, has been more bluff and bluster than action, the short lead time — less than two weeks to airstrikes after the president’s speech — demonstrates that this White House is indeed serious and has made good on its intention to take the IS threat seriously. That the administration has chosen to hit the mother ship — IS in their capital at Raqqa, Syria — is of particular value.

No. 2: Terror Is a Strategic Threat to the Homeland.

Sept. 11, 2001, was the second-bloodiest day in U.S. history, only surpassed by Sept. 17, 1862, during the Battle of Antietam. And let’s be clear: Protecting the homeland is the organizing principle of this nation’s — or any other’s — foreign policy. If you can’t protect the homeland, you don’t need a foreign policy. And surely a terror group with unconventional weapons would constitute a threat. We cannot take for granted the fact that we’ve been terror-free, at least from a significant 9/11-style attack, for the last decade. (Even with the near misses in Detroit and the lone-wolf attacks at Fort Hood and Boston.) It is also, by definition, the most important responsibility of an American president. And despite Barack Obama’s risk-averse leadership style in almost every other area of foreign policy, he’s actually been quite adventurous on this one. And together with his predecessor’s efforts, we’ve been stunningly successful in undermining the efforts of those who want to inflict serious harm on the United States.

At the same time, however, we’re also really good at scaring ourselves to death and then acting accordingly. We’ve been doing this since the beginning of the republic: Fear of French intrigue led to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798; hysteria over the Red Scare lead to the 1919-1920 Palmer raids, in which the U.S. government rounded up and arrested 3,000 people and deported 500; fear of the Japanese lead to FDR’s terrible decision to intern the Issei and Nisei; fear of Moscow led to McCarthyism in the 1950s; fear of communism and falling dominoes led to Vietnam. And then, of course, there was the overreach in Iraq in 2003, a direct result of fear of unsubstantiated intelligence that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and was colluding with al Qaeda.

If you asked the intelligence community what the greatest threat to the homeland is right now, they wouldn’t say IS or Iran, but Khorasan or some derivative of al Qaeda. The point is to keep our feet on the ground and our heads out of the dark clouds. That 16 Americans were killed in terror attacks last year (out of the worldwide total of almost 18,000) doesn’t constitute a strategic threat now, let alone an existential one. To provide some perspective: On one end of the scale, 23 Americans were killed in lightning strikes last year; in 2012, more than 33,000 were killed in traffic fatalities and almost 6 million succumbed to heart disease. Nor do lone-wolf attacks at Fort Hood or in Boston threaten to bring the United States down. We have our own domestic lone wolves (see the Columbine and Newtown shootings) that can’t even prompt our government to come up with sensible restrictions on gun control. And while IS’s savage, online beheadings and the media’s constant drumbeat about sleeper cells have made the jihadist group an American issue, there’s no reason to panic. We need to be vigilant and risk-ready; cool, steady, and willfully perseverant in the fight against terror — but no more.

No. 3: Obama Is Responsible for IS’s Rise.

The only game we like to play more than collectively beating up on ourselves is beating up on our political opponents. After last night’s airstrikes in Syria, it will be hard to maintain the presidential urban legend that the president’s reluctance to intervene is why we now face the IS problem.

That urban legend went like this: Because of Obama’s risk aversion to acting in Syria and his eagerness to head for the exits in Iraq, IS morphed into the threat we now face. Indeed, so the logic goes, it might not have even emerged to begin with. Much of this kind of reasoning is based on the woulda/coulda/shoulda school of political analysis. It’s driven by counterfactuals — fascinating to ruminate over but impossible to prove. Had it been possible to leave a substantial residual U.S. force in Iraq, things might have been better. Maybe we could have stopped former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s rampant cronyism in the Iraqi military and bucked up Iraqi forces so they wouldn’t have lost their nerve in the face of the IS rampage in May. And even though I question whether or not the support we were prepared to provide the Syrian opposition back in 2011 and 2012 would have fundamentally altered the arc on the battlefield, we would have started training local Syrian allies much earlier.

But if you want to go down this road of holding Obama responsible, you’ll need to make three additional points to prove your case. First, according to those who had knowledge of these negotiations, the Status of Forces Agreement just wasn’t possible, and that was largely because of Maliki’s own vacillation and the state of play in Iraq’s parliament, which would have had to approve any agreement. Saying "no" to what the United States had required to leave forces there was simply easier than fighting for terms on which they could have stayed. And remember, in 2011, things on the security side looked pretty good in Iraq. Whether the Obama administration could have pressed harder and gotten results is simply unclear.

Second, the rise of IS had far more to do with the reality that both Iraq and Syria were dysfunctional states — one in the throes of full-scale civil war; the other in the process of an accelerating decentralization — prime real estate on which a group like IS could prey, playing on Sunni disaffection. Both Bashar al-Assad and Maliki were alienating, oppressing, and killing Sunnis faster than the United States could ever have mobilized them.

There will be less beating up on Obama now. But those who still want to do it also need to need to bring the hammer down on his predecessor, whose decision to invade Iraq opened the door to Shiite triumphalism, support for Maliki, and the actual emergence of the Islamic State’s forerunner in Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his jihadi group, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). If Obama enabled IS, then George W. Bush helped to get it started.

No. 4: Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran Are Our Friends.

"The enemy of my enemy is my friend." If I ever hear this again, it will be too soon. After all, I’m a realist; I should like the prospect of letting the foxes guard the chicken coops. Anything to help the United States fight off the greater evil — in this case, IS.

Desperate folks do desperate things. But trying to empower these three Middle Eastern desperados and bring them in from the cold is a big mistake. Part of the reason I’m so wary is that they’re really in the survival business; these actors are smarter than we are, they’re nastier, and they’re more ruthless, too, playing three-dimensional chess while we play checkers. On top of which, their agendas — individually, as well as collectively — are fundamentally different than ours and short-term cooperation could easily damage our credibility and run counter to what we want to achieve.

Let’s see now: Iran wants Assad to survive, and Hezbollah too. Sure, they’d welcome any legitimacy we’re prepared to provide in the short-term fight against IS to secure their clients over time. Then there’s the small matter that Assad and, by implication, Iran and Hezbollah actually are partly responsible for IS’s rise because they have supported his savage war against Sunnis. And alienating Sunnis is just what the IS doctors ordered. Fixing the IS problem in Iraq — and surely in Syria — for good will ultimately mean a different regime there. For now, though, while we may not want Assad out, we certainly can’t afford to take the Shiite side in a war that’s being fought along a Sunni-Shiite divide. Doing that would validate IS propaganda that the United States and the West really want to screw the Sunnis and make Iran the key regional power. And clearly, the Saudis and Gulf states are already nervous about our new relationship with Iran.

No. 5: We Can "Ultimately Destroy" the Islamic State.

I understand why Obama has to say this. But I bet you dollars to doughnuts that even he doesn’t believe it. We love Hollywood endings, heroic acts of diplomacy in the presidency; it’s so quintessentially American. We’re the "fix-it" people. We can do anything.

After all, if you asked most Americans about what they think is the single most consequential act abroad of Obama’s presidency, they’d likely respond with the killing of Osama bin Laden. But this isn’t Zero Dark Thirty. Killing bin Laden and dismantling al Qaeda’s core haven’t fizzled the problem. Indeed, we haven’t defeated al Qaeda any more than we’ve defeated the Taliban or crushed al Qaeda’s affiliates or derivatives. Thirteen years later, as my colleague at Foreign Policy, the inestimable Micah Zenko, points out, the Taliban is still the biggest purveyor of global terror. AQAP is still making bombs and planning attacks. And a new group, Khorasan, which arose as an al Qaeda derivative, is now judged to be a real threat. I think you get the point.

Fighting jihadi extremism is like breathing. You can’t stop it and it will continue for decades. It’s the new cold war, except it’s hot. And make no mistake, it is a war. Want to ultimately defeat IS? Put both the Syrian and Iraqi Humpty Dumpties back together again. Otherwise, stop talking about winning and happy endings and do what’s necessary to weaken, degrade, constrain, and pre-empt another attack against the homeland. Kill them before they can kill us. But be smart about it. No more trillion-dollar social science projects to rebuild nations and transform the world.

No. 6: We Have a Clear Strategy Against the Islamic State.

We don’t. Obama was right about that. In fact, we’re caught between the need for a transformative end game that turns Syria and Iraq into functional states and eliminates the grievances on which IS and other al Qaeda affiliates feed, and a transactional one that sees a narrower goal of degrading IS and keeping it far away from our shores. If there’s an effective middle ground, we’re nowhere near identifying it.

Rebuilding Iraq and Syria will take billions of dollars, thousands of somebody’s boots on the ground, years of effort, and a degree of sophistication, will, and smarts the likes of which neither Republican nor Democratic administrations have shown in recent years. And so we will likely settle, in the words of the great Reinhold Niebuhr, for a proximate solution to an insoluble problem. It will not be a broad-minded regional solution, mind you. We will certainly play at that in as serious a fashion as possible, trying to push for power sharing in Iraq, standing up reliable allies in Syria, recruiting Arab airpower and special forces, etc. But we will more than likely do what we’ve been pretty good at doing these past 13 years: preempting and preventing another attack on the homeland by doing everything possible to weaken IS’s military and terrorist capacities. And if we can manage that for another 13, you know what? We’ll have managed to do a pretty damn good job.

In the words of the late Fouad Ajami, I suffer from the prejudice of low expectations. I’ll own up to it. But after watching the United States operate in this broken, angry, and dysfunctional region under both Republican and Democratic administrations, and considering our allies and enemies in this situation, we damn well better keep our expectations real. These are dangerous myths that can cause us real trouble. Let’s unpack them first and think them through before acting. Like my Bubbe used to say about chicken soup: It may not help, but it certainly couldn’t hurt.

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