It's time to bomb ISIS: Yes, America helped sow these seeds, but this is the rare group that should be called "terrorists"

Disastrous, ham-fisted foreign policy by both Obama and Bush has forced us to select from horrible options

Published August 28, 2014 6:25PM (EDT)

A sign showing the direction and distance to cities stands as a metal board in the shape of a gunman is placed on an old bunker at an observation point on Mt. Bental in the Israeli controlled Golan Heights, overlooking the border with Syria, Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit) (AP)
A sign showing the direction and distance to cities stands as a metal board in the shape of a gunman is placed on an old bunker at an observation point on Mt. Bental in the Israeli controlled Golan Heights, overlooking the border with Syria, Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit) (AP)

How quickly all Washington’s chickens flock back to the roost these days. You can say this about any number of policy disasters, notably but not only in the Middle East. The Israel-Palestine crisis comes immediately to mind, given the tragedy, at the moment abated, in Gaza. So does Egypt, where U.S. support for “the restoration of democracy,” Secretary of State John Kerry’s memorable phrase for last year’s bloody coup, quickly produced the worst human-rights offenses in Egyptian history.

I am thinking most of Syria, now that Washington recommences its primitive war dance in apparent preparation for a bombing campaign. This mess is so tangled it starts to resemble a parody of a foreign policy, the real thing nowhere to be found.

You cannot blame President Obama alone for the rampage the Islamic State now conducts in Syria and across the border in Iraq. The seeds of this grotesque efflorescence went into the ground many years ago, and only the propagandists any longer ignore the primary hand America had in sowing them.

But Obama — and here comes a sentence I can scarcely believe I am writing — has done at least as much as George W. Bush to provoke extremist violence in the Syrian-Iraqi segment of the arc of crisis. In the Syria case I would say more, and worse may lie just ahead.

I cannot do better than Glenn Greenwald, the noted Salon alumnus, to capture the sheer incoherence Washington has collapsed into in the past few days. Here he is Tuesday in the Intercept, the publication he recently launched:

It was not even a year ago when we were bombarded with messaging that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a Supreme Evil and Grave Threat, and that military action against his regime was both a moral and strategic imperative. The standard cast of “liberal interventionists”—Tony Blair, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Nicholas Kristof, and Samantha Power—issued stirring sermons on the duties of war against Assad. Secretary of State John Kerry actually compared Assad to (guess who?) Hitler, instructing the nation that “this is our Munich moment.” Striking Assad, he argued, “is a matter of national security. It’s a matter of the credibility of the United States of America. It’s a matter of upholding the interests of our allies and friends in the region....

Now the Obama administration and American political class is celebrating the one-year anniversary of the failed “Bomb Assad!” campaign by starting a new campaign to bomb those fighting against Assad—the very same side the U.S. has been arming over the last two years.

It’s as though the U.S. knew for certain all along that it wanted to fight in the war in Syria, and just needed a little time to figure out on which side it would fight. It switched sides virtually on a dime, and the standard Pentagon courtiers of the U.S. media and war-cheering foreign policy elites are dutifully following suit, mindlessly depicting ISIS as an unprecedented combination of military might and well-armed and well-funded savagery (where did they get those arms and funds?)....

This is a perfectly fair account of what Obama’s Washington now wants to tell you is a foreign policy. Greenwald takes particular issue with the thought that the Islamic State’s violence is unprecedented — the italics are his — and of course it is not. But there are many more problems with this latest chapter in the American story in Syria.

The first thing to look at is the bombing. Yea or nay?

You get very varied opinions on this question from right-thinking people. Patrick Cockburn, the London Independent’s noted commentator and the best thing going on the Middle East, finds ISIS savage enough to warrant destruction. And you cannot destroy ISIS unless you bomb Iraq and Syria, not just the former, he tells us.  Cockburn sees it up close, and this counts.

John Feffer, writing in Foreign Policy in Focus, sees nothing but harm resulting from bombing raids in either Syria or Iraq. “A campaign of U.S. aerial strikes is just the kind of outside force that will keep ISIS strong and unified in the absence of an obvious focus of hatred,” he writes in a thoughtful piece.

Greenwald opposes the bombing, too, but seems slightly ambivalent. “Nobody disputes the brutality and extremism of ISIS, but that is a completely different question from whether the U.S. should take military action against it,” he writes. “What are air strikes going to accomplish? ... If one really wants to advocate that the U.S. should destroy or at least seriously degrade ISIS, then one should honestly face what that actually entails.”

Then you have Pope Francis, who this week endorsed the idea of attacking ISIS, reasoning that it falls within the definition of a “just war.” This news impressed me, given I hold the current pope in high regard.

The question is often posed, “Why attack this awful person or party or army when these others are either tolerated or are allies?” It is always good to ask this, as it leads straight to the heart of the incessant hypocrisy and irrationality in America’s foreign dealings. But ISIS appears truly exceptional, and I will elaborate my argument favoring the bombing in a minute.

In effect, the Obama administration appears braced to do the right thing for the wrong reasons and in the wrong way. Ill intent and a plainly stupid method, I must quickly add, will all but cancel any possibility of a positive outcome. The job should be done and decisively concluded.

First of all, there is the question of sovereignty — a very serious question, given that ISIS explicitly asserts that it intends to destroy Syria’s and Iraq’s to reestablish an Islamic caliphate, the last of which perished 90 years ago with the emergence of nationalism in the Middle East. Washington could not be more mistaken on this point.

In preparing public opinion for the start of bombing, the foreign policy, security and defense cliques have said pointedly that the U.S. will neither inform the Assad government of its plans nor, still less, work with the Assad government, and least of all honor Syria’s borders. The object, of course, is to avoid any appearance that it now comes to the aid of a regime it has so thoroughly demonized — to avoid looking stupid, in other words.

This makes two institutions actively destroying the principle of sovereignty and the legal status of national frontiers — ISIS and the United States of America.

In effect, Obama and Kerry have effectively painted themselves into a very tight corner. In consequence they cannot take the one smart alternative open to them: Back Assad in the name of a legitimate fight against one of the few groups I can think of deserving of the term “terrorist.”

Do not take my word for this. A few days ago Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a Tory member of Parliament and chairman of its intelligence and security committee, spoke for numerous British officials and military people when he told a reporter at the Independent, “Although the Assad regime are very nasty people, we may have to have a relationship with them in order to deal with even nastier people. Churchill and Roosevelt had to work with Stalin to defeat Hitler, not because they had any illusions about Stalin’s regime, but because Hitler was the more important and overwhelming objective.”

As the Marxists would say, you have your primary contradiction and your secondary, and you set the latter aside.

Oddly, Washington has already begun back-channeling with the Assad government even as it gaudily refuses the Assad government’s offers of cooperation. “The U.S. has already covertly assisted the Assad government by passing on intelligence about the exact location of jihadi leaders through the BND, the German intelligence service,” the Independent (doing well on this story) reported several days ago. “This may explain why Syrian aircraft and artillery have been able on occasion to target accurately rebel commanders and headquarters.”

There is bitterness in this. Think about what Walid al-Moallem, Assad’s foreign minister, said the other day in a reference to the Pentagon’s unsuccessful attempt to save the life of James Foley, the American journalist ISIS recently beheaded on camera: “Any effort to combat terrorism should be co-ordinated with the Syrian government. Had there been prior co-ordination, that operation would not have failed.”

Some readers may wonder how I can advance this position the same day the U.N. issued the latest of its damning reports on human rights abuses on both sides of the Syrian war. Again, it is a question of recognizing the primary contradiction.

Equally, I take seriously any U.N. committee with Carla del Ponte on it, given her proven integrity when, for example, the propagandists attempted to blame Assad for the infamous gas attack a year ago this month even as his enemies were guilty, as Seymour Hersh later proved. However, the U.N. is a thoroughly compromised institution, and we need to wait for cases to be brought in the International Criminal Court, as del Ponte advocates.

Washington’s foreign policy problem, the problem Obama has made so much worse, is a matter of applying the wrong template. It is the Cold War template, at bottom — the tendency to divide the world into black hats and white, then insist that it is no more complicated than that. It ruined millions of lives and wasted four decades in the last century, and we still cannot break the habit.

In the Syrian case, the U.S. turned against Assad only when he refused to back Bush’s invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Equally, Russia backs Assad, one reason being the rise of militant Islam, but if Russia sees things this way, Washington by definition cannot.

“It is not the case that the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said in explaining why there could be no dealing with Assad. Rhodes is precisely upside down. This was Washington’s guiding principle during the Cold War.

Now, siding with the enemy of our enemies is four-square the reasoning that gives us the Syria crisis as we have it, complete with American guns in the hands of ISIS soldiers. And now is exactly one of those rare moments when the strategy is right.

No, I do not think anything good will come of another bombing campaign, but stopping ISIS will be less dreadful than allowing it to run riot through Syria and Iraq. This is as much as one can say given what is on offer.

What should Washington do? Thanks for asking.

I favor the bombs with obvious reluctance. In a more imaginative policy the campaign would be short and a minor aspect of a much larger undertaking. This would begin with a revitalization of the U.N. so that efforts such as this one are properly internationalized — exposed, most of all, to the non-Western members of the Security Council at any given moment.

Second, Washington’s purposeful abuse of sovereignty for the sake of insult is a disgrace. Assad is Assad, O.K., but he is the elected president of a country. Lines drawn on maps by colonial powers long ago may have to change. ISIS should not be awarded the privilege, and neither should Washington.

Third, there should be strong backing for an international conference on the Middle East broadly defined, bringing all parties and their sponsors to the table: the factions in Iraq and Syria, the Iranians, the Qataris, the Saudis and so on. The topic: what we all talked of 13 years ago, in the months between Sept. 11 and Bush’s Axis of Evil speech the following January.

Remember? Connect “terrorism” to poverty, deprivation, the absence of democracy, education and much, much else. Then develop a strategic plan, properly expensive so that the job gets done and the West and the Arab monarchies get used to spending their money wisely.

It is too late for a lot of people in the Middle East who are no longer with us and many whose daily suffering probably makes them wish they were not. But it is not too late, and never is, to begin building a better future in the region — or, better put, helping the region build a future of its own making.

Our leaders are a million miles away from any of this, of course, even as many of us, we the represented, would favor just this kind of positive strategy. Our leaders’ problem, therefore ours, is that they are not serious. One wishes they would learn to stay home more often. As things are, the less the Middle East sees of us post-ISIS, the better.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is

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Assad Barack Obama Editor's Picks George W. Bush Glenn Greenwald Iraq Isis John Kerry Syria