If Thomas Friedman is the voice of reason on ISIS, then things have gotten out of hand

Hawks sure are making it sound easy to comprehensively "crush" ISIS. Even Tom Friedman (!) is sick of hearing it

Published September 3, 2014 8:21PM (EDT)

Thomas Friedman            (AP/Peter Schneider)
Thomas Friedman (AP/Peter Schneider)

More and more pundits and politicians by the day seem to think that a single, declarative, manly and comprehensive verb suffices as a response to ISIS. The words of choice are typically "destroy" or "crush" or "finish off" or something similarly unambiguous and swift.

Sen. Rand Paul, fresh off a well-publicized messaging tour about how Hillary Clinton is a "war hawk" whose favored interventions have caused more damage than otherwise would have occurred, now wants to "destroy ISIS militarily." Rep. Paul Ryan hopes to "finish off" ISIS. John McCain, of course, believes the Islamic State has "got to be destroyed" posthaste; Rep. Adam Kinzinger wants to know if President Obama has the machismo to "crush" ISIS. Even the sharpest, most nuanced pundit in the biz, "Phil Robertson from 'Duck Dynasty,'" is declaring that members of ISIS should either be converted or killed.

Once you understand that this is how people see ISIS, and the world, it explains the frustration with President Obama's neatly cut-and-clipped statement that "we don't have a strategy yet." ISIS is little more than a fly, just sitting there, waiting to be swatted. Why doesn't Obama pick up the fly swatter? Fly's sitting right there, guy. In the present, outside the context of history. Go get it!

It's as if all the baddies and their bad thoughts are huddled together, just waiting for a button to be pressed, and then the problem will be over. A single swing of the fly swatter, a single press of the button: The idea is that ISIS and all the awful things it represents are one motion away from destruction. Ergo President Obama must be mentally ill or something for not acting out that motion.

Rep. Kinzinger's confused query -- "Are we going to contain ISIS or are we going to crush ISIS?" -- was a response to Obama's latest comments on the situation this morning, from Europe. At a press conference, Obama said, "Our objective is clear, and that is to degrade and destroy ISIL so that it’s no longer a threat not just to Iraq but also the region and to the United States." Shortly thereafter, he added: "We know that if we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem." And so the likes of Kinzinger et al. are now confused about how Obama could want to "degrade and destroy ISIL so that it’s no longer a threat not just to Iraq but also the region and to the United States" and "shrink" it "to the point where it is a manageable problem."

The only reason that one may find these two statements in conflict with each other is if that person believes genocide of all Sunnis in Iraq, Syria and nearby is an appropriate response to ISIS. Because you can launch some strikes to take out much of ISIS' military capabilities, but you'll still have to "manage" the issue of Sunni resentment toward Shia rulers in Iraq and Syria (as well as toward the United States!) as long as you intend to spare any Sunni lives.

This is one of the reasons why the Obama administration is trying to "think" about the situation before simply launching a comprehensive bombing campaign in two countries: It recognizes that ISIS doesn't exist in a vacuum. The administration is getting lashed left and right for this by people who think it does exist in a vacuum and is one press of a button away from extinction.

We don't say this very often, but everyone who's losing their minds should read Thomas Friedman's column today. Yep: The debate has become so oversimplified and bloodthirsty that now Thomas Friedman is a welcome voice of caution.

To defeat ISIS you have to address the context out of which it emerged. And that is the three civil wars raging in the Arab world today: the civil war within Sunni Islam between radical jihadists and moderate mainstream Sunni Muslims and regimes; the civil war across the region between Sunnis funded by Saudi Arabia and Shiites funded by Iran; and the civil war between Sunni jihadists and all other minorities in the region — Yazidis, Turkmen, Kurds, Christians, Jews and Alawites.

When you have a region beset by that many civil wars at once, it means there is no center, only sides. And when you intervene in the middle of a region with no center, you very quickly become a side.

ISIS emerged as an extreme expression of resentment by one side: Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis who felt cut out of power and resources by the pro-Iranian Shiite regime in Baghdad and the pro-Iranian Alawite/Shiite regime in Damascus. That is why Obama keeps insisting that America’s military intervention must be accompanied, for starters, by Iraqis producing a national unity government — of mainstream Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — so our use of force supports pluralism and power-sharing, not just Shiite power.

But power-sharing doesn’t come easy in a region where kinship and sectarian loyalties overwhelm any sense of shared citizenship. Without it, though, the dominant philosophy is either: “I am strong, why should I compromise?” or “I am weak, how can I compromise?” So any onslaught we make on ISIS, absent national unity governments, will have Shiites saying the former and Sunnis saying the latter. That’s why this is complicated.

Hawks have so far been successfull at stripping away the existence of context and complexity from the ISIS situation. They've made it acceptable to say things like ISIS simply needs to be "destroyed" or "crushed" or "finished off" and not be asked any follow-up questions. For God's sake, resist them.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

MORE FROM Jim Newell

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Adam Kinzinger Editor's Picks Foreign Policy Iran Iraq Isis Media Criticism Military Thomas Friedman War