The last time the United States of America launched a ground war in Iraq, it did so only after engaging in a public debate. The debate was far from the democratic ideal; in retrospect, it was more of an ersatz form of public deliberation. But even though the lead-up to the war was truncated and riddled with scaremongering, falsehoods and conscious misrepresentation, it still happened. Then-President Bush still felt obliged to make his case. The American people were still given the opportunity to pay attention.
Considering how most of us remember those blinkered and bloodthirsty months, it feels bizarre to write these words, but those are beginning to look like the good old days. Because what’s happening right now, out in the open and yet barely under the surface, is even worse. The signs that the United States is headed for its third invasion of Iraq in 30 years are growing. But because this new war, in marked contrast to the last one, is gestating during the tenure of a president who’d rather not fight, the public hasn’t subjected it to nearly the same degree of scrutiny.
The U.S. is slowly but surely moving closer to doing what so many of its citizens recently said it never should. It is drifting toward making yet another major military commitment to the Middle East; and it is moving toward doing so by hoping that, this time, its guns, bombs and soldiers can do what they heretofore never could. Just like so many feared (myself included) when President Obama decided to begin an air campaign against ISIS last summer, America is sleepwalking back into a quagmire. And too many of its citizens have yet to notice.
If you listen to the rhetoric of the GOP’s presidential aspirants, you can almost hear the taboo against promoting a new war in Iraq begin to crumble. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, for example, has left the door to invasion noticeably open. He won’t rule out invading Syria, either. Walker’s chief opponent, former Gov. Jeb Bush, also won’t make any promises about putting “boots on the ground” in Syria or Iraq. The war fever has gotten so virulent that even Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the one who is supposed to represent the GOP’s dovish wing, can do little more than squirm uncomfortably when confronted with the question.
More disturbingly, the appetite for war is not only growing among always-hawkish Republicans, but also in the public at large. According to a CBS News poll released last week, a shocking 57 percent of survey respondents — which, to underline the point, is nearly six out of 10 — support sending American troops to Iraq and Syria. A robust 65 percent consider ISIS “a major threat,” including 61 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of independents. And per a recent poll from the admittedly right-wing (and sometimes dodgy) Rasmussen Reports, a plurality of American voters thinks the U.S. and its allies are “losing” the war on terror.
If you’ve got any familiarity with ISIS and the state of play in the Middle East right now, this all seems exceedingly odd. I am far from an expert on the region or on the violent paramilitary group, but I do know that it’s thus far killed no more than four Americans. Each death was a heinous crime and profound tragedy, of course; but all of these victims had ended up in the Iraq-Syria region of their own volition. And despite leveling many threats against Americans through its many grotesque snuff films, there is no evidence that ISIS has any serious plans to kill Americans beyond its immediate geographic reach — or that it could do so if it wanted.
In fact, even the controversial profile of ISIS recently published by the Atlantic – which some critics have described as alarmist and heavy-handed — grants that ISIS, unlike al-Qaida, has little interest in bringing its distinct brand of sociopathy to U.S. shores. As the piece’s author, Graeme Wood, writes, the ISIS threat to America is “smaller than its all too frequent conflation with al Qaeda would suggest.” Because ISIS seeks to establish a caliphate, Wood says, the group “requires territory to remain legitimate,” meaning its focus is much more on its neighbors, and the Middle East in general, than on America. “[ISIS] sees enemies everywhere around it,” Wood writes, “and while its leadership wishes ill on the United States the application of Sharia in the caliphate and the expansion to contiguous lands are paramount.”
These are, to put it gently, not the makings of a “major threat” that requires Americans to once again send their sons and daughters to kill people in Mesopotamia. But the error here isn’t so much the fault of the American people as it is the fault of their media and political leadership. Because the president is not advocating for a greater escalation, thus providing the political press with a recognizable pro-war figure to put in conflict with anti-war arguments; and because the media seemingly cannot resist trumpeting the latest act of barbarism from ISIS with a lurid and barely concealed excitement, the American people are unaware of the many reasons to see ISIS more realistically. And because Democrats are loath to criticize the president over issues of national security, the people aren’t hearing any contrary arguments from them, either.
It all makes for a very dispiriting state of affairs for anyone who thought the election of Barack Obama was proof that the United States was ready to quit the Middle East. More and more, it seems as if the country’s best hope for avoiding further entanglement is for ISIS to collapse under its own fanatical cruelty — before President Walker or President Clinton gets a chance to do it first.