ISIL and the Limits of the Republican Alternate Reality Bubble

There are many questions being raised on the right and in the feckless mainstream media about President Obama’s foreign policy. Many Republicans seem to speak as though the United States has free reign to respond to ISIL (whatever actual threat it poses to U.S. interests) in any way it likes, as though it might be responding to an armed insurrection on U.S. territory.

Never mind that in the right wing mind, as the Bundy episode proves, the U.S. is NOT free to respond to armed insurrections on U.S. territory. In fact, where the right wing is concerned, best to suspend reality altogether.

The problem is that ISIL is not somewhere in the American Southwest, but in Iraq and Syria. There are not only practical considerations of logistics, but the war-weariness of the American people, a fragile economy still recovering from Bush’s two unfunded decade-long wars, and, not least, a court of world opinion to be considered. Even had it the logistical capability to do anything it wishes, the United States would still be limited by what the world allowed it to do, our 21st century brand of rampant 19th nationalism called “American Exceptionalism” aside.

President George W. Bush wastefully expended virtually all of any cachet held by America in the Middle East outside of Israel, which was in limited supply in any case because of America’s ties to the Jewish state. This Bush disaster that was the Iraq War leaves President Obama with far more limited options, if he is to not simply run roughshod over any and all who oppose him.

In many ways, this is a no-win scenario for Obama, because if he tries to do more, he will be accused (as he has already been) of exceeding his constitutional authority, and if he is content with less, he will be accused (as he has already been) of being weak on foreign policy and soft on the perceived enemy, Islam.

Obama’s attempt to demonstrate, rationally, that ISIL does not represent Islam, has fallen on deaf Republican ears, who seem determined to make Bush’s war in Iraq only the first of many “Christian” crusades there, logistics and world opinion be damned. What is the opinion of the world compared to the opinion of the God they claim to follow? Especially when they have a Blue Light rapture at stake at 3 a.m. on the Seventeenth of Never?

More nuanced critiques are certainly possible. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who watched a small number of American advisors in Vietnam mushroom into a full-scale war almost overnight, worries that the U.S. has been in five wars since 1945 and that in only one (WWII) – and in a more limited way in Korea – have we achieved the objectives laid out.

You have to admit, that’s not a very good track record. Like Kissinger or not, the man has a point. And there is good reason, as he says, to worry about the potential of an open-ended mission to mushroom out of all proportion. One minute advisors, the next bombers, and presto, tens of thousands of boots on the ground fighting a war that cannot be won (never mind the implications of America’s continued dependence on Middle Eastern oil).

Republicans seem to want more than a few airstrikes. It is obvious to any student of history that air strikes alone (like naval blockades alone) will not get the job done any more than the Allies could bomb Germany into submission in the Second World War.

But it isn’t air strikes alone, is it? Kurds are fighting ISIL. Iraqis are fighting ISIL. Iranians are fighting ISIL on the ground. American boots are not required. ISIL has shown it can harm individual Americans at this point, Americans who have put themselves within arm’s reach of the terrorists. We have two notable beheadings of Americans. We do not have 3,000 dead Americans on American soil as we did when Bush was president.

Looked at that way, the Obama foreign policy looks pretty damned spiffy, doesn’t it? ISIL cannot harm Americans here, in America. The threat is purely regional. There is no reason the response cannot also be primarily regional. Given that the U.S. is no longer in control of Iraq, this is perfectly reasonable.

Before the SOFA accord, of course, an entirely different response would have been reasonable. And under a Bush administration, both practical and other concerns would be washed away in a profit-lust response. People would die, cash would flow into Republican coffers. God’s self-appointed legal representatives would be happy that the infidel was getting his. A big win all around for modern American totalitarianism.

The Republican dream scenario takes us back some 1900+ years, also to the Middle East, but to Palestine this time, southern Syria, as the Romans saw it, rather than the northern border with what is now Iraq.

When the Jews rebelled against Rome in 66 CE, Rome moved immediately to crush the revolt. Imagine for a moment that ISIL arose while American troops were still in Iraq, and while Iraq was still governed by the United States. In that case, the U.S. would have had far more freedom of action. The U.S. too could have moved immediately to crush the revolt, the local forces of the client king (Iraq in this case) would not have been defeated and the revolt would not now be spreading out of control.

And you can bet your last petro-dollar that the Bush administration would have felt free to indulge its manly insecurities and the military industrial complex’s thirst for profits to respond all out of proportion to the threat. At this moment, a new surge would be pummeling ISIL into the stone age (though maybe not even then). Munitions and dollars would be flowing like nobody’s business and Muslims would be dying to praise songs in megachurches across the country.

This revolt of the Jews back in 66 CE was, on the surface, also an isolated rebellion, and concerned only the Jews and Rome. But Rome had other provinces prone to revolt, and other provinces with large Jewish populations. Similarly, Iraq isn’t the only Islamic nation with people sympathetic to ISIL or to chaos whatever its ideological underpinnings.

Localized as the rebellion currently is, it has the potential to spread not only to other parts of Iraq, but to neighboring states, which is, of course, ISIL’s ultimate goal of a new caliphate encompassing the entire Islamic world, and perhaps more.

This makes ISIL, like the Jewish rebels, a regional concern, as the rebels also were intent on pressing their war outside of Judaea, outside Greater Israel, to the extent, according to the Jewish historian of the war, Josephus, of building ships to raid the sea lanes. Roman marker stones also show the rebels tore up Roman roads through the region, which was critical link between Syria and Egypt, and we can’t forget yesteryear’s Iranians, the neighboring Parthian Empire (of modern Iraq and Iran), who had no reason to love Rome just as Iran has no reason to love the U.S., and who, like Iran, had previously intervened in the area. It was deemed critical by Rome to wipe out this revolt as quickly as possible. Nero may not have been Rome’s best emperor, but he was not an idiot.

Their immediate attempt with a single legion marching from Syria, failed (Judaea was considered to be part of “Greater” Syria and therefore the governor of Syria’s ultimate responsibility). So the Emperor Nero sent in his best man, Vespasian, and his son Titus (both destined to be emperors themselves) from what is now Lebanon, with three legions and plentiful auxiliaries from various Roman clients (you can think of them as regional allies, if America had any regional allies outside of Israel, which it does not).

Rome did not have to contend with a court of world opinion. Rome could do pretty much whatever it wanted without worrying about what anyone outside the empire thought, which is what makes the Roman response interesting. The size of the force ultimately used was about equal to that which had conquered Britain a generation earlier, and the Roman response was clearly a message to those contemplating rebellion in other provinces, that it would “wipe out” what it saw as any troublemakers anywhere it found them, and with overwhelming force. This was not just an attempt to put down the local rebellion, but an attempt to discourage further rebellions in other provinces.

It is noteworthy that with less than a thousand Jewish rebels remaining on Masada (according to Josephus) after the rest of the country had been pacified, the Romans sent an entire legion plus auxiliaries (some 10,000 men total), to lay siege to the fortress. Nor were the Romans content to starve out the defenders. A legion was like a modern division, and it was valuable.

Think about it: Rome had 28 legions to control an empire that spanned from Britain in the north to Morocco in the South, and from Spain in the West to Syria in the East. It committed one of these valuable legions to put down a few straggling survivors at Masada to make a point to the entire Roman world that it meant business, like Obama says America means business. “F*** with us and we will bury you” was the message then as now.

So the Romans proceeded to built a huge ramp, the remains of which still exist, up the 400-foot side of the plateau upon which the fortress stood. It took 3 months to complete this ramp. When it was finished, says Josephus, Roman soldiers stormed into Masada to find the defenders had killed each other rather than be taken.

This might seem like yet another Alamo-type ending, but there are problems with it. Archaeologists found just 28 bodies, and there is no evidence that they committed suicide. What has resulted instead, like the myth of the Alamo, is the Myth of Masada.

We don’t know what myths may or may not have grown up in the first century. We do know that the Jews lost and would not try to revolt again for several generations, and we know that the sizeable Jewish population of Egypt did not revolt until that second attempt in 132-136 CE (the so-called Bar Kokhba revolt).

Rome could have made do with much less and still won. The defenders were trapped, and if the Romans knew that there were fewer than a thousand defenders in the fortress their response is the more astounding. The Romans had already built a a circumvallation (a fortified wall) all around the foot of the plateau. The Jewish rebels were going nowhere, whatever their numbers. The revolt itself was crushed. Whatever remained on Masada had no practical bearing on future affairs outside of Rome’s need for a grand gesture.

Republicans see the need for a grand gesture as well. But America is facing its own myth, the myth constructed by the war criminals responsible for the Iraq War, the myth that America went into Iraq in revenge for 9/11 (Sadam Hussein was innocent of that, at least), to destroy weapons of mass destruction (those weapons never existed) and that we kicked ass and took names. We did kick ass but we didn’t take names, and the postwar mess Bush’s maladministration created is what has given rise to ISIL today.

The myth is that it is Obama’s foreign policy, not prior Republican mistakes, that is to blame. The mainstream media feeds the myth by giving air time to the same people who created the mess, now eager to offer alternatives to fix the mess they refuse to take responsibility for, alternatives that sound a lot like the schemes that got us (and Iraq) into this mess in the first place. But we are not Rome, Iran is not Parthia, and the rebels are not our rebels but Iraq’s. And we DO have a court of world opinion and it would not be thrilled by yet another unilateral military invention of the type our war criminals embrace.

The world is awake and watching, if the Republican Party is not, and their little reality bubble does not extend its coverage to any but Republicans. So to the extent the GOP is able to act on ISIL (and hope they are not), their reality bubble will not protect them – or the rest of us – from real world, as opposed to fantasy, consequences.

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