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The Islamic State – Other People’s Business?

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ISIL captured the ancient caravan city of Palmyra, and as when cities fell in the ancient world, the killings began. The vision of ISIL standing amid Palymra’s magnificent ruins is enough to chill any antiquarian’s blood.

That it should be the city from which one of history’s most remarkable women, Zenobia, stood against the might of Rome and one of that empire’s greatest generals, only adds to the poignancy of the moment, for in ISIL’s Palmyra, no more woman will ever be more than a slave.

There is no doubt that as Robert D. Kaplan wrote at Foreign Policy yesterday, “Middle Eastern chaos demonstrates that the region has still not found a solution to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.” He may or may not be right about the need to “bring imperialism back to the Middle East,” but one thing is for certain: the current system is not working.

What is America to do about it? What can American do about it? We have gotten so used to an America that always “does something about it” even when people don’t want America to do something about it, that we all expect America to do something about it. But should America, simply because it can (perhaps) do something about it, do something about it?

These are not questions easily answered. For one thing, President Obama does not operate in a vacuum. He operates in the post-Bush Middle East, where America’s cachet is just south of bankrupt.

Arguably, White Star Lines’ reputation was on more solid ground after the sinking of the Titanic.

This is not all Bush’s fault. America has a long history of malignant interference in the Middle East, from overthrowing the Iranian government in 1953 – the 28 Mordad coup – onward. An unabashed devotion to Israel since 1948, at the expense of every Islamic state you care to mention, did not help America’s reputation. But Bush’s prolonged plundering expedition in Iraq is what is hurting America, and the Middle East, the most right now.

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David Rothkopf wrote last week at Foreign Policy in criticism of Obama’s alternative to Bush’s foreign policy. Rothkopf, cynically, I think, calls this alternative “Other People’s Armies” (OPA), “encouraging other countries to fight or help fight those conflicts we might have waded into alone or largely alone in the past.”

A better term might be “Other People’s Business.” It is easy for Westerners to talk about the merits of imperialism. Westerners have never been the beneficiaries of other people’s imperialism. We have dished it out for centuries. Middle Easterners might feel differently about it. They were certainly eager to shake off the yoke of the Ottoman Empire.

If the West intends to interfere in the Middle East at this point, it must ensure first and foremost that it is on sure footing. In other words, “Why?” To protect Israel, as Republicans claim? Well, Israel is not under attack. When Israel is attacked – if Israel is attacked, we can talk about that. To protect ruins? Much as it pains me to say it, nobody wants to die for ruins, and in any event, we can’t liberate them without destroying them.

To shore up an Iraqi regime which really doesn’t seem to want to defend itself, and worse, has a population that really doesn’t want to defend its regime, seems a dubious inducement to intervention. We saw how that sort of deal goes down in South Vietnam.

South Vietnam’s incredibly corrupt and collective shrug to the communist threat was heard loud and clear by Americans. Do we really want to ally ourselves again with people who seem to feel they have no vested interest in the battle, who fight only because we want them to fight? It is the duty of young men and women in America to die for a cause that even Iraqis refuse to die for?

The Iraqi army has reportedly shown little desire to do more than run away wherever the ISIL shows itself, as witnessed by their handing over to ISIL Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. With the fall of Ramadi, argued Hassan Hassan last week in Foreign Policy, “In Washington, it should be clear that the current U.S. strategy to fight the Islamic State has failed.”

But are those reports true? Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Sunday’s edition of State of the Union announced that “We have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight ISIL and defend themselves.” American equipment was left behind, a big no-no, meaning the United States is arming ISIL via the Iraqi army as a middleman. But Iraq said they had no air support from U.S. forces, even though they are stationed in the same province.

In fact, Iraq announced Tuesday that they are launching a counterattack in Anbar province. No doubt ISIL has Internet too, so maybe this is not the best way to go about fighting a war. On the other hand, ISIL probably expects a counterattack.

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So the question is, who is letting whom down, here?

What is important to realize is that this is not America’s war. This is other people’s business and we are helping them out. This is not an American war, directed by the United States and fought with U.S. troops.

Our allies are a disparate group including the Iraqi army, Iranian volunteers, militias, a few U.S. units and air support, and a whole lot of American equipment – on both sides.

Americans are not eager to go back into Iraq, and who can blame them? It was a hot mess. Thanks to Bush’s early blunders, an unwinnable hot mess. Republicans like to blame Obama now but the damage was done by the time Obama became president. Bush had already created ISIL. It was beyond Obama’s capability to un-create them, because Obama could not un-invade Iraq.

So if we can’t un-invade, we re-invade?

Is that really the argument being advanced here? Because if it is, it is a non-starter for anyone but Republican chickenhawks, who because they are privileged white men, won’t have to fight themselves. Should another generation of young men and women have to die for the mistakes of old white men who will never take a bullet for their alleged beliefs?

How about the base? They don’t plan to wield AR-15s in anything but restaurants, malls, and down American streets. The only people who are going to be shooting members of the gun lobby are other members of the gun lobby – and their wives – and their children, of course. You don’t see these super patriots forming up to go overseas like another generation did to fight fascist aggression in Spain.

How badly are we wanted? And who will be shooting at us if we go back? ISIL certainly, but will they be the only ones? For nearly a decade we brutalized the Iraqi people we were supposed to be freeing from oppression. Does anyone really expect them to welcome us back as liberators?

Kaplan concluded that, “The challenge now is less to establish democracy than to reestablish order. For without order, there is no freedom for anyone,” but of course, empires are not big on freedom either. America insists on freedom, as though it is not oxymoronic – or even effective – to push freedom at the point of a bayonet.

Rothkopft speaks of “the president’s impulse to avoid the mistakes of the Bush years,” but he does not speak of Obama’s inability to do certain things because of the mistakes of the Bush years. There is no support in America for another war. For putting American ground forces in ISIL’s path.

It would be great if we could, but we can’t go back in time and undo Bush’s mistakes, un-create ISIL, or a more American-friendly Middle East. It is not a question only of what you want to do, but what you can do.

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Because we are losing, or so we are told, John McCain asserts that “There is no strategy.” But is there no strategy or is the strategy we are using simply not working, and if it is not working, is there an option besides committing U.S. ground forces to a war nobody but Republicans want to fight?

I mean, the last invasion worked so well it created ISIL.

The past casts a long shadow, and the biggest mistake any of us can make now is to try to answer the question of ISIL outside of its proper context. And that is a mistake most pundits are making today.

In any case, fortunately, this is not a case where pundits will make the hard choices. That will be left to our elected officials, for better or – because they got us into this mess in the first place – for worse. We just have to hope that this time around, hard facts are heard louder than hunches or ideology – or as in 1953 and 2003, simple greed.

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