Four Myths About Obama’s War on ISIS
A reluctant warrior intervenes against a threat to the homeland–or so we’re told
With Barack Obama’s September 10 announcement of a military plan to launch strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), many pundits might be breathing a sigh of relief. The White House is finally taking the kind of military action they have been recommending for months.
But there are some serious questions that should be asked–about the threat posed by the Islamic State and about some of the assumptions guiding the debate.
‘Striking the Homeland’
The idea that ISIS poses an immediate threat to the United States–as opposed to its non-Sunni Muslim neighbors–has been a consistent theme in the media, encouraging the public to support war. Rep. Michael McCaul (R.-Texas) declared on ABC‘s This Week (8/24/14) that the Islamic State is “intent on hitting the West and there are external operations, I believe, underway.” WhenCBS‘s Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer (9/7/14) asked Republican Sen. Marco Rubio if he thought they posed a “threat to the homeland now,” Rubio replied: “I do. I believe they do.” Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Meet the Press, 8/31/14) said the threat to the country was “potentially very serious.”
ABC This Week host Martha Raddatz (9/7/14) explained that if the options are leaving Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power or the threat from the Islamic State, the White House was “clearly siding with the threat to the homeland.” On ABC World News (8/16/14), reporter Terry Moran told viewers that “a new US intelligence assessment says that ISIS poses a direct threat to the American homeland. So, what happens here in northern Iraq…matters a lot back home.”
But experts do not see an immediate danger, which is coming through in some media coverage. As the New York Times (9/11/14) put it:
Some officials and terrorism experts believe that the actual danger posed by ISIS has been distorted in hours of television punditry and alarmist statements by politicians, and that there has been little substantive public debate about the unintended consequences of expanding American military action in the Middle East.
The Times added that “when American counterterrorism officials review the threats to the United States each day, the terror group is not a top concern. ” And the Washington Post‘s Adam Goldman (9/10/14) reported that the day Obama delivered his speech laying out his plan, “top US intelligence officials told Congress on Wednesday that the organization does not pose an immediate threat to the country.”
Obama, the Reluctant Warrior
One clear message from corporate media has been that Barack Obama is unusually reticent about using military force. Asked to comment about Obama’s “reluctance to take the fight against ISIS to Syria,” correspondent Richard Engel said on Meet the Press (8/31/14):
Well, I speak to military commanders. I speak to former officials. And they are apoplectic. They think that this is a clear and present danger. They think something needs to be done.
And this “reluctance” is seen in Obama’s foreign policy generally (FAIR Blog,8/26/14). As the Washington Post (9/10/14) put it, Obama is “six years into a presidency devoted to ending US wars in the Muslim world.” TheAssociated Press (9/11/14) presented Obama’s Islamic State decision as a dramatic turn, calling him “the president who wanted to end America’s wars.”
But Obama’s actual record conflicts with this picture. In Iraq, Obama tried to keep more troops in Iraq than the Bush administration had agreed to in the withdrawal plan it had negotiated. Obama’s substantial achievement in Afghanistan was a massive escalation of that war (FAIR Blog, 5/27/14).
His administration greatly increased the number of drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilians (FAIR Blog,8/30/13). And Obama used the US military to help overthrow the government of Libya–though the disastrous outcome of that operation is seldom cited as evidence that Obama is too eager to intervene.
Congress Gets in the Way
The decision to consult Congress on the matter of starting a war–as required by the Constitution–is often treated as a weakness. As the New York Times(9/9/14) put it:
A year ago this month, in one of the more embarrassing episodes of his presidency, bipartisan opposition to airstrikes in Syria forced the president to withdraw his request for authorization to strike the Assad government.
NPR reporter Scott Horsley (9/10/14) recalled this incident as a moment of failure: “It quickly became clear Congress had no stomach for that, and Obama had to back down. That was a real body-blow to the president’s prestige.” The implication is that respecting public sentiment opposing war is a sign of weakness–and that presidents should be more concerned about their “prestige” than about the Constitution.
Finally Intervening in Syria
Throughout the past year, hawkish critics of the White House and many pundits have insisted that the Obama administration should have intervened long ago. To many pundits, if the US had only attacked Syria sooner, none of this would have happened. As ABC‘s Cokie Roberts (8/10/14) said:
We’re not acting like a superpower, that’s the problem…. I agree with Hillary Clinton, as you quoted her earlier, saying, well, if we had gotten into Syria when the rebels were begging us to come in, and saying, here we are, trying to secure our freedom, where is America, then you wouldn’t have had this group filling the vacuum.
Other media accounts (Washington Post, 8/11/14) argue that more US support for the armed opposition in Syria would not have been decisive in either removing Bashar al-Assad from power or preventing the rise of the Islamic State.
And some of these arguments rest on the assumption that US policy towards Syria can be characterized as one of nonintervention. As the New York Times(9/10/14) reported:
Mr. Obama has resisted military engagement in Syria for more than three years, out of fear early on that arming the rebels who oppose Mr. Assad would fail to alter the balance in the civil war while more direct military intervention could have spillover effects in the volatile region.
This is seriously misleading–and contradicted by the Times‘ own reporting. Under the headline “CIA Said to Aid in Steering Arms to Syrian Opposition” (6/21/12), the paper reported that the US government was playing a very active role in supporting the armed revolt, with CIA officers in Turkey helping to deliver weapons to particular opposition groups. Days earlier, the Wall Street Journal (6/13/12) was reporting that the CIA was working with opposition groups to “develop logistical routes for moving supplies into Syria and providing communications training.”
As Patrick Cockburn reports in his new bookThe Jihadis Return, the arms that the CIA was “steering” to Syrian rebels were instrumental in enabling ISIS to expand the territory it held in Iraq:
An intelligence officer from a Middle Eastern country neighboring Syria told me that ISIS members “say they are always pleased when sophisticated weapons are sent to anti-Assad groups of any kind because they can always get the arms off them by threats of force or cash payments.”… Arms supplied by US allies such as Qatar and Turkey to anti-Assad forces in Syria are now being captured regularly in Iraq.
ISIS came into being as a result of the US invasion of Iraq (CounterSpin,8/15/14), and was greatly strengthened by the US-backed destabilization of Syria. Since it is US intervention that has gotten us where we are today, the false assumption that the White House has failed to do anything at all makes any serious analysis of what to do now impossible. (The idea that doing something effective about the real threat ISIS poses to its neighbors means a military attack was challenged by IPS’s Phyllis Bennis in a column for The Progressive—9/10/14; the reverse, she argues, is actually the case.)
What seems abundantly clear is that the media’s coverage of the threat posed by the Islamic State–and the group’s savvy dissemination of appalling propaganda–have produced some shift in public opinion. As journalist Glenn Greenwald (Intercept, 9/8/14) remarked:
It’s as though ISIS and the US media and political class worked in perfect unison to achieve the same goal here when it comes to American public opinion: fully terrorize them.