Sunday, December 13, 2015

Fighting ISIS

For much of the last decade, Tom Friedman has been an object of derision outside the comfortable bubble of official Washington. From his blind allegiance to the Bush Administration’s decision to invade Iraq to his habit of predicting that any six month period thereafter would be crucial in determining the fate of our folly [1], Mr. Friedman’s judgment has been brought into question, but the man has reported from and about the Middle East for more than thirty years. Indeed, his seminal book From Beirut to Jerusalem still stands as one of the single best encapsulations of the complex politics of that region, so when he talks, people listen.

As national attention is consumed again with what to do about terrorism, something Friedman wrote in a column earlier this week bears noting:

For whatever ridicule “the Mustache” receives for his sometimes facile explanations of complicated issues, this observation should be printed out and tacked to the wall of any politician purporting to say there is an answer, easy or otherwise, to defeating ISIS.

Consider some of the ideas being bandied about and how easily their limitations are exposed. Most Republicans are calling for a grand international coalition harkening back to the days of George H.W. Bush and the First Gulf War as the model for what American leadership can do. But that metaphor is deeply flawed and not just for the reasons articulated in Friedman’s article. 

In 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, our most important coalition partner in the region, Saudi Arabia, was highly motivated to cooperate because they feared invasion by Iraq’s superior, well trained, and experienced military. Iran, on the other hand, was weak, licking its wounds from an eight-year war with Iraq. The Berlin Wall fell less than a year before Saddam’s invasion and the Soviet Union was in the process of collapsing while simultaneously trying to build better relations with the West. China, conversely, was isolated internationally after its crackdown on democratic protests in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. In 2015, Russia is feeling its oats, China is ascendent on the global stage, and Iran is emerging back into the community of nations thanks to its nuclear deal with the United States.

What about Donald Trump’s idea to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS. Sounds good, I mean who doesn’t like bombing the shit out of somebody? The only problem, well, problems, are that (1) ISIS is not like the Nazis, with large divisions deployed over a field of battle for the aforementioned bombing; (2) ISIS fighters can blend into civilian populations, thus increasing the chances of collateral damage (i.e., dead innocent people, which tends to anger the locals); and (3) you cannot bomb an ideology out of existence - just ask the Israelis, who have been fighting with the Palestinians since before the state of Israel was declared or the countries that still cling to communism. [2]

So if a coalition will not be an easy lift and we cannot simply carpet bomb ISIS, what about that old standby “boots on the ground?” Right. We are kind of in this mess because some guy with an Oedipal complex decided to invade Iraq in the first place. Our current President has rightly observed that we could deploy thousands of troops to root out ISIS in places like Raqqa, but the question no one has a good answer for is “then what?” The same complications Friedman identified in his column would still apply - the competing interests, conflicting agendas, and most importantly, the total lack of credible political figures on the ground to make something sustainable long-term (just look at the mess in Iraq or the faltering “democracy” in Afghanistan) would still be there. Moreover, unlike the First Gulf War, where a basic status quo ante resulted from Saddam Hussein’s defeat, the heavy lifting of stabilizing and remaking Syria, reconsidering Iraq’s political structure and who should play what role in those decisions, would require a level of diplomacy and commitment our nation has expressed little passion for and the people of that region seem uninterested in adopting. 

Ultimately, much of what passes for policy discussion in our nation assumes that we know what is best for others and that they will support our beliefs because hey, America. But the calls for more passion from the President, more boots on the ground, or more bombing raids belies a simple fact - some problems are not ours to solve.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy


1. Friedman’s reliance on this trope was dubbed a “Friedman Unit” by the blogger Duncan Black (a/k/a “Atrios”).

2. Of course, getting rid of one ideology does not guarantee anything. The Soviet Union dissolved but it was simply replaced with a mixture of dictatorship and an oligarchy that has left most Russians no better off than they were under communist rule. 


  1. Wow, I've never known Friedman to be right about anything. He must've had a really smart cab driver this trip!

  2. I just had this same conversation with a friend last night. He is from Iraq and was explaining that in his 35 years of life, the only ones he has spent not living in a war zone have been his few years here. We were comparing the narcissistic behaviors of Trump to Saddam Hussein. They both name everything they touch after themselves.