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November 04th 2014 print

Keith Windschuttle

The Case for Smothering ISIS in its Sandpit

Were we to do nothing as ISIS's barbarism marches across Syria and Iraq, the West would be embracing the same passive indifference the United States adopted between the two world wars, an isolationism that stood by as the creeds of Bolshevism and Nazism rose to global power

isis head lopperIn this edition, Tom Switzer argues the root cause of the present crisis in Iraq lies in the American invasion of 2003. The truth is, he says, that the recent formation of the Islamic State “is directly linked to Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was created in response to the US-led invasion and subsequent occupation, not to mention the creation of a Shia regime in Baghdad”. The American overthrow of the Sunni regime under dictator Saddam Hussein, he says, radically altered the sectarian imbalance that had been in place for generations. “This meant that the minority Sunnis embraced an insurgency that has morphed into a plethora of Sunni jihadist movements.”

The ultimate fault, he says, thus lies with those who persuaded President George W. Bush to invade the country, in particular Vice-President Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, egged on by neo-conservative thinkers such as Robert Kagan, Charles Krauthammer and Max Boot. The goal of exporting democracy to this ethnically and tribally fractured society was a fatally flawed experiment that was doomed to fail. In short, the Islamic State is an unintended consequence of the good intentions but dangerous naivety of American neo-conservatives. Iraq War III, he predicts, will fail for much the same reasons.

I think Tom’s case needs to be answered because, if it were true, we in the West are not just impotent in the face of the latest awful developments in the Middle East, where American and British civilians are being openly murdered, but any intervention we might contemplate would only make things worse. And if the argument is true at this level then it might eventually be seen to be even more valid in more difficult areas of the world, such as Russia and China.

Ultimately, its logical conclusion is the kind of isolationism the United States adopted between the two world wars of the last century, an isolationism that stood by and watched as the creeds of Bolshevism and Nazism rose to global power.

Tom assures us his case is not based on old, leftist anti-Americanism but on traditional conservative virtues of prudence, scepticism and distaste of hubris. He is not alone. There are other conservative writers today, especially in the United States, who are making a similar case. While this is a distinctly minority sentiment at the moment, with 70 per cent of people polled supporting President Obama’s recent decisions, Tom is right to say this number is built on a soft sand of support and might not stand up so well when the going gets tough.

Tom’s perspective derives largely from his observations of the conduct and consequences of the American-initiated, and Australian-backed, invasion of Iraq in 2003. However, I think his vision of that intervention is flawed by his failure to reproduce its historical context.

He wants us to believe that the “sectarian imbalance” that prevailed in Iraq under Saddam Hussein—a minority Sunni government ruling over a majority Shia population—was kept under control by the brutality of Saddam’s regime. However unfortunate this was for the population’s Shia majority, it had the virtue of contributing to a more stable Middle East. The historical record shows, however, that rather than being kept under control, this sectarian imbalance kept Iraq on a knife-edge of seething internal resentment that helped provoke Saddam Hussein into external military forays against his Middle East neighbours, which kept the region in a state of warfare and insecurity for decades.

In 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah of Iran and established a theocratic Shia Muslim regime. This insurgency inspired ambitions among Iraq’s suppressed Shia majority that the Iranian revolution might be extended south to liberate them from their Sunni overlords. Saddam recognised the strength of this sentiment but at the same time he also saw an opportunity to make Iraq the dominant state in the Persian Gulf. By exploiting the initial chaos of the revolutionary government, he could expand his territory northwards into Iran and at the same time consume some of the smaller gulf kingdoms. In September 1980 he invaded Iran with this objective. After two years of fighting, however, the Iranians reorganised their forces and brought Saddam’s advances to a halt. From mid-1982 onwards, the Iranian army took the offensive and, as a result, the survival of Saddam’s own regime became suddenly at stake.

At home, Saddam launched a campaign of state terror against those Kurds and Shias he accused of disloyalty. Influential Shia clerics were executed and some Shia villages were completely destroyed and their occupants massacred. The Kurds suffered even more. Saddam had all 8000 members of the Barzani clan summarily executed and in the Iraq city of Halabja he killed some 5000 Kurds in a poison gas attack. The Kurds maintained guerrilla warfare against Saddam’s forces until the UN-brokered ceasefire of August 1988. By this time, more than half a million combatants on all sides had been killed, plus the same number of civilians.

During the war, Saddam used chemical weapons against Iranian troops and civilians, including nerve gas which, according to the CIA, killed 20,000 Iranian soldiers directly and up to 100,000 others through the longer-term effects of exposure. Saddam also sought to develop his own nuclear weapons through a reactor built for him by the French. However, in June 1981, Israel put an end to his plan when its air force destroyed the facility.

Even though Saddam could not defeat Iran on the battlefield, by the end of their war he had devoted so much of Iraq’s resources to the conflict that he emerged with the fourth-biggest land army in the world. In 1990, just two years after the ceasefire with Iran, Saddam put these troops into action, this time invading Kuwait to get control of its oil fields. His army overran Kuwaiti forces and Saddam declared he had annexed the country, renaming it the nineteenth province of Iraq. This move gave him the Kuwaiti oil fields but also close access to those of Saudi Arabia, whose monarch King Fahd appealed to America for military assistance. This drew the United States under George H.W. Bush into the conflict. What became known as the First Gulf War quickly followed, which ended with Saddam’s defeat, but with the first Bush administration allowing him to cling to power under heavy sanctions.

One of the most unfortunate downsides of Saddam’s regime was the corrupting influence it exerted on United States policy. Initially, the American government declared it would not take sides in the Iran–Iraq War. Under President Jimmy Carter, the USA had previously declared Iraq a “state sponsor of terrorism”, for harbouring Islamic militants, including the notorious Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal. However, as Saddam’s forces were driven back onto their home territory and it appeared Iran would eventually prevail, the United States changed tack.

The strategic prospect of a military victory by Iran, and of Khomeini replacing Saddam with a theocratic Shia regime, led President Ronald Reagan to declare the USA could not afford to allow Iraq to lose the war. He removed Iraq from the list of terrorist countries, gave it massive loans, provided crucial military intelligence, and sold it arms via Jordan and Israel. Thus America, along with France and West Germany, became a de facto ally of Iraq. But, as Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait soon demonstrated, it was a bad deal. Tom Switzer’s concern that any new Iraq campaign today could damage American credibility and prestige in the region is hard to accept, since US support for Saddam in the 1980s and America’s subsequent about-face in 1990-91 meant those qualities have long been seen in the Middle East as fickle.

Hence, more than any of his contemporary dictators in this perpetually troubled region, Saddam was responsible both for its violent inter-creed hatreds and its regional strategic shambles. Tom’s view of him as merely a “murderous gangster” who could have been kept in his box via the policy of containment is too benign. He was an irresponsible megalomaniac—literally imagining himself the new Saladin—who deserved the destruction America eventually delivered him in 2003.

Tom argues that the Islamic State in Iraq had its origins in the American occupation of Iraq after 2003. It was one of the unintended consequences of President George W. Bush’s vow to create a constitutional democracy in that country. The barbarity and bloodshed that we are witnessing in Syria, he says, were also taking place in Iraq under the US occupation. To a certain extent this is true. In 2005, the USA oversaw the creation of a constitution, a National Assembly and the country’s first elections. The predictable result was that the majority of Shia Muslims elected a Shia government with Shia politician Nouri al-Maliki as Prime Minister. Just as predictably, the formerly governing minority of Sunni Muslims resorted to violence, only it was of a kind literally unimaginable to those who live in the sheltered comfort of the West. Barbarity is the right word for it.

Among the several factions of Iraq’s Sunni militants was a body formed in 2003 in opposition to the American invasion. The following year, under its Jordanian leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, it pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden under the name Al Qaeda in Iraq. By 2005, it had developed plans to expel American forces by suicide bombings, to kidnap and murder Western nationals in Iraq, extend the conflict to other Middle Eastern countries, and re-establish the Islamic Caliphate under Sunni control. Zarqawi was killed by American forces in 2006 but later that year his followers declared an Islamic State of Iraq throughout several Sunni-dominated western provinces. The movement suffered badly during the American “surge” under General David Petraeus in 2007 and by 2010 Prime Minister Maliki declared its remaining leaders had been found and killed. The idea, however, has obviously proven much more difficult to destroy.

So is the American invasion to blame for the Islamic State? Well, it obviously gave some impetus to some Sunni insurgents who exploited the opportunities available in the first three years of the American occupation, before the surge targeted and removed many of them from the scene. But it is implausible to argue it was the major cause of either the concept or the murderous violence of its adherents. All had been alive and well long before.

The use of terrorism against the West to generate support for a campaign to restore an Islamic caliphate goes back at least two decades when Osama bin Laden formed Al Qaeda and began to attack American targets. He said from the outset his aim was to re-establish a more puritan, fundamentalist version of Islam, not only in the Middle East but throughout the world. In February 1988 he signed a fatwa in the name of “the World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders” in which he declared the killing of Americans and their allies as the “individual duty for every Muslim”. In the aftermath of his greatest triumph on September 11, 2001, Bin Laden declared:

The time has come when all the Muslims of the world, especially the youth, should unite and soar against the kuffar and continue jihad till these forces are crushed to naught, all the anti-Islamic forces are wiped off the face of this earth and Islam takes over the whole world and all the other false religions.

Some the best-known Al Qaeda assaults in this cause that occurred before the invasion of Iraq included:

  • The 1992 bombing of the Gold Mihor Hotel in Aden, which housed US Marines on their way to Somalia;
  • The bombing of the World Trade Center in February 1993, designed to bring down the North Tower, which killed six people and wounded 1000;
  • The Luxor massacre in November 1997, which killed sixty-two foreign tourists in Egypt;
  • The 1998 massacre in conjunction with the Taliban of 5000 Hazara civilians in Mazar-I-Sharif, Afghanistan;
  • The suicide bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, killing 300 people;
  • The suicide attack on the American destroyer USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000, killing seventeen US sailors;
  • The September 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, which brought down both of the Twin Towers, killing 2753 people.

In short, these incidents, which all attracted wide media coverage, should remind us that for more than a decade before the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, Al Qaeda was waging an unremitting international campaign of terrorist activity to fulfil its ambition of cleansing the world of “Jews and Crusaders” and of re-establishing a Sunni-dominated, puritan vision of Islam in the world. Just as it was in the spread of communism, the root cause of all these actions was the ideology and ambitions of the perpetrators, not the response to them by the civilised world. All the signs are that, had Iraq never been invaded, they would have still continued. Indeed, as we have seen during the progression of the so-called Arab Spring, the violent ambitions of Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist factions have survived in most countries of the Middle East. At their first opportunity to attain power, they have seized it. This would have occurred whether or not America took out Saddam Hussein. In fact, the secular Saddam would have been one of the first dictators targeted by the Arab Spring jihadists.

Another key point in Tom’s case is that the new Islamic State is not all that much to get worried about. However disgusting its videos of the murder of American and British hostages, it does not pose enough threat to major Western interests to warrant the blood and treasure it will cost to put it down. Tom quotes Owen Harries: “It’s to belittle the historical experiences of World War II, not to speak of the Cold War, to equate the terrorists of today and the damage they’re capable of with the totalitarian regimes of the previous century.” Tom calls the Islamic State a “lightly armed group of bloody-minded radicals whose new ‘caliphate’ extends over a lot of mostly empty territory” in north-west Iraq.

All that is probably accurate, though some IS gains should be concerning. Between August 7 and August 19 its troops did occupy the site of the Mosul Dam and nearby villages, a key strategic position and Iraq’s biggest single source of hydroelectric power. If the dam had been destroyed, it would have released enough water to drown cities and towns downstream. Fortunately Kurdish ground forces and American air strikes drove IS troops from the area. However, on October 4, a report from Reuters said IS forces had just overrun the towns of Hit and Kubaisa in Anbar Province, close to the Haditha Dam, Iraq’s second main source of hydroelectricity. The dam was still being guarded by Iraqi soldiers, the report said, but it remained vulnerable. By October 10, Islamic State forces besieging the northern Kurdish city of Kobani in Syria were being bombed by US coalition warplanes. Yet at the same time, the Wall Street Journal reported IS soldiers had still managed to breach the city’s defences to hoist their black flag.

Nonetheless, as Tom rightly says, IS currently has enough strength to defeat small units of divided, poorly trained and demoralised troops, but not a decent military with resolve. In August, the CIA estimated IS had between 20,000 and 30,000 troops, of whom 15,000 were foreigners. However, there are three major points of concern here.

First, apart from the Kurds, who run their own affairs and defend their own territory, the Iraqi government does not appear to have the ability to field a decent military with resolve. So far, its track record is dismal. Reports from the north of the country say that, when IS first appeared on the scene, the members of the Iraqi army deserted en masse, discarding their uniforms and walking away, pretending to be civilians. This is not surprising. Of all the countries in the world, Iraq must be the most war-weary. After eight years of war with Iran, two wars with the United States, a Sunni insurgency that was virtually a civil war, not to mention huge death tolls in each case, its surviving men of military age must be very difficult to rally around any government flag. American and Australian specialist forces might be able to train them but they can’t make them fight for their country or, as they probably see it, fight for this short-lived and temporary foreign-imposed government. On the other hand, their radical opponents now have a soldier’s greatest incentive, a cause to die for.

Second, IS should not be judged on what it is now but on what it has the potential to become. As I noted above, it is not the first in recent Iraqi history to proclaim an Islamic state aiming to restore the caliphate, but so far it appears the most credible. Appearances are critical in the business of building a political base, especially the appearance of having momentum on your side. Tom rightly predicts that US air strikes will most likely cement bonds between a number of the disparate Sunni militias now operating in central and western Iraq and Syria. He points to recent alliances between IS forces in Syria and the Al Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra Front who were once mortal enemies. I would argue that a far stronger motive for the forging of bonds than resentment at American air strikes is the prospect of the emergence of a new Islamic state with theocratic rule. The appearance of success towards this goal will generate many allies, including some from unexpected sources. After Osama bin Laden, a Saudi, launched his early terrorist assaults on the USA, he was soon swamped with recruits from militants in Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, plus at least two from Australia.

Third, the number of foreign recruits will only grow. As I noted in these pages last month, the ideological contest here favours the radicals. The appeal of radical Islam to young Muslims around the world, especially to those politically active on university campuses, has now been transformed. The Islamic State means they can join a revolution in the Middle East that has the potential to make history. Like the communists who stormed the Winter Palace in October 1917, some Muslims will believe their time has come to take over the world. Owen Harries is right to point out that IS today constitutes a puny threat compared to that of communism during the Cold War. But in 1917 the Bolsheviks were just as weak. They had to surrender the best half of their country to the Germans in order to survive. A mere decade later, despite efforts by British Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill, to “strangle the Bolshevik baby in its cradle”, their regime controlled almost all the territory of the former Tsarist empire.

This last point poses a problem for one of the strongest arguments in Tom’s case: his doubt that a radical takeover of all Iraq would damage US core strategic interests. He says realists could argue with some justification that a powerful Sunni Iraq could balance a Shia Iran, which Washington has long regarded as a terror-sponsoring power that wants to dominate the region. However, a worldwide Sunni extremist movement with a powerful, romantic appeal to youth would not be just a force in the Middle East. It would play havoc with Western interests in all those Muslim countries outside that region, including the Indian subcontinent, Indonesia, Malaysia, and much of Africa. It would pose a strategic dilemma for recent American policy towards Islam, which has favoured Sunni over Shia because of the threat of a theocratic, nuclear-armed Iran. It would produce a policy black hole: whatever resources America devoted to the Muslim world, nothing positive would be likely to emerge.

In fact, the actual existence of something called an Islamic State has profound consequences for the future of Western politics as well. As David Martin Jones and Michael L.R. Smith, authors of the new book Sacred Violence, argued in our October edition, “this curious mutation of an Islamist dream into a temporal reality” undermines many ruling assumptions of post-Cold War Western thinking about the evolving new world order and the idea of a liberal democratic end of history. They write:

Somewhat problematically for this historicist teleology, recent events across the Middle East portend something far more unpredictable. Along with the developing power politics in Eastern Europe and the South China Sea, this intimates an era of instability, marked by internal and potentially external or inter-state war. In its Middle Eastern manifestation, the Syrian civil war that began in 2012, the slow-motion disintegration of liberated Libya since 2013, the Israeli intervention in Gaza in August 2014, and the fragmentation of Iraq since 2011 announce significant challenges not only to the wider region but also to European and Anglospheric states not directly involved in the crisis.

Tom’s article continues a critique he has been making since 2003 about the role of neoconservatives in American foreign policy, especially what he sees as their culpability for all that went wrong in Iraq. Their idea that democracy could be exported to a country so divided was, he says, never worth the blood and treasure it cost.

He is right to label a lot of the views of the early 2000s not just naive but hubristic. Who, for instance, was the feminist social engineer who thought it a good idea at the time to insert into the democratic constitution of an Islamic country an affirmative-action clause for 25 per cent of seats in the National Assembly to be reserved for women? But one of the worst foreign policy misjudgments was the later American support for the Arab Spring. At a Sydney lecture in 2011, I heard Paul Wolfowitz arguing it was a sign of the appeal of liberalism and democracy to those on rising incomes in the Third World. Today that dream has become a nightmare.

However, one of the targets of Tom’s article, Max Boot, is someone who deserves more respect. I find Boot the most accurate and prescient analyst of the immediate dangers the Islamic State poses for the region. He also provides well-informed advice on how to rejuvenate the flagging Iraqi forces and how to deploy a limited number of American (and Australian) special operations forces to best effect. Boot knows what he is talking about. He was an advocate for, and a close observer of, the “surge” in Iraq by General David Petraeus in 2007-08, before he went on to become defence and foreign policy adviser to two Republican presidential contenders, John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.

Boot believes the Islamic State can be defeated at this stage of its existence without the deployment of the huge forces George Bush sent to Iraq in 2003. It would require boosting the Western advisory and special operations presence in Iraq by 10,000 to 15,000 personnel and sending aircraft to be based in Iraq, rather than at sea or from distant bases, to facilitate a more sustained bombing campaign based on better intelligence on the ground. He argues that Western commandos such as Seal Team Six, Delta Force and the British and Australian SAS should also expand their operations to carry out the kind of intelligence-driven leadership-targeting that was an important part of the Petraeus surge. Moreover, these actions should be complemented with greater aid to the Free Syrian Army in order to fight ISIS on the other side of the disintegrating border with Iraq. He recognises, however, that one of the major problems is the current US commander-in-chief:

So far President Obama has talked only of containing ISIS, of preventing it from massacring Yazidis or taking Erbil. That’s not enough. We should not tolerate the existence of a terrorist state similar to Taliban-era Afghanistan sprawling across Iraq and Syria. Already thousands of foreign jihadis, including many Europeans, have been drawn to Syria. If left unchecked, this terrorist playpen is likely to generate attacks not only on neighbouring states such as Lebanon and Jordan but on Western targets too. The West’s goal should be rollback, not containment.