Political rhetoric and the jihadists

Every terrorist attack on a Western target presents the self-styled saints in Washington and other western capitals with an opportunity to engage in perfectly staged grandiose rhetoric. Employing borrowed words, identical sound bites, and first-cousin cliches designed to curate their images, conceal their ignorance and ignore realities on the ground, world leaders’ pontificate about destroying ISIS.

But there is precious little explanation of what defeating ISIS really means or how it will be accomplished.

Our leaders’ mandarin rhetoric is reminiscent of Queen Gertrude’s admonition to Polonius in Hamlet: “More matter with less art.” In contemporary parlance, this is translated as more substance with less style. More content without the rhetorical ornamentation and digressions. The political classes in God’s menagerie talk until their mouths bleed and reassure the public that they will defeat the terrorists without a hitch like an Ocean’s Eleven heist.

Best to recall the truth of George Orwell’s comment that “…if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought” blurring the boundaries between the fake and the real. It is a reminder that the moment to be wariest of political rhetoric is precisely when elite opinion is lined up on one side of the boat.

Those politicians talk about destroying ISIS, but what about other radical Islamic terrorist groups such as al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, Jabhat al-Nustra, and Boko Haram, that have proliferated all over the globe partially facilitated by the information revolution?

Does victory over ISIS mean taking the fight to their doorstep in Iraq and Syria? If it means beating them militarily, that is a silly question. If the American public has the stomach to support boots on the ground with the collateral damage to civilians, the world’s mightiest military could go through ISIS in Syria and Iraq to take a phrase from General Patton, “like excrement through a goose.” But the American people will not touch this approach with a barge pole.

The U.S. military did not start bombing ISIS’ oil infrastructure and their fleet of tanker trucks because the Obama administration was worried about civilian casualties and environmental damage. You have to wonder whether the allies would have won World War II if they had to submit their bombing targets to the White House for approval.

Is defeating ISIS militarily, stopping its propaganda machine, blocking its revenue sources sufficient to eliminate radical Islamic terrorism? ISIS and other jihadists ‘ initial goal is to create a caliphate in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen, Libya and the Palestinian territories. After that, they want to recreate the caliphate of old and then spread Islam over the entire planet. A global caliphate achieved through a global war. Other than that, they have modest ambitions.

Does it mean making their ideas go away? Does a grand strategy have to deal with the challenge of overthrowing a religion, a belief system? Even if we defeat the extremist militarily, we are still going to be dealing with the sons and daughters of jihadists 20 years from now. The fight against terrorism could become like the endless war on crime, or poverty or cancer.

To reduce and manage the terrorist threat, mainstream Muslims themselves must come out forcefully against the jihadis who are trying to hijack their religion. Political rhetoric comes with the speed of light, while developing and executing a successful strategy to deal with the scourge of radical Islamic terrorism comes with that of sound.

originally published: January 2, 2016

How Americans became soft targets

Americans can add concerns about their physical safety to a list of worries that already includes job insecurity, record economic inequality, and trust in government reaching an all-time low.

The San Bernardino shootings show that terror attacks on soft targets are not confined to Europe. The premeditated slaughter of innocent civilians by radical Islamic terrorists (dare I say the name) in Paris was followed by promises of similar attacks in other “crusader cities” including Washington, D.C. and New York City.

The most recent attacks are a reminder that American foreign policy blunders have caused chaos in the Middle East, where Islamic State outposts are gaining strength in Libya, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Egypt. Americans understand you cannot underestimate ISIS, as President Obama did when he characterized them as a junior varsity team that has been contained as a local actor and did not represent a national security threat.

American troops exited Iraq at the end of 2011, completing a deployment that cost nearly 4,500 American lives, left more than 32,000 wounded and cost taxpayers trillions of dollars. The president said the US was leaving behind a “sovereign, stable, and self-reliant” Iraq.

Instead, the exit left the door open for the Islamic State’s land grab. All the gains made following the “surge” from 2007 to 2011 were washed away, with Islamic State terrorists taking territory and committing mass killings.

The President did not help matters in 2012, when he warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that using chemical weapons would cross a “red line.” Yet when Assad did just that in 2013, Obama did nothing. The inaction undermined America’s credibility and exasperated our allies.

The blunders did not start with President Obama. Common sense has gone on holiday among the worthies in Washington since 9/11, beginning with a feckless decision to invade Iraq that was a precipitating event in the unraveling of the Middle East and creation of one of the worst refugee crises since World War II.

The American-organized coalition invaded in 2003 because of Saddam Hussein’s alleged connections to terrorism and the potential threat posed by Iraq’s supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction. It turned out that Iraq did not have WMDs; Hussein’s links to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups were equally illusory.

The invasion was also supposed to transform a country benighted by decades of dictatorship into a Western-style free-market democracy that would be a model for other Middle East nations. Instead it opened Pandora’s Box and promoted Iran’s metastasizing regional hegemony.

The abrupt fall of Baghdad was accompanied by massive civil disorder, including the looting of public and government buildings, as the country slipped into anarchy. There was no plan for what to do after the victory and little recognition given to religious, ethnic, and political complexities among the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Dissolving the army put several hundred thousand armed Iraqis on the street with no jobs and firing government employees, mostly Sunnis linked to the Hussein regime, transformed the country into a breeding ground for the very terrorism the invasion was supposed to combat.

By the fall of 2003 these blunders and the lack of enough American troops to establish security for the Iraqi people contributed to the growth of insurgency.

America allowed the old order to topple without a viable alternative in place – a reckless act with no precedent in modern statecraft. Now we are faced with the monumental challenge of picking up the pieces.

Today you need a scorecard to keep track of what is happening in the Middle East. For example, the Kurds have been a strong American partner. But Turkey, an equivocal NATO ally, claims that the Syrian Kurds are a terrorist group and have been bombing America’s most reliable ally in Syria and Iraq while ISIS brokers black market oil in Turkey to fund itself.

Sadly, the effects of these blunders aren’t limited to the Middle East. Here in the United States, Americans now live in fear of their physical safety.

Originally Published: December 12, 2015