Washington’s Latest War Fever

War fever is running high again in Official Washington with pols and pundits demanding that President Obama order a major military intervention in Iraq and Syria to stop the violent jihadists of ISIS, a group that got its start with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, as ex-CIA analyst Paul Pillar recalls.

By Paul R. Pillar

Americans, following a long tradition of finding monsters overseas to destroy, are now focusing their attention and their energy on a relatively new one: the group variously known as ISIS or ISIL or the Islamic State. The group has become a major disruptive factor in the already disrupted internal affairs of Iraq and Syria, and it is legitimately a significant object of concern for U.S. policy as far as instability and radicalism in the Middle East are concerned.

The outsized role that this group has come to play in discourse about U.S. foreign policy, however, including hyperbolic statements by senior officials, risks a loss of perspective about what kind of threat it does or does not pose to U.S. interests, and with that a possible loss of care in assessing what U.S. actions in response would or would not be wise.obama-cameron

Several attributes of ISIS have repeatedly and correctly been identified as measures of the group’s strength, and aspects of the group’s rise that are worthy of notice. These include its seizure of pieces of territory in both Iraq and Syria, acquisition of financial resources, and enlistment of substantial numbers of westerners.

Although these are impressive indicators of the group’s success, none of them is equivalent to a threat to U.S. interests, much less a physical threat to the United States itself, at least not in the sense of a new danger different from ones that have been around for some time.

Money, for example, has never been the main determinant of whether a group constitutes such a danger. Terrorism that makes a difference can be cheap, and one does not need to rob banks in Mosul or to run an impressive revenue collection operation in order to have enough money to make an impact. Even a terrorist spectacular on the scale of 9/11 is within the reach of a single wealthy and radically-minded donor to finance.

The involvement of western citizens with terrorist groups has long been a focus of attention for western police and internal security services. To the extent this represents a threat, it is not a direct function of any one group’s actions or successes overseas, be they of ISIS or any other group.

Several patterns involving westerners’ involvement with foreign terrorist groups are well established. One is that the story has consistently been one of already radicalized individuals seeking contact with a group rather than the other way around. If it isn’t one particular group they seek out, it will be another.

A further pattern is that, despite frequently expressed fears about westerners acquiring training overseas that they then apply effectively to terrorist operations in the West, this hasn’t happened. Faisal Shahzad and his firecracker-powered attempt at a car bomb in Times Square illustrate the less ominous reality.

Yet another pattern is that apart from a few westerners whose language skills have been exploited for propaganda purposes, the westerners have become grunts and cannon fodder. They have not been entrusted with sophisticated plots (unsuccessful shoe bomber Richard Reid being the closest thing to an exception), probably partly because of their evident naiveté and largely because of groups’ concerns about operational security and possible penetration.

Dubious Value of Land

The control by a group of a piece of territory, even if it is mostly just sand or mountains, is what most often is taken mistakenly as a measure of the threat a group poses, and this phenomenon is occurring in spades with ISIS. Probably seizure of land is interpreted this way because following this aspect of the progress of a group is as simple as looking at color-coded maps in the newspaper.

The history of terrorist operations, including highly salient operations such as 9/11, demonstrates that occupying some real estate is not one of the more important factors that determine whether a terrorist operation against the United States or another western country can be mounted. To the extent ISIS devotes itself to seizing, retaining, and administering pieces of real estate in the Levant or Mesopotamia, and imposing its version of a remaking of society in those pieces, this represents a turn away from, not toward, terrorism in the West.

Significant friction between ISIS (then under a different name) and al-Qaeda first arose when the former group’s concentration on whacking Iraqi Shias was an unhelpful, in the view of the al-Qaeda leadership, digression from the larger global jihad and the role that the far enemy, the United States, played in it.

Traditionally an asset that non-state terrorist groups are considered to have, and a reason they are considered (albeit wrongly) to be undeterrable is that they lack a “return address.” To the extent ISIS maintains a mini-state in the Middle East, it loses that advantage.

Any such mini-state would be more of a burden to the group than an asset, beyond whatever satisfaction the group gets from installing its warped version of an Islamic order in its little piece of land. Maintaining and exerting power in the mini-state would be a difficult, full-time job. The place would be a miserable, ostracized blotch on the map with no ability to project power at a distance. It would be a problem for the immediate neighbors, and even more of one for the governments out of whose territories the mini-state had been carved, but its existence would not make ISIS any more of a threat to the United States than it otherwise would be.

Introspection Needed

We Americans need to exercise some introspection regarding how and why we are reacting to the ISIS phenomenon the way we are, beyond the way we interpret shadings on a newspaper map (and beyond the usual politicized biases that infect any policy discussion in Washington).

To some extent the group is filling a need for a well-defined, personified adversary. We don’t have Osama bin Laden to fight anymore, but now we have Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. We also are reacting quite understandably to the group’s methods, which are despicably inhumane, and to its objectives, which are disgustingly medieval.

The burst of attention to the group over the past week clearly results largely from the grisly killing of a captured American photojournalist. We all abhor that event, and we should. But we also should bear in mind that an emotional reaction to such an incident produces the wrong frame of mind for debate, and cool-headed deliberation, about public policy.

What may be most disturbing about the tenor of current discourse on the subject is how much of it is expressed in absolute terms, with many proclaiming that ISIS “must be destroyed,” or words to that effect. Such absolutism undermines the consideration that should be given to other U.S. interests and objectives (as there always will be) affected by pursuit of that one objective, and consideration of costs as well as benefits (there always will be both) of any U.S. action taken in pursuit of that objective.

We have heard similar absolutism before, and we have seen the results. We heard it with the post-9/11 false syllogism that if terrorism is considered a serious problem then we must recognize that we are at “war,” and if we are at war then that means we must rely principally on military force. We heard it also in the dictum that if there is even a one percent chance of something awful happening to us, then we must treat that as a certainty.

The absolutist approach leads to inappropriate derision and dismissal of policy steps as “half measures” when they may in fact be, considering the costs, benefits and other U.S. interests at stake, the most prudent steps that could be taken. Some actions that would set back ISIS may be, given the circumstances, sensible and cost-effective. Other possible measures may seem aimed more directly at the goal of destroying ISIS but, given the circumstances, would not be sensible.

And what does “destroying” the group really mean? Our experience with al-Qaeda should have taught us to ponder that question long and hard. We killed innumerable “number three” leaders of al-Qaeda, we killed bin Laden himself, and we have rendered Ayman al-Zawahiri a largely irrelevant fugitive. We have in effect destroyed the organization, or at least as much as can be expected from more than 13 years (yes, the process started before 9/11) of destruction.

But the methods we really were worried about lived on through a metastasis that led to the emergence of other organizations. ISIS is one of those organizations. If ISIS is “destroyed,” there is little reason to believe that the methods we most worry about, and associated ideologies, will not take still other forms.

The seeds of the death of ISIS lie within its own methods and objectives, which are as abhorrent to many of its would-be subjects as they are to us. The group rode to its dramatic gains, in both Iraq and Syria, on larger waves of opposition to detested incumbent regimes. Its losses can be just as dramatic if the political circumstances that led to such opposition are changed. They already are changing in Baghdad, and it still is possible for political change of some sort, which excludes any groups as extreme as ISIS, to take place in Syria.

The extent of any terrorist threat to the United States does not depend on killing any one organization. It will depend partly on those political processes in countries such as Iraq and Syria. It also will depend on how well the United States, in going after any one monster, does not create other ones.

In that regard we cannot remind ourselves often enough, especially because this fact seems to have been forgotten amid the current discussion of ISIS, that ISIS itself was born as a direct result of the United States going after a different monster in Iraq.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

7 comments for “Washington’s Latest War Fever

  1. jer
    August 28, 2014 at 03:23

    The U.S. unashamedly portrays itself publicly as a nation that always tries to ‘solve problems and issues through the ballot box’ but truth is it is only brazenly lying to all and sundry. The U.S. is a nation that CREATES (whips up) problems and issues and THEN tries to solve all of them using brazen political blackmail, violent physical force, unadulterated violence, plus rivers or lakes flowing with innocent human blood.

  2. Abe
    August 27, 2014 at 22:53

    Anti-War Goes AWOL: Divide and Conquer in Action

  3. Abe
    August 27, 2014 at 20:23

    “ISIS” is the latest and most accurate acronym for an Israeli-Saudi-United States transnational terror/crime syndicate operating globally since the 1980s. It is not a botched up CIA abortion. It is a geostategic power tool wielded by some very wealthy donors.

  4. Alice
    August 27, 2014 at 16:22

    No, none of that. ISIL doesn’t threaten anything American. They follow a very clear agenda.
    Remember how unconcerned the USA were about ISIL at first? That was because they wanted Maliki ousted before they would do anything in the way of helping Iraq to stop the mercenary, sorry, the “jihadist army” ISIL.
    If there was a precondition to fighting ISIL, they couldn’t have been a threat at all.
    The USA got Maliki’s ouster, and instantaneously went into apocalyptic mode. All of a sudden, ISIL spelt impending doom for the USA.They even faked a beheading video, all in impeccable Hollywood syle.
    Curiouser and curiouser: now, the USA want to get into Syria at all costs “to fight ISIL” (read: to oust Assad).
    All in all, ISIL are performing well in advancing the USA agenda.
    One wonders if they are not paid by USA allies like, say, Saudi Arabia… oh, wait. They are.

  5. F. G. Sanford
    August 27, 2014 at 15:24

    I’m not going to go off on any rants about the dreamy surrealism this article attempts to substitute for hard-boiled facts. We’ve many of us already seen those pictures of John McCain meeting with al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader he tried to pass off as a “moderate” rebel. Many of us have also read about the CIA training camps in Jordan where these barbarians honed some of their more impressive fighting skills. (We assume they already knew how to chop off heads.) A few of us may also follow Pepe Escobar’s articles explaining how U.S. interests are served because ISIS effectively obliterates any chance that Iran or Syria might benefit from pipelines which would be more efficient and more profitable than anything that suits the U.S. and its allies, especially Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies. By the way, as long as we’re talking about barbarians who chop off heads, Saudi Arabia chopped off 49 last month. Then there’s the Turkey connection, our supposed NATO “ally”, which conveniently maintains a border with more holes in it than that Malaysia airliner. That’s also been a big help to ISIS. True, a single “wealthy donor” can wreak a lot of terrorism, but bin-Laden got plenty of cash and material support from the Saudi government. We have to assume that’s why those 28 pages are still “redacted”. A recent press conference held by Secretary Hagel and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs caught Robert Fisk’s attention. He said they referred to ISIS as “apocalyptic”, and the whole affair was so “Hollywood” that the only thing missing was Tom Cruise. Good old Fiskie put it all in perspective when he closed his article with a question for SecDef: “Hey Chuck, why don’t you tell us where they got all those guns and all that money?” This whole thing is another botched up CIA abortion. The “left cover liberals” are trying to pretend the administration was blind-sided, and the “right wing-nuts” are cheering for more involvement. Both want more war, and it looks like they’re gonna get it. We can pay for it by closing more schools, shutting off more city water, foreclosing on more mortgages and printing more money. Hey. it’s the American way!

  6. Hillary
    August 27, 2014 at 12:05

    “The group rode to its dramatic gains, in both Iraq and Syria, on larger waves of opposition to detested incumbent regimes.”
    Paul R. Pillar
    Paul what about the “Clash of Civilizations”( Judeo/Christian V Islam ) nurtured by Sanctions and bombing and the Illegal Invasion of Iraq that has devastated that country for DECADES ?

    The general public has NO IDEA as to the power and determination of the Jewish/Zionist forces hard at work 24/7 in the corridors of power in the USA before and after the “creation of Israel”.

    Their “Intellectual Foundations” and M.S.M. coverage molded public opinion to such an extent as to have the Iraq war referred to as Rupert’s War in homage to Rupert Murdoch.

    The “New Strategy for Securing the Realm” was “presented “to Netanyahu in 1996 & morphed skillfully into” A Clean Break” and later the PNAC in 1998 called openly for the removal of Saddam Hussein and regime change in most Muslim countries such as Libya ,Syria & Iran to “ bring change to the region”.

    President Clinton & Republican members of the U.S. Congress were approached and later then nine days after the September 11, 2001 attacks the PNAC sent a letter to President George W. Bush, advocating “a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq” and regime change.

    According to a classified document prepared for Rumsfeld, the new organization, known by its Orwellian moniker as the Proactive Pre-emptive Operations Group, or P2OG, would provoke terrorist attacks which would then require “counter-attack” by the United States on countries “harboring the terrorists”.
    ( John Pilger http://www.ifamericansknew.org/us_ints/nc-pilger.html

    In the summer of 2000, the Project for the New American Century (PNAC),stated that because of the American Public’s slant toward ideas of democracy and freedom, the PNAC process of transformation was likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new “Pearl Harbor.”

    The power and determination of Jewish/Zionist forces hard at work 24/7 in the corridors of power in the USA was able to forge “ A New U.S.-Israeli Relationship” or “U.S.-Israeli partnership.” & the rest is history.

    On the night of 9/11 G.W.Bush in his daily diary wrote “The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today.” [Washington Post]

  7. Freddy
    August 27, 2014 at 11:23

    MAKE every politician and loud-mouth shouting for WAR …… pick up a rifle and serve in the Front Lines.
    Take the PROFIT out of WAR PROFITEERING, anyone making more then 8% profit is weakening the war effort and stealing from his “fellow Americans” ….. HANG them.
    Any Corporation that moves out of the country for ANY reason is cutting the TAX BASE and undermining the War Effort, HANG THEM TOO.

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