So You Say We're at War with Radical Islam...
In the wake of the horrifying ISIS attacks in Paris, the Republicans' best and brightest have one shared message for the American people. "We are at war with radical Islam," Florida Senator Marco Rubio declared, while his fellow Sunshine State Republican Jeb Bush agreed, tweeting "Yes, we are at war with radical Islamic terrorism." Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who during his 2008 run for the White House urged his followers to be "soldiers for Christ" in "God's Army," pontificated:
"You're all grown up now. You can do it. Three words. Ten syllables. Say it with me: 'Radical Islamic terrorism."
But if you're going to say we're at war with "radical Islam," you're going to need to be a little more specific. After all, like the "global war on terror," this latest worldwide crusade against a noun says nothing about who the United States is actually fighting or why. WWRI ("we're at war with radical Islam") not only fails to identify the enemy, it doesn't explain who are allies are--and aren't--and why. Without those basics, proclamations like "you are either with us or against us" are as meaningless now as when President Bush issued them 14 years ago. As a result, American war aims--war, after all, is just politics by other means--would remain a mystery. And that is a proven recipe for bloody, costly conflict without end, one whose only certain outcome would be to provide a continuous propaganda victory for those behind the slaughter in Paris.
A quick rundown of the players in the Middle and North Africa shows that the enemy of our enemy is not our friend. And the term "radical Islam" says little more to identify friend, foe or bystander.
For starters, there's little disagreement about the American conflict with ISIS. The Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL, Daesh or whatever else you want to call it is a Sunni extremist organization with a stated goal of creating an Islamic caliphate. Birthed by President Bush's invasion of Iraq, the dangerously toxic blend of former Saddam loyalists, foreign Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters and alienated Sunnis is fighting the Shiite-dominated Abadi government in Baghdad and the Alawite Assad regime in Damascus. Although it is gradually losing control of its land base on either side of the border, the Paris attacks showed that ISIS continues to pose an immediate threat to America and American interests.
But while that national security threat to the U.S. is clear, everything after that gets murky.
Consider the government of Prime Minister Haider al Abadi in Iraq. Ever since President Bush declared his war there a "catastrophic success" in 2004, the objective of the United States has been to enable a democratic Iraq with its territorial integrity intact. But Abadi's predecessor, Bush's hand-picked man Nouri Al-Maliki, turned out to be a hardline Shiite partisan who alienated the Sunni tribal chiefs in Anbar province even as he cemented Baghdad as an Iranian satellite. The collapse of the Iraqi military in the face of the ISIS offensive left Abadi dependent on Shiite militias both to protect Baghdad and to liberate Sunni cities like Tikrit and Ramadi. So while Iraq's campaign to evict ISIS in the Sunni Triangle could make sectarian tensions worse, Abadi has let his Iranian allies use Iraqi air space to fly men and materiel into Syria to protect Bashar Al-Assad.
But in the case of the Islamic Republican of Iran, the ally of our ally in Iraq is not our ally. And that's not just because Tehran has been the preeminent radical Islamist threat in the region since 1979. Even though Iran's Quds Force is on the same side with the U.S. in battling ISIS in Iraq, in Syria Tehran remains the patron and benefactor of the Assad regime and the Shiite minority there it represents. And for his part, Bashar Al-Assad has one other ally in the world, Russia.
That's not to say Assad doesn't have other friends in the neighborhood. When the Syrian civil war first broke out in 2011, it looked like Assad would soon fall to the combined forces of the Free Syrian Army , the Saudi-backed Al Nusra Front and ISIS. But Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite power birthed during that nation's civil war in the 1970's, sent thousands of fighters to save Assad from collapse. Nevertheless, that enemy of the Islamic State is no friend of the United States, even if there is open conflict between the two. (It was to free American hostages from its Hezbollah proxies that Ronald Reagan sent U.S. weapons to the mullahs in Tehran as part of the Iran-Contra scandal. While Reagan never retaliated against Hezbollah for the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, the U.S. and Israel did with the 2008 killing of its architect, Imad Mugniyah.) Today, Hezbollah remains a threat to Israel and to stability in Lebanon, but not to the United States.
To date, the most effective fighting force against the Islamic State on either side of the Iraq-Syria border has been Kurdish Peshmerga. Last, Kurdish fighters backed by U.S. air power ejected ISIS from Sinjar, where its atrocities against the Yazidi minority prompted American escalation last year. But with calls from the likes of Jeb Bush and other Republicans to "directly arm the (Kurdish) Peshmerga forces in Iraq," the U.S. could create another wave of blowback. The close U.S. ties and growing independence of Kurdistan poses a challenge to the central government in Baghdad worried about the splintering of Iraq that could follow large scale weapons transfers to the Kurds in the north and tribal chiefs in the west as part of a new "Sunni Reawakening." Just as problematic, as evidenced by air strikes launched by the Erdogan government in Ankara, Turkey remains opposed to the strengthening of the Kurds both inside and outside its border.
If "war against radical Islam" provides little guidance to Americans in the conflict against ISIS, that meaningless phrase is downright dangerous outside of it. Wahhabist Islam, propagated by Saudi Arabia throughout the Middle East, North Africa and beyond certainly seems radical in the eyes of most Americans. Does that make Saudi Arabia, now fighting Shiite Houthis and ISIS fighters in Yemen, an American enemy? What about Pakistan, tomorrow if not today? What about Hamas. Israel's foe in Gaza and the West Bank? What about Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group which carried out the slaughter in Mumbai, India in 2008? Boko Haram in Nigeria? Al Shabab in Somalia? Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines? The list goes on. If America's is a war on radical Islam, then we were condemning ourselves either to fighting all of them.
And in the battle for hearts and minds, what message would the United States be sending to Muslim nations, Muslim communities in Europe and, most importantly, Muslim Americans here at home? The small but growing Muslim population of the United States is among its most thriving. As the numbers show, Muslim Americans are more than willing to fight for the United States. Their success, and their support from all Americans, provides one of the greatest refutations of the ISIS goal to eliminate the "gray zone" for them between the Islamic State and the West.
But for Republicans trying to dictate the terms of the debate over the response to ISIS, there are no shades of gray, either. In the wake of the Paris attacks, Marco Rubio chastised Hillary Clinton for not describing America's enemy as "radical Islam" because "That would be like saying we weren't at war with Nazis, because we were afraid to offend some Germans who may have been members of the Nazi Party but weren't violent themselves." Jeb Bush announced that "we need to build a coalition that can fight both Assad and ISIS and give people safe haven." The party's 2012 nominee Mitt Romney resurfaced to remind America that he is still available to be President even if he has useful nothing to say:
We must begin by identifying the enemy. We will not defeat it if we are afraid to call it by its name. These heinous acts of terror are waged by radical Islamists: jihadists. And the Islamic State represents the branch of this ideology that currently poses the greatest threat.
If that content-free gibberish sounds familiar, it should. During his first failed run for President in 2008, Romney similarly conflated all Muslims into a single, unified threat. Romney, who like President Bush and John McCain opposed Barack Obama's call for unilateral U.S. strikes to take out Osama Bin Laden and other high-level Al Qaeda leaders within Pakistan, explained:
"I don't want to buy into the Democratic pitch, that this is all about one person, Osama bin Laden. Because after we get him, there's going to be another and another. This is about Shia and Sunni. This is about Hezbollah and Hamas and al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is the worldwide jihadist effort to try and cause the collapse of all moderate Islamic governments and replace them with a caliphate."
That "worldwide jihadist" alliance among bitter rivals probably came as news to all supposedly involved it.
Regardless, after Paris the United States and its NATO allies do have a real enemy in ISIS, one that has the means and territories in Iraq, Syria, Libya and elsewhere in North Africa to attack America and its European allies in the region and at home. Rolling back that threat is a real national security challenge the U.S. and NATO must accelerate now. But that will take time and facing up to some painful compromises. Among them may be this: despite the universally held Western belief that Bashar Al-Assad "must go," he may have to stay--at least for now--to enable the defeat of the Islamic State. And to destroy ISIS, we must do away with the useless rhetorical construct that we are at war with radical Islam.