U.S. is off to a war that doesn't make sense — again: Neil Macdonald

When U.S. President Barack Obama tried to build consensus last year for an air campaign against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, the American public balked. But taking on ISIS is a whole other story, writes Neil Macdonald.

President Obama has committed to increased airstrikes against jihadist group in Iraq

In order to address the threat of the jihadist group ISIS, U.S. President Barack Obama has authorized airstrikes inside Syria and increased attacks in Iraq, but he has ruled out putting U.S. forces on the ground. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

America is going to war again. People are scared again.

The American news media have a scary monster in the Middle East again, and commentators are practically saluting on air. Again.

Dick Cheney, smirking, is back onstage. Last week, at a speech in Washington, he called for immediate military action, "sustained … across several fronts."

"The president must understand we are at war,” he declared, relishing the new moment. “We must do what it takes, for as long as it takes, to win."

At about the same time, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was speaking in Manhattan.

“At present,” said Johnson, who is actually in office and whose entire job is protecting America, “we have no credible information that ISIS is planning to attack the homeland of the United States.”

Johnson may as well have been dancing a jig, for all anyone noticed.

Polls suggest an overwhelming majority of Americans now believe that ISIS is a direct threat.

Seventy-one per cent of people responding to a poll conducted by the Opinion Research Centre believe ISIS already has cells inside the U.S., ready to strike. Eighty per cent of respondents wanted Congress to authorize military action. Ninety per cent said ISIS is a direct threat to the American homeland.

From 'jayvee' to imminent threat

Four months ago, barely anyone here had even heard of ISIS. They were just another Sunni extremist group, more or less as violent as the Mexican drug cartels operating right on America’s southern border.

Eight months ago, President Obama mockingly compared ISIS to a “jayvee” – a junior varsity team, playing out of its league.

Now, after a couple of public beheadings of American reporters, the mightiest nation in human history is suddenly scared. Not to diminish the horror of those executions, but this beheading business is hardly new – ISIS and its fellow extremist groups have been carrying out medieval executions for years. Nearly all the victims have been Arabs.

A year ago, President Obama couldn’t persuade Congress, or voters, that he should strike the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a genocidal monster whose savagery easily rivals ISIS’s leaders.

Since ISIS began overtaking towns and cities in Iraq, the U.S. has provided support to Kurdish peshmerga troops in northern Iraq. (Azad Lashkari/Reuters)

“I know that after the terrible toll of Iraq and Afghanistan, the idea of any military action, no matter how limited, is not going to be popular,” said the president in a televised address to the nation at the time. "After all, I've spent four and a half years working to end wars, not to start them."

Now Obama is back on TV, declaring that for the good of the nation, he must attack one of the groups that has, among other things, been battling Assad.

It gets more confusing.

In order to offset any help the airstrikes on ISIS might be to Assad, Obama wants to arm and closely support the “moderate” Syrian rebels.

Trying to find the 'moderates'

This is something Obama has long resisted doing, probably because it’s difficult to identify any Syrian rebel group that can reasonably be described as “moderate,” or who can be counted on not to cooperate with ISIS or Syria’s other Islamist groups — which, incidentally, have benefitted tremendously from arms shipped covertly to Syria by Islamist groups in Libya, who overthrew Moammar Gadhafi.

(Which they were able to do only because of American military support, but that’s another story.)

Now, it’s true that Obama isn’t promising another full-scale war. He’s proposing an air campaign, and the American public likes the sound of that. The boots on the ground will supposedly come from other countries. The ones bordering Iraq are mentioned a lot, since it is, after all, their neighbourhood.

That is, except for Jordan, which has nervously said no, and Iran, which emphatically said no. Syria’s army is already pretty busy, so that’s out.

Turkey’s support is tepid. Iraq itself has a huge army, a million or so troops, but they’ve been better at throwing down their arms on the battlefield and running away than they have been at fighting.

So, if those ground boots don’t appear and start taking back territory from ISIS, what exactly will airstrikes accomplish, given that ISIS tends to mingle with the civilian population in the mostly Sunni areas it occupies?

That’s unexplained, but it’s an answer Americans (and Canadians, whose government has signed onto this campaign) should be demanding.

Difficult choices

If Obama now makes the determination that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did in Gaza — that massive civilian casualties are unfortunate but "justified" collateral damage — America then runs the risk of not only failing to destroy ISIS, but hardening the hatred of the Sunni population and all the other Sunni extremist groups that erupted after the 2003 Gulf War.

Thus far, the U.S. has been the only country to carry out airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq. (Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters)

Which brings us back to the incredible gall of Dick Cheney.

This is the fellow who was practically in charge of the massive deceptions the Bush administration used to justify the last U.S. invasion and war that led to much of the chaos going on right now.

Cheney promoted the idea that Saddam Hussein was somehow behind the attacks of 9/11, which was nonsense, yet was accepted as truth by most Americans for years.

He was also behind the weapons of mass destruction canard, one of the most destructive falsehoods in modern history – one that directly led to hundreds of thousands of deaths.

'No corroborated information'

As always, when fear and demagoguery are rising, a few well-informed voices try to talk reason, but you have to listen hard to hear them.

Daniel Benjamin, formerly the State Department’s top counterterrorism advisor, is one of them.

The public discussion, he told the New York Times, is a farce.

“It’s hard to imagine a better indication of the ability of elected officials and TV talking heads to spin the public into a panic, with claims that the nation is honeycombed with sleeper cells, that operatives are streaming across the border into Texas or that the group will soon be spraying Ebola virus on mass transit systems — all on the basis of no corroborated information.”

It’s also worth reflecting on a few historical realities. Populations are always easily frightened. Canadians supported nationwide imposition of martial law in the 1970s because a tiny band of scruffy hardliners in Quebec killed one politician and kidnapped a diplomat.

And Republican Sen. Marco Rubio was wrong last weekend when he wrote that America is the “guarantor of global security.”

In recent decades, from Vietnam to Grenada to Lebanon to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan to Somalia and Central America and Iraq, U.S. military interventions have at best done no good. Mostly, they’ve made things a lot worse.

The American secretary of homeland security says there is no credible threat to America. Perhaps it’s time to let other nations sort out their problems, because that’s what they’re going to do in any event.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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