Sunday, August 10, 2014

Barbarians at the gate

From Robin Wright in the New Yorker, a warning about the Islamic State that concentrates the mind:
There is a broader danger. The direct American presence may galvanize more jihadis to the Islamic State. There was no Al Qaeda presence in Iraq until after the United States deployed troops in 2003, an act that fuelled Al Qaeda’s local appeal, on territorial, political, and religious grounds. In Iraq and Syria, ISIS is now estimated to have between ten thousand and twenty thousand fighters, including a couple of thousand with Western passports and a hundred or so from the United States.

As the United States confronts ISIS, the dangers that Americans will be targeted at home grow. Last month, the F.B.I.’s director, James B. Comey, said that the domestic threat emanating from ISIS “keeps me up at night,” that ISISwas a potential “launching ground” for attacks of the kind that occurred on September 11, 2001. The Attorney General, Eric H. Holder, Jr., told ABC News that ISIS, particularly its American jihadis, “gives us really extreme, extreme concern. . . . In some ways, it’s more frightening than anything I think I’ve seen as Attorney General.”
Leave aside the merits of the case that Obama "allowed" the Islamic State to metastasize by 1) abstaining from support of "moderate" Syrian opposition while other state non-state actors pumped up ISIS, and 2) by disengaging from Iraq so thoroughly that the U.S. lost its ability to restrain Maliki from crushing all opposition and making enemies of the Sunni minority. Obama's counterarguments (1, 2) are that there was never a distinct enough or viable enough Syrian opposition to back, and that the U.S. could not force the Iraqi government to treat the Sunnis and other interests and parties as loyal opposition rather than enemies.

Whatever the merits of those cases, the hard political reality is that if the Islamic State successfully strikes the U.S., whether in, say,  a series of suicide bombings or in a well-planned mega-attack, Obama's restraint may well be as discredited as Bush's adventurism. Whether or not he could have acted more effectively to stop it, an "al Qaeda on steroids" will be understood to have risen on his watch.  All the allegations of Obama's "weakness" will jell, the compulsion to hit back will be overwhelming, an incoming Republican administration may re-embrace torture, and the post-9/11 rise of the security state will accelerate.  The perception that Obama let American leadership lapse and the world spin out of control could swamp his domestic legacy as Vietnam did Johnson's and sweep neocon-supercharged Republicans into power. Dangerous times.

UPDATE: Via Jeffrey Goldberg, Hillary Clinton inevitably talks up her documented advocacy for helping the Syrian rebels early -- though she stops short of suggesting that if the US had done so, ISIS's rise would have been checked. While professing to steer a middle course between Obama's restraint and Bush's adventurism, she is in fact building a neocon edifice -- talking up radical Islam as a threat that need sto be contained as communism was (though not necessarily a threat of the same scale -- see below), parroting Israeli talking points re Gaza and offering unconditional support to Netanyahu's expansionism, denying Iran's right to enrichment (suggesting that in practice she would scuttle the current negotiations, though she denies this).

I find some of this foolish and the pandering to Israel (which the former U.S. senator  does as full-throatedly as all metro NY US pols) repulsive. Yet it is prudent for Clinton to start distancing herself from Obama now. She may be the only bulwark against a hyper-neocon Republican administration if terrorism in the U.S. or foreign policy disaster cloud the remainder of Obama's term.

BTW, Goldberg is a really good interviewer. He really pushes Clinton on her position re the Iran negotiations. His piece is a marked contrast to Friedman's interview with Obama (whom Goldberg has also pushed in the past) -- at least, to the print writeup of the interview. At the same time, Goldberg's introductory writeup of the interview somewhat distorts the picture on more than one front. Clinton is far less critical of Obama than he implies -- in the big picture, she suggests that he's steered more or less prudently between extremes in devilishly complicated challenges. And when I read what she said about containing jihadism, I had to flip back to Goldberg's precis, because he said she "equated"  the struggle against jihadism with the struggle against communism -- but in context, while she drew an analogy between containing those two ideologies, she did not suggest that the were challenges of equal scale. Her larger point was that rival ideologies to liberal democracy will continually arise, and in the next breath she cited Putinism as a second example.  In the interview itself, she is a lot more nuanced than in Goldberg's opening summary [update: next  post elaborates this point.]

UPDATE II: Lindsey Graham, natch, lays the ground for the ultimate "soft on terror" assault:
“If he does not go on the offensive against ISIS, ISIL, whatever you guys want to call it, they are coming here,” Mr. Graham said on “Fox News Sunday.” “This is just not about Baghdad. This is just not about Syria. And if we do get attacked, then he will have committed a blunder for the ages.”

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