© Josh Sager – September 2014
The Islamic State (aka. IS, ISIS and ISIL) is an extreme Sunni Islamist group that is currently rampaging across Iraq and Syria. It has killed thousands of innocent Iraqis and Syrians—many of whom via beheading, crucifixion, and being buried alive—and appears to be an ascendant power in the region. They have already seized large portions of land, millions of dollars in untraceable funds (from local banks), and powerful weapons that the United States had intended for the Iraqi government.
The long-term goal of the Islamic State is to consolidate power and create a “caliphate” (Islamic theocracy with a singular “caliph” at the head) encompassing the entire Muslim world. While this goal is likely impossible, ISIS is currently competing with Boko Haram for the title of “worst terrorist group in the world today” and is inarguably the best funded/armed group.
The ISIS leadership has shown itself to be very intelligent, utilizing social media to control optics, and mobilizing a relatively small force of fighters to defeat a much larger force. Since their early victories, ISIS has grown significantly larger by absorbing members of other terrorist groups and ex-Baathists from the Hussein regime.
An ISIS militant riding in an American Hummer, captured from the Iraqi military
In response to the rise of ISIS, the United States has already sent “advisors” to Iraq and performed a limited bombing campaign to free the Zoroastrian Kurdish Yazidis from a mountain that they were trapped on due to ISIS’s attempts at genocide.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration has decided that it is our responsibility to intercede in Iraq and Syria in order to destroy ISIS and has charted a course that could very well lead into another Middle Eastern War.
President Obama’s Plans
On Wednesday, September 10th, President Obama made a public policy address where he outlined his plans in regard to dealing with ISIS. Overall, his tone was extremely combative and he promised a destruction of ISIS in short order.
President Obama’s plans to destroy ISIS include stepping up the bombing campaigns of ISIS targets in Iraq, an expansion of these strikes into Syrian lands, and a deployment of at least 475 more military “advisors” to help the Kurdish “Peshmerga” militias. In addition to these measures, Obama has promised $25 million in additional military aid to Iraq and Kurdish forces who are fighting ISIS.
The president specifically rejected a ground war approach in his speech, and has promised that the efforts to “degrade and destroy” ISIS will not involve American “boots on the ground” (for some reason, he doesn’t count the 1,700 American “advisers” already on the ground as “boots”).
The Dangers of Intervention
If modern history teaches us one thing about the Middle East, it is that foreign intervention in the region is, at best, extremely dangerous. Every time that the United States has inserted itself into Middle Eastern politics and decided to support the “enemy of our enemy” or play nation-builder, the results have been disastrous.
Ronald Reagan, on the men who would later become Al Qaida
- During the Cold War, we armed and trained a group of resistance fighters in Afghanistan called the Mujahedeen who would later become Al Qaeda.
- The United States installed the Shah of Iran over the will of the Iranian people, which later caused the Iranian Revolution and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini and his extreme Islamist government.
- The US’s deposing of Saddam Hussein caused an ethnic and sectarian divide in Iraq, creating a perfect breeding ground for ISIS to grow.
In short, the United States has a terrible track record while interfering with that region of the world and there is no reason to assume that things will be different this time. If Obama continues his plans to strike at ISIS, I see a very real chance that we will face blowback, be dragged into a quagmire, and will end up driving even more people into the arms of our enemy.
The first, and largest, danger of intervening against ISIS is the potential for a domestic terrorist attack on the USA in retaliation for our missile strikes. ISIS has already decapitated two Americans—wearing Guantanamo-style jumpsuits—in retaliation for our attacks on their troops who were surrounding Mt. Sinjar and attempting to starve-out the Yazidis. This indicates that they are willing to take overt and antagonistic action against us if we interfere with their plans, and suggests that they will continue attacking us if we decide to accelerate our actions against them.
ISIS has hundreds, if not thousands, of western supporters (many of whom are British), and it isn’t unreasonable to worry about the ease at which such western extremists could penetrate our borders. If these terrorists were to perpetrate an attack, it is almost certain that we would step up operations and could even end up re-invading Iraq and invading Syria.
The second problem with Obama’s plans is that they could very easily result in a mobilization of support for ISIS. If American missiles start killing civilians as collateral damage in our fight against terrorists, Iraqis and Syrians who currently do not support terrorism will re-align in support of the group that promises to defend them. If American strikes push the public to support ISIS, it only entrenches them further and makes it easier for them to attain their long-term goal of a Muslim state.
When the USA began drone-striking Pakistan, we saw a massive increase in anti-American sentiment.
In addition to the dangers from collateral damage, the very presence of the west in the Middle East is a powerful mobilization tool for ISIS. By claiming themselves to be the defenders of Islam and portraying the Americans invading crusaders, ISIS could shift focus away from their brutality and towards the external “enemy” that must be repelled. This danger is particularly large if the US steps in in Saudi Arabia, as ISIS will then be able to argue that the west is “occupying” their holiest sites (Mecca and Medina), with the sanction of the Saudi Royal family—this could galvanize the most extreme Saudi Wahhabis in support of ISIS, and may even destabilize Saudi Arabia enough to risk a change in leadership.
The third danger inherent to Obama’s plan is the fact that air-wars can easily lead into ground wars. ISIS has access to powerful anti-aircraft weaponry and could conceivably shoot down American planes. If a plane or attack-helicopter is downed, a ground force would likely be sent to retrieve them (ex. the events made popular in “Black Hawk Down”). Such a retrieval would be very dangerous and there is a good chance that American troops could be lost. These losses could create a rapid escalation that results in a full-blown war.
A fourth danger in Obama’s plan to degrade ISIS comes not from ISIS, but from Syria. The Syrian government has advanced anti-aircraft weaponry (bought from Russia) and has declared that any bombing within its borders will be met with force. If the United States starts sending our planes into Syria to destroy ISIS, the Syrian government—which is also at war with ISIS—will fire on us and could even take down our planes. If Syria starts killing Americans, then a political impetus would be created for the United States to retaliate, thus forcing us into a conflict where we would be attacking ISIS’s enemies.
The Legal Problems with Intervention
Put simply, it is illegal for Obama to unilaterally declare war against any country, entity, or group, without Congressional approval. While the operation of war lies with the Commander in Chief, the decision to go to war or end a war lies solely in the legislative branch.
Ironically, a great explanation as to why President Obama’s plans to unilaterally start a war against ISIS are illegal comes from then-candidate Obama during a 2007 interview with Charlie Savage:
“The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”
Barack Obama – 2007
As ISIS hasn’t made any attempt to attack the United States, there is no imminent threat that could possibly justify an extra-legislative war. If Obama wishes to enact his plans against ISIS while remaining within the law, he must go to Congress and have them pass an “Authorization for the Use of Military Force” against the group.
Regardless of the law, Obama made clear in his speech last Wednesday that he thinks that he has the powers to immediately start the implementation of his plans. While I have little doubt that the Congress will not complain about this in the short-term—they don’t want to have to put their votes on paper when they understand that an intervention against ISIS could very easily blow up in our faces and lead into another unwinnable and expensive Middle Eastern war—that docility will rapidly disappear once the bombing starts. The second that things go wrong, they will pounce with criticisms about how Obama is abusing his presidential authority and dragging the USA into a quagmire without their consent.
This oversight by Obama is both illegal, and politically stupid. He is taking actions that put Americans in danger and give the Republicans a potent campaign argument that could harm the Democrats in 2016.