ISIS Wants the US Drawn into a Ground War
Andrew Levine says the Islamist forces have learned that a ground war is to their advantage
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
Just a few hours from now, President Obama will be addressing the nation, explaining his strategy in defeating, as he says, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He is planning, as we understand, an expanded bombing campaign. He’s going to say that there’s not going to be any timeline. In fact, one White House official says that it’s likely this fight will go on past the Obama administration. There’s not going to be any specific tactical information addressed this evening, essentially just a strategy of American bombardment and an attempt to build some kind of alliance regionally so that there are troops on the ground, boots on the ground, but they’re expected them to be either Iraqi or Kurdish or–and that’s clearly one of the big question marks here.
Of course, the bigger question mark here is, given that U.S. policy helped create this mess in the first place, is there really going to be any solution that’s going to come from Washington?
Now joining us to talk about all of this in the studio with us is Andrew Levine. Andrew is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author of Political Keywords and many other books and articles of political philosophy. He was professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a research professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park. And he’s a regular contributor at CounterPunch, Huffington Post, and other publications.
Thanks for joining us.
ANDREW LEVINE, SENIOR SCHOLAR, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Thank you.
JAY: So we have a fair idea of what President Obama’s going to say, and barring any surprises. What other choices does he have, other than what he’s saying? We understand he’s going to bomb and hope to build some regional alliances.
LEVINE: Well, I think the alternatives are both extremely unlikely, that if there really is a determination to rid Iraq and Syria of the Islamic State, it’s going to be necessary to fight them on the ground. And it’s unlikely that he can find a proxy army that would be capable of doing that. So one alternative, which would be dreadful, would be to reintroduce American troops in massive numbers and NATO troops in massive numbers. The other alternative is to do nothing, and that’s by far the best strategy, because if anything has been established in recent years, if there’s anything as empirically well-confirmed as a law of nature, it’s that whenever the United States intervenes into situations like this, it ends up making it worse, not just worse in some general sense, but worse even in terms of the interests that motivated it to enter in the first place.
So the Islamic State is basically a Bush-Obama creation. It’s the result of real stumblebum management of the occupation of Iraq and its on-again, off-again interventions and non-interventions into the Syrian Civil War that reflect a fundamentally incoherent foreign policy, and one in which they have not a clue what they’re doing.
JAY: It kind of begins with the underlying assumption that the United States has to be in control of all events everywhere, particularly in the Middle East, and clearly these things keep getting out of their control. All of their plans blow up in their face.
LEVINE: Bush and Cheney intervened–well, actually, they empowered neoconservatives, who had it in mind to restructure the political settlement in the Middle East in a way that would make it safer for big oil and for American control of energy policy, and also, not incidentally, better for Israel, at least as they understood that. And they had not a clue what they were getting into. And they’ve created a situation that is so monumentally botched that now we have, for instance, the United States and Syria siding with declared enemies, with whom they need to ally in order to have any chance whatsoever of diminishing the power of the Islamic State. They have become the de facto allies of Iran, which in a muted way they have been all along. But this, again, it’s contrary to what stated American policy is, and probably to what American policy interests [are], as the foreign-policy elite understands it.
JAY: Given that the United States has so clearly said they don’t want to put boots on the ground and clearly there’s no clear force that will give boots on the ground, the Islamic State seems to understand that and seems to almost be deliberately provoking the United States to somehow be pushed into a position where they’re going to have to have boots on the ground.
LEVINE: This is certainly what I believe. I think that they know how to push the buttons. They know, for instance, that if you flamboyantly behead journalists, and on video, that it will become politically impossible for the United States not to do something about it, not to flail around about it.
Now, at one level this is preposterous. America’s best friend in the region, Saudi Arabia, regularly beheads prisoners. Obama’s drones probably do more promotion of terror than anything, than any beheading could do, particularly throughout the region in ways that if the idea is to promote stability–.
JAY: But they don’t show these images to the Americans on TV.
LEVINE: Well, they don’t show them on TV, and the media, the major media is certainly utterly complicit in promoting these ideas, but the fact remains that one thing that Islamist political groups seem to understand is how to get the United States involved and bogged down in ways that it can’t possibly win. Hamas did that to Israel, effectively forcing Israel to send soldiers into Gaza, and the outcome was entirely predictable, that they would fight to a draw, and a tie in that case is a victory for Hamas.
JAY: The alternative being Hamas just gets–Gaza gets bombed to hell, the Israelis don’t have to sacrifice any soldiers, and that goes on and on. If you can get the Israeli soldiers on the ground, you put them in a position they can’t keep doing that.
LEVINE: Right. I think that there’s an understanding to which, as with so many great misfortunes, we owe to the Clintons, and to Bill Clinton especially, because in the Kosovo War, he was able to get away with it. That is, he could conduct the war, bombing throughout Serbia, even bombing Belgrade, without losing a single American life or getting any American soldier actually setting foot on the soil, and it is remembered as a victory for him. And I think now that–Islamist groups have learned that lesson and they understand that they’re not going to let that happen again.
JAY: Well, it seems President Obama maybe does understand this, from this point of view: if the main message or one of the main messages in his speech is going to be this is a long-term fight–and again, we’ve been hearing this is going to go into the next administration–then maybe the plan is you just contain Islamic State more or less in the territory they have, you get Iraqi troops, Kurdish troops, you give them cover–they still haven’t figured out what they’re going to do in Syria, but I guess they’re going to somehow have to make sure the Assad government is strong enough to withstand falling to the IS. And then you just let just sort of death and mayhem continue for years.
LEVINE: Well, yeah, but you can’t maintain the status quo, because it’s inevitably going to change. And the more murder and mayhem that the United States superintends or perpetrates, the greater the enemy becomes. And who would have thought six months ago that there would now be anything like the Islamic State? That’s really redrawing the map of the region, the map that was established by Britain and France, essentially, after the First World War.
JAY: And 13 years after a supposed war on terror.
LEVINE: And when the Iraq War supposedly was over and Obama was taking credit for having wound it down. Well, now he’s revving it up again. I mean, the point is they don’t have a clue.
JAY: But your choice would be do nothing, meaning American troops stay out of it. And then what?
LEVINE: Well, I don’t think that–I think that the United States should do nothing as the United States. If there was some way–which has now been largely precluded by American policy–to have a genuinely impartial or neutral international agency doing something to stem the most violent excesses of what’s going on, or if they would even just encourage peace in Syria, which they could do if they stopped stirring up rebellion in Syria, that there would be a way forward to a less bellicose situation and a less dangerous situation.
JAY: But is that–have things gone too far for that, in the sense that if the Islamic State in Syria is now the dominant military force opposing Assad, they don’t seem to be in any mood for peace negotiations?
LEVINE: Yeah, it may have gone too far. That is, we may have crossed a tipping point where clueless meddling into circumstances that are only very poorly understood and an incoherent strategy leads to outcomes that there’s no clear way to rectify.
It’s interesting also because I think that we shouldn’t underestimate the extent of blame to–not so much on Obama’s shoulders, except for having empowered Clintonites, the old Clinton crew, and then for bringing in this other crew of liberal imperialists like Samantha Power and Susan Rice–the harm that they’ve done, because Clinton basically–well, for example, I don’t know if you saw this, but Hillary Clinton just reviewed Henry Kissinger’s book in The Washington Post. It was just this past weekend. And it was useful only as an emetic. She was just fawning over Kissinger. And Kissinger’s main theme in this book, supposedly–I haven’t read it, but it’s that the principal enemy now is Iran. And I think it’s not accidental that that has been something of a byword of American foreign policy so far, at the same time that they’ve been making common cause with Iran.
JAY: Yeah, I mean, something Obama has not been on the same page, certainly as Hillary–I remember back a few years ago–it would have been around, what, 2007 or ’08–there was this resolution to condemn the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as terrorist. And most of the Democratic Party leadership was actually against the resolution, but Hillary stood out and voted for this resolution, which was backed by AIPAC. She’s been far more bellicose about Iran. But if you’re going to give Obama credit for anything, would it not–you give him some credit for keeping things, at least so far, on a fairly rational track with Iran?
LEVINE: Well, I think with Obama–.
JAY: Not that I think the sanctions are rational, ’cause that is a form of warfare.
LEVINE: Yeah, I think that in general it became clear after a few months, certainly by the first summer that Obama was president, that he hadn’t a clue about how to govern effectively. And not long after that, people–his cheerleaders blame the Republicans for that, and that’s not a complaint without merit. But it also became fairly obvious early on that part of the problem was that Obama was very aloof, that his style of governance was to give a speech, then basically retreat, come back to the issue very seldom, rely on others to implement his words–and, of course, they seldom did. And so in the face of Republican obstinacy, which was truly sublime in its magnitude, very little got done.
Lately, though, largely in view of his administration’s floundering response to the Arab Spring, and then, even more tellingly, to the civil wars in Libya and now the civil war in Syria, and now in Iraq as well, since that’s revived, the idea is abroad in the land that Obama is to be faulted for his irresolution, for not having the robust courage of his convictions. And indeed he is irresolute compared to Hillary Clinton or compared to most other people who have been in his position. But I think that that’s actually his saving grace, that he has had, for whatever reason, maybe because he read the polls, maybe because he has more wisdom than circumstances would suggest giving him credit for–.
JAY: Or maybe it’s because it’s kind of more what Wall Street wants.
LEVINE: Or because–well, maybe. But it seems that it’s part of his psychological disposition, just like aloofness is, that he won’t go the final distance. So, for instance, in Syria before, he famously and stupidly laid down his red lines. It’s not clear that the red line was actually crossed, that the Syrian government actually did use poison gas against Syrian rebels, or if they did, it seems likely that some not entirely well-controlled faction of the Syrian army did that, but in any case it looked to all the world like a red line had been crossed and that Obama had backed himself into a corner.
Now, he didn’t do it. He didn’t intervene into the civil war in Syria at that point. That was wonderful that he didn’t. We would be much worse off now if he had. Ironically, what saved him, partly, it was his own irresolution. But given who lately has become the enemy du jour, Russia, and especially Vladimir Putin, whom the major media can’t demonize sufficiently, he got a way out, because they understand diplomacy, something that Obama and his minions are completely in the dark about. And so we were saved that time. But I don’t know–.
JAY: This is Putin offering the solution of the chemical weapons, gave Obama a way out of going militarily to Syria.
LEVINE: Right. But the greater danger now is that because the Islamic State understands how to push the buttons, because now suddenly a war-weary, war-wary American public is frightened again, because there’s so much political pressure, especially with elections coming to do something, he’s going to flail around.
JAY: Yeah, he can’t look weak going into 2014.
LEVINE: And there’s nothing he can do that’ll make the situation better. The only outcome of anything that he does is going to make it worse.
JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us.
And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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