No serious person takes seriously Obama’s declaration of war on the Islamic State ISIL. Obama’s September 10 speech was an exercise in domestic politics – in this case fending off demands that something be done to and about the Muslims who knifed off the heads of persons who could have been you or me. In this sense, the speech was something of a success. But as an act of statesmanship, it was something that even his most ardent supporters do not try forthrightly to defend.
Showing the world how easily Americans can be subjected to Muslim ritual slaughter was a recruiting poster — an invitation to countless hate-filled young men to come join in the Islamic State’s holy fun. In addition, it was a dare to an American body politic that the men of the Islamic State judge morally and politically incapable of answering. It was a declaration of war by deed even more than by words.
By answering war with phony war, Obama confirms the men of ISIL’s judgment. So does our ruling class’s acceptance of the phonyness. Nicholas Burns, once Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs (the highest career post at State) now at Harvard’s Belfer Center, and who describes himself as among “friends of his administration,” called Obama’s flowery words “sensible steps” and a “battle plan.” Gently however, he noted that Obama had not answered any of the important questions: “Do we seek to contain the Islamic State or defeat it entirely?” Obama’s failure to address such questions answers them: This “war” is not serious – on our side, that is.
Obama will continue and “plus up” the limited air strikes and armament programs he has been using. Burns acknowledges that “this will not be enough,” and that “key Sunni Arab states” are the lynchpin of the Islamic State’s survival or demise. “Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates … need to contribute actual forces to the fight and do much more to dissuade their own citizens from funding Sunni jihadi groups.” That is putting it mildly. In fact, these countries, Qatar included, supply the money, the manpower, and the ideology that makes ISIL what it is. The Islamic State lives by their sufferance. Saudi Arabia alone has an air force that could snuff it out by fully occupying itself against ISIL’s food, fuel, leaders, equipment, soldiers, etc.
Burns suggests nicely: “NATO ally Turkey must act more boldly to police its borders, to stop the flow of jihadist fighters into Iraq and to prevent the Islamic State from exporting oil to fund its savage killings.” In fact however, Turkey is the main avenue by which the Islamic State gets what it needs to eat, to live, to be well and to fight, because Turkey’s Sunni Muslim Brotherhood government wants them to have it.
Does the U.S. government have tools by which to force these states to fix a problem that they have largely created? Yes, of course. Elsewhere I have outlined the harsh diplomatic and economic measures with which the US could and should confront the Turks, Saudis, etc. These are what anyone seriously engaged in war would do. But just as obviously, neither Obama nor anyone in our ruling class is serious about making war on the Islamic State.
They are serious about holding on to government power here in the USA. To do that, the great unwashed American people has to be kept focused on suppressing racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, denial of climate change, Tea Party extremism, and so on.
Hence the political essence of Obama’s speech was the pretense of a “strategy” whose purpose is unexceptionable and that will take years to deliver results. The great unwashed can put beheadings behind them. In the meanwhile, asking about the “strategy” or demanding results can be characterized as inappropriate: “give the strategy time to work!” That is the foreign policy equivalent of the tried-and true domestic strategy: “this matter is under investigation. We cannot comment on it.”