The latest upsurge in Islamic extremism, carried out by “ISIS” or “the Islamic State,” should be deeply troubling for all Americans. I must admit that at the sight of innocents, including innocent Americans and Christians attempting to mind their own business, being beheaded, my first reaction was anger and a desire for revenge, followed by a deep sadness and concern that the brutality be stopped. However, as I have witnessed the calls for action, the feckless maneuvering of the Obama Administration, and its eventual decision to bow to public relations considerations and “take on” ISIS, I cannot help but wonder where all this is heading, and fear the consequences of a backward and halfhearted movement toward war.
What makes matters all the more troubling is that ISIS and the horrific violence it is perpetrating on innocent people (and Christians in particular) was made possible, in part, by the really bad policies and worse execution of such policies by the government the United States. I do not use these words lightly. Too often in the past, American leaders have chosen to take the blame for the bad actions of others, and academics in particular seem to revel in blaming the United States for wrongs perpetrated around the globe. But in this instance, while the brutality of ISIS obviously is the fault of the brutes themselves, the actions of our government clearly played a major role in opening the door for the rise of a band of murderers bent on establishing a murderous state. And this means that we have a duty as a nation to do what we can in response, but most particularly to first do no more harm.
A quarter century ago, the first President Bush, or at least his Ambassador, gave shockingly clear signals to Saddam Hussein, a known mass murderer and user of biological weapons against his own people, that the United States did not consider Kuwait essential to its own interests. Seemingly surprised at the resultant invasion, Bush I then chose to destroy Saddam’s military and drive him out of Kuwait. But then our government also chose not to bring down his regime out of balance-of-power concerns worthy of a pre-World War I monarchy. Then, of course, Bush II chose to clear his father’s name of the charge of failure in Iraq by invading that country, despite the fact that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks and had no weapons of mass destruction. This incursion was rendered more damaging by the Bush II Administration’s delusions of spreading democracy throughout the region, bringing ruin to the political infrastructure of Iraq (e.g., by firing everyone even vaguely associated with Saddam—pretty much everyone capable of helping run a government). And then President Obama, always favoring abdication of American power and interests, withdrew forces long before any functioning, stable government had been established in Iraq, with no plans on how to deal with the inevitable, ensuing chaos.
All this brings me to the inevitable conclusion that the violence being perpetrated by ISIS is something for which the United States must take significant responsibility. Indeed, we have a moral duty, now, to protect the innocents on the ground (Christians, but also Kurds and many Shiites as well) whose lives have been made so much worse by our actions in creating a power vacuum to be filled by extremists. But what, in practical terms, can we do?
The latest plan appears to be taking shape. Not only has Obama managed to get other nations to join him in an air campaign against ISIS, he also is looking into supporting Syrian rebels and even, perhaps, putting troops on the ground. Putatively conservative voices now are being heard urging Mr. Obama to “stay the course” or “stay strong” in prosecuting what is, for all intents and purposes, a war with ISIS.
Obviously, I am not the first observer to find all this eerily familiar, to be reminded of how our nation became mired in the jungles of Indochina, supporting a government we had corrupted, fighting a war we had not the fortitude or tactics to win, until eventually we walked away in disgust, leaving millions to the severe mercies of murderous ideologues. Today, as in the era of Lyndon Johnson, we have a President who wants everything, now; a President hell-bent on “redeeming” the nation by undermining its traditions in favor of a government-centered ideology and the myth of omniscient bureaucrats. We again are ruled by “public servants” with massive egos, blind faith in charts and graphs, and little faith in actual people or the traditions and associations in which decent, normal lives are lived.
It is somewhat surprising, under these circumstances, that putative conservatives are pushing the president to begin a war he clearly has neither the will nor even the desire to win. Embarrassed by bad publicity, Mr. Obama will make some moves against ISIS, and they might well result in our being drawn deeper into a quagmire in large measure of our own making. But no reasonable person can believe that there is a rational endgame, here, or that Mr. Obama would do what would be necessary to reach it. And, lest we forget, he will remain president for three more years, serving as what passes nowadays for a commander-in-chief of our armed forces.
Under such circumstances, what is a nation to do? Certainly not, I would argue, pursue the same failed policies that have earned us enmity and contempt before, to no good effect, and with the death of thousands upon thousands of young men and women who deserve better from the country they serve. In the early years of Vietnam, one member of Congress suggested that what we ought to do was declare victory and go home. We would have been better off—our allies and young people would have been better off—if we had heeded that advice. Perhaps it is time to listen to such wisdom this time. Let us declare victory (again—Bush II already did it once) and bring our troops home, along with as many refugees as we can.
We owe a great debt to many people in Iraq who depended on us. Perhaps, as we skip the useless bloodshed of Vietnam, we should move directly to its ending and send in the helicopters now to airlift those for whom we have made it impossible to survive any longer in their own country. It is not much, but as we allow ourselves to be a dumping ground for abandoned children storming our borders, we at least should take responsibility for those we invited to look to us as allies.
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