The revelation by a spokesman for the family of Steven Sotloff, the second journalist beheaded by the Islamic State (ISIS), that Sotloff was "sold [to ISIS] for between $25–50,000," by the US-supported "moderate" Free Syrian Army underscores the irony and absurdity of this moment. As the President gets ready to go to the American people and ask for their support in pursuing a military campaign in Iraq and Syria, how the principle of "blowback" operates should be clear to everyone – even Rudy Giuliani.
The "moderates" we have been funding, arming, and training for the past few years couldn’t have come up with a better plan to suck us into the Syrian quagmire. After crying "Wolf!" for so long – what with chemical attacks supposedly inflicted by the infinitely evil Bashar al-Assad, and other tall tales of dubious provenance – the rebels had lost all credibility. What to do? Desperate to increase the decibel level of calls for US military action in the region, they resorted to targeting the US media in hopes that the outrage generated would push the Americans into war.
And the ruse certainly seems to be working. That’s their battlefield, after all: the Syrian Mod Squad has never been an effective fighting force on the ground in Syria, but when it comes to dominating the Western media landscape they’ve been wildly successful. According to their many friends in the Fourth Estate, those lovable cuddly "moderate" Islamists wouldn’t hurt a flea – after all, they’ve been "vetted," haven’t they?
What a grisly joke.
The immoderate kidnapping of Sotloff surely eviscerates the argument that we could’ve been spared the existence of ISIS if only we’d gone full bore in supporting the Syrian Free Army. Yes, if only we’d handed Syria over to them the way they handed Sotloff over to ISIS everything would be hunky dory. That makes sense – in Bizarro World.
Yet Bizarro World "logic" is exactly what has been determining US policy in the region ever since the "Arab Spring," when the Obama administration decided to hop on board the "revolution," co-opt all that energy, and use it to generate support for regime change throughout the region. The results have been an unmitigated disaster, to wit:
- In Libya we overthrew Muammar Gaddafi, "liberating" the country with the help of – and at the urging of – our European allies. The Libyans expressed their gratitude by murdering our Ambassador, trashing our embassy, and plunging the country into Somali-like chaos.
- In Egypt we backed a "moderate" Islamist regime, throwing longtime American sock-puppet Hosni Mubarrak overboard without so much as a by-your-leave – and wound up supporting an even worse "secular" military dictatorship.
- In Syria, we plotted to overthrow another Gaddafi-like secular despot, aligning with those lovable "moderate" Islamists – many of whom would soon defect to ISIS, taking their US-supplied arsenal with them.
As I’ve said in this space from the beginning, ISIS has "Made in USA" stamped all over it – and I don’t mean that just figuratively. Yes, our wrong-headed policies have so alienated the Sunnis that they’ve resorted to supporting the fanatics of ISIS, but it’s worse than that. It is literally true that we armed, trained, and deployed these monsters – what we might call the Islamist Frankenstein Brigade – and now they’ve turned on us with a vengeance.
Well then, so what? So what if our crazy policy of empowering Islamist militias in Libya and overthrowing Assad in Syria led us to this horrific pass: the monster is rampaging over the entire region and we’ve got to act fast before it takes Baghdad – right?
Wrong. To begin with, contrary to US government officials and their media echo chamber, ISIS represents little threat to the continental US. If we can’t corral the few dozen Americans who’ve gone over there to fight on behalf of our self-proclaimed allies, the darling rebels, then where have the billions spent on "homeland security" gone?
The principal victims of ISIS are those who actually live in the region: the Syrians, the Iranians, and the Iraqis. The Turks and the Kurds have a lot to lose, too, if ISIS triumphs: so why not let them take care of the problem? Senator Rand Paul, in an interview with Sean Hannity, proposed exactly that:
"Right now, the two allies that have the same goal would be Iran and Syria, to wipe out ISIS. They also have the means, and the ability, and they also have the incentive to do so because [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad’s clinging for power and clinging for life there."
What could make more sense? Yet it’s precisely because it’s the logical solution that it’s being ruled out of order. The well-known high "moral standards" of the US government absolutely forbid such a course: Assad, we are told, is "killing his own people." He’s a monster, and even indirectly helping him maintain his power is impermissible – because, you see, "the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend" is a Very Bad Principle to adopt because … well, just because. Not to mention the poor, persecuted Sunnis who will be "alienated" from us, and we just couldn’t have that, now could we? Far better to risk American lives, expend our resources, and bear the burden of empire alone, pure in our virtuous martyrdom.
Among the more incredible arguments along these lines is made by foreign policy maven Daniel Larison, who weaves a strange and entirely illogical theory around the idea that "Assad benefits from ISIS’ continued existence. As long as ISIS appears to be the main alternative to him and his regime in Syria, he is much more secure, and so at least in the short to medium term he has little reason to want them destroyed. One might think that he would have an incentive to destroy this group, but in practice he hasn’t been trying to do this."
The fact of the matter is that there are no alternatives to Assad aside from ISIS. The kidnapping of Sotloff by the FSA and his quick transfer to the custody of ISIS proves they are operationally inseparable. After all, what is the so-called Free Syrian Army except for a vague collection of militias – Syria has over 1,500 of them! – of dubious loyalties loosely aligned with the radical Islamic Front – which, in turn, is close to Al Nusra, the official Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. The fine distinctions drawn by deskbound analysts seem to evaporate into nothingness on the ground in Syria. Whatever differences exist between these factions and ISIS is down to turf, not ideology. The President himself told Tom Friedman that the idea of Syrian "moderates" among the rebel fighters is "a fantasy." Does Larison know any better?
What’s really ludicrous is the notion that ISIS is thriving due to a sinister plot by the wily Assad, who is deliberating laying off his deadliest and most well-armed enemies because he somehow "needs" them. This is like keeping a pet rattlesnake because you want to get rid of the gophers. And where does Larison get the idea that "in practice" Assad’s forces have gone easy on ISIS – surely not from this, or this? Is Larison saying the Syrian army’s defeat at the battle of Raqqa was an inside job?
If ISIS wins, Assad’s is the first head to roll – and he knows it. And the Alawites, Christians, and other minorities will meet the same fate shortly afterwards, and they know it, too – which is why they support the Ba’athist regime as the only alternative at the moment.
No, we don’t have to ally with Assad – or the Iranians, for that matter – for them to deal effectively with our monstrous creations. We simply have to stand aside and watch as those states with a real stake in this fight are allowed to take aim and fire. In this case, inaction is the most effective act we can take: by stopping our support for the Syrian Islamists, we cut off a major source of support for ISIS – and leave Assad free to go after them hammer and tongs.
ISIS and its sympathizers worldwide would like nothing better than to lure us into another land war in the Middle East, one in which we would fare no better than we did last time around. Yet that is the only alternative to the Rand Paul strategy.
Speaking of Senator Paul, some who fear being dragged back into Iraq are now saying a few air strikes shouldn’t be out of the question. They are forgetting the first operating principle of any and all government programs, especially those of a military nature: the mission is constantly being expanded. A government agency that starts out regulating one specific area of life will invariably invade all other conceivably related realms of human activity. In the same way, and for the same reasons, a "limited" war – perhaps initially confined to the deployment of air power – is bound to expand in scope when victory proves elusive.
We are now being told this new war will take precisely three years to be prosecuted successfully – which seems like an extremely odd prognosis indeed. How do they know this – they who never saw ISIS coming? Of course it will take a lot longer than that if we pursue the strategy of fighting ISIS and Assad and doing our best to keep Iran out of it. For even if we do debilitate ISIS, another monster will arise from its ashes, perhaps even uglier and deadlier – and we return to our Sisyphean task.
Whether it’s three years, three months, or three centuries, Iraq War III – which is sure to encompass Syria, just as the Vietnam conflict enveloped Cambodia – promises to be an even worse disaster than the previous editions. Everyone who jumps on board this particular bandwagon is going to be leaping off sooner than they imagine – or else denying they were ever on it. So don’t say I didn’t warn you.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.