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ISIS, the Neocons, and Obama’s Choices

Though Congress and the president are out of town, the final weeks of August have seen the arrival of an unexpectedly critical moment. The brutal beheading of James Foley by ISIS (the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq) confirmed that there remains a Sunni jihadist terrorism problem in the Mideast: decimating al-Qaeda and killing Osama bin Laden didn’t end it. It shouldn’t be forgotten that America’s destruction of the Iraqi state in 2003 created the opportunity for ISIS to grow and thrive, as America’s Sunni allies, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, gave ISIS financial backing.

How to respond? The usually wise Andy Bacevich suggests [1] that ISIS constitutes a negligible threat to America, a superpower an ocean away, that bombing it has become—like bombing elsewhere, America’s substitute for a genuine national security strategy. Bacevich suggests we ought to butt out, except perhaps to give aid to countries genuinely threatened by ISIS. There is much to this argument, as there is little inclination from the American people to send ground troops once again into Iraq. And even if we were willing to reconstitute and send an occupation force, what good would it do? In a similar vein, Paul Pillar [2] argues that overestimating ISIS as a potential threat is perhaps more likely, and dangerous, than underestimating it.

But few are comfortable with doing little or nothing: ISIS is undoubtedly barbaric, with possible potential to spread. In important ways the situation resembles the months after 9/11, in which America were brutally confronted with the sudden emergence of Sunni extremism which had not previously been deemed a major problem.

Then as now, an influential group of neoconservatives, tightly allied with Israel, had a very specific idea of what they wanted the United States to do. The neocons then—and still do—aspired for an almost endless series of American wars and invasions across the entire Middle East. Because in 2001 we were already engaged in a sort of shadow war with Saddam Hussein—Iraq was under a semi-blockade and America was enforcing a no fly zone over the country—Iraq was the logical starting point. But for the neocons Iraq was only a beginning. “Real men want to go to Tehran” was the neoconservative semi-jokey catchword during that time, and they quite seriously expected that after Baghdad was digested as an appetizer, they could steer the United States into war with Iran—then as now a top Israeli priority. That an American war with Iran was an Israeli priority does not mean Israel opposed the Iraq war: polls at the time indicated that Israel was the only country in the world where large popular majorities were enthusiastic about George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion, and Israeli politicians were regularly invited to appear as guests American news talk shows in order to beat the Iraq invasion drums. Steve Walt’s and John Mearsheimer’s indispensable book The Israel Lobby [3], contains pages filled with quotations from Israeli leaders making hawkish pronouncements to American audiences; the quotes are a necessary corrective to present to present Israeli efforts to proclaim that an American invasion of Iraq was never really an Israeli objective.

If ISIS is to be contained or defeated without using American ground troops, it is necessary to examine the regional forces ready to fight it. There are of course the Kurds, a small group which can perhaps defend its own region, if that. The biggest potential player is Iran. With its majority Shia population Iran takes a dim view of Sunni jihadism; the Iranian population was pretty much the only one in the Muslim world to display open sympathy with Americans after 9/11. By the standards of the Middle East, it is a scientific powerhouse, with a large freedom aspiring middle class, and considerable artistic community. According to published reports, Iranian tanks have reportedly engaged [4] ISIS near the Iranian border—probably with American approval. We are likely, I would guess, to hear more about Iranian tank brigades in the coming months, even root for them.

The other serious force willing to fight ISIS is Syria, led by the Alawite Bashar al-Assad. Assad is a dictator, as was his father. His regime is strongly supported by Syria’s Christians, by Iran, and by Hezbollah, the Sh’ite militia in neighboring Lebanon. Syria has been caught up in civil war of shocking brutality for the past four years. The largest faction opposing him is ISIS—and American arms distributed to the Syrian “rebels” have often ended up in ISIS hands. By opposing Assad, the United States has in effect been feeding ISIS.

It would seem logical that if ISIS really is a threat—a metastasizing terrorist entity and enemy of America and all civilization—then the United States should patch up its relations with Syria and Iran to deal with it. That’s the advocacy of some groups favoring a detente with Iran (like the National Iranian-American Council), which views Iran [5] as the most stable state in the region. But there is a problem: Israel hates Iran, and hates Syria because of Iran. The only Arab military force to give Israel any difficulty in the past 40 years is Hezbollah, armed by and allied with Iran. No matter how much Israel pretends to dislike Sunni extremism, it hates Iran more, because Iran has scientific, cultural, and political potential to be a major rival to Israel in the Middle East.

So the neoconservatives are arguing [6] that the United States confront ISIS by sending in its own troops (“primarily” special forces, [7] or a contingent of 10-15,000 “for now”) but hoping of course that can be expanded upon later, rather than relying on regional allies. This is essentially a revised variant of the policies they advocated after 9/11—divert Americans away from confronting a threat from Sunni jihadists, while preparing the ground for a subsequent war with a state actor that Israel doesn’t like. So the neocons will argue against any policy which contemplates detente with Iran or a lessening of tension with Syria, because they recognize that if the United States comes to view Iran as an ally in the fight against ISIS or other Sunni extremists, their goal of an American war with Iran is gone, probably forever. Bibi Netanyahu has boasted  [8]to Israeli audiences that America is something “easily moved” by Israel’s public relations abilities, unregistered agents, and other well-wishers. But Bibi and his allies are likely to find their proposals to send American troops back into the Mideast a hard sell.


A final point: over the past two generations thousands of articles have been written proclaiming that Israel is a “vital strategic ally” of the United States, our best and only friend in the “volatile” Middle East. The claim is a commonplace among serving and aspiring Congressmen. I may have missed it, but has anyone seen a hint that our vital regional ally could be of any assistance at all in the supposedly civilizational battle against ISIS? Fact is, when you use the most powerful military in the Mideast to continuously brutalize Palestinian children, your usefulness as a regional ally becomes pretty limited.

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#1 Comment By SDS On August 27, 2014 @ 10:49 am

“It would seem logical that if ISIS really is a threat………then the United States should patch up its relations with Syria and Iran to deal with it. ”

Unfortunately, in the last 15 years I have lost all hope that the powers that be in Washington have any interest in; or, worse, competency in determining; what is best for The Unites States….

#2 Comment By spite On August 27, 2014 @ 11:26 am

I came across a nationalreview article by John Bolton a few days ago. In it he advocates what is mentioned here, he mentions ISIS but the bulk of it is about how Iran is the problem, it really is incredible how these neocons can get away with such blatantly bad ideas.

#3 Comment By philadelphialawyer On August 27, 2014 @ 11:52 am

I fail to see why it should matter to the USA whether ISIS is defeated or not. Sunnis constitute a majority in Syria, and a large minority in Iraq. For all I care, and the US should care, ISIS, a Sunni group, could rule over the border areas of the two countries, areas with local Sunni majorities on both sides of the border, from now until kingdom come. So what?

How many times does the US have to “liberate” the Sunni areas of Iraq from Sunni forces that seem to represent what most people there want? Saddam’s Baathist forces, and then the Sunni guerillas during the occupation, both had to be defeated by American ground troops. And it was particularly bloody and difficult to root them out of their cities, like Fallujah. Why do we, the USA, have to do it again? And why does it matter to us if the job gets done at all, or not? If the forces arrayed against ISIS (the Kurds, the Shi’a government of Iraq, the Assad regime in Syria, Iran, Hezbollah) can only succeed in fighting it to a standstill, so be it.

ISIS has support from other Sunni players (the Gulf State and Saudi plutocrats, mostly). These backers are playing a power politics game against the mostly Shi’a enemies of ISIS. Well, Sunni/Shi’a rivalry is not exactly new in the Arab and Muslim worlds. When and why did it become the job of the USA to favor one side or the other? I don’t subscribe to the view that “these people have been killing each other for thousands of years, so whatever.” But, on the other hand, I fail to see how US meddling lessens tensions any. After all, Sunnis and Shi’a, while not exactly holding hands and singing “Kumbaya,” were not at each others’ throats either, when Saddam ruled Iraq. Indeed, cross denomination friendships, business dealings, even marriages, and mixed neighborhoods, were commonplace. But that wasn’t good enough for the USA. No, we knew better….and now we have ISIS.

The US should butt out altogether, and let the locals deal with it.

#4 Comment By Essayist-Lawyer On August 27, 2014 @ 2:31 pm

In essence, Oceana is going from being at war with Eurasia and allied with Eastasia to being at war with Eastasia and allied with Eurasia. In the real world (as opposed to Orwell’s world) this takes some time and meets with some resistence from people committed to the old alliance. But haven’t you noticed a lot of people now chomping at the bit for war with Eastasia don’t seem to remember they were calling for war with Eurasia just last year.

#5 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On August 27, 2014 @ 2:38 pm

The closing paragraph is snarky, which is fine and deserved, but not helpful analytically.

All wars kill and maim children, including our own. Other than adding a cloying sanctimony to their discussion of the subject, the Israelis are nothing new in that regard.

The fact is, General Sherman was right. War is indeed hell, and the people who so cavalierly would involve us in yet more wars are inviting us to build our own American hells.

We have neither the stomach nor the ability, without conscription and austerity, to deal a death blow to ISIS/IL/IS, and notwithstanding our think-tank Chicken Littles, those fellows are not a major threat to the homeland. Hence, we should be cautious about intervention, and even more so about rhetoric that either makes us look stupid and ineffectual or commits us to intervention without reflection (“Assad must go”, “ISIS must go”).

#6 Comment By Clint On August 27, 2014 @ 5:22 pm

Americans aren’t too pleased with Obama’s foreign policy choices.

“In his handling of foreign policy, President Barack Obama has record-high disapproval ratings according to the latest Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll released Tuesday.

Sixty-percent disapprove of Obama’s job on foreign policy, the president’s worst rating on the issue, the paper reported. Only 36 percent approve of Obama’s handling of foreign policy.”

#7 Comment By Jude On August 29, 2014 @ 12:17 pm

I have a very close friend who is a Lebanese Christian. He once told me that Shiites are perplexed regarding American treatment and actually see themselves as an ally against Sunni extremism.

Perhaps a starting point is to mend fences with Iran?

Since military action is a strong recruiter of terrorists, I do not view military action by the USA as an option, if the ISIS threat grows, let the Shiites take care of it.

Economic isolation must be enforced. Potential western hostages need to get out of danger zones, as ransom partially funds ISIS.

Other moneys flow to them from a variety of sources and this must be cut off. Millions cannot be moved physically. If necessary, hack whatever entities are being used to launder and transfer money to ISIS.

If American or European firms are part of the laundering, they must be dealt with severely and not just by fines.

The actions of BNP Paribas and Standard Charter border on treason, yet to date only fines have been paid…

#8 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 29, 2014 @ 7:01 pm

“But Bibi and his allies are likely to find their proposals to send American troops back into the Mideast a hard sell.”

The public doesn’t matter, very much, except as a mass to be manipulated. The evil Goering, giving the devil his due, said as much at Nuremberg, that it works just the same way in any country, dictatorship or democracy – public opinion is manufactured by the elites for public consumption in support of whatever wars elites want.

Note that last year it seemed war in Syria had been derailed, due to unexpected public opposition. But now these elites have just the wars they want, including a stealth path into the Syrian one they wanted. I suspected that defeat wasn’t the end of it – and it wasn’t. Terror alerts are being upgraded to hysteria levels of fear throughout the west, to justify the war actions. The northern country I’m visiting, has media calling for direct military action against Russia, and the gist is that Russia is so weak it will quickly fold in the face of NATO troops being sent to guarantee Ukrainian “independence” and engage Russian forces directly.

It’s as if the miscalculations of August 1914 are here, all over again.

#9 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 30, 2014 @ 2:25 pm

Scott McConnell is right: With respect to containing ISIS (even though in truth ISIS represents a negligible threat to the US) there are two nations in the region – Syria and Iran – that are ready and willing to do what they can to accomplish precisely that goal.

So, scrub the US bombing. And forget about putting thousands of US Special Forces back into Iraq. Instead, as McConnell wisely suggests, “the United States should patch up its relations with Syria and Iran.”

That’s right. Normalize relations with Syria and Iran. No need to form alliances with either nation – just get off their backs, and let those two nations act in their own national interests with respect to ISIS.

But what do the brilliant foreign policy minds in the Obama administration come up with? Yesterday they announced “new sanctions on 25 firms and individuals” in Iran.


Has the administration think-tank smoked something they didn’t buy in Colorado? Or is the Israel lobby supplying what they’re smoking?

I mean really! How counterproductive a move can you possibly make than to pick this moment in time to hit Iran with new sanctions?

In the midst of important 5 + 1 nuclear negotiations with Iran — and in the midst of a region flare-up in which Iran’s presence could represent a stabilizing force against ISIS — has the Obama administration gone mad?

Just asking.

#10 Comment By Jim in NH On September 2, 2014 @ 1:08 am

An informative piece. What I fail to see discussed, however, is the direct and proximate relationship between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the rise of militant Sunni fundamentalism.

Thanks to its petrodollar wealth, the KSA has been exporting its medieval version of Wahhabi Islam to Sunni’s via its funding of madrassas (religious schools) and export of Wahhabi trained clerics worldwide.

As I (imperfectly) understand it, an essential component of the Wahhabi sect’s ideology is the concept of takfir, or excommunication of a Muslim deemed impure in faith, which is then a justification for death of the “impure” Muslim, and any other non-believer (Christian etc.). From that ideological basis arises the war against not only the Shiites in Iraq and Syria, but us as well.

As is well known, Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda originated in KSA, and entered the world stage first as a tool of the US foreign policy elite to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. It is reported that the CIA and British Mi6 provided them with western arms and training.

It is also well known that 15 of the 19 9/11 bombers were Saudi. In my opinion, that is not a coincidence. It is logical product of the KSA exporting its Takfiri religion and religious wars against the “impure” and, in our case on 9/11, the center of our wealth and military power.

It is also well known that ISIS is funded by the KSA and Qatar, another nation with a large Takfiri presence. Their roles in the war against Assad is well known worldwide, but perhaps not so much here at home.

At it source, the fount from which the Takfiri Sunni jihadists wars and atrocities emanate is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I can’t be the only person who believes that the only way to root out the evil of the Takfiri jihadist movement and militant Sunni fundamentalism is to identify the source from which it arises and cap it.

And presuming our governing elites, not the least of whom are the Neocons, are, or should be, well aware of the Saudi source of the bloodshed wrought by these groups in America and abroad, when will we come to the conclusion that the real enemy of our country and the peaceful world is the medieval Wahhabi lunatics that govern Saudi Arabia.

And if those governing elites, from the Bush family to the Neocons, know the source from which this chaos arises, and not only doesn’t stop it but fully cooperates with the Saudi’s in their jihadi wars, such as arming the mythical “moderate rebels” in Syria, isn’t it time to point the finger at our governing elites, and the Neocons, as enemies of our country? After all, the rise of the unconstitutional post-9/11 intelligence apparatus that daily violates the 4th Amendment of each and every American and the virtual police state built in the last decade, as seen most visibly in Ferguson, wouldn’t have been possible but for the pretext of the 9/11 attacks. Maybe that explains why rumor has it that the 28 pages of the Report of the 9/11 Commission that remain secret deals with the Saudi royalty’s role in the attacks.

#11 Comment By Clint On September 3, 2014 @ 3:57 pm

@Jim in NH:

Saudi-born al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had long called for the overthrow of the Saudi royal family to punish it for allowing U.S. military bases in the kingdom.

Al Qaeda regards the the Saudi royal family’s regime as “insufficiently Islamic and an unacceptable candidate to be the guardian of Mecca and Medina,” according to senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former FBI counterterrorism analyst Matthew Levitt.

#12 Comment By Northern observer On September 4, 2014 @ 7:09 am

The sooner American foreign policy is reoriented around shutting down Sunni Islam the better. This would include kicking turkey out of our good graces until they re embrace secularism.