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ISIS Isn’t Hamas, or Iran

Netanyahu tries a terrorist bait and switch, like the one that worked against Saddam.
Netanyahu Jewish Federation of New York ISIS

Two years ago, Andy Bacevich published an important piece, “How We Became Israel.” His argument concerned strategic doctrine more than ideology. He noted similarities between Washington’s seemingly continuous low-grade military campaigns, which commenced once the Cold War was over, and Israel’s regular attacks on its neighbors. Both countries sought through military strength a kind of absolute security; both had no problem with starting preemptive wars; both employed “targeted assassinations” against opponents as a matter of course. Both relied on air power. Both were perfectly willing to endure perpetual war in their quest for dominion over their region.

Bacevich did not dwell on the irony of this policy becoming manifest under Barack Obama, who was elected in great part to terminate the militarization of America’s policy towards the Muslim world. But he did note that American acceptance of a permanent low-level war was entirely bipartisan: it was under President Clinton that bombing someone different every year became the American norm. It was depressing that Bacevich had to look hard for a prominent mainstream Washington figure who doubted the wisdom of this permanent war footing; he quoted Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who wrote “we don’t have enough drones to kill all the enemies we will make if we turn the world into a free-fire zone.”

Two years ago, this argument was both prescient and novel, even if others has noted that the United States had long ago abdicated having any perspective on the Mideast independent of Israel’s. But suddenly variants of the Bacevich proposition are in vogue. Charles Krauthammer and Maureen Dowd, respectively leading neocon and liberal editorial voices of the two most prominent national newspapers, have both listened to President Obama’s United Nations speech and concluded “Yes—the president is right to bomb ISIS, and yes his policies are essentially Netanyahuesque.” Just as Israel uses airpower to “mow the lawn” in Gaza, America uses it in Iraq. Dowd even cheerfully adopted that banalizing and dehumanizing Israeli phrase for the periodic killing of militants, their families, and innocent women and children by forces with overwhelming technological superiority. But we may do it over the entire region.

Or beyond. In Andrew Sullivan’s mordant exclamation, “The world will be our Gaza!”

There is perhaps an element of technological determinism in this strategy: the United States and Israel deploy bombers and drone assassinations because they can, because such actions seem, at least in the short run, relatively cost-free. If this becomes a hard case to make morally (though there is little evidence so far that Americans care about that one way or another) Israelis are happy to help out. “ISIS is Hamas, Hamas is ISIS” is the slogan brought to the United Nations by Benjamin Netanyahu, and it is being echoed by Israeli government officials worldwide, as well as by pro-Israel groups with money and media clout.

It is, to be blunt, a blatant misrepresentation of reality: one need hardly be a defender of Hamas to note the critical differences. The comparison was, as 972’s Larry Derfner put it, “a crude attempt to brainwash people, to put the most horrifying image in their mind and associate it with Gaza, thereby cleansing Israel of those images of Gaza’s agony.” A twofer in other words. Israel is exonerated of killing 500 innocent children, and America is associated with Israel, for we are doing the same thing. The ISIS/Hamas comparison is valid only so far as both organizations are Muslim and militant.

For its part, in Gaza, Hamas does not kill Christians; indeed they worship freely, are represented in the government, and share in the bitter and blockaded status of Gaza’s Muslims. Hamas doesn’t aspire to a Muslim caliphate but rather national liberation, and, if you follow the contemporary words of its spokesman, (rather than its generation old, anti-Semitic charter) liberation of a small part of historic Palestine. Hamas doesn’t execute Western journalists but welcomes them. It does execute suspected collaborators (that’s where the gruesome execution photos which Israel-friendly organizations have been using in advertisements come from) but so has every guerrilla movement, including, as Derfner notes, Zionist ones.

Hamas came to power through a free election; Israel negotiates with it; some Israeli security officials have noted its increasing moderation. Israel actually understands all this, or it would have tried to root Hamas out of Gaza. But for an American audience, the word is “Hamas = ISIS.” If Netanyahu were truly frightened of Hamas, he would have recognized that negotiating seriously with the secular Palestinian Authority would have undermined almost completely Hamas’s appeal as an effective national resistance movement.

There was another component to Netanyahu’s lie. Not only does he say that ISIS = Hamas, but he devoted more of his UN speech to the proposition that Iran = ISIS. They are, after all, Muslims. As Netanyahu put it “Some want to restore a pre-medieval caliphate … some want to trigger the apocalyptic return of an imam … but they all share a fanatic ideology.” Haaretz reports that Netanyahu will spend his days in the United States telling network television viewers to be very afraid of Iran. If the images coming out of Iran belie Netanyahu’s claim that they’re just fanatical Muslims who must be bombed into submission, Netanyahu is probably confident that the American media will present his version without much competition.

Who can say whether this “big lie” will work once again? In the fall of 2002, it seemed unlikely to many intelligent people that the United States would do something so obviously stupid as invading Iraq. You didn’t need to be great Mideast expert to recognize that al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s secular, Christian-friendly dictatorship were entirely different animals, though both were part of the Muslim and Arab worlds. Surely that obvious point would eventually penetrate the minds of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice. But it didn’t, and somehow, against what I once thought were steep odds, the relentless campaign of the neoconservatives and various Israeli leaders to conflate al-Qaeda with whatever target Israel wanted taken out carried the day. Iraq was destroyed. More than a trillion dollars, the cost will come to, a million Iraqis killed, wounded or homeless. The remaining officers of the decimated Iraqi army became a foundational stone of ISIS.

This time Israel wants us to destroy Iran, using ISIS as the bogeyman for American audiences, a massive bait and switch. Andy Bacevich is surely partially right in his claim that America has become Israel. But whether we are as ignorant and easily moved as Netanyahu hopes remains to be seen.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.