Obama and ISIS

David McReynoldsVia Edge Left:

Edgeleft is an occasional commentary from David Mcreynolds which may be resent or used in any way, without further permission

Obama and ISIS by David McReynolds

We can all agree that ISIS (or ISL) is a dreadful organization which has committed grievous crimes in Iraq, crimes which extend far beyond the beheading of American journalists to include mass executions of civilians.The problem is that, as always happens in these cases, there is a certain “selective outrage”, a kind of “willed amnesia” about our own role in such matters.

Let me leave aside ancient history such as Vietnam, and, just looking at Iraq, remind ourselves that the US supported Saddam Hussein for a long period of time, including his war against Iran which lasted nine years, during which he used poison gas against the Iranians with no comment from the White House. Or, after the first Gulf War, when Saddam had agreed to the terms of surrender and was withdrawing his troops from Kuwait, our planes machine gunned the retreating troops who, under any possible definition of the terms of surrender, should have had safe passage.

Then, the US encouraged an uprising among the Iraqis against Saddam, but provided no support, and stood by when Saddam slaughtered them by the thousands. Or perhaps to remember the massive loss of civilian lives in Iraq after our inglorious “Shock and Awe” invasion. Or the torture chambers we set up, photographs of which horrified the world.

Not all of the sins of America, taken together, justify the beheading of a single journalist – but memory may help us understand the roots of that horror.

Obama’s speech tonight went out of its way to chide Russia, at precisely the moment we need the help of Russia (and Iran) in dealing with ISIS. He stoked the old fires of the Cold War by reference to the troubles of Ukraine – for which the US is primarily responsible. And, most tragic of all, instead of offering some hope of ending the bloodshed in Syria, he is now going to extend further aid to one side in the civil war there, which will prolong and deepen it.

If ISIS is indeed the enemy, then, in Syria, the most natural ally is Assad, brutal as his dictatorship is. Let’s remember the US has relied on Syria before, as an ally against Hussein, and as a convenient place to send suspects we wanted tortured in the most professional way possible. This may well be, for the Syrians, a choice between Hitler and Stalin, with ISIS playing the role of Hitler.

The roots of ISIS are in part in Syria, where it has been a bitter enemy of Assad, and in large part now in Iraq, where it has made an appeal to the Sunni population. The Sunnis are the minority religion, but, under Saddam Hussein, they ruled Iraq. As a result of the US invasion, the Sunnis were driven from power and the government turned over to the Shiites (which have close ties to Iran). The US-sponsored government in Baghdad used its power to wreck vengeance on the Sunnis, excluding them from any share of power, and, in far too many cases, using control of the State to murder and imprison them.

Now the Sunnis have turned to ISIS for their revenge. And ISIS has used the weapons the US sent to the Iraqi army, which turned and fled, leaving behind their tanks and heavy artillery. The chances are good that more American aid will end in the same way – and the history of this is instructive. In the Chinese Revolution in the last century, Mao’s army equipped itself with the weapons the US sent to the Kuomintang. In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh’s army equipped itself with the weapons the US had sent to Saigon.

The one exception in Iraq is the Kurdish area. Contrary to media reports, the Peshmerga broke in their first encounter with ISIS – but they have a real stake in setting up their own territory and there is a good chance that, unlike the Iraqi army, they will stand and fight once they have caught their breath. (I feel guilty, as a pacifist, to even suggest aspects of military strategy and tactics – I am only trying to offer an analysis). It is true that a Kurdish “state” in Iraq will create new problems, but they are the one group that might prove a match for ISIS.

Meanwhile, one has to wonder why American intelligence was caught so totally off guard by ISIS and its sweep into Iraq. Just as our sources failed to alert us to this impending disaster , they may be over-estimating the power of ISIS, which will be subject to internal strains.

Meanwhile, missing entirely from Obama’s speech was any recognition of the dangerous role Saudi Arabia and Qatar have played in creating ISIS. If there is a hidden card in this deck, it is in the military and financial support these states gave to the Islamist forces in Syria – the very forces which evolved into ISIS. It is surely ironic that Obama and his advisers would go out of their way to chide Russia – which might actually be of help in dealing with ISIS – and remain silent on the countries which have played so ominous a role in creating the current problem. (Keep in mind that the funding for Al Queda came in large part from wealthy Saudis).

ISIS, dreadful as it is, is not a threat to the United States. It is part of the civil war which has emerged in Iraq now that the US has withdrawn. Massive bombing campaigns will not solve a problem which has its roots in the internal tensions and religious conflicts in Iraq. For diplomacy to have a chance, the US will need consultation with Iran, just as it needs to avoid deepening the civil conflict in Syria.

Obama’s speech failed to deal with the real problems. He seems unaware that the American Empire has ended, that while, like King Canute, he may command the tide to stop, the tides obey other forces over which the US has no control.

(David McReynolds is a former staff member of the War Resisters League, was twice the Socialist Party’s candidate for President, and served a term as Chair of War Resisters International. He is retired, lives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side with his two cats, and can be contacted at: davidmcreynolds7@gmail.com. He was the subject of the dual biography by Martin Duberman: The Radical Lives of Barbara Deming and David McReynolds)

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