Thursday, November 19, 2015

Party Like It Is 1932

Godwin's Law famously (and wisely) warns against all comparisons to Adolph Hitler upon the internet.  Such counsel is difficult to follow, however, when an American political candidate does everything short of painting on a toothbrush mustache and goose-stepping with arm extended in a stiff salute. Donald Trump's recent assent to the idea that Muslim Americans be given special identifications is so grotesquely reminiscent of the yellow "Star of David" badges issued by the Nazi regime as to boggle the mind.

The situation might be tragically laughable if Trump himself were not still gaining in the polls. In the wake of the Paris attacks, a climate of fear has understandably settled over Europe and America, and it is creating a wind to fill the sails of Mr. Trump's political ambition. The crude words about immigrants and border security with which he launched his campaign seemed comic until it became clear how deeply he had struck a nerve in a portion of the American electorate. Now, even beyond those precincts in which Trump's message was initially welcomed, events have conspired to make him appear a prophet to many voters.

"Appear" is the urgently operative word here. A large portion of the American electorate has been conned, and Donald Trump is not the perpetrator of this deceit. Trump himself is among the victims over whose eyes the proverbial wool has been pulled. ISIS has convinced everyone that their Muslim identity is the most salient and significant fact about them, when in fact our obsession over their religious claims plays perfectly into their malignant agenda.

This is not to rehearse tired arguments about how ISIS are "not real Muslims." Of course the members of ISIS are real Muslims. But that is no more significant than the fact that Yigdal Amir, the assassin of Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin of Israel in 1995, was a real Jew. In a world of 1.6 billion Muslim inhabitants, "watch all the Muslims" is about as effective a strategy for fostering security as "watch all the Jews" would have been for Rabin's bodyguards before his tragic death.

This myopia is not confined to the political right, moreover. Liberals who preach that combating ISIS would best be done by lecturing Muslims on values of secularism, feminism, and pluralism have likewise been sucked in by the ISIS grift. We should no doubt all champion secularism, feminism, and pluralism in any context and to the degree that we can, but to imagine that this will have any impact on the strategic conflict with ISIS is a fantasy. Right now any list of the greatest champions of secularism, feminism, and pluralism in the Middle East would have to include the Ba'athist regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, and it is the hatred of that government's lethally cruel autocracy, not any particular love of ISIS's religious ideals, that has kept ISIS afloat in Syria for so long.

However misguided Mr. Trump's view may be, the fear that is fueling its ascent is real, and its effects are not only visible here in the U.S. France has its own Donald Trump in the form of Marine Le Pen, and Germany in the person of Frauke Petry. If the problem of ISIS lingers and the terror they inspire intensifies, the fortunes of all these politicians will continue to rise. Anyone who at this point dismisses the possibility of "President Trump" is sorely deluded, and such a judgment is even more true of anyone who doubts that such an outcome would be a disaster comparable to the elections that transpired in Germany in 1932.

The emergency confronting our leaders is dire, and the responsibility weighty. As hyperbolic as it seems to say, the future of the free world literally hangs in the balance. If an effective strategy against ISIS is not swiftly adopted and applied, future generations will look back on this as the watershed moment that undid much of the hard won progress of the late twentieth century.

Monday, November 16, 2015

What to Do About ISIS Now

The heartbreaking attacks in Paris, taken in combination with those in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Turkey, as well as the stream of oppressed refugees set to flight by ISIS's barbarity, give new and heightened urgency to the problem of ISIS. It has never been more necessary to resolve the problem of ISIS once and for all. Unfortunately, it also has never been more difficult.

The key to confronting ISIS has always been the Syrian civil war. ISIS draws active and tacit support from its opposition to the Assad regime in Damascus, a posture that is persuasive to Sunni minorities in Iraq. Those who look for the causes and the undoing of ISIS in ISIS itself are looking in the wrong place. ISIS is sustained by a context of regional instability and institutional breakdown. Until that problem is redressed, ISIS will endure.

In this respect, the strategy of the Obama administration and its allies has been woefully anemic. The idea that ISIS could be confronted by the application of air power and a search for "partners" in the region absent any resolute policy regarding the larger Syrian civil war was a phantasm. President Obama's claims that ISIS is "contained" or that progress may be measured in the size of the territory ISIS controls are not credible. The political solvency of the ISIS regime will remain intact as long as the outcome of the Syrian civil war remains in question.

Though the Obama administration has been at fault, its critics have offered little in the way of practical advice. Air power will not resolve the crisis, but the deployment of ground troops will likewise be ineffectual absent some clear plan to resolve the Syrian civil war. If American ground troops overran the ISIS "caliphate" they would then be faced with the choice of handing that territory back to the Assad regime or embarking on a long, bloody occupation of hostile territory, both of which would be disastrous in the long run.

The proof of this is in the short career of the vaunted "man of action" Vladimir Putin since he engaged Russian forces in support of Bashar al-Assad. His "muscular" approach should, according to Obama's critics, have produced significantly different outcomes against ISIS. Instead, his government appears as impotent as any other in the face of the horrific attack on a Russian airliner.

What then, are the tactical and strategic options moving forward? Air power is in place to contend against ISIS, but ground forces are needed to destroy its base area. The Kurdish militias and peshmerga have made admirable gains, but they do not have the personnel or the firepower sufficient to the whole task. The necessary force must come from within Syrian society itself, which means that a settlement of the Syrian civil war must be arrived at now. 

President Obama should take the lead in broadcasting the urgency of this imperative to the international community. The greatest impediment to this goal is Russia. Vladimir Putin has committed his forces to the the support of the Assad regime, making the key goal of any strategic path to victory against ISIS unattainable. Russia must be moved from its obstructing position and enlisted into the effort to both end the Syrian civil war and destroy ISIS. The destruction of Kolavia Flight 7K9268 gives Russia a new interest in seeing this threat overcome. If President Obama mobilizes all of the economic and diplomatic resources of the US and its allies, it should be possible to enlist the Russians into a plan to end hostilities between the Assad regime and its opponents ex-ISIS, and refocus military energies in Syria on the destruction of the ISIS caliphate.

What might the terms of that kind of political settlement look like? President Bashar al-Assad must step down and an interim government established incorporating members of the political opposition. A new integrated military force consisting of the remnants of the Syrian army and all forces not aligned with ISIS (including, if they will join, even "Al Qaeda" affiliates like the Nusra front) should be formed. The promise of free, fair, and open elections in the wake of ISIS's defeat should be vouchsafed by the interim government and its international supporters, backed by a UN resolution, guaranteeing proportional representation to all sectarian and ethnic groups. A campaign to destroy ISIS should then be launched coordinating the reconstituted Syrian army, the Iraqi military, the Kurdish peshmerga, along with the air power of the US, its coalition partners, and Russia. All of this should be done swiftly, allowing for details to be sorted out after the dust of combat settles, so that the threat of ISIS can be squelched before it further destabilizes the region and the world.

ISIS has proven itself very adept at manipulating postmodern technology and international media in furthering its phantasmal, barbaric agenda. The worst thing that the international community can do in the face of this threat is nothing: inaction in the face of terror and imposed suffering will drive more desperate, aggrieved, and tormented people into the arms of this nihilistic monster.  The world must act, and it must act now. We can only hope that our leaders have the wisdom, the ability, and the political will to do what must be done.