By Ivan Eland
According to the New York Times, Maj. Gen. Michael K. Nagata, the commander of American Special Operations forces in the Middle East, is trying to figure out why the brutal Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is such a dynamic force in Iraq and Syria, but has been flummoxed. The general’s band of graybeards couldn’t seem to figure out what appeals to young radical Islamists who are migrating to ISIS’s war in those two countries from around the world. The aim is to learn about the appeal of the group to counter it with American counter-propaganda.
The problem with this effort, like those of all of the other bunches of smart people convened by the U.S. government on Islamist terrorism, is that it can only go so far in criticizing its employer’s polices toward the Islamic world. Since the government is at least theoretically in the employ of the public, the American people could demand a deeper analysis.
However, since the 9/11 attacks, they have been hoodwinked by politicians and government officials into believing that radical Islamists attack U.S. targets essentially because inherently bad people hate inherently great people (if they had wondered at all, which the overwhelming majority haven’t). This line of argument may have originated with George W. Bush’s false claim that al Qaeda attacked the United States on 9/11 because of American freedoms – which Osama bin Laden vigorously denounced by asking why then he hadn’t attacked Sweden.
The same obliviousness toward the complexities of history is exemplified by American remembrance of Pearl Harbor. If even an audience of older Americans, who may have been alive at the time, is asked why the Japanese attacked Hawaii that day in early December 1941, blank looks usually ensue or comments are made that the Japanese were an aggressive, warlike people. This again is Tarzan foreign policy: "We good; you bad." Of course, the Imperial Japanese, like modern day ISIS, were much worse than the United States on human rights practices, but the fact that the United States was trying to strangle the Japanese military and economy with sanctions on oil (the United States was then the largest oil producer in the world) has been conveniently forgotten.
The United States didn’t want the Japanese to have an East Asian empire, such as the existing U.S., British, and Dutch empires there, so it cut off Japan’s oil supply. Doing so made Japan desperate to conquer the oil-rich East Indies (now Indonesia), a military operation that likely could have been opposed by American forces in its Philippine colony or the U.S. Navy headquartered at Pearl Harbor. After an attempt to negotiate a peaceful solution with American President Franklin D. Roosevelt was rebuffed, the much weaker Japanese nation launched a "hail Mary" attack on the much latently stronger United States.
Similarly, the motives for Osama bin Laden’s attacks on the United States on 9/11 have been too sensitive to broach – at the future peril of U.S. territory and American citizens. Islamist radicals usually have local grievances – which means the United States usually should avoid getting involved in making new enemies by fighting most of them – but when they attack U.S. targets, the thing that spins them into a frenzy is non-Muslim attacks on or occupations of Muslim land.
The same waving of a red flag before a bull also has occurred with Israel in Palestine, Russia in Chechnya, and the Soviets in Afghanistan. In bin Laden’s case, he hated the U.S. military presence in Muslim countries in Lebanon in the 1980s, Somalia in the early 1990s, and in Iraq in Desert Storm and the subsequent U.S. military presence in the Islamic holy land of Saudi Arabia.
The cause of bin Laden’s attacks are there for anyone to see in his writings. Bin Laden wanted to attack the United States to get an American overreaction, generating for him more fighters and monetary contributions, and then bloody the American nose so badly that the United States would permanently withdraw from the Middle East. This withdrawal would allow the regeneration of the old time Islamic caliphate or empire, which was dismembered by the colonialism and neo-colonialism of the West in the region.
During the Clinton administration, bin Laden repeatedly tried to bait the United States into an over-the-top retaliatory attack by perpetrating terrorist strikes at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, by the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, and by the attack on the U.S. military housing complex at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. Failing to do so, bin Laden "went big" and perpetrated the 9/11 attacks.
As bin Laden himself said, George W. Bush was easy to bait – the swashbuckling Texan invaded not only Islamic Afghanistan but enlarged "the war on terror" to include drone wars Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen and a totally unrelated invasion of Muslim Iraq. The equally hapless Obama expanded the drone wars in the three countries, overthrew a leader in Muslim Libya, has re-entered the fray in Iraq, and expanded that war into Islamic Syria. Bush and Obama have told the Muslim world that theirs is not a war on Islam, but after attacking or invading seven Muslim countries since 9/11, Islamic peoples no longer believe that argument.
Although from a different strand of Islamic radicalism than al Qaeda, ISIS also wants to restore the caliphate in the Middle East region. Also, ISIS’s attacking of U.S. targets – for example, the beheading of American hostages – is in retaliation for U.S. bombing of the group and an attempt to bait the United States to drag it deeper into the civil wars in Iraq and Syria. It worked; the United States took the bait.
Despite the two groups’ similarities, ISIS is more regionally oriented than al Qaeda and has much fewer bomb-making capabilities and terrorist networks in the West; thus, ISIS should have been left for regional powers to clean up. More U.S. intervention in Islamic countries falls right into the trap of ISIS and al Qaeda by fueling Islamist radicalism.
General Nagata is sophisticated enough to see that if not handled right, radical Islamist groups can bait the United States into counterproductive acts. Yet even if he wanted to, Nagata cannot tell politicians, superior civilian government officials, and the American public that aggressive U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is part of the problem – fueling Islamist radicalism. That would be politically incorrect in a country that has difficulty coming to terms with its own history. In a republic, we are supposed to be able to do that better.