As the U.S. escalates its bombing campaign against ISIS (or IS or ISIL), U.S. officials seem to have found an enemy we can all love to hate and fear. ISIS beheads hostages, conducts brutal ethnic cleansing and has links to Al-Qaeda. DC power players have eagerly embraced a small war made to order to restore America’s wounded military pride after the first Iraq debacle.
The contrived nature of the narrative presented by U.S. officials was evident from the outset if one cared to look behind the propaganda screen. As the U.S. bombing campaign began, German Left Party MP Ulla Jelpke told a press conference in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) on August 11th that the Yazidis on Mount Sinjar were rescued by the Kurdish PKK, who the U.S. government classifies as “terrorists.” Refugees told Jelpke that they were saved by “Allah and the PKK,” not by U.S. bombing.
Ulla Jelpke hailed the PKK as the most effective force fighting ISIS and other jihadis in Syria and Iraq, and she condemned Turkey for its role on the other side, providing bases, training and support to the jihadis. Even as Turkey has kept its border with Syria open to a flood of fighters and weapons, it has closed it to shipments of food and humanitarian supplies to Rojava, now home to thousands of Yazidi refugees. As Jelpke said, “If the US government and its allies are going to wage a serious struggle against ISIS, they must first end the support for the jihadis coming from Turkey and the Gulf states.”
At the same time, journalist Judit Neurink, who has spent the past 5 years training local journalists in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, told Belgium’s De Standaard newspaper that reports of ISIS massacres were exaggerated and based mainly on rumors. De Standaard asked, “Is the United States’ bombing based on a false hypothesis?” She replied, “Yes. The US is bombing because the battle was approaching too close to Erbil, where a small American base lies. The Yazidis are useful to add a humanitarian sauce. Indeed there are also Christians fleeing. But if you act only for the Christians, other religious communities in the world would attack you. Now this Yazidi tragedy suited the Americans politically and the stories are exaggerated. Terrible things happen and have happened, that’s a fact. But we have no numbers, no details.”
But the Yazidis served their purpose for U.S. propaganda. The line was crossed, the bombing was under way and the United States was at war in Iraq… again. It would be naive to think that U.S. intelligence agencies knew less of the real picture than Jelpke and Neurink. But the domestic propaganda campaign has succeeded and a majority of Americans tell pollsters they approve of the bombing. The U.S. is building a “coalition of the willing” on a similar basis, persuading allies of the political benefits of aligning with U.S. policy. But the U.S. coalition excludes all three forces that are best placed to resist and marginalize ISIS: the Syrian Army; the PKK; and Iraq’s Sunni tribes.
After initially helping to drive out Iraqi government death squads, ISIS has outlived its purpose to Sunni Arab tribal leaders in northern and western Iraq. Most Sunni Iraqis don’t want to be part of a fundamentalist Islamic state like Saudi Arabia, where 19 people were beheaded in August for offenses ranging from witchcraft to drug possession. Most Iraqi Sunnis just want civil and political rights in their own country, Iraq. But they justifiably fear the return of Shiite death squads more than they fear ISIS.
After Shiite militiamen killed 70 people at a Sunni mosque in Diyala province on September 22nd, a reporter for the Guardian embedded with a group of militiamen in Diyala reported, “For these men, the Sunnis as a whole are the enemy, regardless of whether they are ISIS supporters or not.” One militiaman told theGuardian that they do not kill women, children or old people, implying that adult men are a different story, but another told the Guardian, “When I liberate an area from ISIS, why do I have to give it back to them? Either I erase it or settle Shia in it.” Another added, “If it’s for me, I will start cleansing Baghdad from today.”
What all the forces resisting ISIS really need from the U.S. and its allies is to call off the U.S.-backed Iraqi government’s death squads, and to end our funding, arming and support for ISIS’ allies in Syria. Instead Congress has voted to provide more weapons and training to jihadis in Syria. Meanwhile the U.S. bombing campaign is enhancing ISIS’ prestige, helping it to attract an estimated 6,000 new recruits since August. If the goal of U.S. policy was to make a dire situation worse for the people of Syria and Iraq, it’s hard to see how we could do a better job of it.
For Americans, this campaign brings together many of the familiar themes of the history of U.S. military expansion since the end of the Cold War, and it raises many of the same questions and problems. U.S. officials are evidently encouraged by similarities to the 1991 First Gulf War, a model they revere but have failed to replicate: an unpopular enemy; a limited objective; domestic political support; a broad international coalition to do the fighting and pay for it; and the promise of “victory” over a villainous enemy to win the acclaim of a grateful world. But the two campaigns have other things in common that should give us pause.
Like the current bombing campaign, the short-lived victory over Iraq in 1991, which ultimately led to the present crisis, was designed with another, distinctly political, purpose in mind: to save the Cold War U.S. military from the threat of substantial disarmament. On the basis of that war, U.S. officials adapted their Cold War military machine from the nominally defensive purpose that had justified building it in the first place to a force that aspired to “full-spectrum dominance” of the entire planet, based on huge investments in surveillance and weapons technology. But instead of being a force for stability and security as U.S. leaders claim, the U.S. post-Cold War military has achieved the exact opposite, depriving millions of people in dozens of countries of whatever stability and security they previously enjoyed, at the cost of more than $10 trillion dollars to U.S. tax-payers.
In December 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, former senior officials Robert McNamara and Lawrence Korb testified to the Senate Budget Committee that the military budget could safely be cut in half over 10 years to leave us with what would now be a $267 billion military budget after adjusting for inflation. In the summer of 1990, Congress began debating serious cuts in the military budget.
Then Iraq invaded Kuwait, after receiving the infamous “green light” from U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie. Whatever Glaspie’s orders or intentions, Kuwait certainly had a green light from the U.S. to play hardball with Iraq over disputed territory, oilfields and OPEC production quotas, with the assurance that the U.S. would come to its rescue if this provoked a war with Iraq. Sure enough, U.S. aircraft carriers were steaming towards Kuwait and Iraq within hours of the Iraqi invasion, and the predicament of the post-Cold War U.S. military influenced what followed as much as that of Kuwait, which, like the plight of the Yazidis, was opportunistically highlighted and exaggerated.
While most Americans saw the end of the Cold War as a chance for peace, many U.S. officials saw it as a new chance for war. Pentagon adviser Michael Mandelbaum told the New York Times, “For the first time in 40 years, we can conduct military operations in the Middle East without worrying about triggering World War III”. Heightened inter-service rivalries shaped the war plan, as Lawrence Korb told the Washington Post, “Even the reserves are scheduled to be sent… The reserve lobby recognized that their future funding may be jeopardized if their units do not get involved.” And President Bush rejected Iraqi offers to withdraw from Kuwait and avoid the war that would save the U.S. military industrial complex.
Following Bush’s model, Obama’s coalition-building gives his war a veneer of legitimacy, but it will also open up new markets for U.S. weapons makers. In 1991, after a bombing campaign that killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and inflicted destruction that a UN report called “near-apocalyptic”, U.S. planes and pilots were dispatched straight to the Paris Air Show to drum up new business for U.S. weapons makers. The next two years set new records for U.S. arms exports, and the U.S. has maintained a 40% share of global arms exports ever since.
The post-Cold War U.S. military budget has never fallen below its Cold War baseline of an inflation-adjusted $390 billion. At $600 billion it is higher today than at the peak of the Vietnam War or the Reagan arms build-up. Giving credit where credit is due for its long-term effect on global military spending, the First Gulf War may have been the most expensive war ever fought.
Similar interests are at work today. All four major U.S. weapons makers have hit all-time highs on the stock market since the bombing began: Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and, not least, General Dynamics, the family firm of Chicago’s Crown family, who have bankrolled much of Barack Obama’s political career.
A headline in Fortune magazine on September 13th crowed: “The war on ISIS already has a winner: the defense industry.” The article reported, “…defense analysts are pointing to a pair of sure-bet paydays from the new campaign: for those making and maintaining the aircraft, manned and unmanned, that will swarm the skies over the region, and for those producing the missiles and munitions that will arm them.” It listed Hellfire missile maker Lockheed Martin, Tomahawk cruise-missile maker Raytheon and munitions maker General Dynamics as well-positioned “to reap the biggest windfall.”
If the President gets his way, the Third Gulf War, like the First, will forestall serious cuts in the U.S. military budget or any reorientation of the militarized U.S. economy to address the pressing needs of the American public. Any small reduction in weapons sales to the Pentagon will be balanced by the marketing value of a high-tech bombing campaign to generate a surge in U.S. weapons exports, as in the 1990s, adding fuel to a world on fire.
Another disquieting parallel between 1990 and 2014 is that Saddam Hussein and ISIS were both creations of the CIA. These monsters are undoubtedly “our” monsters. What does it say about our leaders that they reserve their most self-righteous fury for those who do their dirty work but then turn to bite the hand that feeds them, a select club that also includes Manuel Noriega and Osama Bin-Laden?
The CIA hired 22-year-old Saddam Hussein in 1959 to assassinate General Qasim, the revolutionary leader who overthrew the Western-backed Iraqi monarchy in 1958. The plot failed and the CIA whisked Hussein to safety in Beirut, wounded in the leg by one of his fellow assassins, then to Cairo, where he was a regular visitor at the U.S. Embassy.
With CIA support, the Baath Party overthrew and killed Qasim in 1963, and Hussein rose through its ranks to become President of Iraq. The U.S. and other Western allies supplied him with weapons to wage war with Iran, including chemical weapons and DIA satellite intelligence to target them. Two months after Hussein used chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurdish villages, Donald Rumsfeld arrived in Baghdad to negotiate closer relations and reopen the U.S. Embassy. Only when Hussein invaded U.S. ally Kuwait did he become the new bete noir of U.S. propaganda.
The U.S. and its allies have spent 3 years deploying and arming proxy forces to overthrow the government of Syria: flying in weapons and jihadis from Libya in unmarked NATO planes; setting up command centersand training camps in Jordan, Turkey and now Saudi Arabia; throwing open the Turkish border to flood Syria with special forces, jihadis and weapons from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Balkans and elsewhere; cynically scheming to undermine the Annan peace plan in 2012; and rejecting abundant evidence that U.S. proxies in Syria were more brutal and dangerous than the government they were sacrificing the people of Syria to overthrow. Now that the propaganda bubble has burst in President Obama’s face, ISIS has become America’s new bete noir, or should we say “the new Saddam Hussein”?
The huge U.S. investment in its tools of violence creates dangerous corrupting influences on the policy process in Washington, but it also comes with a high cost when it comes to dealing with the problems it creates in the real world. As a U.S. general famously remarked, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Neoconservative U.S. foreign policy is, by definition, a hammer in search of nails. But, to state the obvious, every problem is not a nail. The world has real problems that our corrupt, militarized government lacks the moral, diplomatic and intellectual resources to solve, and more hammering can only make things worse.
But even after President Obama himself declared that there is “no American military solution” to the problems the U.S. and its allies have caused in Iraq and Syria, he promptly reverted to the default option: bombing. When you only have one tool, the pressure to “do something” means only one thing: bombing to prevent ethnic cleansing, but which actually triggered ethnic cleansing, in Kosovo; bombing to restore warlords to power in Afghanistan and flood our own streets with heroin; bombing to destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan; bombing to support jihadi militias and plunge Libya into chaos; bombing to push Yemen to the verge of disintegration; bombing to plunge Somalia back into chaos every time it tries to pick itself up off the floor; and bombing to shock and awe Iraq into an endless state of war.
After 94,000 U.S. air strikes since 2001 have spread chaos and violence to country after country, our morally, legally and intellectually bankrupt leaders still have only one response: more bombing. Substituting an addiction to billion-dollar bombers for a real foreign policy based on the American public’s interest in peace and international cooperation leaves them without real tools to fix the damage they’ve done. They rummage around in their embarrassingly limited tool-box, and like Monty Python’s Spam-loving Vikings, all they can come up with is: bombing, bombing, bombing, bombing and bombing.
In 1928, when world leaders drafted and signed the Treaty for the Renunciation of War, or the Kellogg Briand Pact, they renounced “war as an instrument of national policy,” and then hung German leaders for violating it. The U.N. Charter, the enduring international vision and legacy of President Roosevelt, expanded that commitment to peace and international law.
Since 1990, the U.S. has restored war as an instrument of national policy, on the myopic and arrogant presumption that the collapse of its strategic enemy would permit it to reshape the world through the illegal threat and use of overwhelming and deadly violence. To overcome the political and legal obstacles toits policy of aggression, the U.S. has developed a sophisticated strategy of “information warfare” to demonize its enemies and politically justify its aggression. It has adopted the techniques of Hollywood and the advertising industry to create false narratives and choices, appealing to fear, racism and the worst aspects of human nature, while abusing and manipulating the best instincts of young Americans who volunteer to serve their country: their humanity, their courage to defend the downtrodden and their belief in freedom, justice and democracy.
We must somehow find the political will to speak truth to power and to elect and empower new American leaders who will make a historic recommitment to peace, disarmament, diplomacy and the rule of law. There are things that we can all do to make our voices heard:
– Work with Peace Action, United For Peace and Justice, Win Without War, Veterans For Peace,Progressive Democrats of America, the Green Party, RootsAction, or whichever peace movement groups are the best fit for you.
– Call your Representatives’ staffers before and after they vote on critical war and peace issues. Check Peace Action’s Congressional Voting Records to see how your Reps have voted in the past, pay attention to how they vote in future and start holding them accountable. Some progressive Democrats take brave stands for peace, but get little recognition for it, so learn to tell the difference between a real peacemaker and a warmonger, Democratic or Republican.
Just as Iraqis deserve better than a choice between ISIS and Shiite death squads, you don’t have to settle for a choice between war criminals with different letters after their names. But you can’t elect real peacemakers if you can’t tell the difference. If you made a mistake with Obama, you’re not alone. Have you met the Nobel Committee? But please, don’t get fooled again!
Nicolas J. S. Davies is the author of “Blood On Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.” Davies also wrote the chapter on “Obama At War” for the book, “Grading the 44th President: A Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader.”