Like many Americans with a memory, I’m stunned how easily this country can be convinced to support another undeclared war in the Middle East. All the media has to do is run a week of programming alluding to nice folks getting their heads chopped off, then do a big poll that establishes the “fact” that the general public wants action and then BAM: Drop the bombs! No Congress necessary.
This new war with ISIS, just like other undeclared wars in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, is justified by the same logic as the others: “We’re fighting them over there so we’re not fighting them over here.” It’s a childish idea that only makes sense in a world without airlines, the internet, and history.
So first, a brief history of American interactions with “ISIS”.
During the “Arab Spring”, people throughout the Middle East came out into the streets to protest their corrupt political leaders. In Syria, the leader was Bashar al-Assad, who is Shia (aligned with Iran) and Baathist (aligned with the late Saddam Hussein.) Assad is obviously not popular with the western powers, but he’s particularly despised by Israel, which identifies his regime, along with Iran, as the main patrons of Hezbollah, a “terrorist” force fighting on Israel’s northern border.
When Assad was challenged by his people, many of his geopolitical opponents hoped his government would fall, and they put their money where their politics was: giving hundreds of millions (maybe billions?) to support rebel groups fighting a civil war against Assad. One such segment of the groups fighting Assad were Islamist Sunni, and one such group in this segment was ISIS.
I’ll let the mainstream media tell you why the USA is now fighting ISIS. I’m not entirely clear on the matter. One thing I am clear about is that the strategy of funding Syrian rebels to fight anyone, be it Assad or ISIS, hasn’t been working. If past performance is any indication of future results, it won’t be long before the training and weapons the US government sends over to Syria fall into ISIS hands as well.
A broader question Americans should asking themselves and their politicians is: do we really want to send more weapons into a region of the world that has been bombed by America for decades? Why would people there do anything but take our weapons and use them against us?
Another question worth asking is why do we want to keep increasing the number of Syrians and Iraqis being bombed by America? Isn’t that a surefire way to make more people hate America? And, in these technologically empowered times of $500 drones, plastic explosives and polished online videos inciting people to conduct lone wolf attacks on Americans, isn’t it clear that it’s never been easier for hatred of America to turn into a terrorist attack on Americans?
More weapons won’t solve the ISIS problem. Neither will bombing our new
We need nothing less than a new foreign policy approach: one that focuses on achieving our objectives without murdering people and making more folks hate America.
Below are a few ideas to suppress ISIS without resorting to murder, from someone whose only qualification is that he graduated from a prestigious university with a major in history (and a concentration in Middle Eastern and African.)
1. Partition Plan
Iraq and Syria are nations created by Europeans during the fall of the Ottoman Empire with World War I, and the borders were designed for purely European political reasons. It was called the Sykes-Picot agreement, and it basically said that the French could influence Syria without interference from the British and the British could influence Iraq without interference from the French.
By the 1970s, both Iraq and Syria were governed by Baathist political parties using “big man” patronage and violence to hold onto power. They also both resisted US domination of the region and acted belligerently towards Israel, resulting in the US targeting them for regime change.
If your interest is political stability, pursuing regime change is a bad idea, because regimes enforce borders, and during the process of change, those borders become weaker. If people don’t like the borders, during the transition between regimes, they’re going to want to change them.
After the USA invaded Iraq and changed the regime, one might have expected the US to facilitate a process whereby the Iraqi people could rethink their borders – particularly since these borders were imposed a century ago by foreign nations and have always been unpopular. Splitting up Iraq would have likely been quite popular among Iraqis, and this could have been done in a managed way that empowered civil society and limited sectarian violence. It might not have been a pretty process, but it would have been a whole lot prettier than a decade of civil war in Iraq and the rise of ISIS.
Due to the logistical realities of the Middle East, the US could have never invaded Iraq without Turkey’s support. And, due to political realities, the Turkish government wouldn’t have supported a US invasion if the US’s intention was to partition Iraq. Why? Because Turkey wants to make sure the Kurds in Iraq and the Kurds in eastern Turkey don’t get together to form a Kurdish nation with territory in both Iraq and Turkey. Indeed, Turkey has been fighting Kurdish separatists who’ve been trying to do just that for decades.
Other nations aren’t so excited about partition either. Once people start rewriting borders – no one knows where it will stop: Turkey, Syria, Iran, Kuwait, Egypt, Spain, Scotland, Texas. The prospect of border instability terrifies the global power structure – even more than ISIS does.
Since the US and its allies failed to redraw Iraq’s borders, ISIS is more than happy to do it instead — and give the people of that area something they genuinely want: to more easily travel between Iraq and Syria.
2. Administrative Support
Governance — more specifically, the administration of a municipality or a nation — isn’t easy. You have to collect taxes, provide services, respond to constituencies, maintain roads, organize elections and so much more. A lot of this work is an information management challenge — and there are software tools and operational techniques that can make this process easier, more efficient and more equitable. Did America provide these tools to the Iraqi government so it could efficiently provide services to its citizens? No. Did they outsource this process to contractors who took US taxpayer money and provided the Iraqi government with the lowest quality products they could get away with providing? Of course! Does the Iraqi government have any type of modern administrative system to deliver services to constituents? Doubtful. Do people now aligned with ISIS praise its administrative effectiveness and capacity to provide for local people? You bet.
Instead of setting Iraqi governments up to get ripped off by US corporations, the US government should be providing free of charge administrative software tools and operational techniques to the governments it wants to see succeed. The US should be vigorously training an effective bureaucracy that empowers the Iraqi people to govern themselves in more effective ways instead of spending its resources on an ineffective army that handed its weapons over to ISIS.
If people think their government is doing a good job, they’re less likely to side with the rebels that want to overthrow them.
3. Treat PTSD from the Sky
It’s safe to say that every time a bomb goes off in Iraq and Syria, many of the people who witnessed the explosion develop some type of post traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is a difficult to diagnose. One of its symptoms is rage. That’s a symptom that many people in Iraq and Syria certainly have — and lots of it is directed at Americans.
Fortunately, studies now show that PTSD is actually relatively easy to treat using a substance called MDMA. Unfortunately, MDMA is classified by the US government as a Schedule 1 drug – meaning it’s illegal to possess for any reason. Is the recreational use of MDMA more of a threat to public health than millions of people running around with untreated PTSD? I doubt it.
Instead of dropping bombs on Iraq and Syria, we should be dropping MDMA and training people there to facilitate sessions that, in conjunction with MDMA, can treat and even cure people of PTSD. Obviously this won’t bring back the lives of family members that have been lost, or the homes that have been destroyed, but it would help create opportunities for folks to get relief and heal themselves, at least partially, from the damage war brings to individuals and communities.
4. Engage over Social Media
ISIS is very active on social media – which means their members can easily send messages out to the world, and the world can send messages to them. This is a pretty new phenomenon. Smaller terrorist groups have been active on social media, but never has such a large group been so active.
This creates a lot of opportunities for the US. It enables genuine engagement and dialogue with the enemy. We should be talking with them, not just to convince them to be nice, but also to learn more about them.
That’s a nice thing to do, but there also ways to go on the offensive using social media. We can create fake ISIS accounts that distribute confusing messages – messages that create ambiguity about ISIS’s activities, political objectives, religious interpretations, cultural norms, etc. The US can also engage in classic trolling activities by dumping ridiculous comments into ISIS forums, sending them pornography, and being just plain old mean – so mean that people no longer want to hang out in the online spaces that ISIS hangs out in. This is tactic that worked against Occupy. It’s hard to organize online if all the online spaces that people organize are filled with meanness.
5. War for Oil or Peace for Water?
People make decisions based on perceived economic benefit. Are people going to prosper more under ISIS or a regime more friendly with the US?
At the end of the day, issues in Iraq and Syria, like issues everywhere, boil down to economic realities. Who has the jobs? Currently the answer is the oil industry. Where is the money? The places where the oil industry is active.
The US can and should help develop economic engines in Iraq and Syria that have nothing to do with oil. A great way to do this is to focus on water instead of oil – and help people in the Middle East turn barren deserts into lush landscapes that produce an abundance of fruits, nuts, vegetables. It’s very possible to do this using proven permaculture techniques. It requires some heavy machinery (no tanks), designers who understand how to build-up water resources in arid climates, and folks who want to grow lots of food.
If the US were turning Middle Eastern deserts into verdant farm land that created local jobs (instead of extracting resources and bombing people) groups like ISIS wouldn’t have any recruits.
These are just a few ideas that come from a different perspective – one that attempts to propose that Americans will be safer if Iraqis and Syrians are happier with their lives.
I think Thomas Jefferson would agree.
“Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none….”
– Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801
“History bears witness to the fact, that a just nation is taken on its word, when recourse is had to armaments and wars to bridle others.”
“All the world is becoming commercial. Was it practicable to keep our new empire separated from them we might indulge ourselves in speculating whether commerce contributes to the happiness of mankind. But we cannot separate ourselves from them. Our citizens have had too full a taste of the comforts furnished by the arts & manufactures to be debarred the use of them. We must then in our defence endeavour to share as large a portion as we can of this modern source of wealth & power.”