John Buell

John Buell

ISIS and the Politics of Endless War

Did President Obama underestimate the dangers posed by ISIS? That seems to be the question with which commentary all the way from NPR to Fox News is obsessed. Yet almost no attention is devoted to the origins of ISIS. That omission may not be accidental. Discussions of the origins of ISIS’s and other extremist sects like el Qaeda raise awkward questions about our own values and practices. Yet absent analysis of the origins of ISIS we will pay a heavy price in the very freedoms we purport to defend.

Is asking about the reasons for the mass murders in Paris an attempt to justify or excuse this atrocity? No more so than when police inquire into the motives of a murderer Equating explanation with justification is an attempt to quash not only critical analysis of US Middle East policy but also to hide the terrorist elements in the US role in the world.

Miles Krauter, a political economist writing for Canadian Dimension, reminds us of a Pentagon report commissioned after 9/11 by Donald Rumsfeld but never widely discussed: “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states.”

The vast majority of Muslims, whether in the US or the Middle East, do not support terrorism It kills and cripples many innocents, including possibly themselves. There is a hard core of extremists, just as there are extremist Christians all too willing to employ violence in their cause. Yet even with respect to extremist Muslims the media forget an important part of the story.

Krauter cites the work of Canadian journalist and author Linda McQuag, author of It’s the Crude Dude. She reminds us that a progressive secular leader was overthrown by US intervention and replaced with a repressive monarchy. She adds that “[w]ith all democratic avenues of protest shut down in Iran, opposition gravitated towards the mosques, where large gatherings were still permitted and where a hardened form of resistance began to emerge.” Furthermore, she argues, “[m]oderates came to be regarded among dissidents as naïve and hopelessly ineffective, unable to stand up to the rigours of seriously challenging the ruthless shah and his American backers.”

Omitting this story not only excuses US foreign policy, it also closes off discussion of some of the less obvious costs we pay for a fossil fuel based economy.

More recently, there is perhaps no better example of the preferential treatment US allies receive than that of beheadings. ISIL’s barbarity is purportedly revealed in its gruesome executions while such executions are a regular occurrence in Saudi Arabia, though hardly ever mentioned by our corporate media.

Coverage of the air war over Syria is marred by the same double standard. When US airplanes bomb a hospital it is a tragic mistake whereas ISIL is guilty of callous disregard for civilian life. Yet no bomb or missile has ever been so precise as to avoid all civilian casualties. US military deployment of such weapons amounts to a death sentence not merely for those President Obama has ordered executed but also for many of their family, friends, and neighbors.

This war is endless, and US policy serves only to assure that outcome. Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University international relations theorist, points out that advocates of endless war are “undeterred by the evidence that the more deeply we insert our soldiers into the Greater Middle East the more concerted the resistance they face; that the more militants we kill the more we seem to create; that the inevitable, if unintended, killing of innocents only serves to strengthen the hand of the extremists.”

Even as the US manages to occupy formerly insurgent territories, its Manichean view of the world creates enemies. Bacevich adds that presidential envoy to Iraq Paul Bremmer’s “fateful decision…to disband the entire Iraqi military … rendered unemployed, and thereby infuriated, half a million armed men … US military officials on the ground in Iraq had brought to Bremer’s attention that Iraqi army and police units were awaiting instructions, but none ever came. Instead of helping to stem an insurgency, the Americans helped to fuel one.”

Endless wars, however, do serve some purposes. Not only does the privatization the governmental functions of fallen enemies open up many opportunities, the demand for high tech weaponry expands as well. And as these weapons often end up in enemy hands, US contractors enjoy the benefits of sales to both sides.

Beyond the crude economics of war, there is a rhetorical and psychological side as well. A permanent state of war, a sense that our way of life is under siege by the consummate evil force, can forestall inner doubts about that way of life as well as encourage increasing surveillance and repression of dissent. The President assures us that we will not let terrorism rob us of our precious liberties, but his actions suggest otherwise. In concrete terms the liberties are those most valued by his predecessor. Welcoming the French president, Obama celebrated his vision of America: “Our communities have come together. We’ve gone to ballgames and we’ve gone to concerts, and we’ve gone shopping. And men and women who want to serve our country continue to go to military recruiting offices.” If that is all were left with, the terrorists have surely won.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2016

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