BLOWS AGAINST THE "EMPIRE"
The 'Islamic State' and
the Ukraine Crisis in American Politics
Monday, September 1, 2014
by RICHARD E. BERG-ANDERSSON
A century ago, as I now type this, Europe was coming to the end of but its first month of what was originally called 'the Great War' (which would come, soon enough, to be called 'the World War' [and which, but a quarter century later, would have to actually be numbered!]), that which would (though no one could yet know it as August became September 1914) become a more than four year-long military conflagration (the then-ultimate in "organized barbarism", as a Japanese diplomat once termed War while in conversation with Western diplomats less than a decade prior, when he wryly told them: "Only when we [the Japanese] had proven ourselves in organized barbarism [here referring to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904/05 (which Japan won)] were we then admitted into your councils [those of the Great Powers in the West] as civilized men").
'Tis true it has been reported that, as darker and darker war clouds gathered as July had already become August that year, then-British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey remarked that "the lamps are going out all over Europe: we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime" (then again, we only know this because Grey himself mentioned his own quote in his own memoirs, written more than half a decade after World War I had ended [by which time, of course, he well knew just how many such lamps had, already, so "gone out"!]: Grey's quote gained much currency when, a few years after Grey's own memoirs had been published, the person to whom Grey had made the comment also recorded it in his own memoirs)-- but, even a month on, the vast majority of those within the countries back then-belligerent, on both sides ('Allies' or 'Central Powers') did not expect the conflict to last anywhere near as long as it actually would: that is, they still fully expected the "lamps" to be "re-lit" anon ("Home by Christmas!" [Christmas 1914, that is] was the cry as the troops marched off to war: those who survived, however, would not be home 'til Christmas 1918 at the earliest).
The saber-rattling (some of it still rather literal, in fact, back when horse cavalry was still a most useful military element) that led to this Great War- as all who have been exposed to at least secondary school History should know- began over the assassination of the Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary and his morganatic wife in Bosnia by a Yugoslav nationalist (at a time when the various 'south Slav' peoples chafing over some of their number- the Croats, the Slovenes, the Bosniaks- being ruled from Vienna were all [even the already-independent Serbs], more or less, "on the same page" [unlike the case during the immediate wake of the collapse of the Yugoslav Federation during the 1990s]) some five weeks before those 'Guns of August' were first to fire. Just as no one could yet know, as Summer became Fall back in 1914, that the war then raging would become as lengthy and destructive as it ultimately became, no one- at the height of Summer 1914 [yet after the assassination of the Austrian Archduke], before that war had even begun- could yet know that a 'World War' was even in the offing.
The point of this little historical summary of the origins of a now-century old conflict that has, long since, well spread itself across the pages of many a school or college and university History book (or even History books read by those now out of school merely for pleasure, if not also enlightenment) which has, at least at some point in life, come into contact with all of those now living who can also read these very words of mine is to remind all who might be reading this of three little words that so well sum up an essential problem within contemplating and interpreting current events-- these being:
"You never know!"
And so: we, now as August becomes September 2014, cannot yet know how what we are now witnessing (if only vicariously: via television, radio or newer Internet/WiFi-based platforms) out there in the World at large will, in the end, play out... and this much should ever be well kept in mind!
At the end of my most recent Commentary prior to this one, I opined that any damage done (whether in areas over which it has taken control in both Iraq and Syria, as well as- if only potentially- elsewhere in the World) by the so-called 'Islamic State' ("the State formerly known as ISIS or ISIL"?) could yet be contained... only if we here in the West remain both vigilant at home, as well as responsive "over there", as regards how we deal with IS and its many and various threats. So, what did I mean by this?
Well-- as is still the case with the ongoing 'Ukraine Crisis', it primarily means that- as I once put it in an even earlier Commentary of mine from this year- "Emperor" Barack will have to "step up" in service of the 'Empire' and take the lead (as well as the "hit"), in this case re: taking direct action against what we can now abbreviate as IS (and, indeed, authorizing air strikes against the Islamic State and those fighting in concert with it [see below] in Iraq [and, yes, in Syria as well] is part and parcel of doing just this).
My use above of the term 'Empire' herein (as well as in the title of this piece) is, of course, not at all meant either ironically or sardonically-- and it is certainly no accident!
In yet another Commentary of mine from earlier this year, I pointed out that the United States of America is not so much a country- that is: a Nation-State in the usual sense of the term- so much as it is the core of an 'Empire'- indeed, the third of three in succession dating back to the drafting, and subsequent ratification, of its own Federal Constitution in the late 1780s: itself a "home-brew" version of the very British Imperial System from which the Americans had, at the time, only lately freed themselves. However, as I also explained therein this 3rd 'American Empire' is not an Imperium, in which the Federal Government of the United States of America has direct- at least, political- control over said Imperium's components; rather, the 3rd 'American Empire' is a Constellation: that is, a mere collection of allies and protectorates and, as a result, [i]t is the politicoeconomic and sociocultural ebb and flow within- as well as the many slings and arrows (perhaps literal, as well as figurative) from without- this "3rd American 'Empire' " that is ever in play.
This much must be understood before one can well discern how the emergence of the 'Islamic State' abroad might itself play within electoral politics at home, here in America, as we are now- so soon- to enter the Fall 2014 Midterm Election campaign in earnest.
Many, mostly on the Right, have been criticizing- where not even, at times, attacking- President Obama (the aforementioned "Emperor" Barack, of course) for his alleged lack of "understanding" of an organization such as the 'Islamic State'-- not that there's all that much to understand, really (that which I outlined in my immediately previous Commentary is, I suppose, as good an "understanding" of IS as any), nor does there seem to be all that much good evidence that, for the most part, Obama's detractors understand it any the better (hence my criticism, in that piece, of seeing IS as merely some kind of "apocalyptic group" within Islam)! In truth, however, the President has to very much deal with two key components of domestic political reality here in these United States of America:
The first is that there seems to be no real desire- on the part of the average American voter (to whom much attention is being paid as we go into the aforementioned Fall campaign)- to get the American military involved again in an Iraq from which it has, except for some token remaining forces for limited security purposes, only recently extricated itself (likewise, as well as in addition, we Americans are still trying to- as are our NATO allies- get the last remaining troops out of Afghanistan: the last thing most Americans- many of these conservative [so it's not only liberals fairly quaking, as conservatives are so often quick to charge, under some kind of "Vietnam syndrome"!]- want right now is sending "boots on the ground" back into Iraq, as well as- quite possibly- Syria, even if it would be to more directly take on such a scourge to Civilization as appears is the 'Islamic State').
Nope--- unlike during the "run up" to the Invasion of Iraq in the Spring of 2003, there is little- if any- discussion of historical precedents within the American Doctrine of 'Anticipatory Self-Defense' (such as that about which I myself once wrote what now seems so long ago), nor have there been all that many considerations as to whether the President might- or might not- have the support of a Supermajority of the American People necessary, as I myself had also opined at around the same time as that of the previously linked Commentary, for him to even successfully prosecute just such a war...
thus, it appears that "boots on the ground" in either Iraq or Syria to take on IS is out as an option at this typing, for domestic political reasons as much as any other.
That leaves air strikes against IS which- in Iraq, at least- is something of a "no-brainer": we Americans, in general, still feel no little obligation to protect the many and disparate peoples within Iraq (as well as preserve, as best one can, Iraq's own territorial integrity), considering the outright botching of the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime as a fairly immediate result of that 2003 invasion (albeit botching aided and abetted, in no small part, by the kinds of antagonisms- among these, Sunni vs. Shi'a [that which the 'Islamic State' is now- more than a decade later- all too well taking advantage of (as will be discussed below)]- that then made it so much easier for a branch of al-Qa'eda to do its own "dirty work" in Iraq with horrific consequences; antagonisms that made it that much harder- and forced the taking of too long a time- to put together most fully functioning democratic governance for an already unstable country [one that was, and is, unstable for reasons I have already discussed back on 18 June last]: because of all this what I described as an all too brief "window of opportunity" for Iraq to became, at the least, a nascent democracy in the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein had, and has, pretty much been lost). But, in the main, it's still very much our (meaning America's) mess- as much as that of ordinary Iraqis- that still needs to be cleaned up there now more than a decade on: thus, despite our having so extricated ourselves from Iraq, we Americans, for the most part, do not wish to see that on which so much blood and treasure was spent so suddenly disappear!
The 'Islamic State', of course, does not recognize such as, say, the internationally-agreed border between Iraq and Syria, however: after all, the Caliph has effectively instituted his own nascent regime (such as it is) over territory straddling said border and, as far as IS is concerned, that border no longer exists where it might bisect areas which IS might control! The reported mass executions of captured Iraqi and Syrian soldiers (a quite literal application of the phrase "Take no Prisoners") is simply the new 'Caliphate' dealing- in their own brutal manner- with those that IS sees as operating against it within its own domain!
As a result, obviously, the 'Islamic State' is as much a threat within Syria as it is within Iraq (especially since IS recognizes neither) and this, clearly, implies the need for air strikes against it in Syria no less than these might be utilized in Iraq; however, this also creates a rather serious domestic political problem for an Obama Administration trying to, in addition to crafting and implementing Policy, aid candidates of the President's own Democratic Party in the Midterm Elections not much more than two months hence-- for several reasons:
First, there is the all too obvious complication- when it comes to Syria- that, since IS is on the side of those fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad in that country's civil war, hitting IS from the air (however successful, or not, this strategy in the long run) is, in the short run, aiding and abetting a regime of which, some three years ago, the Obama Administration said "Assad must go!"
But, beyond the above, there is also the overall reluctance to get American military assets and personnel all too involved in Syria: part of this is so-called "war-weariness" perceived amongst large swaths of the American electorate (especially among those who are the more liberal ideologically) but much of this (and this well cuts across the conservative vs. liberal ideological divide) is this prevalent notion that- unless America's allies themselves get more directly involved in taking on IS in Syria as well- America will only end up doing the "heavy lifting", expending its own blood and treasure in Syria very much on behalf of Europe!
Much has been made- by President Obama's detractors- about what they see as his 'admission', during a recent press conference, that his Administration has "no strategy yet" for dealing with the 'Islamic State' in Syria ("Ooh, he has absolutely no strategy!", many amongst said detractors, at times almost gleefully [it is an Election year here in the USofA, after all!] coo much like a bevy of schoolgirls contemplating the campus 'hunk' sauntering by them); however, given the President's actual words, *I* certainly didn't take this to mean 'no strategy at all' but, rather, a stern refusal to commit to a specific strategy right now (as well as at least an attempt to not "telegraph one's plays" before actually executing a "game plan", itself still a work in progress). Yet even this is altogether disconcerting because it does make it appear as if the United States is wasting no little time "fishing" for just the 'right' strategy that will, in the end, be "The" one that gains the most overt support from members of NATO and/or the European Union-- support that will then give the President much "cover" for domestic political and electoral purposes.
What is here needed, instead, is the very kind of thing I meant when I wrote "Emperor" Barack will have to "step up" in service of the 'Empire' and take the lead (as well as the "hit")- as quoted from myself earlier in this piece: a "hit", perhaps, domestically as well as internationally, yes-- but one so "taken" in order to, for lack of some better way of putting things, 'do what needs be done' against IS in Syria, no less than in Iraq. For the area within both Iraq and Syria in which the 'Islamic State' is (seemingly successfully, for the most part, of late) attempting to assert control borders the current American "Empire" (Turkey, just to the north of this region, being a NATO Member-State). IS, perhaps someday, extending its unchecked reach into Turkey would, thereby, bring into play issues related to provisions of the North Atlantic Treaty (a treaty that- per Article VI, clause 2 of the Constitution of the United States- is as much a part of "the supreme Law of the Land" as any Congressional statute or even the Constitution itself!)...
but to wait until a NATO Member-State is, perhaps, itself directly affected by the 'Islamic State' before taking even the lowest level of decisive action against it would be folly of the first order!
Still, while 10 Downing Street has raised Britain's Terror Threat Level at least a notch, there has been no saber-rattling from the White House: which can be either a good thing or a bad thing... You never know!
Also bordering America's "Empire" is the ever-simmering 'Ukraine Crisis'- seemingly about to "boil over"!
Russian military units have now either incurred into or invaded (call it what you will!) eastern Ukraine on behalf of such self-proclaimed polities (no less "self-proclaimed" as the 'Islamic State', really) as the Donetsk and Luhansk 'People's Republic's. Here, of course, American military action of any kind is not, so it seems, even in the offing: economic sanctions against the Russian Federation- by the European Union, as well as the United States- continue (at least for the time being) to be the only pragmatic, where not also effective, response.
Here, too, President Obama has his detractors (many, if not most, of whom are among those already described earlier in this piece) who claim that an Obama Administration consulting with Europe before acting re: Russia's involvement now in eastern Ukraine is the very essence of "Leading from Behind"-- that is: seemingly letting Europe take the lead, the quintessential "tail wagging the dog". But would these critics rather Europe be reluctant in this regard? For many of these same critics of Obama are also those most concerned what I have already mentioned above: the United States ending up doing the "heavy lifting", expending its own blood and treasure very much on behalf of Europe!
In fact, nothing else- at least so far- seems so far from the truth!...
for Europe, as a whole, appears genuinely concerned with what Russia is now doing in Ukraine and, further, seems willing to take serious action- ratcheting up economic sanctions against the Russian Federation, as might be necessary- both as members of the European Union (whether NATO member or no) or NATO itself (whether EU member or no). Right now, this is hardly the stuff of "OK, Adolf-- here's the Sudetenland, just please don't bother anyone else!" back in early 1939.
As a result, if only for the time being, the 'Ukraine Crisis' is still the easier to currently manage on the part of the "Emperor" Barack (one, of course, would think [even hope!] that things would be far different [in terms of any reaction by NATO] were Russian [or, at least, Russian-backed] troops bearing down on Kiev itself and/or threatening to cut western Ukraine off from the Black Sea [by taking control of Odesa, for example: which would also further fuel the aspirations of Transnistrian separatists in nearby Moldova (like Ukraine, not a NATO Member-State)]): this despite Russian President Vladimir Putin's own saber-rattling with such as his recent, rather ominous, "reminder" that his Russian Federation is still armed with nuclear weapons. And, if Nina Khrushcheva is, in fact, correct in her assessment- earlier this year- that Putin getting more directly involved in Ukraine itself would be 'biting off more than he can chew', then NATO may not ever have to take military action on behalf of a neighboring Ukraine (or, for that matter, Moldova)...
but, again: You never know!
So, we have to now turn back to America- and the West- primarily dealing with the 'Islamic State', a far more intractable problem (of course):
for the 'Islamic State' is not alone within its own insurgency against the Iraqi government: if only on the theory of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend", what can fairly be described as Sunni 'Supremacists' (many of whom have ties to the al-Tikriti clan from whom once emerged one Saddam Hussein) have been fighting in concert with, where not also alongside, IS.
These are not Jihadists (at least in the religiously-driven [however misguidedly so] sense)- indeed, most such Sunni Supremacists in Iraq would not at all want to live their lives under the brutally theocratic governance still dreamed of by the self-proclaimed Caliph Ibrahim (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS) and his followers. However, much like the various groups who fought alongside what became the Taliban in early mid-1990s Afghanistan (but who also did not want to live in a State governed according to what might fairly be termed "Talibanic" rules and regulations), these see their however tenuous alliance with the 'Islamic State' as a means to an end: the final eradication of all non-Sunni (in many, if not most, cases: non-Arab) elements within an otherwise historically diverse Iraqi population (as Mesopotamia- throughout its own history, going well back into Ancient times- has ever been diverse)...
and, in all too many ways, these Sunni Supremacists (who can also fairly be seen as [Arab] ultraNationalists) themselves make the 'Islamic State' even more of a threat within both Iraq and Syria than it otherwise might be!
The possibility, where not even the probability, of Theocrats (such as those leading the 'Islamic State') and such Sunni ultraNationalists working together for a kind of "one Party fits all" Iraq, albeit for different reasons, is the very thing I myself once touched upon (again, during the "run up" to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq now more than a decade ago) where I wrote First of all, of all, much has to be said of "marriages of convenience", not to mention "strange bedfellows", in the realm of Geopolitics and Secondly, there is the competing- yet complementary- interest... as disparate as the respective visions of a possible future Pan-Islamic state each might possibly conceive might, in fact, be (except for the fact that, in that case, the Theocrats were al-Qa'eda and the ultraNationalists were those, back then, propping up Saddam Hussein's still, at the time, quite intact regime)...
'IslamoFascism' was the word I chose, back then, to use in order to best- as well as succinctly- describe this symbiosis (and, in the course of writing the piece from which I quoted myself in the previous paragraph, I then went on to justify the very use of such a term: however, unlike the George W. Bush Administration that itself used- as well as misused- the same word, my own contention was one of Analogy, not similarity!). In this regard, I had quoted, in that now-more than decade old Commentary of mine, extensively from an observer of the rise of Fascism (including its bastard form, Nazism) in Europe going into the mid-1930s, one who- among other things- wrote that, as for European Fascism of that era, its mystic aspects... make an especially powerful appeal to the young generation, adrift in a crumbling world without star or compass, such young'uns know[ing] little of democratic institutions or the spirit of liberalism. [Their] conscious years have been spent in an atmosphere of hopelessness and instability (this from Vera Micheles Dean's essay included in New Governments in Europe: The Trend Toward Dictatorship, published in 1935)...
it certainly has to be admitted that the Islamic State's own notion of a 21st Century "Caliphate" contains, within itself, no little such "mysticism"!
But, again: I also wrote in my immediately preceding Commentary to this piece, that it must be admitted, MONEY (along with the potential POWER that might go along with it: that is, if one can move up quickly within the ranks) all too well attracts-- and, as is the case with street gangs, young people... with seemingly nothing much better to do (whether these be jobless teens/young adults or middle class young men... rather bored with studying academic subjects in which their families expect them to, someday, well succeed) find a sense of adventure, otherwise lacking in their own current experience, in so joining just such a group recruiting them in, say, Britain or even here in North America-- hence the apparent success of the Islamic State in so recruiting impressionable Muslim (and, perhaps, even some non-Muslim) youths here in the West via various and sundry Social Media platforms...
the baser motives of those joining such as the Islamic State are, thereby, themselves joined with whatever "mysticism" lies within the more theological aspects of IS Politics: as a result, those most attracted to such virulent Jihadism have many a mixed motive!
Likewise, the attraction of Sunni Supremacism to such "wayward" youth within- as well as without- Iraq, no less than its attraction to those significantly older once attached to Saddam Hussein's now-long toppled regime (all of which well explains the many defections of Iraqi soldiers and police to the side of those fighting against the current Iraqi government in Baghdad, no matter that government's own constitutional underpinnings (at least as compared to those- or the lack of same- re: Saddam Hussein's own government). A formidable challenge, indeed: not only for the current government of Iraq, but also for the West in general and the United States of America- especially in its claimed "exceptional" position as "leader of the Free World"- in particular!
Therefore, we are now back to that which I wrote about- once again during the "run up" to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq-- that is: thinking outside the box (or, to use the phraseology of the late 'gonzo' journalist Hunter S. Thompson, "turning Pro" [from his "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro"]) which I therein defined as think[ing] about warfare in completely new and as yet untested terms-- in the instant case, in relation to how best to tackle this twin specter of a Jihadist proto-Caliphate such as the 'Islamic State' and Sunni Supremacism in a seemingly ever-crumbling Republic of Iraq.
As is the case with such a "twin specter" now, so it was back when I wrote therein that [d]efining the problem to be solved is rather simple, really, going on to note that we all had to understand that [t]he battleground on which we are now engaged is, instead, well outside the physical plane, that what- for example- was attacked by such as al-Qa'eda back on 11 September 2001 (or, for that matter, what was attacked on 11 March 2004 in Madrid or 7 July 2005 in London: both of which took place after I had written this) was not a Nation-State: rather, it is a State of Mind.
Unfortunately, in terms of so "thinking outside the box" since 9/11, we in the West have largely (if only so far [for only in the phrase "if only so far" is there still hope!]) failed-- and such failure crosses Party, as well as ideological, lines (whether the supporters of such Parties and/or promoters of such political ideologies yet realize it or not). Now, we are faced with the above-described "twin specter" and- at least to this point- our own response to same (as well as the political debates over said response here in the United States, at least) seems far more of what I described, in that same piece, as fueled by the frustration that terrorists... don't, in fact, operate in the "normal" realm of traditional warfare and battle, as a result of which too many people in the Pentagon and White House simply can't bring themselves to think in terms other than the traditional objectives of projected military power as one has seen them throughout History so far... while the real military objective... is something well beyond seizing land that cannot all that well be couched in terms of the very words "military objective" as they have been traditionally used for some 4 Millenia-plus of Civilization previous to our own time.
Therefore, it is actually something of a good thing that the Obama Administration has "no strategy yet" against this "twin specter": for air strikes are but something of a "Band-Aid" placed over a still bleeding fairly long and deep gash. My fear, however, it that- as all too often has happened in this 'War Against Terror'- the Tactics (in this case: targeted air strikes against IS [and allied Sunni Supremacist] positions: here meaning geographical positions- whether in Iraq or Syria- when the real war should be against the positions of a theologized Politics) will become the Strategy at a time when what really needs to be changed is not a dangerous regime but, rather, an even more dangerous mindset!
The conundrum that this very concept conjures is here best described the way I myself put things in that same Commentary, where I wrote that not going to war... will not do a blasted thing to reduce the threat of... terrorism directed against the West in general and the United States in particular... Likewise, going to war... is also not going to reduce the threat of... terrorism against the USofA and, by extension, the West. Why? Because the struggle- in the present instance, with the 'Islamic State' (along with its Sunni ultraNationalist allies)- is, quite unlike previous wars, not on the physical plane to begin with!!
Moreso than was the case during the Vietnam Conflict in which the phrase first came to the fore, we are here dealing far more with "hearts and minds" than against mere weaponry and the difficulty this presents is that of crafting a strategy to keep primarily young Muslim men here in the West from being caught up in the vortex of Jihad through such as the Islamic 'State' being, in essence (as well as in reality), what Ms. Dean herself, back in the mid-1930s, described as a "totalitarian" entity , which absorbs the individual... and in which alone the individual can fulfill his destiny, that in which [i]ndividual liberty is entirely subordinated to the interests of, in this case, the Islamic State and its Caliph himself claiming- even within the implementation of the most heinous brutality against IS's perceived enemies (more often than not, merely the innocent who themselves have no real direct impact on anti-IS policy)- to only be serving the interests of God...
man, that's POWER!!!
But it's Power against which "Bombs Away!" is not going to at all solve the longer-term problem.
Thus, I can only end this piece the same way I ended that of late February 2003:
We live in weird times... we now have to begin thinking "weird", the better to deal with them!