ISIS War: The Case For "Cut-and-Run."

Liberals are intimidated and the campuses are silent. This frees the bi-partisan War Party that dominates Washington from having to face an inconvenient truth: the war is lost.

Despite some testy rhetoric, most of the President’s critics are urging him to do more of what he is already doing: aerial bombing, arms and money to presumed “moderates” to fight both ISIS and the Assad government in Syria, and pleas to our allies to do more. Hillary Clinton wants to add a no-fly zone in a slice of northern Syria. Most agree that the boots on the ground should be someone else’s. Yet slowly but surely the President is caving in to the pressures to re-escalate, most recently by sending another 200 commandos to join the 3500 US troops already there.

The 12-year war has already cost upwards of $2 trillion, killed a million people – 4500 of them Americans – and created several million homeless and destitute refugees. The violence and disorder has spread throughout the region, spilled over to Africa, struck at the heart of Europe, and brought homegrown terrorist attacks to the United States. Our nation-building is mired in corruption and incompetence, our bloated intelligence services consistently misread events, and our most important “allies” in the region spend at least as much energy fighting each other as they do fighting ISIS.

Yet, any suggestion that we pull out remains outside the range of permissible debate in America. The very idea is dismissed with contempt by politicians, pundits and the gatekeepers of our media as an isolationist and cowardly call to “cut-and-run.” Without an anti-war argument, there is no anti-war movement.  Liberals are intimidated and the campuses are silent. This frees the bi-partisan War Party that dominates Washington from having to face an inconvenient truth: the war is lost.

The American military can of course still win battles. But even in the highly unlikely event that we would commit enough troops and bombs (with or without the Russians) to drive ISIS back into the desert, our experience tells us that it would soon return in another form. The pool from which these insurgents draw recruits would grow even larger, fueled by rage at the death of innocent civilians and the further destruction of vital infrastructure that such a “victory” would require. In order to keep them at bay, we would have to occupy Iraq and Syria – and eventually Lebanon, Jordan and beyond– for as far into the future as we can see. The cost in money and the sustained mobilization of troops would be enormous, and there is no imaginable political scenario in which the American people would be willing to pay it.

We cannot ultimately win this war for the same reason we could not win the Viet Nam War; we are unpopular foreign invaders. Our pop news media paints a portrait of the enemy as gang of religious fanatics made crazy by violent passages in the Koran. But people have been reading the Koran for 1300 years. If you listen to what they say now motivates them, as opposed to what we say now motivates them, it becomes clear that there is something missing in our picture of this War on Terror: Us. We are occupiers, successors to British and French colonialists, demanding that they allow us to remake their culture in our image and to control their oil.

Polls tell us that the brutality of ISIS and al Qaeda is not popular among ordinary Arabs. But, in a world in which Western money and power has corrupted so many leaders, the extremists’ cause of ridding the region of our domination resonates far beyond their membership. Osama bin Laden appealed directly to this sentiment when he told the world that he organized the nine-eleven atrocity because of the 40,000 US troops in his native Saudi Arabia. Similarly, ISIS said the Paris murders were in response to months of French bombing of them in Iraq and Syria. For all its religious fanaticism, ISIS has drawn many of its top military commanders from Saddam Hussein’s very secular army.

To recognize the anti-colonialist element in this conflict is not to justify murderers; it is to understand why so many people there see them as less repulsive than they see us.

We view ourselves as the world’s benign and indispensible policeman. Much of the world sees us as rogue cop. In a 2013 Gallup poll of 68 countries, the United States, by a large margin, was voted “the greatest threat to world peace,” with the largest negatives coming from the Middle East and North Africa. Both Shiites and Sunnis Arabs in Iraq say their lives are worse than they were before we invaded. Since 1980 we have invaded, occupied or bombed 14 different Islamic countries. So it should be no surprise that the State Department’s expensive public relations program to show Arabs the hideous behavior of ISIS is a complete flop. The message has no credibility coming from the U.S.  One Iraqi explained his people’s distrust of us to a Washington Post reporter this way:  “It’s based on racism – because the Iraqis don’t like Americans in the first place.”

We cannot be sure what would happen after a U.S. pull out.

But we know that ISIS needs us. Without the American presence, it loses its ability to market itself as the Islamic champion against the Western neo-crusaders. And left to themselves, Sunnis and Shiites, Turks and Kurds, Saudis and Iranians, should be compelled for their own survival to stop fighting with each other, at least temporarily, in order to deal with ISIS. Together, they already have the arms, the troops and the money to take it down. And if it turns out that the Islamic State is not threatening enough for them to unite, why should this be our fight?

ISIS is a very long way from getting control of Iraq and Syria, much less establishing an Arabian caliphate. And the claim that we need to fight them there or else we will fight them in Kansas is paranoid science fiction. Surely, if we end what is seen as a war on Islam, the motivation for terrorism by homegrown U.S. Muslim extremists would weaken if not disappear. Europe will continue to have a problem integrating Muslims, but that is a domestic issue that will hardly be resolved by dropping tons of explosives on Arab villages.

Meanwhile, the costs to our future pile up. It is not just a matter of draining away resources and the attention of our leaders from the desperately needed task of rebuilding our own society. It is also a matter of protecting fundamental democratic values. Already the threats to personal security have convinced Americans to tolerate the systematic surrender of privacy and civil rights to a secretive national security apparatus. The demonization of Muslims that has accompanied the War on Terror has already undermined our sense of compassion, reflected in the sad fact that majority in the U.S. oppose the resettlement here of a small number of Syrian refugees.

Pulling out would be complicated of course, and costly. We have obligations to people we would have to compensate and probably resettle. But our choice is either pull out now or be chased out later. The longer we persist, the more enemies we will make and the more blood and treasure we will spill.

As for concerns about our credibility, we should remember that we fled in disgrace from Viet Nam and seem today to have more respect than we did when we were bombing there.  And after Ronald Reagan cut-and-ran when Hezbollah suicide trucks in Lebanon blew up 241 Marines in 1983, he still had enough credibility left to make the deal with Mikhail Gorbachev to end the Cold War.

To get out of this trap, we need to think outside the narrow box of our current political discourse. But neither our generals nor our politicians have the necessary courage and imagination. So it is time for ordinary Americans to take responsibility. The Anti-War Movement is long overdue.

(First published on Huffington Post)

Jeff Faux

Jeff Faux, Member of the Editorial Board of Insight, is the founder and former president of the Economic Policy Institute and the author of the new book "The Servant Economy: Where America's Elite is Sending the Middle Class".