Response to Starr: The Case for Withdrawing from the War Against ISIS

This is a contribution to "Prospect Debate: Should We Fight ISIS?"

Paul Starr wants Barack Obama to accelerate the war on ISIS. Starr’s proposal would only prolong a war that we cannot win and that is unraveling the fabric of our democracy.

Impatient with the pace of the president’s current re-escalation in Iraq and Syria, Starr echoes Hillary Clinton’s demand for “more, faster.”

He wants us to arm the Sunnis. But we have been arming the Sunnis, many of whom have channeled these weapons to ISIS and other extremists. Giving them even more arms will widen the flow. After 13 years of war we still do not seem to know which Sunnis—if any—are actually on our side.

Like Clinton, Starr wants more U.S. troops on the ground. But how many? We already have 3,500, and rising. Republicans like John McCain and Jeb Bush are at least willing to specify numbers: 10,000 and 20,000 respectively. We had over 100,000 in Iraq and still couldn’t stabilize it. Starr and Clinton just want “more.”

Like everyone else, Starr wants the surrounding Arab states to send more soldiers. Again, echoing Clinton, he writes, “We could also accept offers of ground troops from Arab countries.” What offers? The Obama administration has been trying desperately for several years to get our so-called coalition allies to put up their armies against the Sunni extremists. They remain missing in action. Not because Barack Obama has rejected their assistance, but because they’d just as soon leave fighting their co-religionists in Iraq and Syria to us, while they go after their Shiite enemies in Yemen.

Finally, Starr urges that Obama do a better job at projecting a language of “power”—“emphasizing strength at home … freedom and equality” and tolerance toward non-extremist Muslims. This is exactly the language that Obama has been using for the last several years. What catchy phrases does Starr have that Obama and his speechwriters have missed?

Starr’s impatience with the pace of the war is understandable, but misplaced. There is a reason that neither the President nor his critics have a clear strategy for winning: The war is already lost. None of the objectives for which we claim to be fighting—ending terror, building democracy, creating political stability—can be achieved with continued U.S. intervention.

We have thrust ourselves into a snarled tangle of ancient religious and tribal feuds about which we have little understanding and zero capacity to resolve. Our nation-building is mired in corruption and incompetence. Our intelligence services consistently misread events. And our diplomacy has produced a hornet’s nest of contradictory and unreliable alliances.

Supported by enough U.S. drones, bombers, and commandos, bought-and-paid-for local armies can, of course, recapture territories here and there. With the help of the Russians, a massive re-escalation might eventually degrade and perhaps even destroy ISIS. But it would leave a chaotic and ungovernable wasteland of civilian corpses, maimed children, obliterated villages, and millions more refugees.

The recent retaking of Ramadi by U.S.-directed elite Iraqi units required 630 bombing raids that left 80 percent of the city of 400,000 reduced to unrecognizable rubble. Survivors, including hungry and dying children, huddle in ramshackle refugee camps outside the city. Asked by a New York Times reporter when people could return to their homes, an Iraqi officer answered, “Homes? There are no homes.”

Rebuilding just Ramadi would take $10 to $12 billion. The U.S.-led coalition has pledged $50 million toward a UN fund for rebuilding all of Iraq.

ISIS is much more entrenched in Mosul (population 1 to 1.5 million) and Raqqa (200,000), the two cities Starr wants us to take by Election Day. To drive them out by then would produce an impact on civilians akin to Ted Cruz’s “carpet bombing.” 

The net result of these “victories” would be to further swell the pool of Muslims who hate America.

ISIS is but one of many groups using that hatred as a ladder to power. In order to stop the others from popping back up in this grisly game of whack-a-mole, American troops would have to keep a heavily armed lid on Iraq and Syria—and probably Lebanon, Jordan, Libya, and Yemen—for as far into the future as we can see. The price would be enormous, and the American electorate—who will not even tax itself to pay for the war—will eventually have no stomach for it.

We cannot win this conflict for the same reason we could not win the Vietnam War: We are foreign invaders, brutal enough to alienate the people, but not brutal enough to completely pacify and subjugate them.

Since 1980 the U.S. has invaded, occupied, or bombed 14 different Muslim countries. We see ourselves here as saviors, but we are widely seen there as successors to the British and French: armed occupiers demanding that these nations redraw their borders, remake their societies, and pump their oil for our profit and convenience. Note Starr’s suggestion that Syria be carved into three parts—which would require someone (guess who?) to oversee the forced relocation of populations and remain there to keep the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds from each other’s throats.

Polls report unfavorable views of the U.S. throughout the Muslim Middle East. Both Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq say their lives are worse than they were before we invaded. The Sunni extremists are certainly not widely loved. But, they are seen by many as heroic resisters to the American neo-crusaders, and—among the Sunnis in Iraq—to the Shiites we installed in power after we toppled Saddam Hussein. Hence the continued supply of men and women willing to blow themselves up in order to get us out.

ISIS needs us. Without a continued American presence, it would lose the ability to market itself as the Islamic champion against Western neo-crusaders. Moreover, if ISIS is the threat to the region that Washington says it is, then the Sunnis and Shiites, Turks and Kurds, Saudis and Iranians, should be compelled for their own survival to stop it. They already have the arms, the troops, and the money to take it down; their combined armies are some 15 times the size of ISIS’s, which doesn’t even have an air force. And if it turns out that the Islamic State is not threatening enough for them to collaborate, why should this be our fight?

The idea that we need to battle Muslim extremists in Arabia or else we will have to battle them in Kansas is paranoid nonsense. 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.

Yes, ISIS beheads its enemies. So do the Saudis. As the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud, recently observed, if you want to know what an ISIS dominated caliphate might be like, check out Saudi Arabia, where the society is ruled by the repressive Wahhabi radicalism that inspires the Islamic State. The Saudi government is Washington’s best Arab friend.

After 13 years of fighting in Iraq and Syria, our government admits there is still no end in sight. Retired General Charles Wald tells The Washington Post, “We’re not going to see an end to this in our lifetime.” Meanwhile, the costs to America’s future pile up. We are diverting vast resources from an economy that is becoming less equal, fair, and competitive. The war is exhausting our moral capital as well—unleashing the suspicion, fear, and bigotry that Starr is right to worry about. Endless war means the endless erosion of our democracy.

So it is time to stop asking how we win this war, or how we can manipulate it to help Democrats win the next election, and turn to the question of how we get out.

Many who agree that we should never have gone in worry that if we pull out we will lose our “credibility” around the world. That same anxiety kept us in the Vietnam War long after both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon knew it was lost. We finally fled in disgrace. Yet we have more respect among the Vietnamese today than when we were bombing them 40 years ago. Ronald Reagan “cut-and-ran” when Hezbollah suicide trucks in Lebanon blew up 241 Marines in 1983, but he still had enough credibility left to make the deal with Mikhail Gorbachev to end the Cold War. 

Leaving would, of course, be logistically complicated and cost money up-front; we have obligations to people we would have to compensate and probably resettle. But there is no good option. The choice is either pull out now or be chased out later—at the cost of more lives, treasure, and national honor.

Next, Paul Starr: "Isolationism is No Answer"

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