Mostly whimsical reflections on life
Like December 7, September 11 will always be a day of infamy in the minds of Americans.
While there is less doubt and second-guessing about U.S. involvement in World War II than the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, Americans remain doubtful about engaging in foreign conflicts. They reluctantly see the need to get involved when conflicts touch America or Americans directly. Even then, the common instinct is to get in and get out.
Thus it was ironic on the eve before September 11, President Obama told the nation it must shoulder the armor of war again, perhaps for a long time. He said we must degrade and destroy a new terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State, a radical Sunni faction willing to use any means to intimidate its enemies and exterminate those it regards as infidels.
Obama’s apparent wavering and inaction as events have unfolded in Iraq and Syria, as well as in Yemen, Libya and Somalia, mirror the indecision and wariness of a majority of Americans. Obama campaigned on extricating America from war and wanted his legacy to be successfully exiting Iraq and Afghanistan. Many Americans, of all political persuasions, shared his hope.
Whatever the moral implications, Americans quietly cheered Obama’s use of drone warfare to track terrorists and kill them by remote control. The daring attacks by U.S. special forces to kill terrorist leaders such as Obama bin Laden appealed to the cowboy in all of us to see the bad guy bite the dust.
The newest terrorist threat poses serious and different challenges for our bad-guy paradigm. The Islamic State has created a caliphate and with missionary zeal applied religious law that seems medieval in its views and intolerance. Dissenters are sentenced to death, usually without a trial or inquisition.
Much to our amazement, this brand of terrorism holds appeal, especially for disaffected young men who feel the world is against them. Through the Islamic State, they see an opportunity to get even and do in person what before they only could do in video games.
The Islamic State controls territory and has oil resources to bankroll its enterprise. Despite its barbaric justice, the group has mastered the modern arts of social media. They know how to make a video go viral.
Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, has resorted to old-school propaganda by telling big lies over and over. The Islamic State tells the brutal truth: We’re right, you’re wrong and you will die unless you agree with us.
Fighting the Islamic State means fighting, uncomfortably, shoulder to shoulder with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad who proclaims his legitimacy as ruler, despite using chemical weapons on his own people. Syrians are left to wonder what’s better – guys in gas masks or guys with hoods.
To Americans, the Middle East is a big mess. Men in turbans, women in berkas and societies in perpetual turmoil. If we didn’t get so much oil from the region, we might just close our eyes and let ancient antipathies continue to play out.
Our attempts at nation-building have been spotty and certainly less successful than in Japan after World War II. Whatever else he did or didn’t do, General Douglas MacArthur weaved a democratic constitution into the social fabric and government machinery that already existed. He took what was and transformed it into something better. Japan went from mortal enemy to reliable ally.
The prospect of that happening in Iraq or almost anywhere else in the Middle East seems remote. Too many people want to look back, not forward. Too many people want to exploit, not forgive past humiliations. Too many people see oil as a club, not a resource.
But as Obama told Americans in his speech this week, we don’t have the option of ignoring the region or its people. He was right to quote the Yazidis refugee who thanked Americans for saving her life. That may be the best we can achieve, while suppressing brutality that could add another sad date to our national calendar.