Friday, September 19, 2014

Is U.S. Response Strengthening ISIS?

September 19, 2014, 9:45 a.m.

Note: Click here for an updated list of prior columns and blog essays about terrorism and war.

Playing Into the Terrorists' Hands

William Hale Thompson, known as "Big Bill," Chicago's colorful 41st mayor, was in office 1915 to 1923, and again from 1927 to 1931. He chose as his opponent King George V of the United Kingdom (1910-1936), whom he claimed was America's greatest enemy, and threatened to punch him in the nose should they ever meet. [Photo source: Commons,]

So far as we know, King George V wisely chose not to come within arm's length of Big Bill Thompson, nor to respond in any other way to the threat, and ended up holding his office for five years beyond the last term of the mayor.

A part of Thompson's motive in this choice of campaign strategy was an effort to divert public concern about Chicago's crime and corruption during the 1920s -- a kind of "oh, look at the squirrel." But it was also an effort to enhance his own stature -- to say, in effect, "I am big, tough and important enough to stand toe-to-toe with the King of England."

Similarly, it is important for the U.S. to at least be aware of the extent to which we have unwittingly accepted the role of the King in the ISIS script in which they play Big Bill Thompson. What we are doing is creating, supporting and encouraging ISIS' ability to recruit more terrorists and otherwise expand their influence. It can present itself as an organization that is the full equal of the U.S., under attack by the U.S., but willing to stand toe-to-toe with us, give us a punch in the nose, and defend their followers from the Great Satin. [Photo source: Commons,; 1911 coronation portrait by Sir Luke Fildes.]

Now for us to "be aware" of the unintended consequences of our speech and actions is not the same as "we should, like the King, simply ignore ISIS." Many choices in life are, as the punch line in the joke puts it, "compared to what." A rational, benefit-cost analysis may come to the conclusion that, no matter how much we are aiding ISIS in achieving its goals, the damage we are causing to our cause is less than if we were to abandon military action. That's a topic for another blog essay. This discussion is merely designed to explore the ways in which our talk and actions are aiding, rather than harming, ISIS.

As ISIS' latest professionally produced propaganda film demonstrates, however evil and barbaric these folks may be, they are also very skilled manipulators of public opinion. Without America's military involvement in Iraq ISIS is nothing but evil and barbaric -- in the eyes of Iraqis as well as Americans. With our involvement, ISIS (Mayor Thompson) has more than a squirrel, it has its King of England (the United States), now "the Great Satin," a western invader, something it can use to divert the population's frustration, despair and hopelessness away from Iraq to a land, government, and people thousands of miles distant. [Photo credit: AP file photo.]

To do this, it needs the support of the American people, something most easily obtained by frightening us into believing that we are at risk of another 9/11. The cheapest, easiest, most dramatic and powerful way to do this is with YouTube videos of a beheading -- or two, or three.

For Bill Maher's take on how ISIS is manipulating the American people to its advantage, watch this video clip from his show:

They know that we have a significant number of weapons manufacturers and hawkish politicians who keep their drum sets in the basement, always ready to dust them off and start beating the drums of war. The "military-industrial complex" of which President Eisenhower warned us has only been strengthened over the years. With pressure from the hawks, and driven by a terrorized population, soon other elected officials find the easiest political stance is to support the option of "war" -- as both the House and Senate did yesterday in authorizing $500 million for the training of troops in Syria. Jonathan Weisman and Jeremy W. Peters, "Congress Gives Final Approval to Aid Rebels in Fight With ISIS," New York Times, September 19, 2014, p. A10; Ben Hubbard, "U.S. Goal Is to Make Syrian Rebels Viable," New York Times, September 19, 2014, p. A1.

ISIS needs the U.S. to appear to be waging war with them. Every bomb we drop, every civilian we kill, every American soldier or CIA contractor we put in Iraq or Syria (notwithstanding our "no boots on the ground" policy), further strengthens ISIS' claim that it is both willing and able to stand up to the United States. We increase its ability to recruit more terrorists from an increasing number of countries around the world. "Recruits from 74 countries are among the estimated 12,000 foreign militants in Syria and Iraq, many of them fighting with ISIS . . .." Somini Senguptasept, "Nations Trying to Stop Their Citizens From Going to Middle East to Fight for ISIS," New York Times, September 13, 2014, p. A1. We give credibility to its claim of being a "state." Nor does our constant use of its phrase, an "Islamic State" (the "IS" in ISIS and ISIL) help to reduce its prestige among potential recruits and locals.

In short, we appear to be playing into ISIS' hands, playing their game by their rules, reacting as they predict and desire rather than taking the initiative, providing an essential element of their game plan, without which they would be far less of a threat. To the extent these intuitions are correct, and whatever conclusions one may draw from them with regard to modifications of our anti-ISIS strategy, they would seem to be worthy of serious consideration.

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