President Obama’s reaction to the videos of two American freelance journalists getting beheaded by Islamist militants gives me the uncomfortable feeling that the American people are getting punk’d — again.
The same thing happened 13 years ago this week, when a dozen and a half Muslim fundamentalists attacked our financial and political capitals using our own planes. The hijackers got exactly the reaction that they wanted: overreaction.You should never underestimate an adversary, least of all when their remarkable success against difficult odds have demonstrated the wisdom of their tactics. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, like the 9/11-era Al Qaeda from which it split, is not run by stupid people. Stupid people don’t take half of Syria away from its longtime authoritarian dictator – whose armed forces happen to be better equipped and trained – and half of Iraq away from a puppet regime backed by the world’s most ferocious superpower – in two years.
Considering ISIS through the lens of proper respect for their leaders’ intelligence, what were they thinking when they posted those two gruesome videos? Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Abu Suleiman al-Naser and other top officials of the Islamic State had to know they would provoke a political reaction. It has: More Americans (94%) are aware of the ISIS execution videos than any other news event in the last five years.
ISIS’ leaders also must have anticipated a military reaction. After the videos, a war-weary American public’s apathetic stance toward the civil war in Syria flipped toward strong support in favor of the bombing campaign announced by Obama (who paradoxically continues to poll poorly on foreign policy).
Clearly ISIS’ top brass believe they stand more to gain than to lose from the coming onslaught by U.S. drones and fighter jets. This should frighten us.
Put yourself into the mindset of the insurgents. Their enemies are the existing governments of the countries they seek to occupy: Syria, Iraq, possibly Jordan, certainly Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. But – again, like Al Qaeda in the early 2000s – they have a more formidable adversary: moderation.
To survive and expand, radical jihadists don’t need all, or even most, Muslims to join the fight. But they do require the tacit consent of the governed in the areas they control, and the political sympathy that prompts donors to send them the financial contributions that allow them to arm new recruits and hold their territory — factors that fuel legitimacy.
As radicals and fundamentalists, ISIS’ Manichean worldview portrays the West, and especially the United States and Great Britain, and their Middle Eastern client states – obviously Israel most of all – as monsters hell-bent on the oppression of Muslims, the exploitation and appropriation of Muslim lands, using moral corruption and godless capitalism as means toward global domination at their expense.
Until recently, most Muslims – including most Sunnis – didn’t buy it. Hundreds of millions of them drank, smoked, failed to pray regularly, and envied the liberalism and economic power of the West.
The genius of 9/11 was to provoke the United States and its allies into behaving exactly like the monsters Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups had long argued they were. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, brazenly embracing torture and mass kidnappings and opening a gulag archipelago of secret prisons everywhere from Eastern Europe to Guantánamo to jail ships floating in the Indian Ocean, as well as the brazen disregard for innocent civilians demonstrated by Bush and Obama’s willy-nilly drone program, convinced countless fence sitters and former moderates to join the militants, cut them a check, or at least look the other way. By the end of the Bush years, the United States was wildly unpopular, viewed as “violent” and “selfish” throughout the Muslim world.
We got trolled.
The tactics Obama plans to use against ISIS are more of the same. Once again, U.S. warplanes and remote-controlled killer air robots will rain death upon people, the vast majority of whom were innocent and had nothing to do with the group responsible for beheading those poor journalists. Once again, although we will on occasion succeed in killing some #1 or #2 “top terrorist,” we will lose this battle for hearts and minds because (a) the nature of guerrilla warfare is that no leader is indispensable and anyone can and will be replaced, and (b) each civilian death will generate thousands of fierce lifelong enemies – yes, some family members and many friends, but most of all the one group of people American pundits and journalists rarely reference when discussing “collateral damage” – ordinary people, there and in the region and around the world, who react with disgust and rage at our cruelty.
Ironically, disgust and rage are the very same emotions that triggered America’s latest tumble into the Islamist trap.
(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist, is the author of “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan,” out this week. Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)
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