[Al Qaeda's] strategic objective has always been ... the overthrow of the House of Saud. In pursuing that regional goal, however, it has been drawn into a worldwide conflict with American power.
- John Gray, Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern
Al Zarqawi ... is an example of how the west has created bogeymen. Al Zarqawi is also an example of how the bogeymen have a habit of, eventually, fulfilling the role we give them.
- Jason Burke on the founder of al Qaeda in Iraq and its progeny ISIS
I know it's not patriotic, but every time I hear some politico talk of bombing Iraq and Syria in response to the gruesome massacre in Paris I think of The Battle Of Algiers and the scene where a leader of the guerrilla movement is captured by the French military. A French reporter asks the man how he can justify the gruesome carnage from explosions in cafes and bars. "We'll be glad to exchange our satchel charges for your jet bombers," he says.
Always angling to be the farthest right of the Republicans, candidate Ted Cruz honed in on the moral issue from Dick Cheney's dark side. Cruz questioned whether a concern for civilian deaths was fitting when it came to the need to bomb ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Jeb! said we should only protect Christian refugees. Trump hollered to his fans, "We need to bomb the sh*t out of ISIS!" Pressed by the reactionary right of Marine Le Pen's National Front, French President Hollande publicly declared war (whatever that meant in 2015) and increased the number of bombing raids on targets inside Syria provided by US intelligence. Reports suggested there were significant civilian casualties. Anti-Assad activists pleaded on Twitter for the French and other western forces to restrain their bombing, since, as Cruz understood, western bombs kill lots of people victimized by ISIS. Being caught in the crossfire between ISIS and the bomb-crazy West helps drive refugees to flee to Turkey and Europe. Sympathy for these refugees is evaporating rapidly, since fear-mongering demagogues are stigmatizing them as potential terrorists. Twenty US governors have said, "Not in my backyard. Send them back to where they came from."
It's not a pretty picture of western humanity in crisis. Narcissism is not a wholesome trait.
The West feels righteous in bombing; it doesn't seem to know what else to do. Unlike "the terrorists" who attack innocent civilians in restaurants and music venues, the West proudly declares it does not intentionally target civilians. The scene from The Battle of Algiers suggests the truth is always complicated. In such a fear and vengeance heavy cycle, the question which side ends up snuffing out more "innocent" civilians is avoided as too intellectual, too much a trap leading into unpleasant discussions of history and morality. This was true following 9/11 and is now flowering again following Paris. Intense emotions of horror and mourning leading to calls for vengeance trump the understanding of history and the tiresome search for truth. It certainly trumps the cause of peace.
Like the scene from The Battle of Algiers, Paris and its aftermath calls to my mind a tragically prescient remark by Susan Sontag in the aftermath of 9/11. "By all means let's mourn together, but let's not be stupid together." The consensus today is that the invasion/occupation of Iraq was a terrible foreign policy decision. It's why George W. Bush is a virtual hermit. In retrospect, sacrificing thousands of American lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives and trillions in US resources to invade and occupy a nation that had nothing to do with 9/11 was a clear case of being "stupid together." All it accomplished was to empower Iran and infuriate Sunni Arabs like Abu Mos'ab al Zarqawi in western Iraq to morph themselves into a psychopathic regime they call The Islamic State. Those determined to see it otherwise are, in Sontag's equation, being willfully stupid for their own ends.
Though the United States, Britain and others bear significant responsibility, the Islamic State is a regional problem. I'm not a pacifist, and I'm not suggesting a murderous regime like ISIS can be de-fanged and displaced from power without violence. The best example is the murderous Khymer Rouge regime in Cambodia, also a reaction to US provocation. That regime was made history by the Vietnamese, once they'd rid themselves of United States aggression. In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is key, since its Wahhabism is the inspiration for al Qaeda and ISIS; it's the Saudi's decadent riches and pro-western politics that angers these extreme elements. The Saudis don't want to touch this Pandora's Box with a ten-foot-pole; the US knows that upsetting the decadent Saudi Kingdom by asking it to fight ISIS will only further empower Shiite Iran. Turkey, of course, has made a devil's bargain with the US for an airbase: The proviso is the US will stand aside as Turkey attacks the Kurds, by far the most effective force fighting ISIS. The real problem in the Middle East is how royally screwed up it is. European colonialism and US imperialism had a great deal to do with this. It's hardly surprising the Saudis, the Egyptians and the Israelis tragically depend on the American National Security State to save them from themselves. It's not surprising that many of those left over -- like Iran -- hate us for the same reasons.
Instead of working to resolve this ever-more-compelling quagmire -- ie., using our good offices to maturely figure out and help implement a sane, mutually-workable regional structure -- most US leaders characterize the problem as the United States has lost its mojo as leader of the free world, and the only way to get it back is more violence. Richard Slotkin wrote a book in 1973 called Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. His thesis is that our "founding fathers" were really not those powdered-wig enlightenment sophisticates in Philadelphia who wrote the founding documents breaking away from Britain. No, our true founding fathers were "those who " tore violently a nation from the implacable and opulent wilderness." They were rogues, adventurers, missionaries and killers. Slotkin's thesis is "the myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience." When the going got tough, somebody was gonna die.