When ISIS took control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, on June 9th, our disbelief followed soon after. How could those seemingly directionless militants in Syria with a penchant for beheadings and the millennial love-fest app KIK erase the Sykes-Picot borders? Laminated passports and woe over Robin Williams’ death never seemed to be part of the post-colonial militant deconstruction criteria.
Disbelief quickly became support for military action; despite a 41% approval ratings for President Obama, 71% of Americans support strikes against ISIS in Iraq and 65% support strikes in Syria. Support for arming the Kurds has risen from 45% last month to 58%.
Those numbers make sense when we find that 91% of Americans also see ISIS as a “serious threat” to the “vital interests” of the United States and that most Americans feel the media is, in fact, underplaying that threat. Hence, little surprise that last week the Commander in Chief announced a coalition of allies who would take on ISIS in Iraq and Syria in a war that would be called anything but.
So, why now? After all, US Forces-Iraq commander Ray Odierno was quoted as stating,
“al-Qaeda in Iraq… hasn’t changed. They want complete failure of the government in Iraq. They want to establish a caliphate in Iraq…Now, that’s a tall task for them now, as compared to maybe it was in 2005 or ‘06. But they still sustain that thought process. And it has nothing to do with the United States.
You know, they continue to look around the world for safe havens and sanctuaries. And what they look for is ungoverned territories. And so what they want… is to form an ungoverned territory or at least pieces of ungoverned territory, inside of Iraq, that they can take advantage of.”
Despite ISIS’ long, bloody sectarian history in Iraq and recent, but bloody history in Syria, it was only with Mosul’s fall that ISIS emerged on our national ideological map as a new force of ‘global evil’. There was no “cancer” spreading through the Middle East, no “ugly, savage, inexplicable, nihilistic, and valueless evil” and no pursuit to the “gates of hell” when Iraqi Shi’I (and many Sunnis) were being slaughtered by the hundreds on a monthly basis. 2013 was Iraq’s deadliest year since 2008; according to reports the number of dead ranged from at least 9,000-10,000. According to a 2014 Iraq Body Count analysis, in six months alone Iraqis had ‘seen the massacres of entire families, as they slept, or traveled to a holy place; sometimes 5, sometimes 12 family members at a time.’
When Syrian cities, like Aleppo, were besieged and minorities, like the Alawites and Kurds, in Syria were being beheaded or forced to convert, there was no talk of the need to “degrade and ultimately defeat” ISIS.
The United States military had kept a distant eye on ISIS for years, first when it was an Al Qaeda contingent and later, after being ousted by Al Qaeda Central, as an independent group making sizable ground in Syria. ISIS was considered one in the same as a threat as Al Qaeda: present, global in reach but not an influential regional power broker – the way a state can be. After all, Caliphate Dreamin’ did not mean Caliphate Happenin’.
So, when Mosul fell so did the collective jaws of the US government – not of shock, but the realization that the years of warnings and predictions should have been taken seriously and prepared for. The sudden capture of Mosul, even if not a surprise, was a major blow to the guy we had supported into power, Nouri al Maliki and a major blow to what will be, at minimum, a $6 trillion investment over the next forty years.
How could a war be sold to an American public already exhausted from Iraq and Afghanistan?
ISIS currently asserts control over 35% of Syria, most of its gas and oil fields and centers Raqqa as its capital. And that’s okay even though it isn’t different, in principle, from controlling parts of Iraq. We have some stake in Syria, but it’s not our investment. Our interests determine the difference between ISIS in Syria and ISIS in Iraq, that is how we then construct what and who is Evil. That difference is also in how we perceived the fall of Mosul: a threat to the democratically elected government we put in place in a country where we helped create the very same violent sectarianism TV pundits now pontificate over as ancient (it’s not).
And that’s when ISIS really became Evil – the sort of Evil we couldn’t ignore because our strategic interests were threatened. And that’s how you sell the war.
When ISIS got on ‘our’ turf, we took notice. When ISIS got close to ‘our’ people, we took notice; when ‘our’ people were beheaded, we took notice. And it’s when we took notice that we also started taking action and names. Even the airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq last month weren’t a sudden realization of moral duty to protect targeted minorities. Rather, they were very clearly to protect American personnel at the CIA base in Kurdish-controlled Erbil that IS forces were quickly approaching.
But a CIA base doesn’t sell “panicked militarization”; it doesn’t evoke emotion. But making something out to be Evil and the ensuing belief in the exceptionalism of oneself as good and just, however, do.
The bitter truth is that Evil is a talking point and not some omnipresent point of moral reference. Something becomes Evil when our state interests are threatened and our sentiments of exceptionalism are aroused. We thus adopt a discourse of moral outrage and moral cover when our government takes on courses of action that would be hard to justify to the American public (or to the world) in the dry language of national interest and strategic necessity.
And in that pursuit of that power and control, our own evils become ‘difficult choices’ and ‘poor foreign policy decisions’. It’s why few question the glaring absence of congressional authorization of the President’s recent decision. And it’s how devastated Yemen and Somalia all of a sudden become success stories.
The War on Terror’s greatest victim has been history, which has been the greatest witness to how quickly the face of Evil can become the smiling face across the table. Throughout the nineties and early 2000s, it was the Taliban – our own Frankenstein – that evoked the lexicon of Evil so much so that the most concise summary of US foreign policy was coined: “you’re either with us or against us.”
More than dropping the puritanical rhetoric, it’s time for this country to drop the facade of actually caring about anyone other than itself.
Because it simply doesn’t.