Summer is over and it’s back to school – but not really. Summer does not end at dawn on the Tuesday morning after the extended Labor Day weekend – the autumnal equinox is weeks away – it just feels like it’s the end of something, because it is. It’s back to work and back to school, except Americans who want to keep their jobs don’t dare take vacation and most school districts now start the new school year in late August, or earlier. Still, it feels like the end of summer, and so it is, and the back-to-school lesson this time is world geography. On the Tuesday morning after the extended Labor Day weekend the president flew off to Estonia – a tiny but pleasant little county at the far eastern end of the Baltic Sea, right up against Russia, along with its neighbors, the equally pleasant but unremarkable Latvia and Lithuania. Like them, Estonia has been part of Sweden and Denmark at times, and Finland, and was occupied by the Soviets in the early forties, and then occupied by the Nazi folks, then reoccupied by Soviets, and then became one of the Soviet Socialist Republics, until the Soviet Union fell apart in 1989 – and two years later they were finally on their own.
They thrived. There may be only 1.3 million people there, but the place is prosperous and totally wired – everyone has fast internet and all that. Western-style democracy and a consumer-based economy suited them. A quarter of the population is Russian, but those are the yokels. Estonia, along with Latvia and Lithuania, joined NATO in 2004 – they’re comfortable with the Western European thing, and all the NATO nations, including the United States, had always held that the Soviets had grabbed these three little countries illegally. When the Soviets were suddenly no more, and there was only a diminished Russia out there, they bolted and never looked back. Vladimir Putin may want these three little countries back, for Greater Russia or something, but it’s too late for that. They chose. They chose NATO, which is a mutual defense pact. An attack on Estonia is the same as an attack on Germany or France, or the United States. Deal with it.
That’s why there’s war in eastern Ukraine right now, and why Putin had grabbed the Crimea from Ukraine. Those Ukrainians rose up and overthrew Putin’s guy in Kiev and announced they’d be increasing trade ties with Western Europe, and scaling back trade ties with Moscow, and would be applying for NATO membership. They’d be Estonia, only bigger, and less obscure. That seems to be why Putin is doing his best to destabilize what’s left of Ukraine. Even if Russia doesn’t take over the place, Russia can force the government there to declare autonomous “culturally Russian” regions in the east and elsewhere, kind of like the arrangement the Kurds have in Iraq, so the central government then wouldn’t be much of a government at all, which NATO wouldn’t like at all. They’d prefer to deal with a real country. NATO would say no to their application. Ukraine would not become another Estonia.
That’s the plan. Russia doesn’t have the military resources to roll in and simply take back all the former Soviet Socialist Republics – the locals wouldn’t stand for it, nor would the world – but they can do their best to support the beleaguered Russian enclaves in those countries. With military aid for those oppressed minorities there, and a few thousand of their own troops on the ground, just to help out, they can, perhaps, make the wholly unified governments in this country or that into a rather useless loose federations, not real countries at all. NATO would fall apart. Russia would be safe, surrounded by geopolitical eunuchs. Ukraine is a test case. Obama is quite right in refusing to call it an invasion. It’s a test case in turning a unified nation into a loose federation of independent regions that the central government can’t really control – kind of like Iraq at the moment. It’s a work in progress.
That’s why Obama flew off to Estonia, to assure Estonia, and all of NATO, that Putin wasn’t going to get away with this – together, they’d stop him, somehow. Obama will then fly to Wales to meet with heads of all the NATO nations, to say the same thing, and not much may come of it. The NATO nations prefer that the United States takes care of the messy expensive stuff, and prefer that the United States impose its own sanctions on Russia, because their sanctions on Russia hurt them as much as they hurt Russia. Obama will propose a joint effort.
That should be interesting, but on this side of the pond there’s John McCain and that crew saying screw NATO – send heavy arms to the Ukrainians now, and the trainers to show them how to use them, and the advisors to show them when and where to use them, and the drones and all the electronic spy stuff so they know just what the bad guys are doing, where, and so on. If they need air support, we could provide that, and maybe should – but at least we arm them to the teeth, for now. That’s what we did in 1964 in South Vietnam after all – we armed them so they could defend themselves. This time it might work out better. Sure, Russia could see this as a major escalation and really pour in the tanks and troops, but we could escalate right back. We could carpet bomb those troops and tanks. If they respond to that by escalating again, sending in their air force, we escalate again by sending in ours, and so on – but we’re America, damn it. They’d back down, or we’d reach a stalemate, staring at each other, fully armed and ready to fire everything at each other but knowing we’d better not. That would end this.
That worked in the Cold War just fine, didn’t it? Mutually Assured Destruction assured peace, more or less. That seems to be the thought here, even if Obama seems to think there are other ways to approach this. He could be clearer about those, but that’s not to be. Events which seem to call for pulling the trigger keep coming up. On the same day that Obama left for Estonia, and everyone in America was trying to figure where the hell Estonia is and why such a place even matters, and whether there’d be a test on this, something else came, something that called for a response:
An Islamic militant group released a video on Tuesday showing the second beheading of an American hostage in two weeks and blamed President Obama for the killing. The video raised the pressure on the president to order military strikes on the group in its sanctuary in Syria.
The hostage, Steven J. Sotloff, is shown in the video kneeling like the previous victim, James Foley, while a masked figure stands above, wielding a knife. Mr. Sotloff addresses the camera and describes himself as “paying the price” for Mr. Obama’s decision to strike the group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, in northern Iraq.
That raised the stakes:
The killing raises difficult questions for Mr. Obama, who last Friday said he had not yet formulated a strategy for using military force against the militants in Syria. As news of Mr. Sotloff’s death broke on Tuesday afternoon, just before Mr. Obama left for a weeklong trip to Europe and a NATO summit meeting, the White House struggled to deal with the implications for the president’s policy.
“If genuine, we are appalled by the brutal murder of an innocent American journalist, and we express our deepest condolences to his family and friends,” a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, Bernadette Meehan, said of the video.
It is genuine, and the dilemma is clear:
“That pressure is often the enemy of good policy,” said Daniel J. Benjamin, a former State Department counterterrorism coordinator and now a scholar at Dartmouth College. “There will be a clamor for the president to take military action, which may not be effective. If he conducts airstrikes and does not get the desired effect, there’ll be pressure for more airstrikes, and then to put boots on the ground.”
We never learn – one thing leads to another – but at least we learn our world geography. Did you know that Estonian is a language derived from Finnish and related to Hungarian? Now you do, and you now know Obama doesn’t like Cold War escalation traps:
As horrifying as this latest killing was, some former officials predicted that it would have little effect on Mr. Obama’s deliberations.
“Steve Sotloff’s murder was anticipated,” said Steven Simon, a former director on the National Security Council. “The unresolved issues relate to escalation within Syria.” The farther west the United States strikes ISIS, he said, the more it will be seen as intervening on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war.
All that Obama did was this:
On Tuesday evening, the White House announced that it had authorized a State Department request for 350 additional troops in Iraq “to protect our diplomatic facilities and personnel in Baghdad.” That would bring the number of American armed forces in Iraq to more than 1,100.
That’s a bit troubling, or it’s administrative. It will be called a weak-nothing of a response of course, but it wasn’t a response. It wasn’t related to the problem at hand. Escalation of force may not solve the problem at hand. Josh Marshall shares an email he received from a reader who was in military intelligence/counter-terrorism ops and has worked as a military contractor in Iraq:
Why is ISIL so successful? Simply put, they attack using simple combined arms but they hold two force multipliers – suicide bombers and a psychological force multiplier called TSV – Terror Shock Value. TSV is the projected belief (or reality) that the terror force that you are opposing will do anything to defeat you and once defeated will do the same to your family, friends and countrymen. TSV for ISIL is the belief that they will blow themselves up, they will capture and decapitate you and desecrate your body because they are invincible with what the Pakistanis call Jusbah E Jihad “Blood Lust for Jihad”.
I have worked the Iraq mission since 1987 and lived in and out of Iraq since 2003. TSV was Saddam’s most effective tool and there is some innate characteristic of the Iraqis that immobilizes them when faced with a vicious, assuredly deadly foe that will do exactly as they have done to others – and they will unsuccessfully try to bargain their way out of death by capitulating. The Kurds are not immune to ISIL’s TSV – 90% of which is propaganda seen on Facebook, Twitter and al-Arabiya. The Kurds have not fought a combat action of any size since 2003 and like the Iraqi Army it will take the Americans to give them the spine to get them to the first hurdle – they need a massive win to break the spell of ISIL’s TSV.
This is primarily psychological warfare. A massive “win” might break the spell, but it might not, and Jonathan Freedland suggests something else is going on here:
The state structures of both Iraq and Syria have all but collapsed. The result is a power vacuum of a kind that would have been recognized in the lawless Europe of seven or eight centuries ago – and which IS has exploited with the ruthless discipline of those long ago baronial warlords who turned themselves into European princes.
“Islamic State are jihadis with MBAs,” says [Iraq scholar Toby] Dodge, speaking of a movement so modern it has its own gift shop. He notes its combination of fierce religious ideology, financial acumen and tactical nous. “It’s Darwinian,” he adds, describing IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his inner circle as those strong enough to have survived the US hammering of al-Qaida in Iraq between 2007 and 2009. But what has been crucial, Dodge says, is “not ancient hatreds but this collapse of state power”.
Ah, this in a structural political problem, not a military one, but Robert Beckhusen sees military vulnerabilities:
Here’s the problem for ISIS. Since ISIS fighters operate semi-conventionally, they are easy pickings for these warplanes. It’s easier to hit vehicles and fixed artillery sites from the air than it is to strike individual insurgent fighters.
It is possible ISIS has limited anti-aircraft weapons, including shoulder-fired Stingers it took from the Iraqis. Indeed, the loss or capture of a U.S. pilot is a terrifying prospect for the White House. But the bulk of ISIS’s anti-aircraft weapons are DShK and ZU-23–2 heavy machine guns that the terror group has used with brutal effectiveness against Iraq’s dwindling helicopter gunship force—but which don’t stand much of a chance against fast, high-flying fighter planes.
Cool, but Anna Mulrine points out that others disagree:
The problem, some analysts point out, is that airstrikes tend to be most helpful against troops when they are massing. As it stands now, ISIS is “too big and too dispersed,” argues Christopher Harmer, senior Navy analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “They aren’t vulnerable to air strikes the way the Republican Guard was with their armored tanks and artillery tubes,” Mr. Harmer says. “Yes, ISIS has some of that – and we can hit it and should – but, fundamentally it’s a light infantry terrorist organization. You can’t beat those guys by dropping a couple of bombs here and there.”
On June 29, 2014 – or the first of Ramadan, 1435, for those who prefer the Islamic calendar to the Gregorian – the leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) publicly uttered for the first time a word that means little to the average Westerner, but everything to some pious Muslims. The word is “caliph.” ISIS’s proclamation that day formally hacked the last two letters from its acronym (it’s now just “The Islamic State”) and declared Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, born Ibrahim ibn Awwad ibn Ibrahim ibn Ali ibn Muhammad al-Badri al-Samarrai, the Caliph of all Muslims and the Prince of the Believers.
Okay, fine, now we have to learn about caliphates:
For Muslims of a certain hyper-antiquarian inclination, these titles are not mere nomenclature. ISIS’s meticulous use of language and its almost pedantic adherence to its own interpretation of Islamic law have made it a strange enemy, fierce and unyielding but also scholarly and predictable. The Islamic State obsesses over words like “caliph” (Arabic: khalifa) and “caliphate” (khilafa), and news reports and social media from within ISIS have depicted frenzied chants of “The Caliphate is established!” The entire self-image and propaganda narrative of the Islamic State is based on emulating the early leaders of Islam, in particular the Prophet Muhammad and the four “rightly guided caliphs” who led Muslims from Muhammad’s death in 632 until 661. Within the lifetimes of these caliphs, the realm of Islam spread like spilled ink to the farthest corners of modern-day Iran and coastal Libya, despite small and humble origins.
Muslims consider that period a golden age and some, called Salafis, believe the military and political practices of its statesmen and warriors – barbaric by today’s standards but acceptable at the time – deserve to be revived.
Okay now it’s a history lesson, explaining all the beheadings and the stonings and crucifixions, slavery, and that business of taxing those who refuse to convert to Islam, or killing them. Al-Qaeda didn’t declare a caliphate, so this is odd:
Mostly … caliphate declarations have been rare because they are outrageously out of sync with history. The word conjures the majesty of bygone eras and of states that straddle continents. For a wandering group of hunted men like Al Qaeda to declare a caliphate would have been Pythonesque in its deluded grandeur, as if a few dozen Neo-Nazis or Italian fascists declared themselves the Holy Roman Empire or dressed up like Augustus Caesar. “Anybody who actively wishes to reestablish a caliphate must be deeply committed to a backward-looking view of Islam,” says [University of Chicago historian Fred] Donner. “The caliphate hasn’t been a functioning institution for over a thousand years.”
Jonah Shepp adds this:
The designation of the ISIS “caliphate” still smacks of delusional grandiosity more than anything else. There is no downplaying its brutality or denying that it would do great violence to the West if given the chance, but the Islamic State is no superpower: more than anything else, its sudden rise owes mainly to the fact that Syria and Iraq are fragile states, and its savagery has alerted the sleepwalking states of the Arab world to the threat of jihadism like never before. The enemies it is making on all sides, especially among other Muslims, would seem to suggest that ISIS may burn out nearly as quickly as it caught fire. Could the madness of ISIS be the final fever of a dying ideology?
What seems most promising to me in the backlash against ISIS is the extent to which that backlash relies on the genuine principles of Islam itself. We know that some of the fighters traveling from the West to fight alongside ISIS know next to nothing about the religion. We have evidence that jihadist movements like Boko Haram and the Taliban are widely despised in their spheres of influence.
The religious and government leaders in Muslim-dominated countries have swiftly and unequivocally denounced ISIS as being un-Islamic. For example, in Malaysia, a nation with 20 million Muslims, the prime minister denounced ISIS as “appalling” and going against the teachings of Islam (only about 50 have joined ISIS from there). In Indonesia, Muslim leaders not only publicly condemned ISIS, the government criminalized support for the group. And while some allege that certain Saudi individuals are financially supporting ISIS, the Saudi government officially declared ISIS a terrorist group back in March and is arresting suspected ISIS recruiters. This can be a helpful guide to other nations in deterring ISIS from recruiting. A joint strategy of working with Muslim leaders in denouncing ISIS and criminalizing any support appears to be working. And to that end, on Monday, British Muslim leaders issued a fatwa (religious edict) condemning ISIS and announcing Muslims were religiously prohibited from joining ISIS.
Shepp sees the writing on the wall, although he mentions folks one might have to look up:
This all has me wondering if ISIS, the reductio ad absurdum of radical Islamism, doesn’t herald the downfall of that ideology altogether. Bear in mind that political Islam hasn’t always been exclusively reactionary: the first avowedly Islamic politics of the modern era, first articulated before the Muslim Brotherhood’s founders were even born, was the Islamic Modernism of Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida, and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. Here were pious Muslims arguing that Islam was fully compatible with rationalism and making arguments for universal literacy and women’s rights from the same Muslim revivalist standpoint from which Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb would later espouse a more conservative vision of Islamic politics in modernity.
The illiberal strain of Arab Islamism, its Iranian counterpart, and the more radical jihadist movements that grew out of these movements (or alongside them, depending on which historian you ask) have been the major representatives of political Islam in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
There will be a quiz on this later, but right now we’re talking about an aberration:
There’s no reason, however, to believe that this condition is permanent or that a less reactionary form of Islamic political thought, or even an Islamic liberalism after the model of the Modernists, could not take hold in the Muslim world given the right set of circumstances. Islamism, particularly in its more extreme varieties, has long articulated an Islamic state operating under a “pure” interpretation of Islamic law as a utopian vision. Now, here is an Islamic State, a “caliphate” no less, that claims to do just that, and the outcome is rather dystopian. Torture, gang rape, slave brides, beheadings, crucifixions, and child soldiers are not what most Muslims have in mind when they imagine the ideal Islamic society. I would wager that these horrors will turn more Muslims against radical Islamism than toward it. …
It’s certainly not “Islam” – at least not as any Muslim I know practices it. That’s why I suspect it will fail, like most grandiose visions of world domination do. And by radicalizing the Islamic heartland against radicalism, as it were, perhaps ISIS will take the entire edifice of radical Islamism down with it.
That is actually possible, and perhaps Obama knows this. We could be careful and let them hang themselves, so to speak, intervening only when necessary, to stop blatant genocide or assorted atrocities, being careful not to side with that Assad fellow, and being careful not to take sides in a regional if not global war of Sunnis against Shiites, as if that’s our concern. Or, conversely, we could bomb the shit out them in both Iraq and Syria, and anywhere else, and then send in four or five divisions to kill the rest of them. The public seems to lean toward tha second option, if we could avoid sending in the troops – but we’d have to anyway, to do the job right. Sigh.
Ah well, summer is over. It’s back to school. We’ve had our geography lesson and our history lesson so far. We know all about Estonia now, and Islamic political history. All of this will be on the final. But as everyone knows, it’s not what you learn but what you do with what you learn. What will we do with this?