Last month, the news program 'Frontline' broadcast a 2-hour show titled "Losing Iraq." It traced America's recent history in that country in an attempt to explain how the U.S. military enterprise there ended so badly. Perhaps most striking, however, was the way the producers chose to end the program, giving a few key interview subjects extended time to discuss the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (known better then as ISIS, and now simply as the Islamic State or IS). Most prominently featured was former ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who had this to say:
This is analogous to Afghanistan, say, in August 2001. And this time, it is Al Qaeda version 6.0. They make bin Laden’s 2011 Al Qaeda look like Boy Scouts. They are far stronger; they are far more numerous. They have thousands who hold foreign passports and require no visas to get into the United States or other Western countries. They are well funded, they are battle-hardened, and they are well armed. And they now control far more territory exclusively than bin Laden ever did. They have the security; they have the safety to plan their next set of operations; and they are a messianic movement. Believe me, they are planning those operations. That’s why the Saudis moved 30,000 troops up to their border. They know that ISIS wants Mecca and Medina. They also want to come after us. And I can tell you, as we sit here today in Washington, they’re sitting in Mosul figuring out how they’re going to get at us next.
A few weeks after Crocker issued that ominous prediction, the United States began dropping advisers, special operations forces, and high explosives on the ground in Iraq again. All of which intended to stop IS from pouring out of Syria and annexing northwestern Iraq and threatening Baghdad. The American media remains fixated on IS with a mixture of anger and panic. Crocker's "AQ 6.0," which has proclaimed itself the new caliphate, has torn a painful scab off the arm of American national security and foreign policy watchers. It represents the enduring and worsening failure of our intervention in the country as well as a new threat emerging to challenge us at a time when our military is trying to recover. President Obama's recent response to the beheading of American journalists and the assurance that the U.S. will strike back make for a good analogy of America's reaction to IS at large. We don't know whether we're more indignant or afraid, but whichever way we feel, the most healthy way to deal with our emotion is with a military response.
The problem is that Americans really aren't into the whole proposition of military responses these days. Truth be told, they're sick and tired of them. So to keep the people at least unsure enough of the necessity of military intervention in Iraq, those pushing the issue are trying to sell it by employing the same ominous language as Crocker. General Martin Dempsey referred to the IS plan beyond a renewed caliphate as an "apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision." Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel described them as "beyond a terrorist group." Representative Peter King of New York had a great soundbyte on "Meet the Press."
"They are more powerful now than Al Qaeda was on 9/11. [Sen.] Dick Durbin [(D) of Illinois] says we’re not going to do this, not going to do that. I want to hear what he says when they attack us in the United States. I lost hundreds of constituents on 9/11. I never want to do that again.”From Sandy Hook to the Tsarnaev brothers, it seems any time the specter of a nationwide threat rears its head, the probability that someone will pre-blame another person for "the next 9/11" increases at a rate that follows Godwin's Law. It's the ultimate weapon of the foreign policy hawk. You're essentially calling someone a dirty traitor to the red white and blue for things that haven't happened yet. It's a powerful rhetorical device because its underlying foundation is, once again, fear.
But if our fear is genuinely that IS is the new Al Qaeda and of the next 9/11, then being fearful of the organization itself and trying to attack it in the Middle East would mean that we've learned nothing from history. If IS is organized on the Al Qaeda model and is planning an asymmetric attack to cause massive damage and loss of life to the United States, then I'm not afraid of IS.
I'm afraid of Washington, D.C.
Some people might remember that the U.S. government formed a commission to investigate the events of 9/11, and that it wrote a detailed report on the subject. It doesn't seem like many people today do remember it, though. Or, if they do, they forget what the report said. To quickly summarize, 9/11 happened because:
- Multiple intelligence gathering agencies failed to share information in an adequate way such that analysts could access it.
- Federal law enforcement agencies were limited in their ability to collaborate with intelligence agencies on the matter of terrorism and espionage.
- Airport security administrators failed to uphold standards at the targeted airports, and multiple safeguards that should have caught the hijackers failed.
- The FBI was unable to collate information gathered by its own field agents around the country and assign data from reports to cases of national scale.
In other words, 9/11 didn't happen because Osama Bin Laden was some kind of terrorist genius or because the hijackers were a squad of elite ninjas. 9/11 happened because the agencies we created to stop 9/11 failed in the most epic way possible. If we are really afraid of another 9/11, I would prefer the government to check all the systems and measures at the FBI, FAA, DHS and CIA, rather than spending time dropping bombs around the Haditha Dam. On that, while the dam is a key piece of infrastructure that would be nice for IS not to have, Americans are far too afraid of IS gains in other parts of Iraq. The news headlines displayed utter shock that IS had managed to take the town of Jalula. My immediate reaction to seeing this news: Johnny, tell 'em what they've won!
Then there's the matter of the "IS laptop of doom," which supposedly contains plans to build a bubonic plague bomb. Al Qaeda experimented with this for years before 9/11. They couldn't get their program off the ground. I'm not sure why we think IS will have more success, especially when they keep losing their laptops with the instructions for building one.
And even if they do still have a laptop, should we be afraid of it? The answer is still no. As the United States' chief counterterrorism official recently explained, IS isn't actually a threat to America. The greatest threat at the moment is that individual American citizens travel to Syria, train with IS, and then come back to conduct terrorist attacks in their home country.
Therein we have the final brush stroke in the big picture. What is the threat, what should we genuinely fear, and how should we react to it? Our top counterterrorism guy just said that our greatest problem is American citizens coming back from Syria. Why then, are so many generals and politicians telling us that we should be afraid of this large group of people from Middle Eastern countries invading Iraq? The threat comes from individuals returning to the U.S., not armed groups lingering overseas. If there's any terrifying parallel to be made with 9/11 at this juncture, it's in how similarly misguided our national leadership is about how to deal with the problem.
I'm not afraid of IS, or at least not any more than I am of Al Shabab, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or the Haqanni Network. President Obama is wrong to call IS "a cancer." It's a bad metaphor. Cancer either kills you, or you operate on it, remove it, and eradicate it with chemo and radiation. Terrorism is more like salmonella. It's not going to kill your country, but at the same time it's an extreme pain in the ass because you can never completely get rid of it. It's always going to find some bad cilantro to grow on. If you can't eradicate it, then it's silly to dread its existence. It's always going to be there, and all we can do is learn the lessons of the last bad experience with it and try to guard against a repeat of history. The existence of the Islamic State does not equate to threat level Jack Bauer for America. It's no more or less dangerous than Iraq, or Russia, or North Korea, or global warming. If we're able to wake up with those every day and not feel utterly terrified of them, we should be able to get along with the existence of the Islamic State a little easier.