President Obama may be considering air strikes and other military action against Iraq’s Sunni insurgency, which is apparently led by a radical Islamist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (isis). The insurgency has quite suddenly seized control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and most of the rest of the Sunni heartland in northwest Iraq.
The main argument for military action seems to be that an isis-led Iraq, or the Sunni part of Iraq, is likely to provide a home for terrorists intent on attacking Western countries.
This argument seems misguided, for several reasons. First, it seems that isis is only one player—though perhaps the most formidable—in the insurgency, which consists of a number of Sunni tribal groups, many of which are much less radical than isis and may be expected to oppose much of the isis program. Assuming the insurgency can establish a working government in at least a part of Iraq, it may be some time before we know how large a role isis will play.
In the aftermath of 9/11, we naturally tended to see terrorists under every bed, but over a dozen years later it’s time to grow up. The 2013 Boston Marathon bombing—three dead, hundreds injured (and one more shot to death later by the bombers)—has been the only successful bombing in the United States since 9/11. Like the three bombings that failed (the shoe, underpants, and Times Square bombers), it was an amateurish affair. But it was still enough to show us at our worst. Over the next two days patriotic blowhards stood in line to declare that no terrorists would scare us, and that life would go on. Then it was discovered that the terrorists were still at large and, worse, they had guns! The City of Boston and its suburbs promptly shut down. Get a grip, folks; the US recorded nearly 15,000 murders in 2013 without any other city shutdowns.
Back to Iraq (for this post, not the country): Even if isis comes to dominate the government of part or all of Iraq, it’s another leap to conclude that this will represent a terrorist threat to the West. Isis, as its name implies, wants to establish an aboveground Islamic state, not an underground terrorist organization. When a state encourages attacks on another country, it’s not an act of terrorism, it’s an act of war. If isis in power wants to remake its portion of Iraq into an Islamist bastion, the last thing it will need is a war with a Western power, let alone the world’s preeminent superpower.
True, the Taliban when in control of Afghanistan permitted Al Qaeda to operate there and to plan the 9/11 attacks. (The Taliban may have green lighted the attacks in exchange for Al Qaeda’s assassinating Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, two days before 9/11.) The Taliban, and lots of interested observers, quickly came to appreciate the consequences of twisting the tiger’s tail; in months the Taliban were out of power, and have struggled ever since to get back in. I doubt that isis, or any other government, would want to repeat that experiment.
Isis is an unsavory outfit in all sorts of ways, and its rule over any parts of Iraq would be a disaster for the inhabitants. It has also used terror as a political weapon, detonating bombs throughout Shia Iraq. But its terrorism, unlike its Islamic ruthlessness, is only a tactic, likely to be limited to its opponents in Iraq and Syria and shed once it is firmly in power. Isis views terror as a means to an end, not an abiding value.
Finally, there’s another reason for not dipping our toe in the Iraqi crocodile pond again: We may be succumbing to a massive misreading of Islamic radicalism and its relation to terrorism. But that’s a big subject, which I’ll get back to … one of these days.