Paul Waldman has addressed an important question, Why ISIL Wants to Be in a War With America. But before we get to that, let me throw in with Waldman on another point: it is an insult to YouTube artists to say that ISIS creates “slickly produced” videos. Even he gives them too much credit, “[I]t’s nothing your teenage nephew couldn’t create with a few hours and a copy of any of a dozen free video editing programs.” I think Flames of War absolutely sucks. It’s got one nice (but at this point totally cliched) bit in slow motion. But otherwise, it is cluttered and clumsy. And it doesn’t make a clear point. It is clearly meant to be like Bush the Younger’s “Bring it on” comment. But I only know that because I already knew it. Anyway, the only reason that anyone says that ISIS videos are slick is because they are something more than a man sitting on a pillow ranting.
Waldman’s argument is that ISIS wants the United States to be at war with them. That is obviously true. It is a recruiting tactic. It is also a way for the leaders of ISIS to fluff themselves up. It means that they are the biggest baadassssses in the world. At least in their own minds. I remember in the lead-up to the Persian Gulf War. The television news endlessly repeated that Iraq had the fifth largest military in the world! What that actually meant was that Iraq didn’t have much of a military.
But of course that was true. The United States doesn’t go to war with countries that have big militaries. Is there any question that we will go to war with Russia or China? Of course not! The big prize for the neoconservatives is to go to war with Iran. That would be a total disaster. But that is the biggest game that the chickenhawks are willing to go after. No one wants a proper war where taxes might have to go up or American children might have to be drafted. That’s why we have to whip up terror about little authoritarians the world over — as long as they don’t have nuclear weapons!
The people in ISIS are smart though. They clearly understand the United States a lot better than we understand ISIS. It doesn’t take much to get the people of the United States to start screaming for war. I wrote about this last week, We Will Soon Regret Bombing Syria:
The media have managed to work the American people up into yet another of their fear and anger tantrums. And so the call has gone out. The Batman light is shining on the clouds above. “Please save us! Do something! Make our fear go away!” So Obama “reluctantly” accepts what all the “liberal” and conservative analysts always say: more bombing in more places until it becomes clear that it isn’t doing any good.
Waldman pointed out that just because ISIS wants the United States to be drawn into this conflict doesn’t mean it is actually to ISIS’s benefit. That’s true enough. But I think he misses the main point: in a fundamental way, ISIS absolutely can’t lose. The best case scenario for the United States is that it crushes ISIS. There will be two results of this. First, no one will care. The United States military is almost the same size (in terms of funding) as every other country in the world combined. So we take out a regional army with a tens of thousands of mostly badly trained soldiers? Who cares?!
The second result is even more important. If ISIS is destroyed, it will just be replaced with another group like it that the American media will claim is “even worse than ISIS!” The reason is because ISIS didn’t spring up in a vacuum. The Sunnis are not happy. They have been oppressed by the newly empowered Shia in Iraq. Now there is something we could do about that. We could create a kind of Marshall Plan for Iraq. But we didn’t do that before and I see no reason why the people of America would beg for it now. After all, there won’t be public beheadings of American journalists and so the United States will go back to its normal posture of making the entire world a lucrative playground for our corporations.
If ISIS is stupid or ignorant in any way, it is this: they don’t need to provoke the United States into stupid wars. We do it all by ourselves. This is because Americans are a bunch of terrified pussies. But ISIS can be forgiven for not understanding this about us. Any reasonable (or right wing authoritarian theocracy) would think that after two centuries a country would be self-assured enough to not act like a child on a playground who’s afraid of being called a chicken.