The Clarifying Reality of ISIS

Maybe if we think of ISIS as a real country we can finally defeat it.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, America had no trouble figuring out who the enemy was.  As President Roosevelt famously put it:

Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

We were at war with Japan, and we knew what we had to do - defeat them so thoroughly that they could make war no more.  This plan succeeded admirably.

When Hitler's Germany declared war on the United States, we also had no headscratching as to who the enemy was, or what the objective needed to be - unconditional surrender.  And that's what we achieved.

Unfortunately, since then America has struggled to pinpoint our enemies.  Who was the enemy in the Korean War?  Not the Koreans in general - lots of them were on our side, and those that weren't were easily defeated until the Red Chinese stepped in alongside them.  But we refused to come right out and say that China was the enemy, and who knows?  Maybe that reluctance to face the truth prevented a nuclear war.

Likewise, in Vietnam, there were Vietnamese on both sides, but really the war was against Red China and Soviet Russia, which we weren't willing to admit.  So in the course of time, we gave up in frustration and lost.

This keeps happening.  Who is the enemy in the War on Drugs?  Addicts?  Drug dealers?  Druglords who all but own national governments?  President Reagan tried fighting them with the army and we saw how well that didn't work.

Nothing has presented this problem more starkly than the War on Terror.  The murderers of 9-11 were mostly Saudi Arabian.  We didn't declare war on Saudi Arabia because the king of Saudi Arabia was just as horrified by their actions as we were.  There have been many documented connections between highly placed Saudi Arabians and the terrorists, but none of these connections were official enough for us to declare war.

Instead, we went after the declared leader of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden of evil memory.  Bin Laden happened to be living in Afghanistan which had nothing to do with the attacks.  The Taliban sealed their fate when they refused to turn bin Laden over to American justice, but there's no evidence they knew about 9/11 beforehand, and even less evidence suggesting Saddam Hussein being in on the plot.

So thus far in this millennium, we've invaded countries where the causus belli is at best tenuous, and not invaded countries where our very public attackers actually came from because it wasn't the fault of their governments.

This is confusing, but it makes sense.  Nobody suggested that we should declare war on England because the shoe bomber held a British passport, nor on Nigeria because that's where the underwear bomber came from.  Indeed, that (un)worthy's own father tried to warn us that his son was a terrorist nut, and we gave him the brushoff.

A Target, Hurrah!

Which is why the ongoing success of ISIS - the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or just Islamic State as they prefer, is actually helpful in a perverse way.

ISIS started out as a gang of thugs.  As Mr. Obama memorably noted, they were "the JV team."  They aren't anymore.  They have millions of dollars in (stolen) gold reserves, state-of-the-art American military equipment captured from fleeing Iraqi forces, and control more territory than a whole host of legitimate independent states.

They aren't legitimate in the sense that America likes to use, as in being the free choice of the people - but there are lots of countries where the people have no say and yet we acknowledge them as countries.  When was the last time anybody not named Kim had any say in North Korea?  But North Korea is unquestionably a country, evil as may be.

It's a sad and shameful thing to say, but fifty years of post-Westphalian asymmetric warfare seems not to have taught our Department of State anything at all, and our Department of Defense very little more.  Our soldiers fight bravely, but unless their leaders know exactly who we are fighting and why, they can't possibly win no matter how well trained and determined they are.

Which is why it's optimistic that the more ISIS succeeds and the more solid the Islamic State becomes, the better and more easily understood a target they will make.  Perhaps at some point, our State Department will finally decide that there's someone we can declare war on and actually defeat, WWII-style.

Here's hoping we reach this point before we get nuked by a religious fanatic with a death wish and no particular national allegiance to strike back at.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
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