They're strong and menacing, but do Americans need to go after them? Photo courtesy of VICE News
At this point the Islamic State (IS) has much of the Western world in a perpetual state of apoplectic shock. Everyone from fashionistas to Mia Farrow to the old white men who set US foreign policy in Washington are terrified, and they want to do something about it. Once a ragtag band of jihadists, IS has conquered generous swaths of Iraq and Syria, and maybe more important, they look scary, wield machetes, and behead American journalists on YouTube. They also have a fondness for ethnic warfare that inches toward genocide and long to establish an Islamic caliphate—which naturally inspires hatred and fear all over the world.
The question is, after the disaster that was post-invasion Iraq, should America be attempting to solve the Mesopotamian quagmire again? According to President Obama, the answer is maybe—he'll be giving a speech Wednesday night outlining his strategy. But given that his administration has already launched airstrikes against IS in Iraq, it seems like ground troops might be an inevitable next step. The good news for doves (of which there seems to be an ever-decreasing supply in DC, especially now that Rand Paul is on board with the Pentagon destroying ISIS) is that one anti-war Democrat from Florida remembers all too well what happened the last time neoconservatives decided Iraq needed saving.
Congressman Alan Grayson sent a letter to the US ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Algeria, and Morocco last week with a simple ask: pony up a few thousand troops each so we can take down the bad guys. But the "we" in this case would not involve non-Muslim Westerners, potentially reducing the backlash that cowboy-style intervention tends to engender.
I talked with Grayson about his plan, why the same people who got us into Iraq still have so much influence over foreign policy, and whether the hysteria over the Islamic State makes it easier for elites to avoid dealing with climate change. Here's what he had to say.
VICE: Everyone from celebrities to think tanks to the president seems to be preparing for a war with IS, but is it really an American problem?
Alan Grayson: There is sort of a "You first!" problem here, which is that there are many countries that feel something should be done about this, but they don't want to be the first to step forward and do it. We've developed a sort of cultural dependency throughout the Middle East among our Arab allies. They expect us to solve their problems for them. I think we have to try to break that habit. We've already been involved in numerous wars in the Middle East over the past several decades, and often create new problems with those wars.
Are you hearing about this from voters in your district?
I had a meeting in Orlando with some constituents yesterday, and I asked them what was the most important issue to them. One said she didn't want to see any more beheadings on her TV. That indicates that concern about what's happening in Iraq and Syria has now broken through to the general public. Usually people are preoccupied with their own concerns and their own lives. But the sheer brutality of what IS has done to two Americans now has made it clear to many people that something needs to be done about this. The problem is the president said he didn't have a plan yet—his words, not mine. I felt somebody needed to do something to develop a coherent plan.
Explain the logic behind getting Arab countries to take on IS.
I think it's obvious that a regional military group composed of soldiers who share the same language as the people on the ground in Syria and Iraq, have the same religion, and understand the culture and the nuances of local life there are more likely to be successful than, say, US forces were occupying Iraq for almost a decade. And by successful I mean to reach a conclusion that everyone regards as a genuine peace. These are countries with military capabilities—we're not talking about Mauritania here. Every one of these is a predomianntly Sunni country, because we're talking about reclaiming and pacifying Sunni territory in Iraq. The Shiite-run army of Iraq has found it impossible to do so. I believe Sunni fighters from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and so on, are more likely to be accepted by the local population than either Shiite soldiers from Baghdad or, for that matter, US fighters. Somebody had to get the ball rolling, so I did.
We're hearing from a lot of the same voices that were loudly calling for war with Iraq in 2002 and 2003. What does it say about our democracy that they still wield tremendous influence?
The military-industrial complex is extremely powerful. Clearly, there are neoconservatives who desperately want us to be in one war, two wars, five wars—the more the merrier as far as they're concerned. And in fact it's an identifiable group: We see them on our TVs from time to time, and they pop up frequently on Sunday morning news shows. They have never learned from their mistakes. Last year, those people wanted us to bomb Syria to help IS, now they want us to bomb IS to help Syria. Think this through: Last year, these very same people wanted us to bomb the command-and-control structure of the Syrian military that was controlling chemical weapons. If we had done so, those chemical weapons would have fallen into the hands of the opposition, and specificialy IS. So today we wouldn't be talking about beheadings, we'd be talking about IS conducting chemical warfare!
Do you worry that IS—the novel threat of the year—is distracting from more existential problems?
It's postponing what we have deserved now for decades, which is our peace dividend. With the decline and fall of the Soviet Union and the absence of any existential threat to the United States, people expected we could wind down our military to the point where it was not consuming any more of the economy than it does in, say, Europe. But it didn't happen. And it didn't happen because of 9/11. Now bin Laden is dead. We seem to have figured out how to avoid major terrorist attacks within our borders, and yet we are still spending half a trillion dollars a year on our military. And I am concerned that IS—which does not in any sense threaten the 50 states—that the bright new shiny object is once again keeping us from repairing our economy. We have major imbalances in the economy, and the fact that we spend almost as much on our military as the rest of the world combined is one of them.
Polling has shown Democrats see climate change as more significant threat than the Islamic State. Does starting a new project in the Middle East make it harder to deal with that problem?
I remember candidate Obama telling us all in 2008, "You have to be able to work on more than thing at a time if you want to be president of the United States." And I think that principle applies well here. The fact that people want to take action to avenge two dead Americans is not to the exclusion of taking action to save the planet. He's got two years and two months to figure it out.
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WATCH – The Islamic State