ISIS militants on the border between Iraq and Syria.
At last the essential building blocks of a coalition against the ultra-violent criminal conspiracy that used to call itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and now calls itself simply the Islamic State (IS) are falling into place. Everyone was caught off guard by their surge out of fairly remote areas of north and eastern Syria into western Iraq, and were slow off the mark in responding.But with the United States having initiated airstrikes against the organization in Iraq – and having declared, in effect, a long-term war to destroy the organization’s capability to be a menace regionally and globally – the long-overdue effort to destroy these extremists is finally underway.
One of the most important recent developments is a massive shift in American public opinion, largely engineered by ISIS itself. By beheading two American journalists it was holding as hostages for ransom – James Foley and Steven Sotloff – and threatening to murder more Westerners in the event of additional American airstrikes, and, even more foolishly, by depicting these gruesome killings in Internet videos, the fanatics have roused the American public out of its war-weary risk-aversion.
The shift is nothing less than extraordinary. A Washington Post-ABC News poll suggests that 71% of Americans now favor air attacks against ISIS positions in Iraq, an increase of 17% over three weeks and 26% since mid-June. A majority still does not favor a ground intervention, but “boots on the ground” in any significant numbers are not required at this stage. Other opinion polls and surveys show a similarly dramatic shift in public opinion on the need for force against ISIS and the extent to which it’s recognized by the public as a significant threat to American interests.
For the past six years, dating back to a period in which ISIS itself did not exist except in the form of its precursor organization of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), these fanatics have watched the United States drawdown from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and resist other provocations.
Some observers have misinterpreted the ghastly ISIS beheading videos as a kind of provocation to the United States, hoping to elicit further airstrikes for reasons that are convoluted and difficult to explain. This is obviously incorrect. It’s quite clear, on the contrary, that ISIS fanatics were actually trying to use murder as leverage over Americans and their allies to dissuade them from further engagement.
It’s backfired spectacularly, of course, but it’s understandable how ISIS so badly misread the American mindset. For the past six years, dating back to a period in which ISIS itself did not exist except in the form of its precursor organization of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), these fanatics have watched the United States drawdown from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and resist other provocations.
They are used to the idea of an America that is backing, and perhaps in their own twisted thinking, running away from, Middle Eastern conflict.
What they failed to understand, it seems, is that what Americans objected to was a war in Iraq that had no clear purpose and was a gigantic strategic miscalculation that cost their country enormously in terms of blood and treasure (not to mention international prestige) without yielding any clear gains.
Indeed, many Americans now see the invasion of Iraq as a virtually unprecedented blunder, rivaled only by the extraordinary mistake of trying to seize control of Canada in 1812, only to have the British burn down most official buildings in Washington DC, including the White House.
But Americans don’t object to, and will support, a necessary campaign to break an extremist organization that is directly threatening their interests, murdering their compatriots and wreaking havoc in a region that is still essential to the United States. The much-ballyhooed “pivot to Asia” was always also implicitly a pivot away from the Middle East.
AP/ Evan Vucci
Marine General Joseph Dunford, commander of ISAF, briefs Barack Obama at Bagram Air Field north of Kabul, Afghanistan on May 25, 2014.
Such a “pivot” never even began, and it isn’t going to in the foreseeable future, because no matter how fed up and frustrated Americans have become with Middle Eastern conflicts, given the Iraq fiasco, the Middle East remains essential to American national interests and a broad-based disengagement is simply not realistic. International support for such a campaign is also clearly growing. British and American appeals to NATO allies last week reportedly met with a generally positive response.
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