2014 is not 2001
Over the weekend, prominent lawmakers hyped the case for military action against ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) by arguing that if the radical Sunni insurgent group establishes itself in Iraq and/or Syria it will launch new terrorist attacks on American soil like al-Qaeda did from Afghanistan. On CBS's "Face the Nation" Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) claimed, "The seeds of 9/11s are being planted all over Iraq and Syria... They want an Islamic caliphate that runs through Syria and Iraq... and they plan to drive us out of the Mideast by attacking us here at home."
On "Fox News Sunday", House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, (R-MI). said "These are not monkey bar terrorists out in the desert somewhere planning some very low-level attack. These are sophisticated, command and controlled, seasoned combat veterans who understand the value of terrorism operations external to the region, meaning Europe and the United States."
But this argument does not carry the weight its advocates think because the strategic situation in 2014 is far different than in 2001. It was Ayman al-Zawahiri who convinced Osama bin Laden to launch the 9/11 attacks. Zawahiri is an Egyptian who had been decisively defeated in his attempts to foment an Islamic revolution against the government of Hosni Mubarak. He believed that revolution was impossible as long as the Muslim world was governed by leaders backed by the money and power of Washington. America had to be forced to withdraw so as to leave the existing political order weak and vulnerable to the jihadists. Spectacular attacks would terrorize the public into demanding that their government "cut and run" from overseas commitments.
In 2014, it’s the government of Syria that ISIS wants to overthrow. The regime of Bashar Assad is not, however, backed by the U.S. It is backed by Iran on the basis of a shared Shiite sectarianism. The current "crisis" is not Islam versus the West, but Sunni versus Shia; the kind of religious conflict where passions and violence reach extremes. It is those who want America to intervene in this sectarian war on the side of the Shia who would be re-creating the strategic situation of 2001 in the eyes of ISIS. Currently, there is no need for them to drive us out of the region if we are on the same side.
If President Barack Obama is to be criticized for inaction, it should be for not providing the Sunni rebels in Syria with more support early on. ISIS moved to fill the vacuum. The group's seizure of massive amounts of heavy weapons in Iraq and its control of crossing points into Syria make it possible for the rebels to gain a needed infusion of firepower to counter the aid Assad has gotten from Iran and Hib’allah. ISIS is also positioned to disrupt the supply of future aid from Tehran to Assad. This is to be welcomed.
Striking at ISIS in Iraq would be to side with the hated and incompetent Nouri al-Maliki, who is a Shiite stooge of Iran. Going even further by attacking ISIS in Syria would aid the Assad regime, another Iranian ally. This makes no sense within the larger strategic posture of the U.S. in the Middle East, which is alignment with the Sunni governments: Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, and the Gulf emirates. Iran is the principle danger in the region, with its 77 million people, oil wealth, support for Hizb’allah, and a nuclear weapons program. ISIS may talk about a new Sunni caliphate, but the Tehran theocracy envisions a revived Persian Empire. The Iranians are much closer to their goal and need to be stopped.
Rep. Rogers' claim that ISIS understands "the value of terrorism operations external to the region" is actually another argument against the notion that the American homeland is an ISIS target. The example of 2001 is one of spectacular failure. It was al-Qaeda that experienced “blowback” from an American people aroused to vengeful anger after watching hijackers crash into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. U.S. troops and airpower reinforced the enemies of the Taliban in Afghanistan and drove al-Qaeda's allies out of the country. In 2003, America demonstrated its global reach by overrunning Iraq. Special ops and drones have expanded the war on terror. Attacking the American homeland is a recipe for disaster. If you want Washington to stay away, you don't send it an invitation it can't ignore.
Al-Qaeda lost much of its appeal in the wake of the U.S. "surge" across the region which did so much damage to its credibility. Groups affiliated or spawned by al-Qaeda have regained a prominent role because they have shifted their focus to local wars of liberation from Shiite oppression, first in Syria and now in Iraq. That is a major strategic gain for the United States. We must not throw it away with an emotional response to ISIS's advance based on obsolete views of the region and its politics.