Suddenly the American peace movement is back to the status of a prophetic minority. That's putting the best cast on the fact that 54 percent of the American public supports air strikes against ISIS, according to polls done before last week's beheading of James Foley. Since 2006, when a majority first decided in a Gallup Poll that the Iraq War was a "mistake", peace sentiment has been a powerful factor in the 2006 congressional elections and the two elections of President Barack Obama.
That's no longer the case, at least for the indefinite future. Less than one month ago, 300 members of Congress passed a resolution demanding that any Iraq military election be debated and authorized. Then both Congress and the president went on vacation and, as if by plan, the Pentagon expanded its personnel on the ground to at least 1,200 and began pummeling ISIS positions with air strikes.
When Congress returns after Labor Day, it may or may not take up the authorization, depending on Speaker John Boehner. If it does so, the debate may be healthy, but the outcomes more hawkish than some have hoped. The key questions, posed most likely as amendments, will be what kind of restrictions Congress will impose on the scope, duration and costs of the escalating mission.
Predictions are hazardous, which is why military action is called "kinetic", but it's hard to foresee a progressive outcome, or even a rational one. As Dr. Gerald Horne has noted again and again, US policies are "incoherent", even unfathomable at times, the most notable being continuous support for Iran's agenda in Iraq and Syria while still defining Iran as a dangerous nemesis and toying with regime change in Teheran.
Leaving aside Washington's changing rhetoric, the unfolding scenario ahead includes a US bombing campaign and advisers on the ground against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. The bombing campaign will shore up the Kurdish forces around strategic dams and oil fields, but may not deter the crumbling of Iraq's Shiite-dominated army in the northern provinces of Iraq. In any case, the US is becoming the "Shiite air force" (and Kurdish as well) despite refusing that role two weeks ago.
To bomb ISIS positions in Syria, the US will be taking unilateral action on the side of the Assad dictatorship, or at least objectively so. The US also will be intervening in the midst of Sunni factions on the ground. ISIS has been "helping" Assad by killing other Sunni militants from the Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army. If it attacks ISIS positions in Syria, the US may feel compelled to give military assistance to the other Syrian factions there, which Obama has tried to avoid.
Damage inflicted from the air can create civilian casualties, enrage local populations, degrade military weaponry, and complicate the maneuvers of enemy forces. But an air war without able ground forces cannot be won, especially an air war that serves the interests of Assad. That's why Obama's promise of no US bombing in Syria and sending "no American ground troops" might be the questions where Congress draws the line.
The sectarian-Shiite Iraq army will find no support in places like Anbar, Diyala, Nineveh and the whole Sunni region. The Sunnis there will need an autonomous zone like Kurdistan, as an alternative space between ISIS and the Shiite majority. Concretely, the minimum Sunni demands will be:
- no bombing or shelling of Sunni areas regardless of whether ISIS is present;
- withdrawal of Shiite militias from Sunni areas;
- release of Sunni detainees who have never been charged with crimes;
- dropping of criminal charges against Sunni elected officials;
- cancellation of the anti-Baathist law which disenfranchises thousands of Sunnis.
The Shiite-controlled regime in Baghdad will oppose any such concession to the once-dominant Sunnis, especially as long as the Shiites can count on American air power and "advisers." If that scenario unfolds, it's hard to see the Sunnis in Iraq turning against ISIS, as they did against Al Qaeda with American support from 2006-2010.
Congress is haunted by the case of Libya where an air campaign coordinated with local tribes led to the killing of Gaddafi and collapse of his regime, but the collapse of Libya's social order as well. From Libya the desert revolt spread to North Africa where it still is burning beyond the control or understanding of the ideological arsonists of NATO.
That's why the case will be made by the John McCain’s (and perhaps Hillary Clinton) for sending American ground troops, amidst fears of barbarian beheadings and political consequences. Who else will they send to battle ISIS on the ground? Special forces from Jordan, Turkey or Saudi Arabia? The choices are few.
If more US troops are sent, the next fallback position will be demanding timelines for their withdrawal, and the din of past controversies will be heard again while America goes down the rabbit hole.
Isn't our most urgent need the solving of our race, class and religious issues burning at home? Is Ferguson, Missouri, a model we can proudly show the world?
In times like these, one wishes there was a Martin Luther King Jr. or a Robert Kennedy or George McGovern, someone whose voice the mainstream media cannot turn off. One wishes there was a peace movement on the scale of 350.org. That might come, but for now the public debate must be shifted to more favorable ground. Through blogs to placards to speeches in the Congressional Record, the questions must begin:
1. Why is America so alone in denying that we should ever negotiate with terrorists? Haven't jihadist groups freed 50 hostages for ransom in the past five years, mainly by European countries? Isn't it true that ISIS wanted one hundred million euros to release James Foley alive? And if we can't negotiate with terrorists, doesn't that rule out any political settlement at all?
2. Whose idea was it to overthrow Saddam Hussein and replace him with a regime of Shiite ayatollahs? And why then did we fund, arm, train and fully support al-Maliki and the Shiite parties as they inflicted torture, repression, disenfranchisement and ethnic cleansing on the Sunnis?
3. If we already support a Kurdish autonomous zone, complete with its own fighting force, within the borders of Iraq, why shouldn't Iraq's oppressed Sunnis have an autonomous zone of their own in northern and western Iraq? Isn't that the alternative to ISIS there?
4. If the thirty-year religious and political war in Northern Ireland could be converted into peaceful coexistence with walled communities and vetoes held by both parties, why did we watch while the Sunnis were forcibly driven out of Baghdad?
5. Why can't the US explore concessions to Iran and Russia and even Hezbollah in exchange for their pulling the plug on Assad and his Shiite/Alawite minority in Damascus? Instead of a proxy war couldn't these major powers insist on a power-sharing arrangement addressing Sunni anger from decades under the Assad dictatorship?
None of these "lost alternatives" will be taken up any time soon, but they should be remembered in the years ahead. For now, we have entered the new dark ages, and the hope of progress at home is like a receding dream.