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The US media and politicians from both parties have hyped the Islamic State (IS, ISIS or ISIL) threat, shifting public opinion dramatically in favor of wide-ranging air strikes. This has pressured the White House toward a more robust military campaign against ISIS. Yet so far, the American airstrikes might have inadvertently helped weaken a critical component of any US anti-ISIS strategy in Iraq: a credible government in Baghdad able to persuade Sunni Arabs to turn against ISIS.
Airstrikes were cleverly withheld for a while to force Baghdad’s Shia politicians to get rid of discredited Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. However, with Washington now so heavily invested in the anti-ISIS struggle, Iraq’s majority Shia politicians could feel less need to go the distance toward a refreshingly inclusive government.
Despite ISIS’s Syrian capital, its far richer holdings in Iraq are the jewel in the “Caliphate’s” crown. But if Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government, which includes Maliki, turns out to be as residually sectarian as some fear, the Iraqi campaign would be vastly more difficult, bloody, and divisive. Whatever the American strategy, the US must avoid being manipulated into doing Kurdish or Shia dirty work against Iraq’s Sunni Arabs under the guise of destroying ISIS.
Hyped “ISIS Crisis” at Home
Americans have received a steady diet of highly charged news about the ISIS threat in the Middle East and beyond. This has produced a circular effect in which politicians must appear responsive to heightened public fear by urging more extreme courses of action, which then causes public concern to spike.
Major news fora last Sunday were flush with US officials—from Texas Senator Ted Cruz to Senator Dianne Feinstein—urging much bolder military action. “Time’s a-wasting…it’s time for America to project power and strength,” warned Feinstein. Presumably, in this context, 157 airstrikes so far have not been nearly enough. Feinstein also suggested ISIS posed a threat to Baghdad and its US embassy when most experts agree an ISIS advance into such a vast urban area seems beyond its capabilities.
Cruz called for an “overwhelming air campaign to take them out.” Perhaps Sen. Cruz is unaware of the fact that no struggle against a force holding a large swathe of territory has been resolved through air power alone. Furthermore, since most ISIS combatants are located in populated areas, trying to destroy the group by air would involve huge numbers of collateral civilian casualties. The latter would smack of the Assad regime’s relentless bombardment of areas held by Syrian rebels, which has had an alienating effect.
All told, for the better part of a month, ISIS efforts to advance have been repelled—or even rolled back. Nevertheless, at least one major American media outlet continues to introduce reporting on developments regarding ISIS under misleading introductory logos on the continuing ISIS advance in Iraq.
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