Who's ready to squander billions of dollars on yet another pointless, almost-certain-to-backfire war in Iraq? The mainstream media for one, which for weeks has been shamelessly fearmongering the supposed threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
As Greg Sargent demonstrates, the American people are still fairly reluctant to support a full-blown war. They are for airstrikes by a three-to-one margin, but strongly disapprove of deploying ground troops. But public opinion is a malleable thing, especially when the media smells a juicy story. After all, what began as a limited airstrikes to protect Iraqi minorities has suddenly transformed into a campaign to "destroy" ISIS, whatever that means.
Thus, without public discussion, President Obama is reportedly going to announce a new war against ISIS that could last up to three years, consisting of airstrikes and arming ISIS opponents, which include the Kurds and God only knows who else in Syria. Many Republicans, meanwhile, insist that ISIS represents an "imminent threat" to the United States, which, strangely enough, is just how George W. Bush justified his war of aggression against Iraq in 2003.
The background here is ISIS's brutal beheading of the American journalists James Foley and Steve Sotloff. It was a terrible act, and it has half the media and politicians baying for blood. But the murder of two civilians, no matter how barbaric and unjust, is not a reason to go to war. It is critically important to avoid going off half-cocked in a fit of rage and committing another grotesque strategic error like we did in 2003.
Let's get one thing straight: ISIS is not a major threat to the United States. ISIS militants are brutal, murderous extremists. But they are, if anything, less of a threat than other terrorist groups around the globe, since they are committed to occupying a particular piece of territory. Running even the simplest kind of government takes money, time, and attention, not to mention the fact that ISIS is fighting a half-dozen other groups for control of that territory. One of the reasons al Qaeda seemed so threatening was that it existed outside the traditional nation-state system. In some ways, ISIS is a throwback to a more traditional time.
Don't take my word for it. ISIS poses "no specific, credible threat" to the U.S., according to Francis Taylor, an undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security.
And as Peter Bergen and David Sterman point out, there is little reason to fear the handful of Americans who have gone to fight for ISIS. More Americans fought for al Shabab in Somalia, and no attacks came of it. It turns out that executing a large terrorist attack (as opposed to a lone wolf shooting spree) is difficult and dangerous.
This fits with what we know about the nature of terrorist attacks generally. As Lawrence Wright established in his brilliant book The Looming Tower (supported by the 9/11 Commission and Jane Mayer's The Dark Side), the CIA and the FBI had fairly clear advance warning of 9/11. They failed to put the pieces together due to bureaucratic incompetence — things like failing to file information properly, or refusing to share intelligence between agencies due to silly turf wars.
Preventing terrorism, in other words, is more about running an efficient government agency than lashing out blindly at anyone who commits a horrifying videotaped act.
Indeed, ISIS's slickly produced beheading videos are quite obviously designed to bait the media into stoking a panic — and it has succeeded spectacularly. As Dave Weigel points out, ISIS is playing CNN like a cheap fiddle: the network has been running beheading coverage nonstop, and it conducted a preposterously irresponsible poll asking Americans whether they think ISIS has sleeper cells in the United States. How on Earth would they know? Still, 71 percent said yes.
As Matthew Hoh points out, ISIS may be deliberately trying to bait the U.S. into invading, so the group can gain recruits and credibility by fighting the great Western oppressor. Don't give ISIS what it wants.
More broadly, according to NBC's Mark Murray, the beheadings have gotten the highest penetration of any news event in the last five years. Deliberately or not, the media is whipping up a war frenzy at a time that calls for cold, considered calculation.
Because make no mistake, a full-scale war against ISIS would almost certainly be a strategic blunder. Any potential allies in that fight are just about as brutal as ISIS themselves. Any intervention will be seen as taking sides in a Shiite-Sunni civil war that the U.S. cannot resolve. And the last time the U.S. messed with Iraq, it ended up, you know, spawning ISIS.
Congress, of course, isn't going to do anything. "We like the path we’re on now. We can denounce it if it goes bad, and praise it if it goes well and ask what took him so long," says Jack Kingston, a Republican representative from Georgia, summing up the attitude of his fellow lawmakers.
That means the national media needs to get a grip and start taking its responsibilities seriously. It's probably too much to expect much from the likes of CNN, which appears to be run by Ritalin-addled five-year-olds. But for anyone with a lick of sense, now is the time to take a deep breath and slow the rush to war.