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U.S. Bombs, Which Helped Spawn ISIS, Can’t Crush It

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Once again, U.S. leaders are beating the war drums–or rather, beating them harder, because when in recent memory have the drums fallen silent? Aspiring President Hillary Clinton and Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are all urging President Obama to take stronger military measures against ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which has seized large chunks of Iraq and Syria. So are the Washington Post and other influential publications. The U.S. is already attacking ISIS directly—with U.S. bombs and special forces–and indirectly, by arming its alleged opponents, but Clinton et al want Obama to escalate U.S. force.

Hawks--including those now urging attacks on Islamic militants in Iraq--often describe themselves as hard-headed "realists" and denigrate doves as soft-headed and delusional. The real delusion is thinking that U.S. military force—which over the last decade has exacerbated the terrible violence wracking the Mideast—can now dispel it.

As I note in a previous post, I am not a pacifist. I recognize that sometimes violence is required to stop greater violence—both to defend ourselves and, more rarely, to defend others. Military force can be employed if it conforms to the “end-of-war rule.” Two of the rule’s criteria are: 1, our violence will not make a bad situation worse; 2, there are no nonviolent options.

So how should the U.S. respond to ISIS? The answer depends, first, on knowing just how dangerous ISIS is. I don’t trust claims that ISIS “is not just a problem for Iraq and Syria. It is a threat to the United States,” as McCain and Graham put it. I’m reminded of claims by U.S. officials and major media–which helped propel the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq–that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.

For an alternative view of ISIS, read this essay by Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has served in the State Department and the White House National Security Council.

Most coverage of ISIS, Mathews says, is either “misleading” or “outright wrong.” ISIS, she notes, “is only one of an almost uncountable mélange of Sunni militant groups” that have sprung up in response to anti-Sunni actions of U.S.-backed Iraqi president Nouri al-Maliki. Suggesting that Iraq seems to be fracturing into three separate states—consisting of Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis–she adds, “There is no military solution to this state of affairs.

Indeed, the answer to my next question–Will increased U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Syria make a bad situation worse?–seems crushingly obvious. The U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have been catastrophic failures on every possible level, both for Americans and for the Iraqis and Afghans we always claim to be helping.

According to the reputable group Iraq Body Count, during the U.S. occupation of Iraq from 2003 to 2011, 162,000 people, including 114,000 civilians, died of war-related injuries. U.S. coalition forces were directly responsible for the deaths of 15,060 civilians, of whom at least 1,201 were children.

U.S. militarism helped create ISIS, according to antiwar activist David Swanson. “The U.S. and its junior partners destroyed Iraq, left sectarian division, poverty, desperation, and an illegitimate government in Baghdad that did not represent Sunnis or other groups,” Swanson tells me by email. He continues:

Then the U.S. armed and trained ISIS and allied groups in Syria, while continuing to prop up the Baghdad government, providing Hellfire missiles with which to attack Iraqis in Fallujah and elsewhere. ISIS has religious adherents but also opportunistic supporters who see it as the force resisting an unwanted rule from Baghdad and who increasingly see it as resisting the United States. It is in possession of U.S. weaponry provided directly to it in Syria and seized from the Iraqi government. At last count by the U.S. government, 79% of weapons transferred to Middle Eastern governments come from the United States, not counting transfers to groups like ISIS, and not counting weapons in the possession of the United States. So, the first thing to do differently going forward: stop bombing nations into ruins, and stop shipping weapons into the area you’ve left in chaos.

Swanson insists there are nonviolent options, which he spells out here, for quelling the violence of ISIS and other militant groups fighting in Iraq. At the same website,, a group of 53 religious groups, academics and ministers proposes, in part:

*Stop U.S. bombing in Iraq to prevent bloodshed, instability and the accumulation of

grievances that contribute to the global justification for the Islamic State’s existence

among its supporters.

*Provide robust humanitarian assistance to those who are fleeing the violence.
Provide food and much needed supplies in coordination with the United Nations.

*Engage with the UN, all Iraqi political and religious leaders, and others in the

international community on diplomatic efforts for a lasting political solution for Iraq.

*Ensure a significantly more inclusive Iraqi government along with substantive programs
of social reconciliation to interrupt the flow and perhaps peel back some of the persons
joining the Islamic State. In the diplomatic strategy, particularly include those with

influence on key actors in the Islamic State.

*Work for a political settlement to the crisis in Syria. The conflicts in Iraq and
Syria are intricately connected and should be addressed holistically. Return to the Geneva peace process for a negotiated settlement to the civil war in Syria and

expand the agenda to include regional peace and stability. Ensure Iran’s full
participation in the process.

See also the three-step strategy for dealing with ISIS proposed by Erin Niemela, a peace activist studying conflict resolution at Portland State University:

*First, immediately stop sending funds and weapons to all involved parties. This is the easiest of the three. Ten years of terrorism-making and we still think our guns aren’t going to fall into the “wrong” hands? The hands they fall into are already “wrong.” If you need a good example, take a look at our darlings, the Free Syrian Army, and their blatant human rights violations, such as using child soldiers, documented by Human Rights Watch in 2012 and 2014.

*Second, fully invest in social and economic development initiatives in any region in which terrorist groups are engaged. In his 2004 book, Nonviolent Response to Terrorism, Tom Hastings, Ed. D., professor of conflict resolution at Portland State University, questions: “What if the terrorists – or the population base from which they draw – had enough of life’s necessities? What if they had secure jobs, decent living standards, drinkable water and healthy food for their children? Do we seriously think they would provide a recruiting base for terrorism?” Harvard lecturer Louise Richardson, author of the 2007 book What Terrorists Want, makes the same argument, and Kim Cragin and Peter Chalk of the Rand Corporation drew the same conclusion from their 2003 study on social and economic development to inhibit terrorism. ISIS gained some of its current strength from economically providing for the families of fallen fighters, promising education to young boys (and then handing each a weapon), and capitalizing on grief and anger in Syrian communities. If we want to weaken ISIS and any other group engaging in terrorist activities, we have to start focusing on the needs they fill in those communities. Local communities in the region should be self-sustainable and civilians should feel empowered to provide for themselves and their families without taking up arms or using violence.

*Third, fully support any and all nonviolent civil society resistance movements. Whoever is left – give them whatever support is needed the most. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephen, in their 2011 groundbreaking study on civil resistance, “Why Civil Resistance Works,” found that “between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts.” In addition, successful nonviolent resistance campaigns are less likely to descend into civil war and more likely to achieve democratic goals. We should have fully supported the nonviolent Syrian revolution when we had the chance. Instead, we gave legitimacy to the violent rebel factions – those same groups now fighting alongside Al Qaeda and ISIS. If we send our unconditional support to whatever nonviolent civil society actors are left on the ground in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, we might just find that the best remedy for terrorism has been right in front of us the entire time – civil society.

The ultimate criterion of my end-of-war rule is that military intervention should be employed in a manner consistent with our ultimate goal of ending war once and for all. Escalating U.S. force in the Mideast—far from taking us closer to world peace, and unlike the nonviolent measures proposed above–would perpetuate militarism. Whenever the U.S. resorts to bombs and bullets to advance its agenda, it legitimizes the use of lethal force by others, including groups like ISIS.

One of the great ironies in debates about war and peace is that hawks view themselves as hard-headed “realists” and denigrate doves as soft-headed and delusional. The real delusion is thinking that U.S. military force—which over the last decade has exacerbated the terrible violence wracking the Mideast—can now dispel it.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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  1. 1. singing flea 12:28 pm 09/1/2014

    I would agree that sending more weapons to the Middle East, or anywhere else for that matter, is a big mistake, but really it depends on how you look at it. We do it because lobbyists for the weapons industry buys congressmen and senators that seem to think that we can’t come up with a better way to force the taxpayers to give up their wages. It’s a game that has been going on since the beginning of commerce. People need to read 1984 by George Orwell to begin to understand the complex system of war that is based on shifting alliances and media induced hysteria. It has nothing to do with what is right or wrong. The fact is, most Americans could care less if the Muslim factions in Syria and Iraq want to kill each other, except the ones who have money invested in the war machine.

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  2. 2. Proventus 7:25 am 09/2/2014

    “U.S. Bombs, Which Helped Spawn ISIS….”

    Bombs didn’t spawn anything. Every Islamists is better than the next and will come together with their brethren to force the other muslims and non-muslims to conform or die. It’s just their way. But something tells me it’s really just about control and money anyway.

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  3. 3. Joel454 9:30 am 09/2/2014

    This has no place in sci Am. It is politics. But just for the record what is your plan? Send them to group therapy? To do digs for the non-Islamic civilizations after they murder the last of their members.

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  4. 4. thlej 5:05 pm 09/2/2014

    Good article. I’d add we need to ask what are the true motivations of the US – greedy (oil, money, power) or humanitarian. Only 11 years ago, the US invaded Iraq on flimsy (and time has shown to be baseless) accusations. A unilateral decision by the US to take further military action there should be unthinkable for a humanitarian-motivated nation. Even if one is convinced greater military action is needed, and that can only be done by the US, the decision would have to be made by the international community – not unilateral decision by a nation which hasn’t learned it’s so-recent lesson. To do so would show the US to be at least reckless, if not greedy. And reckless nations should be kept out of this as well.

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  5. 5. Von Stupidtz 2:18 am 09/3/2014

    “Questions of law are not decided in an intellectual quarantine area in which legal doctrine and the local history of the dispute alone are retained and all else is forcibly excluded. We cannot afford to be ignorant of the world in which disputes arise.” – Justice Radhabinod Pal

    Which brings me to the root of the problem:



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  6. 6. RPhoenix 2:23 am 09/3/2014

    I disagree with Joel454. This is not politics, this is a discussion of policy. We need to use the light of reason in determining our national policies, and repeated failure to do so has created a weapons industry that is out of control both domestically and internationally. I see this article as a call for reasoned discussion, and I hope it encourages some young person to try to make sense of that difficult discipline we, with some measure of hope, call “Political Science”. I believe this article definitely has a place in Scientific American.

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