Realism is failing us in Iraq, Pakistan, and the rest of the world


Like everybody else in America, I have been disgusted and horrified by the violent acts of the so-called Islamic State. I am repulsed on a human level as these people appear to have emerged from a horror movie. Upon the release of that last beheading video, the executioner said, “I’m back, Obama,” before cutting off Steven Sotloff’s head with a sword. A quip and an almost cartoonishly gruesome murder, like the Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger, only real.

Further, it makes me nervous that this group has named itself the “Islamic State,” which I anticipate will do little to quell the existing plague of Islamophobia. The horrific actions of this group are as representative of greater Islam as the actions of Anders Behring Breivik, a Christian right-winger who killed 77 people in a mass shooting in Norway, are representative of greater Christianity. I doubt, though, this will deter a willful conflation of the two. That blurring, unfortunately, comes right as the drum beat of renewed military engagement enters the media landscape. And as we do before we decide to send off our bombs and troops and drones, the advocates for enduring conflict will enjoy disproportionately high representation in the media before we inevitably decide to reengage. The skeptics will get their day in the spotlight long after the damage has been done.

But only a nostalgist would mistakenly suggest that we decide anything, because we don’t. The establishment of an open-ended Authorization for Use of Military Force signed into law in 2001 has meant that for the past 13 years the President can essentially strike without the input of Congress whenever he or she so pleases. That we have sickened of the maintenance of perpetual war for the vacant promise of eventual peace does not mean much to an executive and Department of Defense that have carte blanche to essentially strike whoever, wherever, whenever. Never mind the fact that the CIA itself operates in a similarly rogue manner. We fight to install democracies like the one we held dear before we dismantled it to authorize forever keeping the fight itself alive.

While I believe the hearts of Americans to be in the right place, I find many of our policies, both abroad and here at home, to be soulless. Acknowledging our past two and a half decades of involvement in Iraq to be messy its best, sinister at its worst, I recently grimly joked, “If only we knew how Iraq became so destabilized that the Islamic State is able to get away with such gruesome shit.” Folks on both the American left and right suggested that instead of looking backwards at bad policy, I should explain how we should proceed. Looking backwards at bad policy? While we are no longer helmed by the architects of our most catastrophic excursion into Iraq, similarly damaging policies and attitudes remain in tact.

If the Islamic State is a Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Freddy Krueger, then the United States is Terminator‘s Skynet, forever operating unmanned flying death machines and killing hundreds of civilians. While it was today reported by the Pentagon that “the co-founder of the al-Qaida affiliate in Somalia was killed in a U.S. drone strike earlier this week,” a report by Stanford University and New York University’s School of Law has revealed that top commanders of terrorist groups account for only 2% of drone victims. At the same time, these attacks are responsible for hundreds of civilian casualties. The report states that “in the United States, the dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling ‘targeted killings’ of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts. This narrative is false.” But these strikes make us safer, right? “Publicly available evidence that the strikes have made the US safer overall is ambiguous at best.”

The election of a president who is affiliated with a party that once took seriously a conversation about gun control is enough to get Second Amendment zealots whispering about insurrection. We very recently saw a militarized police force siege a community for protesting the extrajudicial execution of one of their fellow community members. This has stirred anger and resentment in many while compounding fear and frustration in many more. We greatly lack faith in our government, and we are increasingly wary of the ways it exacts its power. Now consider how that looks to those on the receiving end of our foreign policy. Consider those who died in the Datta Khel drone strike back in 2011, where 42 people—mostly civilians gathered for a community meeting—were killed. For many that we never see or hear from outside of reports of casualties, America looks like somebody in combat gear putting a gun in the face of a passive crowd at its best. At its worst, this country looks like the flying robot that maimed or killed a family member.

In response to the question about how we should proceed in Iraq, my friend Jeremy Smith summed it up better than I could: “Stay out. Get away. I was in 6th grade when the first US bomb was dropped on Iraq and Stormin’ Norman made us all forget about Vietnam. Here we are, almost 25 years later, Stormin’ Norman is dead, and so are 5,000 Americans and a million or so Iraqis and we’re still bombing the country in the hopes we’ll wake up tomorrow and it will be Switzerland… A constantly evolving 25 year war involving the most powerful country in the history of the world and a failed state. At some point you just have to say enough.”

Acknowledging this, though, is enough to get nay-sayed as an isolationist—an idealist, not a realist. We have to do something, don’t we? Don’t we have an obligation? When all you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as a nail and when all you have is a military state, it is tempting to treat everything and everyone as a target regardless of the effect on actual security. The Islamic State, and any similar insecurity is in part our own creation. Our policies call for hatred, retribution and instability, and when that hatred, retribution and instability rears its head, there is a morbidly comical collective shrug. “Why are they doing this? Why do they hate us?”

The term for the unanticipated or unaccounted for hatred, retribution and instability our foreign policy fosters is blowback. 9/11 is a not particularly controversial example of this, and the origins of that blowback can be found in our involvement in Afghanistan at the end of the Cold War. We armed and trained the enemies of our enemies and they would inevitably become our own foes. The right-wing American Enterprise Institute does not want us to buy into this, and suggests that such acknowledgements derive from the fringes of our society. Of course this is their narrative. What greater American enterprise is there, after all, than the creation and maintenance of the machinery of war?

While I agree that acknowledgements of our own hand in reaping what we sew live predominantly on the fringe, I ask how mainstream attitudes toward bombing our way out of each emerging conflict, how letting the executive, the Pentagon and the CIA have the only say in our foreign engagement, is treating us. Why is Iraq crumbling? Why has the Islamic State come to the fore? How come our president now has to awkwardly clarify that we are not being hypocritical when we condemn other superpowers for unilaterally staging invasions? I can’t possibly know, as I maintain a fringe worldview. But if we in the fringes happen to be right, and our reckless encroachment onto the rest of the world does have adverse consequences, then what can we expect in the years to come, the years proceeding over a decade one of history’s worst overreactions? In 2005, Peter Bergen and Alec Reynolds wrote that “the current war in Iraq will generate a ferocious blowback of its own, which—as a recent classified CIA assessment predicts—could be longer and more powerful [than that which preceded it.]” But that was just published in a fringe rag called Foreign Affairs.

So echoing Jeremy’s suggestion, we should just get out of Iraq, and anywhere else we are causing carnage and cultivating dread. But, the so-called realists interject, if we just bomb more precisely, or cast our surveillance net a little wider, or spend more on our military, or… We can’t just withdraw. You’ve got to be realistic.

Howard Zinn suggested that “Realism is seductive because once you have accepted the reasonable notion that you should base your actions on reality, you are too often led to accept, without much questioning, someone else’s version of what that reality is. It is a crucial act of independent thinking to be skeptical of someone else’s description of reality.” That so strongly resonates with me, as guidance by so-called realism has landed us in a surveillance state so omnipresent, Orwell would have found it too fantastic to be real. That so-called realism put us in possession of the best killer robots. That so-called realism has given us the costliest, best-endowed military, but journalists are still getting their heads cut off, terrorist cells are still successfully recruiting Americans, and we are still perpetually on edge, waiting for the next big attack. We must acknowledge that realism has failed us. It is time we give a little idealism a chance.

IMAGE SOURCE: Hasbunullah/AP

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.