Op-Ed, 658 words

Military Intervention Is the Problem, Not the Solution

The Islamic State's latest atrocities are a calculated effort to bring the war in Syria home to the countries participating in it.


A café. A stadium. A concert hall. One of the most horrifying things about the murderous attacks in Paris was the terrorists’ choice of targets.

They chose gathering places where people’s minds wander furthest from unhappy thoughts like war. And they struck on a Friday night, when many westerners take psychic refuge from the troubles of the working week.

The message was simple: Wherever you are, this war will find you.

The same could be said for the 43 Lebanese civilians murdered only the day before, when a bomb exploded in a crowded marketplace in Beirut. Or for the 224 vacationers who died when their Russian airliner blew up over Egypt a few weeks earlier.

The Islamic State, or ISIS, claimed responsibility for each of these atrocities. But that’s not the only thing they have in common. In fact, all of them occurred in countries whose governments — or, in Lebanon’s case, a powerful militia — have gotten involved in Syria.

Syria cartoon with Assad as devil special forces Obama hell

Going to Syria in a Handbasket, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Russia started bombing ISIS targets and other Syrian rebels last month. Hundreds of Lebanese Hezbollah fighters have fought and died defending the Syrian regime. And France was the first country to join the Obama administration’s war on ISIS last year.

Indeed, scarcely a month before ISIS attacked the French capital, French planes were bombing the Islamic State’s capital in Raqqa, Syria — dropping bombs that “did not help them at all in the streets of Paris,” as a grim communiqué from the terrorist group gloated afterward.

These horrific attacks on civilians are part of a calculated effort to bring the war in Syria home to the other countries participating in it. And our bill could come due next.

Washington’s funneling millions of dollars’ worth of weapons to its proxies in Syria. It’s dispatching special forces to “advise” an array of the Islamic State’s enemies. And in an air war totally unauthorized by Congress, U.S. warplanes have launched thousands of strikes on alleged ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria since 2014.

But you can’t simply bomb extremism out of existence. And as governments from Moscow to Paris to Beirut are learning, you put your own people’s lives on the line when you try.

Military intervention has succeeded mightily in breaking things and killing people, but it’s done nothing to wind down the greatest factor fueling the rise of ISIS: Syria’s wider civil war. An international arms embargo and a deal between the Syrian regime and other rebel groups — jobs for diplomats, not drones — would go much further toward curtailing the threat of ISIS.

Yet France has responded to the carnage in Paris by pounding Raqqa with yet more air strikes — reportedly bombing medical clinics, a museum, and a stadium of its own, among other targets.

Leading U.S. presidential candidates aren’t proposing anything smarter.

Hillary Clinton declared that ISIS “must be destroyed” with “all of the tools at our disposal.” Ted Cruz called for “overwhelming air power” and condemned the Obama administration for having insufficient “tolerance for civilian casualties.” Ben Carson called for “boots on the ground,” while Donald Trump swore he’d “bomb the s— out of” ISIS-controlled oil fields and hand them over to ExxonMobil.

Virtually all GOP contenders, along with a gaggle of Republican governors, agreed that they’d close the door to Syrian refugees, too — as though they can evade the consequences of war by making life more miserable for the innocent people fleeing it.

None of this bravado makes me feel safer here in Washington, where ISIS threatened more Paris-style bloodshed in a recent video. When I imagine those cold-blooded killers running roughshod through the bars, restaurants, and concert halls my neighbors and I frequent, my stomach drops.

But that’s the lesson, isn’t it: When your government answers every problem in the world with military force, war begets war. And eventually there’s nowhere left to hide from it.

Peter Certo is the editor of Foreign Policy In Focus and the deputy editor of OtherWords, a non-profit editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies. IPS-dc.org
Distributed by OtherWords.org 

  • DFinMOzarks

    We give a boatload of foreign aid to Egypt and Israel to keep the two of them from fighting each other and drawing us into their squabbles. We do this because our military involvement would be far more costly than the pittance of foreign/military aid we send these folks. But is it really a boatload of money considering all the other wasteful spending we find in our budget?

    All told, our USAID foreign aid expenditures amount to less than 1% of our huge national budget. The portion we send to Israel and Egypt is a significant portion of the big piece of foreign aid pie but it’s a niggling trivial part of the bigger budget pie.

    Maybe some better and more thoughtfully dispensed foreign aid (with a specific purpose and goal ..and with stringent oversight) would be money much better spent than wasting the blood of our military force and a much larger amount of our tax money on what in most cases is nothing more than a small local civil war. That sure makes better sense to me than the path we are currently on which is decimating our military and costing us far more in national treasure.

    • certop

      thank you for this perspective. i have mixed feelings about the aid to both egypt and israel — it certainly did the trick in defusing a regional conflict, but it’s increasingly hard to avoid the conclusion that we’re funding political repression on both sides of that border.

      nonetheless, i agree with your larger point. at the very least we should be funding the UN’s humanitarian appeals in syria and its neighbors, the dire neglect of which is no small contributor in the greater refugee crisis. we could also use aid as leverage to push for an international arms embargo among the countries fueling the civil war in syria. you’re absolutely right — well-placed aid can go a long way, and even a robust aid package wouldn’t amount to even a rounding error in what we spend on the military.

      • DFinMOzarks

        Thanks for your input as well. At the risk of being argumentative, how can we avoid funding local repression in Egypt (or many other Middle Eastern countries where there is no real democracy) without getting ourselves locked into unending nation building – which is part and parcel of the mess we got into in Iraq and Afghanistan? We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water so we eat the sour pill of our foreign aid going to a despot in order to see stability and to keep our forces out of their mess. Granted, at some point that position may become untenable but it seems like a path worth pursuing for now.

        The enemy of our enemy is our friend was a good foreign relations position to take during WWII with the Soviets. It resulted in a victory against the Nazis with the Soviets contributing a massive percentage of the manpower needed. Unfortunately, it resulted in a half century of cold war with distrust and repercussions that remain to this day. Maybe it’s a good idea to give this policy some consideration with regard to ISIS and the other radical forms of Islamist jihadism.

        • certop

          in fact, the same “enemy of my enemy” policy roped us into arming and bankrolling the forebears of the taliban and al qaeda in afghanistan during the soviet occupation. i don’t disagree that we need to deal productively with repressive or unsavory governments (iran, russia, syria, china, etc.), but i also don’t think we should directly fund or support their repressive instruments. in any case, 2015 is very different from 1979 — egypt and israel are basically on the same side of the reactionary, calculating middle eastern establishment, even if they won’t say it out loud.

          nonetheless, i don’t dispute that aid could be used productively to help bring the syrian war to a close, or at least mitigate some of its nastiest effects.

          • DFinMOzarks

            Agreed. The best example of smart foreign policy I’ve seen in my life was when Ike refused to join with Britain, France and Israel and get involved with their invasion of Egypt in 1956 after Nassir had nationalized the Suez. As I recall, Khrushchev was ready to come to Nassir’s aid and Ike saw that this ill conceived invasion could have no good outcome and many potentially disastrous ones.

            Every US leader since Ike – who had seen war close up and personal – has jumped at the chance to play the macho man which always makes the US military and our taxpayers end up suffering the consequences. The most recent and brazen example of that was the reckless Bush invasion of Iraq that created the crucible of hatred in the Middle East the west faces today. The sole example which I agreed with was when Kennedy (also an ex military hero) took us to the brink of war to get Russian nuclear armed missiles out of Cuba almost exactly 6 years later. He didn’t do so lightly and behind the scenes offered to get our Jupiter missiles out of Turkey and Italy to equalize the threat reduction.