3 Reasons to Ignore Beltway Blather about ISIL

White House Press Room Senator Lindsey Graham (R-Fainting Couch) wants a muscular U.S. policy against ISIL before we’re all murdered in our beds.  However, before we get all pumped up from watching cable news and beltway media blathering it might be a nice exercise to know more pesky details about the situation, especially with regard to ISIL held territory in Syria and Iraq.

#1.  Beltway blathering demonstrates little understanding of the situation inside the area under consideration.  The White House Press corps, which is evidently so shallow they can’t concentrate on major policy statements if the President or speaker is wearing a suit made of any fabric not dark gray or dark blue, persists in analyzing the “optics” or “atmospherics” surrounding such statements without listening to what is being said.  Were they better informed about the political and military situation their opinion pieces would be significantly improved.  Here’s an example:

During the White House press briefing on September 12, the Press Secretary fielded two questions concerning the relatively quiet response from NATO ally Turkey on joining the alliance against ISIS (L).  After Mr. Earnest offered a very diplomatic explanation the second questions was:

But any disappointment that particularly Turkey, a NATO member, would not sign on to something like this?” As if the explanation required more explication.  It did, but had the questioner a bit more background it would have been understood why the Turks are reticent and the White House Press Secretary more diplomatic.  Here’s what the press missed —

On June 11 ISIS (L) captured Mosul, and in the process of doing so attacked the Turkish consulate in that city, taking 79-80 hostages. [WSJ] As of September 1, 2014 the Foreign Ministry of Turkey sought to alleviate concerns about the health and well being of the hostages expressed by some of their family members and sources in the Turkish press. “Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc talked on the latest developments regarding the Turkish hostages held by ISIS militants, claiming they were alive, their location was known and that contact with them was being maintained.”  The Ministry went one step further — “The accuracy and reliability of information in respect to the source is necessary,” Bilgic said. “Since the first day our staff were taken hostage, our government has been conducting extremely sensitive work through all relevant institutions.”

It doesn’t take too much analysis to translate that statement as “We are working really hard with anyone who will cooperate to insure that our people from the Mosul Consulate are where we’ve been told they are, and are being treated humanely.”  After the grisly scenes of what has happened thus far to two American citizens and one British citizen, it is no wonder the Turks are less than enthusiastic about wanting to discuss their contributions to the “war on ISIS(L).”

So, the ill-informed member of the Press Corps asked a redundant and undiplomatic question, inferring that the Turks are not enthusiastic about defeating the ISIS(L) forces – perhaps a better question would have been something like – What are the allied nations doing to assist the Turks retrieve their consulate personnel?

#2The U.S. beltway media too often characterizes elements in complicated situations in simplistic terms.  Nothing illustrates this quite so well as in the case of the Syrian opposition.  There must be good guys and bad guys, and the U.S. should team up with the good guys!  However, what do we do when the coalitions and networks aren’t so conveniently classified? The Free Syrian Army, which some think we should arm, is actually a network of about eight large battalions and many smaller independent groups which are united in their opposition to the Assad Regime. [LATimes]

Consider for a moment the complications of arming the FSA, as described by the GulfNews organization:

“…equipment was in short supply and could not possibly match what the Syrian army had, or received from Iran and Russia. Moreover, Washington demurred when Riyadh readied shoulder-fired missiles and anti-tank launchers, and vetoed such transfers. The FSA’s fighting hands were thus tied allegedly because Western powers were not sure if some of these lethal weapons would fall under extremist control. In time, sophisticated American-made anti-tank missiles reached the FSA, though Al Nusra and, more recently, Isil boasted more advanced weapons. Timidity towards the FSA, ostensibly because its leaders maintained correct ties with moderate Islamist factions, translated in an entirely different outlook for Syria.”

Notice the policy of the Iranian government in this brief description, it is aligned with the Assad Regime (Alawite)  against the rebels in Syria – but aligned with the anti-ISIS(L) (Shia)  forces in Iraq.  Also, remember that the U.S. is trying to negotiate an agreement with Iran concerning its capacity to manufacture nuclear weaponry [Reuters] and actions which align with Iran’s interests in Iraq may promote this project, but those not aligned with Iran’s interests in Syria could derail the negotiating process.  In this instance it’s not so easy to shuffle groups into the Good Guys, Bad Guys categories.

#3The D.C. media are seemingly eager to critique policy without much background, especially as it pertains to the Arab states.  Witness this question from the September 12th briefing:

“One is on the Arab states.  They said that they would be prepared to do their share, and they talk about “as appropriate, joining in many aspects.”  But this language is a little amorphous.  It’s hard to get your hands around it.  What are they actually saying that they would do, besides Saudi Arabia hosting the Syrian rebels for training?  Will they provide troops, for example?”

The Saudis have a problem.  In August 2014 they donated $100 million to the United Nations to fund a counter terrorism agency, but they rejected a rotating seat on the UN Security Council.  Why the half in, half out posture? “Amorphous” is simply another way of saying we have a really sticky issue here and we aren’t ready to crawl out on a branch.  Ed Husain, writing for the New York Times explains:

“This half-in, half-out posture of the Saudi kingdom is a reflection of its inner paralysis in dealing with Sunni Islamist radicalism: It wants to stop violence, but will not address the Salafism that helps justify it.

Let’s be clear: Al Qaeda, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram, the Shabab and others are all violent Sunni Salafi groupings. For five decades, Saudi Arabia has been the official sponsor of Sunni Salafism across the globe.”

While the reporter might have wanted the Press Secretary to answer for the Saudi government, or explain its position, the question would be better addressed directly to the Saudi government itself.   The issue has profound implications for the Saudi government – and has tentacles reaching back to the 1744 treaty or Holy Alliance:

“Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of “Wahhabism,” an austere form of Islam, arrives in the central Arabian state of Najd in 1744 preaching a return to “pure” Islam. He seeks protection from the local emir, Muhammad ibn Saud, head of the Al Saud tribal family, and they cut a deal. The Al Saud will endorse al-Wahhab’s austere form of Islam and in return, the Al Saud will get political legitimacy and regular tithes from al-Wahhab’s followers. The religious-political alliance that al-Wahhab and Saud forge endures to this day in Saudi Arabia.” [Frontline]

Thus the Saudis have a 270 year old agreement with ultra-conservative elements in Islam, who represent perhaps 3% of the total number of Muslims world wide, and which produces an ultra-conservative government with the means and intent to spread the ultra-conservative message – to ISIS(L) and other religious fanatics.  And we wonder why the response from the Saudis is “amorphous?

Drafting this post took approximately one hour and forty minutes, during which reporting from the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, one D.C. press briefing, and an article from the Gulf News were perused.   Unfortunately, the White House press corps seems not to have taken the time to accumulate background information, or if some members did, they weren’t the ones who were called upon.  And thus we get the Parsing Game, in which sentences are analyzed for political meaning without much attention paid to the underlying policy; followed by endless speculation about the meaning of utterances without context. 

Instead of enhancing our understanding of intricate issues with a myriad of policy options, the press corps is trying to offer us the perfect news story, one with drama (preferably bloody), a hint of mystery, and the capacity for endless speculation.  Sometimes the WH Press Room might as well be empty.


Filed under Iraq, media

2 responses to “3 Reasons to Ignore Beltway Blather about ISIL

  1. DB, your comments are far superior to those of the punditocracy, not surprisingly, but I think there is still a bit of (relevant) over-simplification left. (I put the parenthesis because I have often — and rightly — been accused of loving over-complication for its own sake.)

    First, I have to question the ‘3%’ figure, given the influence Selafists have in Pakistan, specifically. On the other hand, Selafism is frequently — as is the most extreme and repressive form of a religion, frequently viewed as an ‘ideal to be aimed for’ — usually in ‘the great bye and bye’ — rather than an actual way of one’s living one’s life. (This is why, in almost every religion there is a pull towards the more puritanical versions. Believers who struggle with their own ‘imperfections and weaknesses’ frequently admire those for whom a more ascetic lifestyle is way of claiming to be more a “true believer.’ They will frequently be led by their own admiration for these people who ‘can be what I only wish I was’ to accepting proclamations from the Puritans as being more accurate interpretations of their religion than more ‘permissive versions.’ It is sad, but true, and can explain much.) Pakistani selafis — and I have seen Egyptian writers say much the same about their country — are frequently like this, and truly secular Moslems frequently are amazed to see a friend or co-worker suddenly go from a ‘regular guy’ to someone we would call a religious fanatic as they can no longer resist the pull of Puritanism.)

    In fact, we always need to keep in mind the difference between the theoretical demands of a religion and the religion ‘as she is spoke.’ This is true about Selafis as well, but a more approachable example would be Catholics — who theoretically consider masturbation sinful. Not only is the percentage of catholics who accept this in practice and thus refrain from self-pleasure has a 0 to the left of the decimal, and several of them to the right of it, but even those Catholics who accept this teaching far enough to feel guilty about sharing the universal pleasure probably are barely over 1% of Catholics. Yet it can be argued that ‘Catholics think masturbation is sinful’ — if we ignore the distinction above. (I have a Selafist equivalent anecdote, but this is already too long, so. unless someone asks me…)

    Much more important is the complications of the relations between the Saudis and the more prominent Islamic-based terrorist groups. Many of them are funded in part by members of the Saudi Royal Family — yet they also, particularly those who speak of the ‘caliphate,’ consider the Saudis in many ways the ‘ultimate enemy.’ Remember that the Saudis do not merely rule over an oil-filled land, the territory they rule includes Mecca and the most sacred sites in Islam — and is the destination for those who perform the Haj.

    You would expect — particularly were you Selafi-oriented — that those granted such a great privilege would be among the most pious, observant, and rigid followers of at least the most prominent of Islamic rules. Yet many, arguably the vast majority, of the Royal Family are rich, corrupt, extremely secular, and about as pious and observant as were the Tenth Century occupants of the Papacy — in other words, not at all.

    So you have Bin Laden — in the pre-Zawahiri days — seeing the Saudis as enemy #1. We have some of the Royal Family working hard with other Islamic leaders and even the west to stop these madmen, others gladly willing to fund them as long as they occupy themselves elsewhere and make taking over Saudi territory for the New Caliphate the final act after they’ve succeeded elsewhere, and some Family members being authentic believers who agree with the terrorists and are as willing to fund their actions against the other Family members as they are to fund actions in America or Asia. (I have a hunch these are also among the — relatively — less prosperous and powerful members of the family.)

  2. Good critique and commentary