The day after the terrorist attacks in Paris, I watched the Democratic presidential debate. The consensus I heard was the U.S. must join a coalition to defeat the Islamic State terrorist group known as ISIS. I agreed. But can we defeat ISIS with war? How well have recent U.S. wars in the Middle East worked? How many fighters have our wars recruited for isis?
It has been almost 25 years since the U.S. assumed the title of the world’s sole superpower and began to show what lessons our military had learned from Vietnam. Lesson 1: American troops must not die in war. Lesson 2: The media message must be controlled.
The first Gulf War in 1991 put these two lessons into practice. At the start of the war, the U.S. bombed virtually all of Iraq’s plants that generate electricity and reinstated U.N. economic sanctions in Iraq. The New England Journal of Medicine (nejm) reported that, without electricity-driven water and sewage processing, 46,900 innocent Iraqis died between January and August 1991 from water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid, dysentery and diarrhea. Then Secretary of State James Baker III told Congress the destruction of generating plants would continue until Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was gone.
If the nejm report had found instead that those deaths were caused by Hussein’s actions, as opposed to U.S. actions, where do we imagine that story would have appeared in our mainstream media? As it was, only two papers gave the report about U.S.-caused deaths any significant coverage: The media message was well controlled.
When 12 years of destroyed infrastructure, economic sanctions and Iraqi deaths failed to lead to regime change in Iraq, President George W. Bush responded to the terrorist attack on Sept. 11 with a war on terror. He sent U.S. troops into Iraq to overthrow Hussein’s regime. At that point, there was no Al Qaeda in Iraq, and the country had experienced no violence between Sunnis and Shiites. There was no ISIS.
Conventional public wisdom paints all terrorists as evil people who cannot be understood: They are simply bad people. No one doubts that they have committed horrific, cruel acts. But they, like everyone, have their reasons.
If the U.S. is unwilling to inquire into the motivations of terrorists — which means not relying on what we believe motivated them but finding out what they believe motivated them — we will not be able to understand the illness of terrorism. Without that knowledge, we will never know if our future actions will lead to a decrease or an increase of terrorism.
We don’t have to convert the leadership of ISIS. A more immediate goal is to understand the fighters of ISIS, to understand their motivations. Then we can develop strategies to disrupt recruitment efforts by ISIS, deplete its ranks and defeat it.
But the humiliation, suffering and death our government has heaped on Iraq and its citizens for decades has recruited many future ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria.
Researcher and writer Lydia Wilson, in an Oct. 21 article from The Nation called “What I Discovered From Interviewing Imprisoned ISIS Fighters,” found that fighters didn’t join the group because of a connection with extremist Islamic beliefs. Rather, they joined because they sought a way to combat the insecurity that came about because of the 2003 U.S. invasion: “ISIS [was] the first group since the crushed Al Qaeda to offer these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe.”
Now that we have squandered what soft power we once had to influence events toward peaceful resolutions, we should try nonviolence. Genuine nonviolence seeks to understand and take to heart what everyone thinks and feels.
Here are some simple places to start: Reject the notion that U.S. leaders have an unquestioned right to force regime change anywhere they decide. Reject the use of drones to assassinate anyone we choose for whatever reasons we say. Stop imagining we can bomb a city of hundreds of thousands of residents without causing many innocent deaths.
Maybe with these strategies, we’ll recruit fewer fighters to ISIS. Maybe with these strategies, we can fight terrorism. n
Bert Sacks is a practitioner of nonviolence who lives in Seattle.