Tuesday, September 09, 2014

If We Can't Bomb, What Are We Supposed to Do, Tea and Crumpets?

One of the most common (and depressing) false binaries I've seen regarding reluctance to launch another war in the middle east is "What are we supposed to do, offer them tea/say pretty please/make friends?"

I sometimes get a similar reaction in response to my protests against torturing terror suspects: "What are we supposed to do, give them a nice massage?"

A person who can't think of another way to deal with our adversaries other than torture and war has been virtually lobotomized by government propaganda. Of course, forcing people's mind into the box of "It's either war or the Black Flag of Isis flying over the White House!" and "It's either torture or a mushroom cloud over Los Angeles!" (the clear, scary imagery is always important) is precisely the purpose of that propaganda. What amazes me is how well it continues to work. I don't know what to make of that, other than that propaganda isn't very hard, or that people are awfully easy.  Or both.


Bryan said...

Propaganda with its alignment to indignation, is more palatable than complete withdrawal or seeking to understand the roots of motivation.

editor said...

At the risk of sounding like an old curmudgeon ("kids these days!") I attribute the pervasiveness of this false binary at least in large part to a decline in the teaching and development of critical-thinking skills. The internet is not helpful with that, since it is biased to instantaneous, reactive response.

For what it's worth, I support bombing ISIS, at least in order to keep them away from significant strategic assets such as dams, where a nihilistic act could have catastrophic consequences.

I am interested in hearing what Barry would do if he was running this show.

Jim Cornelius

Peter L. Winkler said...

Dear Barry:

I have two questions I hope you will consider answering in an upcoming post.

1. Do you believe that the prospect of ISIS taking control in Iraq, possibly Syria and other areas in the Middle East is a beneficial thing for the populations of those countries they will come to dominate, as well as the danger they may pose to the West once they have such a power base?

2. If the answer to #1 is No, what would you propose doing to retard or halt ISIS' march to power that does not involve military force?

Barry Eisler said...

For so many people, military force is the default option, with the burden of proof shifted onto anyone dubious about military force to come up with something different. This is exactly backward.

Why am I being asked to provide a "solution" for ISIS? No one has even explained what the problem is. What exactly are people so terrified of that they think the only way to approach it is another war?

When various government propagandists describe ISIS as a "clear and imminent danger," do people pause to consider the actual meaning of those words? Or to wonder how a danger could be so clear and imminent yet we hadn't even heard of it until about a month ago? Do we automatically believe everything the government feeds you? Can we imagine no reasons the government might lie? Do we believe the government never has lied, or never would lie again?

Why is no one responding to Greenwald's point (one of many) that US war in the middle east has made things worse again and again, that again and again Americans have come to look back on it as a mistake?


Why is no one explaining why and how this time, it's going to be different? Isn't that the obligation of anyone calling for the expenditure of American lives?

All that said, Peter, No, I don't think the populations of territory controlled by ISIS will benefit. As for the danger they pose to the west, what danger are you talking about? As for what I would propose other than military force, think of the Hippocratic Oath, and see my comments above. Where did ISIS come from? Would they even exist if we hadn't invaded Iraq in 2003? And the proposal now is to fix war-induced problems with even more war?

Anyone proposing military force should have to explain why this time it's going to be different. Anything else is worse than a cop-out. It's the definition of insanity.

Barry Eisler said...

LOL, another binary choice, Travis... why don't you respond to my points before raising new ones of your own?

And jeez, I'm practically taunting people to respond to Greenwald's piece. It's as though I didn't link to it.

Philippe said...

Excellent essay, once again.

To all those that think war is a solution, let me be the devil's advocate: yes it is.
But then it has to be an all-out war that ends up beating the "enemy" to submission, then help them rebuild like it was done in 1945, turning enemies into friends. But it doesn't seem the US is willing to do that; the US seems to be willing to only bomb around and see what happens next, and what will happen next is quite clear: more beheading of US citizens. Then as an answer to that, let's see... More bombs maybe?

And even then, once these people will have been successfully bombed to oblivion, do you really thing that this will be "problem solved, let's move on"? No other group in the area is going to fill that void?

Matt Iden said...

But, Barry, think of the primaries! And the 2016 election!

This binary choice is being posed today because of those binary choices...and has very little to do with solving the problem.

Frontline's Losing Iraq [http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/losing-iraq/] and the older Bush's War are excellent refreshers for getting up to speed on the situation.

D. William said...

While I agree that war may not be the answer -- there are compelling examples that show how aggression continues the cycle -- it's not good enough to shout "no more war" from the roof tops without offering constructive alternatives. I'm a huge fan of Greenwald's but writing example after example of government/media propaganda and fear mongering peppered with dripping sarcasm isn't swaying public opinion (if the polls are to be believed) so why not shift strategies and offer solutions (if his goal is indeed to halt aggression which I believe it is)?
To solve the problem you’ve got to understand the problem. What is it? Islamic fundamentalists clearly have a hatred of The West and in particular the United States but why? Did our involvement in the first Gulf War spawn the hatred that precipitated in 9/11? If we had never set foot in the Middle East would they hate us less? If we had never launched a single missile or deployed a single drone after 9/11 would the aggression have ceased? Would ISIS not exist? Perhaps, and it’s certainly arguable that their hatred is more conveniently “sold” due to our presence in these conflicts but it would exist regardless. How far back do we have to go to avoid stepping on the toes that have resulted in this aggression, World War I and the Ottoman Empire, the creation of Israel in 1948? Or does it go back to the Crusades when Christianity and Islam first clashed heads – do they view us as the modern version of those crusaders? If we had never extracted a single drop of oil from their sands would we be irrelevant to them now? I honestly have no idea but it seems a good place to start. I don’t know how to solve a problem without first framing it.
What is clear is that if we stopped bombing them today and never pointed another gun in their direction we would still face the threat and likely the realization of an attack. So if no war is our goal then that needs to be complemented with other strategies. Isolationism is an option… we could remove all vestiges of our influence in that corner of the world, let Israel fend for itself (which it does a pretty good job of), eliminate our need for foreign oil and build tall walls around our borders to keep ourselves safe. That seems like a poor strategy – aren’t we supposed to be entering a period of global connectedness where trade and information flow more freely than ever…
How about a propaganda war in their countries and schools? If we educated them about who we are and what we stand for and peacefully countered the diabolical teachings of the extremists would we make in-roads in future generations and re-direct the hate vector? That sounds good on paper but how is that done realistically? These are sovereign countries with their own governments and school systems. What would our reaction be if their propaganda was making its way into our children’s heads? Any solution that has long term viability has to be sanctioned by some portion (hopefully a majority) of that regions population which is challenging.
It’s entirely probable that the severity of the threat is overstated. ISIS isn’t moving in next door and they won’t be flying their flag over White House but Islamic Extremist Terrorism is a problem and one that we’ve spent a vast amount in blood and treasure trying to eradicate. It hasn’t worked so we must adjust our approach but to change course and solve this dilemma we need to get to the root issue. That needs to be the primary major focus of our government. In the mean time there are active and immediate threats to peace loving people of all stripes in the Middle East that need to be contained. It seems to me we have a moral obligation to support that containment.

ryan field said...

You know, Barry, your posts always make me think a little differently after I read them. I'm no expert and I'm not even going to attempt to weigh in on this topic. However, I'm glad you post about these topics for those of us who really just try to understand.

editor said...

— "Why am I being asked to provide a "solution" for ISIS?"
Because you posited that there is one — or might be one — between war and tea and crumpets. I'd still like to hear what you think that might be. That's a serious question, not bait or a debating point. I'd really like to know what you think ought to be done.

As for framing the problem, I see it this way: We have already seen what can happen when a virulent Islamist militancy is allowed a safe haven from which to operate. It is my belief that if the Clinton White House (and his successor) had treated the attacks on the USS Cole and on the embassies in Africa as the acts of war that they were, instead of as criminal acts, the 9-11 attacks could have been derailed. We cannot allow the same situation to develop.
War on Iraq in 2003 was morally and strategically bankrupt. As the saying goes, worse than a crime — a mistake. But we cannot stand aside and let ISIS metastasize just because we seriously fucked up 11 years ago.
Greenwald makes some good points, but he offers no solutions. OK, sure, more war is probably a bad idea. So is NOT going to war. We may wish to be done with the war in the Middle East, but it is not done with us.
I don't see an alternative to military action — and I favor something resembling the initial 2001 campaign that toppled the Taliban, with U.S. and UK special operations forces on the ground with the Kurds in the role of the Northern Alliance. But I'd love to hear a better idea.
Do you have one?
Jim Cornelius

Travis said...

I'm the deleted comments above. The first was:

If you don't support binary choices what would you do ? List all possible options in a mind boggling array of near infinite possibilities?

And the second is:
"why don't you respond to my points before raising new ones of your own?"

Because it was a joke :)

And I really don't see it as raising a new point anyway. If you think false binaries are bad what are you going to do? Realistically, nothing because, as you say they are effective in bulk- so you personally can try and be more nuanced but national debate is likely to default to extreme choices and the the rhetoric is likely to have lots of false dichotomies.

The "Greenwald Piece" doesn't really seem worthy of commentary- it's a collection of thoughts and examples but it's far from presenting a coherent argument or comprehensive review of either military involvement or Middle East Socio-political environment.

editor said...

David Stockman offers a thoughtful argument for a "do nothing" strategy. I'm not convinced, but have to acknowledge that he may be right. Thought it would add to the discussion.

"Needless to say, there is a better way. The best safeguard and only real protection against the theoretical threat of the Islamic State is vigilance and enhanced public security at home. And coupled with it, an end to pointless bombing campaigns in Muslim lands that mainly succeed in destroying American tanks, artillery pieces and other equipment left behind in earlier delusional campaigns.

"And, yes, let ISIS try to govern 8 million people in the dusty villages and impoverished desert expanse of the Euphrates Valley by means of the sword and medieval precepts of Sharia law. The resulting “blowback” from the bestirred people of the ISIS occupied lands will do more for the safety and security of the American people than all the drones and bombers that Washington could send to forge puppet nations within the Syrian and Iraqi “borders” that have already been deposited in the dustbin of history."

Full piece: http://davidstockmanscontracorner.com/barack-we-hardly-knew-ye.

Barry Eisler said...

Imagine this: X proposes that we deal with ISIS by dropping nuclear bombs on Mecca and Medina. I respond that this is an insane idea. And X then says, "Yeah? What do you propose instead?"

Do you see how upside-down that framework is? What X proposes is insane. It's not a baseline, or default option, or otherwise something that ought to be done unless someone offers something better.

Because -- pro-tip -- when the new proposed policy is something as insane as yet another undeclared, indeterminate American war in the middle east against a "threat" that even the president who is waging it and even the head of the Department of Homeland Security acknowledge is in no way imminent, among the nearly infinite variety of better alternatives is the most obvious of all: *no* change in policy. Because *no* change in our current policy toward ISIS would be preferable to a horrendously *bad* change. And anyone who can't recognize that *no* change in policy is better than a horrendously *bad* change in policy is either attracted to war for its own sake or lobotomized by propaganda. Or both.

NWA said...


You've got a straw man to beat up, which doesn't do much for the problem at hand.

Dealing with ISIS through force isn’t a false binary, it's the only way to deal with the problem. ISIS is a bunch of fanatics, fanatics who will accept nothing but their ideal of sharia. The US and Europe are the 'far enemy,' the same 'far enemy' that was attacked on 9/11 and 7/7.

Fanatics must be marginalized or eliminated, or they will wreck your tea party. Ignoring ISIS and banning their Twitter accounts won't work. They have hundreds of millions of dollars in cash, control of oil fields and members with US/EU passports. The 9/11 attacks cost ~200k USD. If we get to the end of the year without a Mumbai style attack in Europe I'll be pleasantly surprised.

But just bombing ISIS isn't the solution. Air campaigns, on their own, have never resolved a war. Who's going to roll into Raqqa and Mosul to end ISIS?
Syria? Not enough man power.
Iraq? That clown car of an army can't sustain operations for more thn 72 hours.
Turkey? That will prompt attacks in the country and here comes the mutual defense clause in the NATO treaty.
Iran? Iraqis hate the Iranians; them moving into Mosul won't make anything better.
The Kurds? Overstretched and outgunned right now.

Violence is the only answer to ISIS. The problem is the scale at which we're operating.

As for torturing terrorists, torture works extremely well as long as you're asking the right questions. If you can ask the right questions to the right terrorist to get the information you need to stop an attack, then one must simply ask; how many lives is your conscious worth?

Barry Eisler said...

"If we get to the end of the year without a Mumbai style attack in Europe I'll be pleasantly surprised... Violence is the only answer to ISIS... torture works extremely well as long as you're asking the right questions..."

Which is all really weird, considering how many countries America has invaded, occupied, bombed, and droned, and how many people we have tortured, since 9/11. I guess we just need to keep throwing ever more gasoline on that fire until the flames are finally snuffed out?

For more, Google "Einstein insanity"...

Barry Eisler said...

As for "torture works," I don't have any more time to waste on this brain-dead meme which has done so much to undermine the rule of law and impair national security. If you care, educate yourself.


NWA said...

Mr. Eisler,

I am well aware of your opinions on torture and appreciate your thoughts on the matter. Our resumes have some overlap and I assure you, asking the right questions is all important during an interrogation, enhanced or otherwise.

If you throw gasoline on the fire, it'll burn itself out that much sooner.

Barry Eisler said...

Richard, I don't know what overlap there might be in our resumes, but I doubt I have much in common with anyone who refers to torture as "enhanced interrogation," a term you must be proud to know originated with the Gestapo.


"If you throw gasoline on the fire, it'll burn itself out that much sooner."

There are people whose attraction to war is so intense they wind up saying the damnedest things...

Philippe said...

The question about torture is no "does it work?". The question is "is it OK to do that to a human being", regardless of what he has done?" That's where the answer is categorically "No".
By the way, apparently you think it is, so you shouldn't really object to them beheading people, right? After all, it's war, and this is an acceptable way to try to push your agenda forward, such as torturing "terrorists" is, no?

By torturing, you are lowering yourself to the same level as the ones you are fighting with. Terrorism and this self proclaimed ISIS is not threatening our way of life. Sure, it might kill a few citizens, but if we don't get ourselves terrorized because we realise that this does not harm our believes and societies, then we will have won and there will be no more reason for them to do it.
On the other hand, if we get afraid like you seem to be, bomb them more, torture them and keep on saying that this is an existential threat to us while it isn't (by the way by "us" I mean the west, since I'm in continental Europe), we keep them happy, alive and winning since we are effectively harming our way of life and believes.

NWA said...

Philippe you're pretty generous with the lives of your fellow citizens. How many can die in terrorist attacks before your government can take decisive action? Please provide a number. Follow up question, what if you were the first victim? Would that number change?

You're showing a terrible degree of ignorance by equating enhanced interrogation with beheadings as a way to forward an agenda. The purpose of any interrogation is to obtain information. The purpose of terrorism is to gain influence through fear.

Prying information about future attacks from the mind of a terrorist is an ultimatly altruistic act.

I bet those Yazidis thought ISIS wouldn't be a threat to their way of life, why don't you ask them how it's going.

How far do you think ISIS will go before it decides it has enough? How'd that appeasement thing work out with Hitler, he just needed a little breathing room in the Sudentenland!

You're living in a sanctimonius tower, Philippe. Come on down and hand out with the rest of us.

NWA said...

Mr. Eisler,

Violence has solved more issues than any other factor in human history. With groups that won't negotitate or when in the face of naked agression, not resorting to overwhelming violence only makes things worse.

9/11 probably wouldn't have happened if Clinton hadn't balked on killing UBL after the embassey bombings. A few tomahawk missiles in retaliation convinced UBL that the US wouldn't go to the mattress over what was planned for 9/11.

Thankfully, we had a Texan in office on 9/11.

Philippe said...


Let's leave it there because I don't feel like having an argument. You will obviously not change your mind and I probably won't either (and you took the shortcut to Hitler anyway ;-P)

I just hope that somewhere inside you agree that torturing people is wrong and stands against the values your country pretends to cherish.

NWA said...


Poor form to run away from defending your position. Intellectual cowardice isn't a real surprise from the appeasment crowd.

Barry Eisler said...

Oh indeed, thank God there was a Texan in the White House on 9/11. Had there not been, about 7500 dead American servicemen and women would still be alive; the tens of thousands of American servicemen and women who have been burned, blinded, brain-damaged, lost limbs, and are otherwise maimed and traumatized, would be healthy; over 20,000 Afghan civilians, and over 100,000 Iraqi civilians, would not have had their lives snuffed out; the families of all the aforementioned people would not need to cope with a lifetime of grief and trauma; America would be about three trillion dollars richer (or rather, less in debt); and the 71% of Americans who now recognize the Iraq war “wasn’t worth it” and the 66% of Americans who now recognize the same for the Afghanistan war wouldn’t have to live with the regret of those national calamities and all they have cost.

I assume this is what you’re referring to when you claim that “violence has solved more issues than any other factor in human history."

In fact, now that I think about it, thank God there was a Texan in the White House in 1963, too, to escalate our presence in Vietnam from 16,000 military personnel to an eventual half million. Had there not been, we might not have had an opportunity to waste 58,000 American lives there, along with countless wounded; we wouldn’t have been able to slaughter three million Vietnamese; we would have had to find another way to cripple the US economy. All of which was critical for our national survival, of course, because if we didn’t win in Vietnam…

Oh wait, we didn’t win. And yet somehow, the earth kept turning, and communists didn’t slaughter us all in our beds. So we extinguished all those lives and inflicted all that trauma and spent all that money… for what, exactly? Well, we had to, I guess, because everyone knows that violence has solved more issues than any other factor in human history. If only we could have more violence! Imagine what could be accomplished?

As I said: there are people whose attraction to war is so intense they wind up saying the damnedest things...

Barry Eisler said...

Also: good God, Richard, are you *trying* to be a parody of Godwin's law? For the moment, I can't figure out whether you're a troll, or if you're insufficiently self-awrae to realize you're embarrassing yourself with a reflexive resort to the kinds of cliches that are so hoary they barely merit an eye-roll.

Barry Eisler said...

Ah, how could I have neglected to mention another reason for gratitude that we had a Texan in the White House on 9/11? ISIS itself! A group that could never have come to the fore if we hadn't killed over 100,000 Iraqis and displaced another four million or so (out of a population about a tenth of that of the US). Another awesome issue, solved by violence!

Barry Eisler said...

As for Philippe "running away" due to "intellectual cowardice"... well, I don't want to speak for anyone else, and it's possible you're on to something with all that. But I wonder if it's also possible that Philippe has gotten bored with someone more invested in cliches and fast proofs of Godwin's Law than in actual thought, and that he has more important things to do? I know that must seem crazy, but maybe something to consider...

NWA said...

Barry, I think you need to learn to take a longer and wider view of history in your reasoning.

As for Godwin's Law, the discussion over appeasement and Philippe's status as a European doesn't make Hitler and the Sudetenland that much of a stretch.
Philippe said that it was A-OK for a certain number of innocent people to be killed by terrorists so long as a country's values aren't impinged. I asked for that certain number and I think Philippe had a satori (you know Japan, you'll get that) and realized just how heartless and ignorant that kind of idea is. But he's only got you to defend him so we'll never know.

Let me pose the same question to you, Mr. Eisler. How many innocents should die before force is used to eliminate a threat? Was the campaign against the Taliban not justified?

I am a two tour Iraq combat veteran, and I don't feel the war was a waste. With all the headlines, it's natural that the average person thinks the war was a waste. Bush isn't the reason ISIS formed, Maliki is. The Maliki government did everything it could to alienate and suppress the Sunnis, and that opened the door for ISIS to come in. There was little to no AQ presence in Iraq when we left.

As for Vietnam, I'll follow your red herring for a bit, the South Vietnamese that were murdered or thrown into reeducation camps sure wish we'd hung around a bit longer. Would those two million Cambodians still be alive if S.Vietnam hadn't fallen and the Khmer Rouge not taken over? S. Vietnam could have held on if we'd kept supplying them and shown more fortitude after our troops left. But Nixon let it go. I'd wager that the idea of Baghdad falling like Saigon has galvanized the US response to ISIS.

I think you're missing the forest for the trees when it comes to violence as a solution. In WWII, we were committed to victory. Many many more Japanese and German civilians died than civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. After we won, we set the countries up as allies and committed to their success. The same thing worked with South Korea.

In Vietnam and wars since, we decided that half-measures were enough. We didn't commit to defending S. Vietnam. Didn't invade N. Vietnam.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, we bought into the whole "Let's be nice!" line of thinking and didn't execute illegal combatants (which is perfectly legal under the laws of land warfare and we executed illegal combatants in Germany) or set Iraq and Afghanistan up for success, and now we're reaping what we've sown.

Like it or not, violence has determined your language, your religion and your nationality. It is the reason fascism is gone from Europe and why the USSR is gone (you have to look at the economics or their Afghan war and the cost of the Cold War, but it's there).

If you disagree that violence has solved more issues than any other factor, please tell me what serious geo-political issues have been solved through nothing but rational discussion and glad tidings.

Barry, I'm a fan of your fisks and how you lay out your arguments for Indy issues. I'm a little put off by your response to what, to my best effort, is my level headed reasoning. I'm interested in discussing the issues at hand, as are you since you've got a blog going. What good are ideas if we can't discuss them and better understand them through defending their merits? Besides, if I was trolling, you'd know.

Since you trotted out Godwin's law, what is the meme for how fast someone blames Bush for the world's ills?

Barry Eisler said...

Richard, thanks for the additional thoughts. I could point out that had there been no Bush invasion, there would have been no Maliki; I could point out that a strategy of total victory in WWII was commensurate with the nature of the threat, and that your attachment to even more force in circumstances not remotely comparable is equivalent to arguing that I should deal with a mosquito in my house by setting up Claymores because they work so well in jungle warfare; I could point out that's it's possible we didn't invade North Vietnam because of what happened during the Korean War when American forces approached the Yalu River (China entered the war); I could inquire again about the more fundamental and important point, which is that the war in Vietnam was a tragedy and catastrophe at any level of aggression, including the one you seem to regret didn't occur; I could point out that you seem to believe bad things only occur because of not enough war, while war causes no terrible problems itself, and that such a belief is so illogical and non-empirical as to classify as neurotic.

As for your questions about torture, these are all addressed in the links I've provided above. You say you're familiar with my thinking on this issue; that you're asking me questions I've already answered -- and linked to for your convenience -- suggests otherwise.

My sense is that I'm as unlikely to persuade you your attachment to war is mad as you're unlikely to convince me of the same regarding my suspicion of war. I also sense that this exchange has gone on more than long enough to be useful to anyone still following it. So I don't see any worth in continuing the conversation, and I do have other things to do, as I'm sure you do.

Why don't you have the last word, if you like, and anyone still reading can then decide for themselves. And if that's a disappointment, you can always comfort yourself with the notion that I'm running away because of intellectual cowardice. :)

NWA said...


War is terrible. I've seen it firsthand and don't wish it on anyone. What's worse is a war without the purpose of victory, all that suffering and nothing is accomplished.

Like it or not, sometimes war is necessary. It should be the last recourse and should be fought to win as quickly, and with as little cost, as possible. Anything else is sadism.

I've asked many people, who think as you do on torture, how many innocents should suffer before torture is used to save lives. No one ever provides an answer, which makes me question their conviction.

Thank you for the last word, it is most polite of you. I'm glad you bring these topics out for discussion and appreciate your candor.