Is the US attacking ISIS to avoid looking the fool?
Theodore Roosevelt after shooting an elephant.
Image by Edward Van Altena.
By Avi Asher-Schapiro
In the waning days of the British Empire, a young George Orwell served as a colonial police officer in British-controlled Burma. In his semiautobiographical short story, “Shooting an Elephant,” Orwell narrates the dilemma he faced when a crazed elephant rampaged through his small town, crushing a young man and wreaking havoc in the market. Orwell is called in to shoot the beast. A fierce opponent of British imperialism, he resents playing the role of a colonial enforcer, and is reluctant to interfere.
But Orwell is bound by forces beyond his control: he is the only man in the village allowed to operate the elephant gun; his superiors expect him to keep the peace, and, besides, the villagers will think him weak if he stands down. Orwell reluctantly tracks the elephant to the outskirts of town. Surrounded by an eager crowd of Burmese villagers, he shoots it dead. Only later does Orwell admit that he pulled the trigger to “avoid looking a fool.”
The decade-long history of American involvement Iraq makes it clear that the consequences of a new military offensive will be impossible to predict.
When Barack Obama announced his plan to “degrade and destroy” ISIS last week, he abandoned his long aversion to military escalation in Iraq. Obama, like Orwell, is bound by forces beyond his control. This summer ISIS rampaged through the Middle East, erased the borders between Syria and Iraq, and uprooted peaceful villages, all the while spreading an unsavory strain of fundamentalist Islam. The world is watching. The Iraqi government is begging for outside support. And Obama is reluctantly reaching for his “elephant gun.”
“In a region that has known so much bloodshed, these terrorists are unique in their brutality,” Obama said in his steely national address announcing the new military offensive. Obama’s logic: to save Iraq, we must put down the marauding elephant.
Images of ISIS brutality have inspired genuine pity among Americans and popular support for military action is quite strong. Obama’s proposal to arm rival Syrian groups and attack ISIS from the air appears to be reasonable and morally justified.
Like Orwell, Obama resents his role as imperial policeman. He campaigned eloquently against the Iraq War and has largely shied away from military adventures overseas. But as President, he is bound by the fraying logic of American empire.
But the history of US military involvement in Iraq is one of unintended and unforeseen consequences. When the Bush administration disbanded the predominantly Sunni army of Saddam Hussein with no plan to reintegrate fighters back into society, those Sunnis congealed into the Al Qaeda insurgency that plunged Iraq into civil war in 2006 and 2007. Then the US handpicked an obscure Shiia leader named Nuri Al-Maliki to become Prime Minister of Iraq, thinking he would be weak and easy to control. But Maliki proved unpredictable. He allied with Iran and pursued virulently anti-Sunni policies that sowed discord among Sunni populations living near the Syrian border. When ISIS conquered Northwestern Iraq this summer, it assembled a diverse coalition and formed a strong alliance with the Sunni tribesmen who had been excluded by the Maliki government. It is not an overstatement to say that the US created the very crisis it now proposes to solve.
Like Orwell, Obama resents his role as imperial policeman. He campaigned eloquently against the Iraq War and has largely shied away from military adventures overseas. But as President, he is bound by the fraying logic of American empire. The campaign to destroy ISIS, which now controls major towns and villages throughout Iraq and Syria, takes for granted that the US can, given the resources and ingenuity, engineer a more favorable political landscape in Iraq. To stand down would be to admit that, after countless military incursions, billions of dollars spent, and thousands of lives lost, America’s influence in Iraq remains limited. Any American president who admitted to such powerlessness would appear foolish.
Obama, like Orwell, is afraid of looking the fool.
The moral case for attacking ISIS, meanwhile, may seem ironclad, but building a coalition to destroy the group requires strengthening military ties with some of the most brutal regimes in the region. US Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Saudi Arabia to enlist the monarchy in an anti-ISIS front. The Saudi monarchy is perhaps the most authoritarian regime in the Middle East. The royal family beheaded 18 prisoners in August alone (one for witchcraft) and the monarchy sponsors police states from Egypt to Bahrain.
Though ISIS is a brutal militia, it is primarily a regional phenomenon contained in the Sunni-dominated regions of Northwestern Iraq and Syria. So far, despite a vast reservoir of foreign fighters, ISIS has not called for terrorist attacks in the US. Baghdad, where America’s embassy is located, is guarded by competent Shia militias, guided by Iranian military experts. While ISIS poses a grave threat to local stability, over the long term, Iraq’s neighbors—Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia—have plenty of incentives to contain and “degrade” it on their own. The US may feel compelled to offer help in this containment, particularly to reliable allies like the Kurds and the Turks. And destroying ISIS quickly may also help to rehabilitate the bedraggled Iraqi army, which after years of US funding and training, fled in the face of ISIS’ advance. But the decade-long history of American involvement Iraq makes it clear that the consequences of a new military offensive will be impossible to predict. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey even admitted this week that it may become necessary to deploy ground troops in the future.
Refusing to stand by while ISIS ravages Iraq may keep Obama from looking the fool. But don’t be surprised if what follows is also hard to stomach.
Laying down the elephant gun would be a terrible blow to the US project in Iraq and its underlying premise that Iraq can become whatever America wants it to become. But political engineering in Iraq has already proven to be a tremendous failure. The US tried to create a multi-ethnic democracy, and instead Iraq is a splintering failed state plagued by civil war. It’s unlikely that yet another military offensive will help Iraq transform into a multi-ethnic democracy. And it’s even less likely that attacking ISIS will rid the country of militant Islam.
In his story, after shooting the elephant, Orwell is disgusted by its slow and gruesome death, writing that “its tortured gasps continued as steadily as the ticking of a clock.” He leaves the scene too disturbed to watch the animal die. Refusing to stand by while ISIS ravages Iraq may keep Obama from looking the fool. But don’t be surprised if what follows is also hard to stomach.
Avi Asher-Schapiro is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, and a graduate student at NYU. He was a 2011-2012 Fulbright Fellow in Cairo, Egypt and his work has appeared in Salon, Vice, and National Geographic, among others.