By: Navid Farnia, M.A.
On September 10th, President Barack Obama announced plans to expand US military operations in Iraq and authorized strikes on Syria. In this new campaign, the US is targeting the Islamic State group, which is also known as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. “Our objective is clear,” Obama explained. “We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy. First, we will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists… I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq.” Obama outlined his administration’s strategy, which included four major courses of action.
But the aggressive rhetoric didn’t end there. “I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are,” Obama declared. “This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.” In the past week, European and Arab countries also pledged their military support.
Obama’s speech is noteworthy for several reasons. First, his use of words like “comprehensive,” “sustained,” and “systematic” doesn’t just signify the US’s most recent military campaign. Those terms describe the US’s activities in the Middle East and its surrounding countries for the past generation. The United States’ involvement has already been comprehensive, sustained, and systematic. This is the newest episode within a larger history of American intervention. And I argue the White House’s current strategy is merely an avenue to entrench the US’s permanence in the region.
Just a year ago, Obama attempted to gather public support for military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. At the time, the Obama administration was backing the opposition in Syria’s civil war, which included the same Islamic State group the US now targets. It wasn’t until later that the different Syrian opposition groups (which include the Islamic State, the al-Nusra Front, and Western-backed factions the Syrian National Coalition) completely splintered. In a year’s time, the US government shifted its military aspirations from the Syrian establishment to its most powerful adversary. Such a drastic shift reveals that, in reality, the enemy matters little for the US. What does matter is the US’s ability to justify a sustained presence in the Middle East and this can only happen by creating, supporting, maintaining, and reproducing regional instability.
This brings us back to the Islamic State. In his speech, Obama denounced the group as having a “warped ideology.” However, there’s a subtext behind those words. The Islamic State is a direct product of the US’s criminal war and occupation in Iraq. The ruthless group didn’t even exist until the US had already ruined the country and slaughtered and displaced countless Iraqi civilians. The same can be said about every country in which the US has intervened during the 21st century. The Taliban and al-Qaeda substantially grew only after the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. Aerial strikes in Libya, Somalia, and Yemen have also produced anger, despair, and, ultimately, militant opposition. Warped bodies and warped lands create “warped ideologies”—i.e., ideologies that aren’t aligned with or subservient to US interests.
In reality, neither the Islamic State, nor the Syrian government or any other regional actor is even a remote threat to the US. Thus, when Obama said there’s no safe haven for those who threaten America, he’s really talking about America’s interests. Those interests include “American personnel and facilities” that colonize the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia, in addition to the US’s trade prospects and other economic pursuits.
US officials are working toward establishing a permanent presence in the Middle East because they see it as necessary for securing American interests. The inconsistencies and contradictions in US rhetoric and action reveal this to be the case. And the US’s constant war-making proves there really is no safety for those who oppose American interests. To be sure, the Islamic State poses a significant threat to Iraqis and Syrians, but the United States is a considerably greater threat. Moreover, if US military strikes are directly responsible for the Islamic State’s creation, then more strikes will only strengthen the group and others like it. History has taught us that much.
Navid Farnia is a Ph.D. student in the Department of African American and African Studies at The Ohio State University.