By Graham E. Fuller
25 August 2014
The ghastly killing of journalist James Foley–more than merely savage–was quite calculated to induce terror and to influence. And it did. Indeed, to discuss his death in a broader political context at this point may seem distasteful, clinical, and disrespectful to the dead and his family.
Yet, this is a region that has been agonizingly drenched in blood, centring around the US military presence, for over a dozen years.
The horror, pain, and immediacy of the Foley tragedy cannot blind us to the reality that death, in the hundreds of thousands, is now part of the landscape of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, Somalia and other areas, and may be intensifying. Foley’s death affects us because he is American, because we know of him as a brave and appealing figure, and because we have been treated to the immediate gruesome details of every facet of this one particular death. For endless numbers of other families in the region however, brutal death during this long conflict—air strikes, artillery, terrorism, drones, unleashed sectarianism—each family has its own particular and unique shared agony. Ironically, the greater the number of dead over there, the more such deaths simply becomes abstractions to us here. But each is tragic.
Yes, we know that war itself is brutal, rarely glorious, or even necessarily effective in resolution of long festering problems. The question is how we break our participation in this endless cycle of violence that has now consumed huge areas of the Middle East. Things are not getting better. They are getting worse.
It is entirely understandable to want to avenge acts like this–savagery by fanatics whose strength at the moment might seem to be growing. It is ironic to think back that, as bad as we perceived the terrorists of the Middle East of the 1970s to be, worse could and did follow. Kill them off and you just might get a new bunch with intensified grievances that made the earlier bunch look moderate. Note how over the last several decades armed resistance/terrorist groups evolved from the PLO and Egyptian anti-regime Islamists, to Hamas, Hizbollah, then al-Qaeda. It is possible that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is even more brutal than Bin Laden’s operations.
The fact is, the basic grievances of the region—foreign boots on the ground, dictators supported by the US out of convenience, a failure to end a half century of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, the treatment of Palestinians as a paradigm for treatment of other Muslims, the US employment of the region as an eternal cockpit for proxy wars—all of this is still ongoing. These convulsive acts of terror are essentially symptoms of things gone very awry. Why should we expect that the symptoms will disappear simply because we can kill or jail those articulating them? Should we be surprised that the same old issues keep coming back again and again, still unresolved? Even if US forces can kill those professing the hateful actions of the Islamic State, will the grievances and conditions that produce it go away?
Still more worrisome: can something even worse than the IS come into being in the next generation of fighters? Hard to believe, but the cancer indeed can spread further, out of the immediate war zones of Iraq and Syria and into places like Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Conditions may very well be ripening for just that.
It is understandable that America’s cry for revenge will lead to further armed response to the immediate outrage of James Foley’s execution. (Saudi Arabia has just beheaded 19 prisoners this month. French civilization of course had industrialized the whole beheading process with the “modern” technology of the guillotine that killed at least 40,000 during the French Revolution. Yet death far away in the Middle East today, inflicted from remote western computer screens from afar, lacks any emotional punch, except when Americans are beheaded.)
To grasp this perspective doesn’t remove our specific anger at Foley’s fate. But will the US now respond to that IS action—which was itself a response to an earlier more lethal US military event, which was in response to earlier armed Iraqi resistance, which was in response to something else? The chain of causality never ends. But it must be broken.
As of now it is impossible to ignore the military momentum of the IS in the tortured states of Iraq and Syria. Bottom line is that such a movement cannot now be allowed, as a military force, to seize Baghdad or the Kurdish capital of Erbil. The IS is still probably incapable of doing so. But the incessant tit-for-tat, escalating indignation and rage at each link of the chain of events, is not a solution. Local players must face their own realities.
Certainly in the middle of slaughter it doesn’t suffice to simply talk of dealing with the “root causes” of this conflict, as deep as they are. Indeed, from where does the Original Sin originate? Yet at some point Washington must realize that it cannot simply continue to supply grist for the insatiable and bloody geopolitical mill of the Middle East. The IS indeed revels in confronting Washington. The people of the region– attackers, victims or both–must come to terms with existing conditions and begin dealing with these events themselves. Continued US intervention simply continues to stamp this as “America’s war”–what most in the region believe anyway. James Foley is simply the latest poignant victim of an incalculable number of personal tragedies in the region. But he cannot be made the justification for prolonging these agonies with “just one more strike.” Even Mitt Romney had enough awareness to sense that “we can’t kill our way out of this mess.”
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com) is a former senior official at CIA; his latest book is “Turkey and the Arab Spring: Leadership in the Middle East.