Littwin: Cruelty, shock escalate stakes in Iraq |

Littwin: Cruelty, shock escalate stakes in Iraq

Mike Littwin
Fair and Unbalanced

Now we know what could go wrong in Iraq. What could go horribly, horribly wrong.

The beheading of journalist Jim Foley by the Islamic State (ISIS) and the cruel posting of the video — said to be in response to American bombing in Iraq — changed everything.

It’s as if ISIS leaders were trying to confirm that they are, in fact, what Charles Krauthammer calls the worst people on earth. Cruelty and shock were apparently the point. And the response has been exactly what you’d expect.

Barack Obama called ISIS a “cancer” that had no place in the 21st century. John Kerry called ISIS “the face of evil,” and promised to confront the group “wherever it tries to spread its despicable hatred.”

It’s not clear whether ISIS leaders understood that Foley’s execution would make it more difficult for America to back away from Iraq, but I’m guessing they did.

Of course, that would mean Syria, where Obama has resisted all calls to join fighting in a civil war that helped create ISIS as it’s constituted today. And Gen. Martin Dempsey, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, now says that ISIS can’t be defeated without dealing with its presence in Syria.

“This is an organization that has an apocalyptic end-of-days strategic vision that will eventually have to be defeated,” Dempsey said. “Can they be defeated without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria? The answer is no.”

You can see what is happening here. It’s not clear whether ISIS leaders understood that Foley’s execution would make it more difficult for America to back away from Iraq, but I’m guessing they did. They have already threatened to kill more American hostages, and that’s obviously not an idle threat. Obama understood that. He didn’t pay off a ransom demand of $130 million, but he did send a rescue team to try to get the American hostages out of Syria. When the American commandos arrived at the site, the hostages were no longer there.

In any case, America’s role has already escalated, if just in the war of words. And even though Dempsey didn’t indicate that Obama was prepared to bomb any part of Syria, you can’t miss hearing the drumbeat.

When Obama announced the bombing missions, he vowed a “limited” war. There would be no American combat troops. But there are 300 so-called advisers. And if combat troops aren’t there, American planes and drones are. And already the rationale for American bombing — to protect minority groups from ISIS slaughter and to protect Americans in the Kurdish parts of Iraq — has changed.

ISIS isn’t simply an insurgent group that erased a border with Syria and overran the Iraqi army — while taking American military hardware that the Iraqis abandoned. It isn’t just an affront to civilized norms.

It is now the enemy.

When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was asked whether ISIS presented a “9/11-level threat,” he said, “This is beyond anything that we’ve seen. The sophistication of terrorism and ideology married with resources presents a whole new dynamic and paradigm of threats to this country.”

Once you say that a group is a dynamic threat to your country, it’s hard to do anything but address the threat. This is an enemy you don’t have to demonize. You don’t have to gin up the threat of weapons of mass destruction. They do the heavy lifting for you.

As The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson noted, once there were guerrillas, and then there were terrorists, and now, he writes, there are groups like ISIS that are “something like serial killers … trying to out-bad their enemies, to frighten them into submission and to somehow draw themselves into an ugly cartoon of evil.”

There aren’t any easy answers in Iraq. There never have been. If you want, you can take this back to George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and the inevitable spawning of radical groups, but there isn’t much point. It was painful to watch Obama, who became president with the promise of getting the country out of Iraq, taking years and years to make it happen.

It’s an understatement to say these things are complicated. It’s an understatement to say, with the Mosul Dam captured and the Kurds in jeopardy of being overrun, that America didn’t bear some responsibility.

Despite what Dick Cheney would tell you, Obama has played his bad hand reasonably well. Yes, he overreached with his line in the sand in Syria, but he did resist getting involved in Syria’s civil war. He didn’t go into Iraq until it was clear that Nouri al-Maliki was actually ready to give up power.

But where does that leave us?

As any poll will tell you, Americans are tired of war in the Middle East. We’ve finally learned the lesson of Iraq. There will be no American combat troops there — of that much we can be pretty sure. After all, Obama knew the lesson of Iraq before America invaded.

Presumably, Obama will try to put together a coalition force composed of countries in the region to help Iraqi troops take on ISIS, supported by Western air power. But what if he can’t? What then? What else could go wrong?

Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for