President Obama has belatedly come around to the necessity of confronting the murderers of ISIS before they threaten the American homeland directly, but better late than never. His goal – to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the so-called Islamic State – is admirable if open-ended. His chosen measures to accomplish this objective are somewhat wanting, as if he just wants to be seen as doing something more than actually doing something, but perhaps he has begun to accept one basic truth: sometimes you can’t choose your enemies; your enemies choose you.
And if his declaration that there is nothing “Islamic” about Islamic State is a tad overdrawn – the killing of infidels is a perennial and sacred obligation – something has awakened his displeasure, certainly the murder of innocents and the future threat to the United States … but also his plummeting poll numbers.
For sure, Obama is a reluctant warrior, and we wish him (and us) well in the coming campaign. Before commencing the hostilities, though, he should become more acquainted with the modern rules of warfare to which he subscribes but will soon find encumber his success. They are as follows:
- Never use disproportionate force. ISIS does not have an air force. As such, bombing their strongholds from the air would be overkill, not to mention unfair. Their favorite weapons are machetes and knives, and so, if the US Air Force is not going to drop sharp implements on the enemy from the air, we must at least ensure that the Arab forces that will constitute the boots on the ground will be so equipped. The use of disproportionate force is immoral and probably a war crime, even if it once was the key to victory.
- Never injure or kill a civilian. ISIS forces routinely hide among civilians, do not always dress in military garb and are not always easily identifiable as fighters. Even when they are identifiable, if their military convoys are ensconced within civilian traffic, they are by definition off limits. If their homes and headquarters are located among civilian facilities or in residential neighborhoods, they are untouchable. If they wage their battles in civilian neighborhoods, it is critical to desist from any type of military activity that might harm a single innocent civilian, even at the cost of mission failure.
- Ensure that casualties on both sides are equal. It is unacceptable that one side in a conflict should suffer many more casualties than the other side. That per se is proof beyond a reasonable doubt of the use of disproportionate force. Thus, Obama’s coalition must mandate that the casualties of the allies must equal – to a man – the casualties of ISIS. If not, well, the specter of being tried for war crimes will hang over the head of every combatant, general, president or prime minister who has a hand in this confrontation.
- Have lawyers and ethicists vet every potential target before striking. Human life is too precious to allow such decisions to be made only by generals and commanders whose only interest is victory. Objective third-parties – perhaps even United Nations Human Rights commissioners – should be able to review battle plans before every mission and even artillery coordinates before shells are launched. Although this also might jeopardize the mission, we must be able to maintain our moral standards and especially in the face of an immoral enemy. We should not lower ourselves to their level; rather we will impose on ourselves a double, if necessary a triple, standard to guarantee fidelity to our treasured norms.
- Embed American journalists among the ISIS fighters. This serves a double purpose: it ensures that there will be television cameras recording every bomb that explodes (assuming the above-referenced advice on dropping only knives is not heeded) and that every civilian casualty can be noted and mourned for posterity. Of course, having reporters on the ground is the only way that survivors can be interviewed and their stories about the effects of the horrific bombing campaign of the evil Americans can be told. It is also the only way to effectively calculate the number of civilians who are killed. Sad to say, do not be surprised if it turns out that only civilians were killed, and that no ISIS fighters at all were harmed – the very definition of indiscriminate bombing, another war crime.
It is also very important to get the ISIS side of the story out in the public domain. The bad PR they currently have is undoubtedly due to the rough treatment they have afforded journalists to date, but they will learn to befriend reporters or, at the very least, intimidate some (i.e., by letting them to retain their heads) into underscoring the casualties of every American strike and downplaying their own excesses or malevolence. After all, there are two sides to every story.
- There is no military solution to this problem. Guns and bombs never settled any conflict, and if anything, only serve to prolong it. Violence breeds more violence, hatred engenders more hatred. The cycle of violence must stop. War is so 20th century, maybe even 19th Civilized people talk through their issues and settle their disputes through words, not weapons.
Indeed, the bombing campaign cannot take more than one month. If ISIS is not eliminated within a month, then another way must be found to deal with them as it would be clear that the problem is only going to get worse over time, not better. No one wants another long war (like World War II or Vietnam) and America especially must focus on repairing its battered economy, finding its shrinking work force new, good-paying jobs, and concentrating on redistributing the wealth of the haves to the have-nots. The problems in the Middle East are distant, hazy images on a television screen, and do not really affect Americans in their daily lives. So, if ISIS is not eradicated in a month, negotiate.
- Self-determination is a cherished, Wilsonian goal that is universally applicable. The people of ISIS have declared their independence in territory under their control. They have decided to rid themselves of their prior allegiance to the Iraqi tyranny or the Syrian tyranny by establishing their own, home-grown tyranny. And that is their democratic right. We should not be cultural imperialists imposing our values on other political systems. Who’s to say that the American values of freedom, liberty, democracy and human rights are inherently attractive to all? Perhaps the futility of war will convince all parties of the viability of the two-state solution, the three-state solution, or as many states as ISIS wishes to create. Neither Syria nor Iraq seem to need all the territory they claim for themselves anyway, and there is plenty of land to go around for everyone (unlike, say, in Israel).
These are only some of the hurdles Barack Obama will have to overcome in his war of choice. Undoubtedly he will, and we wish him the greatest success. The future of the free world might depend on it. And if somehow the rules of engagement change and the war is fought to win, with all the appropriate and necessary measures employed when wars were fought to win, perhaps those changes can be applied elsewhere in the Middle East as well…