Belaboring the Obvious: We’re the Ones Arming ISIS

Here’s a depressing belaboring of the obvious from this morning’s New York Times:

In its campaign across northern Syria and Iraq, the jihadist group Islamic State has been using ammunition from the United States and other countries that have been supporting the regional security forces fighting the group, according to new field data gathered by a private arms-tracking organization.

The data, part of a larger sample of captured arms and cartridges in Syria and Iraq, carries an implicit warning for policy makers and advocates of intervention.

It suggests that ammunition transferred into Syria and Iraq to help stabilize governments has instead passed from the governments to the jihadists, helping to fuel the Islamic State’s rise and persistent combat power. Rifle cartridges from the United States, the sample shows, have played a significant role.

“The lesson learned here is that the defense and security forces that have been supplied ammunition by external nations really don’t have the capacity to maintain custody of that ammunition,” said James Bevan, director of Conflict Armament Research, the organization that is gathering and analyzing weapons used by the Islamic State.

Providing weapons to the regional proxies, Mr. Bevan added, is “a massive risk that is heightened by poorly motivated security forces that are facing great challenges.”

I would only dispute Mr. Bevan’s use of the passive voice. It’s not a “lesson learned” by those who most urgently need to learn it.

11 thoughts on “Belaboring the Obvious: We’re the Ones Arming ISIS

  1. What puzzles me is how we — I, you, those people over there, any combination of us — can “unite and stand against” the violence in any meaningful way. Sure, I can sit in my living room and condemn it, but that doesn’t do anything about it. Supposing that we — or some governments somewhere — should take some sort of action to eliminate or alleviate the violence, just what action should that be? And how can it fail to involve violence? I have barely more than a superficial understanding of the situation with ISIS, but so far as I can see the alternatives open to the U.S. and other states are to let ISIS take control of however much of the region as they want or to try to defeat them by military means. Obviously the U.S. should stop enabling ISIS by sending weapons into the region that are more or less guaranteed to end up in their hands. But given that there are already enough weapons in the region to go around, what can be done other than to fight them or let them have what they want? I don’t much like either of those options, so if there is another real alternative, I’d really like to know.


    • Either we fight, or we arm proxies, or we hope someone else will take care of it, or we let ISIS take what it wants. I’d say that the first two options are unacceptable. The third may or may not work. The fourth would be tragic but at least leaves us uninvolved.

      I would argue that the third and fourth options are far preferable to the first two, and that we have to learn to live with the undesirable consequences they bring, rather than acting on the reflex that we invade every country or region governed by militant Islamists. Military action has now become a mindless, semi-Pavlovian reflex, a supposed cure for our problems that’s worse than the disease.


  2. So no, no real alternatives. I don’t like your proposal, but I don’t like any of it. I suppose I am less opposed in principle to military action than you are, but I don’t see much evidence that even a decisive military victory against ISIS right now would really solve any of the wider problems any more than decisive victory against the Hussein regime solved any of the wider problems. Depressing.


    • There is no evidence that a decisive military victory against ISIS would solve any wider problem. There is plenty of evidence against it, and there is good evidence that there won’t be any decisive military victory. Meanwhile, evidence of the costs of any military effort that wholeheartedly aims at decisive victory abounds. What I find amazing is that our pro-intervention commentariat sees no need at all to weigh even quasi-quantifiable costs against quasi-specifiable benefits. They’re content to invoke cliches about militant Islam, trivial truths about how bad ISIS is, and appeals to emotion.

      I just got out of a counseling psychology class here at Felician in which an Iraq war veteran described group counseling sessions for combat veterans of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq with PTSD. These are people years and decades out of the battlezone, but still damaged by the wars they were compelled or asked to fight. Surely that damage has got to weigh in the balance when it comes to our considering further wars to fight beyond the ones we’ve just (sort of) finished fighting? If so, it seems to me crucial to get clear on why we have to damage more people like that and worse without knowing what benefit any of us is supposed to get out of it. But all that I hear from the pro-intervention side is resistance to specifying any such benefit.

      I didn’t at first realize that your criticism of the “unite and stand” phrase was a direct quotation from the communeatnoon group. But the way I interpret it, the group just wants some moral recognition of the fact that Christians are the ones being massacred in Iraq, qua Christians. That’s true, and it’s a truth worth public recognition. Christian persecution does get lost in the shuffle between Jews-persecuted-by-Muslims, Palestinians-persecuted-by-Israelis, and Muslims butchering one another. So in the form that it takes with that group, I regard it as occupying the conceptual region between innocuous and morally worthy. Symbolic expression has its place, and in that spirit, I’ve “liked” them. Believe it or not, I do that kind of thing. I’m catching up with the ways of twenty-first century social media. Reluctantly.


  3. Well, I definitely think that if there’s a way to win the general argument against intervention (a big if, I know), it has to emphasize the very limited form that success can typically take. I think that often in these situations the case against intervention strikes many otherwise thoughtful people as hard to swallow simply because it seems like it requires turning a blind eye to massive injustices and threats to “our” genuine interests. Certainly some varieties of anti-intervention rhetoric strike me that way — it’s not our job to protect other people, they’re not directly trying to attack us, etc. I’m sympathetic in so far as I think it is in everyone’s interest, at least in a world so interconnected as ours, that hostile, militaristic groups like ISIS not have power, and I acknowledge the force of the idea that when such groups are actively slaughtering innocent people who can’t defend themselves, “we” powerful people with resources should be motivated to do something about it. Even if those ideas are completely groundless, though, it seems that we can concede them for the sake of argument and still show that intervention is almost always a bad idea because it is so unlikely to produce better outcomes and so likely to generate enormous damage both to the people we’re supposedly trying to help and to the people sent to do the helping.

    There is a corner of classical studies these days that connects ancient Greek (and, to a lesser extent on occasion, Roman) literature with the experiences and concerns of contemporary military veterans with PTSD and the like; I’m thinking especially of the work done by Peter Meineck’s Ancient Greeks, Modern Lives program and by Roberta Stewart from Dartmouth with veterans in New Hampshire and the surrounding area. Much of the impetus for these programs came from Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam, which argues that the warriors in the Iliad, and Achilles specifically, can be understood as exhibiting signs of PTSD and can in turn help illuminate PTSD for veterans and ordinary people like us. Evidently many veterans find the Greek material tremendously helpful, particularly because it resonates deeply with them but is at the same time distant and foreign enough to allow for some relative comfort in exploring otherwise difficult issues. It is strange, really, because the Greeks themselves seem not to have found in their literature any lessons about the irrevocable psychological damage of warfare (the Athenians voted themselves into war every year for most of the 5th century), yet the dominant view of things expressed in the literature — at least as the veterans and psychologists and classicists involved in these projects see it — might provide something of an antidote to the rather untragic notions of military heroism that help to perpetuate the militaristic tendencies of the U.S.


    • I agree that success in military intervention is bound to be difficult, but I think the fundamental question is: “Why intervene?”, and its companion, “Under what conditions is intervention justified, all things considered?” Very special cases aside, no individual has a free-standing moral obligation to rescue anyone else from danger at risk of mortal peril to self. In international contexts, nations operate in a Lockean State of Nature; we’re not citizens of a world government. So no nation has the obligation to come to the aid of another, either. Those two facts give interventionists a high burden of proof in recommending intervention in Syria or elsewhere. Constitutionally this nation and morally I think any nation is bound to defend the security of its own citizens (or perhaps more broadly, denizens). But that isn’t an open-ended obligation to defend just anyone against any threat. When we assert limits to our involvement in other people’s problems, we’re not turning a blind eye to them so much as acting on the premise that military problem-solving has to have limits, and self-defense supplies the limit. (I’ve discussed this re nation-building in Afghanistan in a review I wrote of Sarah Chayes’s The Punishment of Virtue.)

      I’d say that goes as much for American involvement as for, say, Turkish involvement in Syria. The U.S. has recently taken to lecturing the Turks about the need to intervene in a “disaster on their border,” but I don’t think the Turks have an obligation to intervene in Syria any more than we do–or for that matter, any more than we have an obligation to invade Mexico to resolve the moral disasters taking place there. (Recall that the Mexican-American War of 1846 was an intervention in a civil war, motivated by much the same sort of sentiment as the imperative to intervene in Syria.)

      I haven’t read Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam, but I’m familiar with it from Carrie-Ann’s having done a review of Nancy Sherman’s Stoic Warriors a few years ago (which relies heavily on it). Felician is a military-friendly school, and a fair number of our students are combat veterans. They take a Core class that requires them to read Homer, so I’d be curious to ask our lit faculty whether the veterans get anything out of it. I myself find Homer hard to take, and though I haven’t read it, am inclined to agree with the interpretation of the Iliad that I associate with Simone Weil’s “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.” But since I’ve now referred to two books I haven’t read, it’s probably time to stop.


  4. I’m inclined to agree that nations don’t have any obligation to come to the aid of others. But that wouldn’t settle the question of whether intervention is advisable, since not everything that is advisable is something that we are obligated to do. Considerations of compassion and the broader interest we all have in the elimination of belligerent states and non-state agents might come into play. Perhaps you’d reject those, but my point is less about what the right basic principles of foreign policy are and more that, even if we do suppose that nations have a prima facie obligation to do what they can to come to the aid of victims of injustice beyond their borders, there is a good case against intervention because it is unlikely to succeed and likely to be so costly. I don’t embrace Rawlsian style political liberalism or “public reason” neutrality, but I do think that public political argument directly relevant to deliberation is most likely to succeed when it does not challenge people’s fundamental beliefs, as I think your position does. We may not be able to reduce fundamental disagreements, but whenever we can show that other people’s commitments support the same conclusions we embrace, that seems like the better strategy.

    I’m sorry you don’t like Homer; it must be such a deprived state of mind! I agree with Plato that if you want your literature to display paragons of virtue, you’d better stay away from Homer. But one of the things that first drew me to Greek literature was the way in which certain authors, the poet of the Iliad especially, portray very imperfect characters very sympathetically. Probably the best single book on the Iliad is James Redfield’s Nature and Culture in the Iliad. Its obsession with structuralist anthropology is a bit bothersome at times, but so long as one doesn’t treat the structuralism as some kind of ontological theory of culture it’s mostly illuminating. Also excellent, though less readable, is Seth Schein’s The Mortal Hero. Not that you need anything more to read!


    • I realize in retrospect that I use “obligation” somewhat eccentrically to refer to “the set of all things considered practical considerations that determine whether to do phi or non-phi,” in this case to intervene or not intervene. So what I really meant to say was: I don’t think, all things considered, that any nation X ought to intervene in the affairs of another unless doing so is required for X’s security or self-defense.

      I’d stretch “security or self-defense” as far as this: In the 1971 East-West Pakistan war, India intervened because West Pakistan was committing genocide in East Pakistan, and the influx of East Pakistani refugees into West Pakistan threatened to overwhelm India. So the Indians rightly intervened in order to end the war and end the influx. India intervened even though W. Pakistan hadn’t literally attacked India, but West Pakistan’s actions still threatened India’s security. So that I can accept.

      Paradigms of the reverse sort of case are Korea and Vietnam (as regards US policy). North Korea attacked South Korea precisely because the US had declared South Korea outside of its (the US’s) security perimeter (which emboldened the North to attack). Having declared it outside of our security perimeter, we then decided to intervene on humanitarian grounds disconnected to any security consideration (and then ex post facto began to invent considerations like “the domino effect”). That’s what I reject.

      Considerations of compassion cut both ways. We might have compassion for the victims of ISIS and want to intervene, or we might have compassion in advance for our own soldiers, their loved ones, etc., and not want to. Compassion supervenes on more fundamental considerations, so I don’t think it plays a determining role either way. We have an interest in the weakening or elimination of belligerent states, but that interest has to be balanced against all the costs of war, and if the costs are sufficiently high (as we both think they are), the former interest won’t have much weight.

      I think I’m more emphatically opposed to Rawlsian public reason than you are, but I see your point. What I would say is that issues come in hierarchies of fundamentality. Some issues are superordinate and controlling; others are subordinate and controlled-by. When you address the non-fundamental in lieu of the fundamental, you’re ignoring the fact that the non-fundamental is explained by the fundamental but not vice versa. Sometimes that’s inevitable. You can’t always go for the jugular on everything. But if there are hierarchies of fundamentality, inquiry aims at the most fundamental truths, and political persuasion ought in a rough way to follow suit. The analogy I have in mind is psychotherapy. A cognitively dissonant client is in the grips of the most fundamental issue that grips him, and ultimately that has to be addressed if you want to resolve the dissonance. It has to be step-wise, via less fundamental issues, but the aim is to get to the fundamental.

      I didn’t mean to imply that I literally dislike Homer (the Homeric epics, I mean). I think Homer is brilliant and beautiful. I just find Homer emotionally overwhelming. The Iliad strikes me as a nightmarish text. The degree of violence depicted in it goes beyond anything depicted in the most violent films produced by Hollywood nowadays, and I find that mind-numbing after awhile. The Odyssey is less intense, but given his moral character, it’s hard to follow the exploits of Odysseus with very much sympathy (perhaps I’m with Plato there). One thing that makes me reluctant to suggest Homer to combat veterans is that, especially in the Iliad, the Greeks always strike me as having more in common with Islamic militants than the Trojans. (That point is made elliptically by Bernard Knox in his Introduction to the Penguin edition of the Iliad.) If I were going to teach a Greek text to combat veterans, I think I’d teach Sophocles’ Ajax instead of the Iliad. The Iliad, I think, would be too traumatic. I have a feeling they’d relate to Ajax after he gets home.

      P.S., Thanks for the reading suggestions. Always welcome, even if it takes me a few years to get to them. And of course, they’re not just there for my benefit, but for anyone else who happens by.


  5. In regards to your initial question (djr) it is an invitation for Muslims and Christians to stand together in other nations, rather than develop a consuming hatred and anger towards one another because of the occurrences in Iraq. You may think simply showing support does not go a long way, but based on the success of campaigns in the past awareness is one of the most important outcomes. Worldwide support for peace and unity can motivate governments, such as the U.S. to stop funding and aiding the war. It may seem naive, but a resolution to the issue could possibly be negotiation. The total authority of the government in Iraq is essentially what allows these conditions to arise. I cannot possibly fathom the idea of further violence resolving the current violence. It may be an optimistic view, but if there was a strong push for it – it is possible. If the people are united, they are the mass. They are who can make a difference.

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  6. Pingback: 503+ Boots on the Ground and Counting | Policy of Truth

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