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Why is America at war with the Islamic State?

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There isn’t any congressional authorization, much less a declaration of war. Is there even a good reason for the United States to be involved?

There is no better time to ask this question than now, as much of the world (me included) is disgusted by the Islamic State’s beheadings of two kidnapped Japanese nationals, the second one an acclaimed journalist and humanist who lost his life trying to rescue the first.

It is easy to forget that for Americans, going to war was until recently an act undertaken only after every other alternative had been thoroughly explored and completely exhausted, that the bar for casus belli was high, and that war wasn’t the standard response to outrage or international crisis, but quite unusual, a deviation from the normal order of business.

It’s hard to imagine now, but the United States did not declare war against Germany after its U-boat torpedoed and sank the RMS Lusitania in 1915, killing 1,198 passengers, including 128 Americans. Instead, President Woodrow Wilson demanded compensation and a promise from Germany not to do it again.

War has since become much too easy.

We go to war fast, without national discussion — much less debate. We go to war indiscriminately. We war against several nations (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria), at the same time we’re warring against a tactic (terrorism), as well as various so-called “non-state actors” (discrete branches of al-Qaida, Khorasan, Abu Sayyaf).

War, war, war, all the time. So much war we think it’s normal that, especially when someone/something/some group does something we deem wrong, like slitting the throats of reporters as cameras record the bloodshed in glorious high resolution, war is the knee-jerk response.

Yet, as the Lusitania example reminds us, this was not always the case, and so this is not how it necessarily must be.

In just one single day over the past weekend, the U.S.-led coalition carried out 27 air strikes against Islamic State-held territory in Syria and Iraq. We have no way to know how many Islamic State soldiers, and civilians, were killed or wounded in those bombardments.

U.S.-led forces are responsible for at least 16,000 air strikes against the Islamic State in the last six months, killing an unknown number of people — but guesstimates logically begin in the tens of thousands, including civilians.

Despite all that carnage, the air campaign has not had the desired effect: the Islamic State group is stronger than ever, continuing to conquer new territory and consolidate control over old ground, and the authoritarian government of Syrian President Bashar Assad — an adversary of the U.S. and its ally Israel — is benefiting as well.

American war officials concede that the air war is failing. “I think [the war against Islamic State] may require a forward deployment of some of our troops,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told CNN. “I would say we’re not there yet. Whether we get there or not, I don’t know.”

“This is going to be a long, nasty, dirty war that in many ways is going to look a lot like the first go-around in Iraq,” Stephen Biddle, ex-adviser to former U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, told U.S. News & World Report.

But … why?

Why are we in this “long, nasty, dirty war” against Islamic State?

Why aren’t we asking why we are at war against Islamic State?

No one is arguing that the Islamic State group is run by nice people. Islamic State has carried out ethnic cleansing, enslaved women, raped children, slaughtered prisoners of war in summary executions and Talibanized areas under their control, imposing their brutal medieval version of Shariah law on citizens accustomed to modern life under socialist, secular states.

But the Islamic State group is not alone in its barbarism.

Saudi Arabia routinely carries out public beheadings and floggings, as well as crucifixions, and treats women like dirt. Yet we don’t bomb them. To the contrary, the Saudis are close allies. President Barack Obama cuts short important diplomatic trips in order to join the Saudis as they mourn their dead king.

Another close U.S. ally, the government of the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, either boils or freezes political dissidents to death, depending on the government’s mood. Quirky! No air raids there either.

Among the worst nations on earth for human rights abuses are Yemen and Pakistan, both of which, like the Islamic State group, are fundamentalist Islamist regimes, but receive hundreds of millions of dollars in American weapons and cash.

So what’s special about the Islamic State group? Why did we go to war against them?

“When it comes to human rights abuses, they (Islamic State militants) are in a class of their own,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said last summer in support of a congressional resolution supporting America’s newest war. But that’s not true. The Islamic State group is no worse than any number of other regimes we choose to leave alone (or actively support).

The New York Times’ editorial board says Islamic State “poses a dire threat to the United States and its allies.” How so? They can’t attack the U.S. Yes, they’re in Iraq, which we kinda sorta view as an ally after invading it, but that war was lost in 2003. Islamic State can’t invade Israel either. So why are we attacking them? And why aren’t we asking why?

War is serious business. It takes lives, costs money, destroys infrastructure and the environment, and creates new problems, including laying the ground for future wars. The least — the very least — we can do is think about it, and talk about it, before starting one, and then letting inertia carry it on.

Ted Rall, a syndicated writer and cartoonist for The Los Angeles Times, is the author of the new critically acclaimed book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” © 2015 Ted Rall

  • mrsatyre

    Senator Boxer is one of the most war-like people in power in the US, always fabricating myths to prop up her agenda to strip her constituents of their rights and further military aggression against other nations. She’s devoid of careful consideration or rational thought on most topics, as her track record clearly indicates. That being said, because ISIS/ISIL/whatever you want to call it has vehemently expressed their goals to destroy our mutual enemies and allies alike in the Middle East, and bring about a totalitarian caliphate which would not only mean genocide of several ethnic groups on a scale to make the Holocaust pale in comparison, it would also mean a choke hold for the entire world on tremendously valuable geographical and mineral resources. “When you threaten my friends, you threaten me.” It doesn’t take a genuis to see that.

  • Simon Dean

    Gee, if I remember rightly two innocent people delivering aid to refugees in Syria got their heads chopped off. As expected, Obama decided that SOMEONE had to stop them. As no one else stood up to do it, I guess he looked at his Daughters and decided he didn’t want this sort of thing to become acceptable, even by means of passively doing nothing about it. He didn’t want to live in a world Caligula still lived in by proxy. How about looking in a child’s eye and deciding that human life, human love, and human peace is the most valuable thing in the world, and is worth protecting, and if necessary, fighting for?

  • Internet Terracotta Tiger

    That is one of the best columns I have ever read in recent memory, and I read a lot of columns. Thanks Japan Times!
    It’s sad to read another commenter rightly pointing out that many of the victims were terrific people working to make a positive difference, still, I think Ted Rall’s brilliantly articulated question was just crying out to be asked. I am also starting to wonder to what extent, if at all, the locals tried to help protect the journalists and aid workers from the psychopaths, wasn’t Kenji Goto betrayed by a guide in fact working for them? This part of the world strikes me as far too angry – outsider good intentions and distinctly bad intentions have both been soundly punished – and barring true and credible threats to security, it seems to me the best thing to do with angry people is to just leave them alone.

  • Merchant Mmo

    Not sure but the “why us?” question could always backfire in the sense that Its fine that the US doesn’t go to war, but by that logic, we shouldn’t expect any other countries to aid us either should the Islamic state just happen to actually poke at america directly. Unless those other countries too are poked by the ISIS.

  • Dipak Bose

    The author does not try to understand the real picture. ISIS originally was formed by the CIA, Turkey, Jordan and France with the financial assistance from Saudi Arabia , Qatar and other Gulf states. Arab soldiers were imported mainly from Libya. It has different names them, Al-Nusra, Syrian resistance, and Al-Queada. They were fighting against Asaad in Syria.
    USA assisted these groups then. The problem started that they went out of control and started attacking Iraq. Both Iran and Hezbullah came in to fight against ISIS in Iran. Former Prime Minister of Iraq Malaki asked Putin for help. He was ousted and USA started bombing here and there but these are ineffective. Mosul city in Iraq is still under ISIS and vast parts of Syria is under them.
    Thus, USA has no motive to fight ISIS effectively but just pretending. Obama is still giving money and weapons to the anti-Asaad forces in Syria; they are ISIS.
    Obama is pretending to fight ISIS only because otherwise both Iran and Russia will go to Iraq to fight ISIS financed by the American allies in the Arabian Gulf states. When exactly USA-UK did anything on moralistic ground?