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“U.S. Militarism Brings Chaos”: As Obama Plans a War on ISIS, a Call for a Middle East-Led Response

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President Obama has launched an effort to rally Congress and the public behind a sustained offensive against the militant group, Islamic State. Obama is set to meet with Congress on Tuesday followed by a national address Wednesday. The United States says it will lead the offensive against the Islamic State with a so-called “core coalition” of 10 countries. The White House says the fight could last beyond the end of President Obama’s term in early 2017. Meanwhile on Sunday, Arab League foreign ministers met in Cairo and announced they would cooperate with efforts to combat militants who have overrun parts of Iraq and Syria. Their resolution did not explicitly support the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State, but suggested it would back the effort.

We are joined by Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut and editor-at-large of the Beirut-based newspaper, The Daily Star. “Combining American militarism with Arab dictatorships is probably the stupidest recipe that anybody could possibly come up with to try to fight jihadi movements like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and others,” Khouri says. “It was that combination of Arab autocracy and American militarism that actually nurtured and let these movements expand.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama has begun to unveil his strategy for an offensive against the Islamic State that could last as long as three years and beyond the end of his administration. This comes as the United States has carried out more than 140 airstrikes against ISIS fighters in Iraq in the past month. Over the weekend, American warplanes launched fresh strikes against militants near Haditha Dam, less than 150 miles northwest of the capital, Baghdad.

On Tuesday, Obama is set to meet with Congress to discuss the new strategy; on Wednesday, scheduled to give a major address to give more details to the American public. He first outlined the plan Sunday on Meet the Press. Obama says he has ruled out the redeployment of ground troops in Iraq but has left open the possibility of airstrikes in Syria, as well as economic and political measures.

At the NATO summit Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the U.S. will lead the offensive against the Islamic State with a so-called “core coalition” of 10 countries. The group includes Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Italy, Poland, Denmark and Turkey—the only Muslim state. On Sunday, Arab League foreign ministers met in Cairo and announced they would cooperate with efforts to combat militants who have overrun parts of Iraq and Syria. Their resolution did not explicitly support the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State but suggested it would back the effort. This is Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby.

SECRETARY GENERAL NABIL ELARABY: [translated] This matter is neither political nor security-related only, but we will discuss it from all directions to block it and stop its sources. This requires cooperation between different ministers and preemptive meetings and researching the subject from all its angles. However, the combat still stands, and the confrontation. It is not a simple decision, the decision to confront these phenomena, as many states demand. Also, by working on blocking the sources of terrorism through fighting its ideology, seizing its funding, remedying reasons and circumstances that led to the outbreak of this extremist terrorist phenomenon.

AMY GOODMAN: All of this comes as a new report by a private British firm that monitors arms trafficking says military equipment provided by the United States and Saudi Arabia has fallen into the hands of Islamic State fighters. The firm examined rockets and small arms stamped “Property of the U.S. government” that appear to have been supplied to Shiite forces in Iraq during the U.S. occupation.

Well, for more, we’re going to Beirut, Lebanon, to Rami Khouri, the director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. He is also editor-at-large of the Beirut-based newspaper, The Daily Star. His latest piece, “Avoid a Rerun of the War on Terror.” He’s joining us by Democracy Now! video stream in Beirut.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Rami Khouri. What President Obama has said so far this weekend about the strategy in dealing with the Islamic State, as well as the, well, more than a hundred strikes in Iraq, can you respond?

RAMI KHOURI: Well, it’s pretty impressive how he can go from no strategy to 60 miles an hour in like five days, but I think we have to basically understand that the United States feels it must do something. It’s not quite sure what is the best thing to do. And Obama is being cautious, understandably, because the United States has just come out of two rather catastrophic military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a third, I would call it, catastrophic adventure with drone assassinations all over the world, with absolutely no accountability, total impunity. And the cruel and hard irony is that in the last, say, 15 or 20 years of the United States using military action to try to strike al-Qaeda and the derivative groups that have come out of al-Qaeda, the irony is that this has been the single greatest promoter, mobilizer of new recruits for these kinds of militant Islamic terror groups. So, the more the U.S. leads military action, the greater becomes the expanse of recruits and the territory that is controlled by these groups. So it’s a real dilemma for the United States, and it’s something that has to be fundamentally led by people in the region, and that’s not happening very well. So, there’s no easy answer.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain how that recruiting works, Rami Khouri.

RAMI KHOURI: Well, if you go back to the beginning of this phase of the Salafist, Qaeda, jihadi-type movements—there’s many different names for them, [inaudible], but let’s call them, you know, militant Islamists, like al-Qaeda—they started basically to fight the Russians in Afghanistan in the late '70s, early ’80s, and the U.S. helped them with money and training and things like that. And then, in the mid-'80s and then into the '90s, the group under bin Laden's leadership in Sudan and other places shifted to try to hit the United States. They thought the far enemy—the U.S., they called the “far enemy”—was the one that had to be hit, because it was the U.S. that was supporting all these dictators in the Arab world, and therefore better to hit the far enemy. And then, after the U.S. came into the Middle East in the Iraq War to liberate Kuwait, and then the U.S. stayed, troops in Saudi Arabia, then the United States became the main enemy because, again, like the Russians in Afghanistan, it was a foreign army in Arab or Islamic lands, and therefore it had to be driven out.

So, military action by foreign powers, whether they’re Americans or Russian, it doesn’t matter. Military action in Arab Islamic lands by foreign powers has been the most consistent and most effective recruiting tool to attract new recruits to these kinds of movements, like al-Qaeda, like Jabhat al-Nusra, like the Islamic State and others, others like them, because these guys project themselves and see themselves as fighting what they call the defensive jihad. They’re trying to protect and cleanse Islamic societies from the two great problems they feel it faces. One is corrupt, amoral, un-Islamic regimes, and the other is foreign military threats and attacks. So, again, the U.S. using military action is going to increase the problem in the long run.

And you can see the track record going back to the mid-'80s, when Clinton was attacking bin Laden's bases in Africa and other places, Sudan. And over the last 15 or 20 years, the more that the U.S. has used military power to attack and degrade al-Qaeda, the bigger that al-Qaeda has become. And if you look at these movements that have been spawned by it or imitate it, they now have anchorage, small anchorage, but they have anchorage in Somalia, in Yemen, in Syria, in Iraq, in Nigeria, in Mali, in Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, probably some other places, too.

Now, these groups, I should say, don’t have support in these societies. They don’t willingly attract millions and millions of supporters. They have been rejected by the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims. And they can only operate where there’s chaos. And American militarism brings chaos in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in other places. So this is why I’m so concerned about a rerun of George W. Bush’s really unsuccessful and, I would say, quite criminal war on terror.

AMY GOODMAN: This is President Obama speaking Sunday on Meet the Press.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We’re not looking at sending in 100,000 American troops. We are going to be, as part of an international coalition, carrying out airstrikes in support of work on the ground by Iraqi troops, Kurdish troops. We are going to be helping to put together a plan for them so that they can start retaking territory that ISIL had taken over. What I want people to understand, though, is that over the course of months we are going to be able to not just blunt the momentum of ISIL, we are going to systematically degrade their capabilities, we’re going shrink the territory that they control, and ultimately we’re going to defeat them.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s President Obama on Sunday. Can you talk about the other states that are joining in, Rami Khouri, and particularly Arab countries, where they fit into this picture?

RAMI KHOURI: Well, the problem with the Arab countries is that most of them are responsible for the inadvertent but clear birth and expansion of these kind of Salafi, jihadi, extremist, militant Islamist groups. If you go back to the ’70s and ’80s, where these groups really started to take shape, the incubator for al-Qaeda and other groups like it were Saudi jails, Egyptian jails, Jordanian jails, Iraqi jails, Syrian jails, Tunisian jails. The jails of Arab regimes is where these movements were born. Young men became radicalized, then they got out of jail, and then they became jihadis. They went to Afghanistan. Bin Laden organized them. The CIA helped them. And then, off they go. It was the American military presence in the region that created the conditions, in fact, that allowed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian, to come in and start an al-Qaeda offshoot there, and then that expanded.

So the problem is that all these Arab countries are in the same dilemma that the U.S. is in, which is their autocracy, their mistreatment of their citizens, created this problem over the years, and American militarism, from the American perspective, is also part of the impetus that expands this problem. So, combining American militarism with Arab dictatorships is probably the stupidest recipe that anybody could possibly come up with to try to fight jihadi movements like al-Qaeda and Islamic State and others, because it was that combination of Arab autocracy and American militarism that actually nurtured and let these movements expand. There has to be a more intelligent, more realistic process that allows the people in the Middle East to roll back these threats. And these people need to be fought; I’m not saying you sit around and do nothing. You have to fight these people and eradicate them, because they’re really awful. And then, the people in the region are the ones who suffer more than anybody else.

AMY GOODMAN: Rami Khouri—

RAMI KHOURI: But the way—

AMY GOODMAN: Rami Khouri, one of the ways that has focused U.S. attention, of course, is the two—is the killing of the U.S. journalists, the beheading of the U.S. journalists. The Independent had a very interesting piece, “Who Beheads More People: ISIS or the Government of Saudi Arabia?” And they said that in the 21 months between James Foley’s capture in 2012 and his subsequent beheading by ISIS militants in August 2014, Saudi Arabia beheaded 113 people. It says this did “not include any estimates for executions at the end of 2012. Most of these beheadings are carried out as public executions at the notorious 'Chop-Chop Square' in Riyadh for crimes such as blasphemy, drug smuggling, sedition and sorcery’, although for certain crimes such as adultery, the authorities may order death by stoning.” Rami Khouri?

RAMI KHOURI: Well, this is a very old, you know, 18th century Wahhabi brand of hardline Islamic justice, really severe, that the overwhelming majority of Muslims all over the world think is something that should have been left behind in the 18th century. There’s very few people, almost nobody around the world, except the Saudis and these Islamic State guys and Jakarta—the people in Jakarta have stopped doing it—that do this. So I wouldn’t focus particularly on that. I mean, there’s been many more people that have been killed by American drones who are innocent than people who have been killed by Saudis. And the Saudis have this justice system. It’s just that we may not like it. They probably don’t like people being put in the electric chair in Texas every couple of months. So, there’s a qualitative difference between what we’re talking about. We can certainly—I would certainly disagree with the way the Saudis chop people’s heads off as a form of justice and deterrence, because it doesn’t work, any more than electric chairs work in the United States or [inaudible]—

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, there’s the journalists wearing the orange jumpsuits, reminiscent of Guantánamo.

RAMI KHOURI: There’s what? Oh, yes, of course. So, what the Islamic State guys are doing are kind of poking Obama in the ribs and saying, “Look, you kill us, we kill you. You make us dress in orange jumpsuits, we’re going to do the same thing to your people.” Of course, the innocent journalists should not be captured or killed, and they certainly shouldn’t be put in jails, as they are in Egypt, which is the great friend of the United States. So there’s many, many parallels between these things, but each one of them is different. It’s hard to really—we shouldn’t compare the United States with Saudi Arabia, with Islamic State stuff. They’re all very different. But there is a common thread that runs through them, which is that the use of military power and extreme acts of torture or assassinations almost always backfire. You cannot try to have an orderly, just, decent society while relying heavily on militarism and death as a form of deterrence.

So, but the problem before us all is: What do we do about this Islamic State? These guys are taking more territory. They’re enforcing their rule by force, by terrorizing people. And very few people are happily accepting them. They don’t—you know, ordinary people don’t have a choice. If the Islamic State comes in with their guns and chops people’s heads off or crucifies a couple of people, everybody else stays [inaudible]. And this should be a telltale sign that these groups only can operate in zones of chaos. And the United States and others, the British, have helped create these zones of chaos in the last 20 years in Afghanistan and in Iraq, most recently. So, there’s really a lot of shared responsibility for this terrible situation we’re in, but the bottom line is we need to figure out how to fight the two real problems, which Obama keeps repeating as his strategy, the two real problems of autocratic, nondemocratic, abusive, corrupt, pretty inefficient and mediocre Arab government systems, Arab regimes, across the board. And the other one is the repeated use of American, British, Israeli, other military power in the region to try to enforce an order that the West and the Israelis and others feel is suitable for them. Those two problems are two of the root causes of all of these issues that we’re seeing, and the Islamic State is simply a symptom of years and years of this, of these kinds of problems of bad governance.

AMY GOODMAN: Rami Khouri, we want to thank you for being with us, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, also editor-at-large of the Beirut-based newspaper, The Daily Star. We’ll link to your latest piece, “Avoid a Rerun of the War on Terror.” This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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