Though their ideologies and goals are fundamentally different, experts and analysts are drawing striking conclusions regarding a shared methodology between the United States and its latest foe, ISIS
When President Barack Obama first announced in his September address to the nation that the military would directly engage in both Syria and Iraq as part of Washington’s ever-evolving strategy against terror, he did so unilaterally, without a U.N. mandate or even a vote from Congress.
While news of yet another U.S. military intervention in the Middle East didn’t come as much of a surprise, the idea that a U.S. president could bypass Congress by playing on legal semantics has driven a new discussion on counter-terrorism, self-defense, and the notion that war could ever be morally justified.
If over the past decade Washington has been at its most proactive in its approach to radicalism and terror in the Middle East, pushing the idea that America’s survival is at stake, never before has a U.S. president broken away so completely with constitutional tradition that Congress had to be left out of the narrative.
Rationalizing his decision, President Obama has argued that given the deadly threat which the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, poses to the region and ultimately global security, American interests have to be protected at all costs and by every means necessary.
The battlegrounds have been drawn, pitting a veritable terror army against a “coalition of the willing,” and political analysts and law experts theorize that although motivated by inherently antithetical ideologies and beliefs, both the White House and ISIS follow similar behavioral patterns, often using the same methodology to enforce and back their respective ideologies.
The terror algorithm
Hashem Mokhtar, a researcher for the Beirut Center for Middle Eastern Studies, picked up on what he calls “America’s war on terror algorithm” as early as June, pointing to America’s tendency to operate outside the margins of the law to defeat an opponent whose entire existence is defined outside of any legal framework or code of morality. (Editor’s note: For the sake of disclosure, the author of this story is the associate director of the Beirut Center for Middle Eastern Studies.)
Mokhtar told MintPress News: “If both entities stand in opposition of one another, they have both behaved rather symmetrically on the ground. Both the United States and ISIL leadership have ignored state sovereignties, both have trampled over political borders, and both have targeted civilian populations without ever answering to any legal authority, supporting their actions on the basis that they are doing what is necessary for the greater good.”
He also noted that while the U.S. and ISIS could not stand further apart in terms of ideology and end-game for the region, both powers have proven to be “radical” in their approach to the use of force. Washington has based its intervention on the idea that the U.S. intends to promote and defend liberty and democratic values, Mokhtar explained, while ISIS has proclaimed its desire to see the rise of an Islamic caliphate that will promote the supremacy of one very radical and arguably perverse interpretation of Islam.
Looking back at America’s decade-long war on terror, a pattern emerges. Since former U.S. President George W. Bush obtained permission from Congress to declare war on Iraq in 2001, hundreds of thousands have died, including many civilians. While no compounded tally was ever drawn, separate studies and findings nevertheless depict a rather grim picture of destruction and extreme violence.
An estimated 87,215 Iraqi deaths occurred from January 2005 to February 2009, according to figures from the Iraqi Health Ministry, which it calculated based on reports filed by mosques and hospitals. According to an assessment by the journal The Lancet, at least 601,027 deaths came as a direct result of Washington’s military intervention in the country between March 2003 and June 2006 — a figure, it is important to note, that Bush rejected as inaccurate.
Adding to this equation casualties in Afghanistan and now Syria, deaths have been by all accounts many and violent in nature.
But if no war has ever been won without blood being spilled, it is America’s approach to military force, as well as its perceived callous attitude toward collateral damage, and particularly civilian casualties, which has led analysts to draw unsavory parallels between the U.S. and ISIS. Many of these analysts, including Michel Chossudovsky, say that if a power could claim to act outside the law, then that power could be no different than the evil it claims to oppose.
Often acting on the fringes of legality to, as President Obama put it, meet “this threat [terror] with strength and resolve,” some say the U.S. has been following the same rules of engagement as the very people it says it wants to see destroyed.
Author Dave Lefcourt goes so far as to compare America’s war on terror techniques and what he describes as “the unitary executive approach to the presidency” to the Gestapo’s legalization of state criminal behaviors, thus aligning Washington’s actions with that of war criminals.
In Truthout, Peter Certo argues that Obama’s new war in Syria is inherently and “unmistakably illegal,” putting both ISIS and Washington in the same egg basket in terms of legal infringements and unwarranted aggression against the Syrian people and its government.
He writes: “Under international law—at least as defined by the UN Charter, to which the United States is a founding signatory—one country can only legally launch attacks inside another under one of three conditions: if the intervention is authorized by the UN Security Council; if it’s a cut-and-dry case of self-defence; or if assistance is requested by the other country’s government.”
While the U.S. administration has begged to differ on such an interpretation of international law, the debate remains open, just as it has in the case of the legality of drone attacks on foreign countries and the torture of terror suspects.
Prof. Mary Ellen O’Connell, an American professor of international law and conflict resolution, has also spoken out against Washington’s war techniques (for example, the use of aerial drones and the torture and abuse of prisoners in U.S. jails), likening such violations to “war crimes.”
Two sides of a coin
While the U.S. and ISIS cannot be likened in terms of ideologies — the former having based its axis around democracy and civil liberties, and the latter preaching the annihilation of all those who do not abide by its interpretation of Islam — both have justified their use of force by claiming the other barbaric and their respective crusade just.
Just as Obama has branded ISIS a terror organization, ISIS leadership has defined the U.S. as a tyrant. Both powers have seen in each other what they most abhor and reject, both have used any resources and methods at their disposal to impose their views, and neither has shied away from violence and bloodshed to see through their respective war.
In a report for Chatham House, Alex J. Bellamy examines America’s war on terror from a purely ethical standpoint, arguing that torture should never be sanctioned as a weapon of war, regardless of the risks posed to one nation’s national security. While U.S. officials have justified “abuses and torture” by stating “unreasonably high demands for information on interrogators were placed,” as in the Church Report, assessments on the ground proved that torture became the rule rather than the exception, thus raising questions as to America’s moral standing.
Looking at how America’s war on terror has evolved and morphed since 2001, it is difficult not to recall Michael Ignatieff’s statement regarding “lesser evil ethics,” a political ethics theory predicated on the idea that leaders must choose among different evils in emergency situations.
While experts will continue to discuss, dissect, and argue semantics and ethics, pitting Obama’s techniques against that of ISIS, comparing horrors and terrors, one question remains: At what point, if any, does the potential threat posed by terrorism become so grave that the protection of the many warrants the erosion of individuals’ fundamental rights?