David Coates

Questions that go unanswered as we drift to a State of Permanent War

As the main US media outlets report and amplify each and every outlandish assertion by Donald Trump and his fellow contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, major damage is being done to the underlying quality of the dominant political discourse in the United States.

That damage has two main characteristics. By giving so much airtime to the Republican leadership battle, the preoccupations of a tiny but vociferous portion of the American electorate is being showcased as though they represented the views of Americans as a whole. And by restricting the response to that battle largely to the counter-views of the leading Democratic Party contenders, a whole slew of arguments of a more profound kind are receiving virtually no air time at all. The democratic process is being inexorably damaged by both these tendencies.


The Republican candidates are currently having a field day. Views that once would have been roundly condemned as unacceptably non-American are now treated as simply more moderate responses to proposals that are more outlandish still. Views that once would have been quickly dismissed as factually incorrect are now given traction and legitimacy by their regular repetition. This is the real damage currently being inflicted on the quality of American political discourse by Donald Trump in particular, damage rooted in his apparently consistent search for the evermore reactionary position that leaves simple conservatism looking gloriously moderate by comparison.

In the latest iteration of what is now becoming a regular sequence of events, Donald Trump is currently proposing a total ban on the entry – or indeed re-entry – into the United States by anyone of the Muslim faith;1 so effectively redefining as more moderate, proposals like those of Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz that priority should be given, when admitting Syrian refugees, to people of a Christian faith.2 In the process, the entire Republican exchange encourages us all to ignore the fact that America is a country of many faiths and of none, and that the separation of church and state is a core principle of the very constitution to which all leading Republican candidates claim to attach such importance.3 That was this week. Last week the assertion was different but the effect was the same; with the Donald promising to “bomb the hell out of” ISIS and “to hit ISIS so hard like they’ve never been hit before:”4 so providing cover for a Ted Cruz who is apparently keen to “carpet bomb them into oblivion. 5 As Cruz calmly put it recently: “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.”

These assertions by leading presidential candidates play well to a Republican Tea Party base that is hungry for quick and simple solutions to what are in reality deeply-rooted and complicated problems.6 But they potentially play well too to a wider American audience –one that is aware of America’s increasing involvement in a third Middle Eastern conflagration and one that feels, particularly after the mass shootings in San Bernardino, increasingly unsafe because of that involvement. That is an audience which is likely to look first to the White House, or even to the Democratic Party more generally, for reassurance and action; so it is also an audience which is likely to be currently disappointed and frustrated by the heavily qualified justifications for war now currently on offer from the Obama Administration.

The President struggled to be heard on all of this in his Sunday night address, his voice partly drowned out by the cacophony of hate now passing as legitimate political commentary on right-wing radio and television talk shows.7 Yet even if his right-wing critics had been willing to hear him out, what they would have heard was less than fully convincing. For he would have them and us believe that it is possible to fight ISIS successfully without committing large numbers of US ground troops to yet another Iraq-type war; and that it is possible to wage that war without significantly increasing the danger of large-scale terrorist activity here at home. These two claims rest on a linked set of well-rehearsed but still problematic assertions: that airstrikes are effectively degrading ISIS as a military force; that local ground forces are available to complete that degradation if properly trained by the United States; and that a broad coalition of the willing is involved in this fight, happy to accept US political leadership and to share the burdens and dangers involved.

The trouble with all these claims and assertions is that we have heard them before, and seen them fail in both Afghanistan and Iraq.8 We are seeing the training of local forces in Iraq and Syria failing even now.9 Little wonder then that, when offered the prospect of foreign war without domestic pain, the Obama Administration should be losing ground to Republican arguments that wars are not won that way, and that if this one is to be won it has to be harder fought. Little wonder either that the Democratic candidate who is most likely to face this Republican onslaught next November is already sounding more hawkish on ISIS than the Administration that she has both to defend and to replace.10 The President would have us conduct a surgical war, “strong and smart” as he put it.11 His opponents want something that is significantly more strident: but both of them seem to be offering us the prospect of yet more war without end. Both seem to be offering us, that is, what Ira Chemus recently correctly labelled “America’s Reckless War against Evil.”12


What neither the Republican nor the Democratic Party leadership seems willing to question – in public at least – is whether this war is one in which the United States should now be so invested. What neither set of leaders seem willing to admit is that being in that war necessarily invites a warlike response from those we attack; and that in consequence being in this war inevitably makes America less safe than if no war was underway.13 And no one in either party – and that stretches to include Bernie Sanders on one wing of the debate and Rand Paul on the other – is currently making the case for handing this war over to the international community as a whole, even though we are repeatedly told that countries as distant from us in interests and ideology as Russia and Iran wish ISIS gone. If they do, why is the United States leading the coalition? Why is this whole matter not back in the hands of the UN Security Council? And why are we – along with the French and the British – intensifying our bombing campaign against ISIS when other powers in the region – most notably Saudi Arabia – are no longer so heavily engaged?

Why indeed, if ISIS is so evil, are we even allied with Saudi Arabia, whose own modes of punishment are as barbaric as those that so offend us when they are deployed by ISIS?14 Why do we apparently feel no sense of outrage when our military action causes heavy civilian casualties in the territories that we bomb, and yet immediate and intense outrage whenever our civilian populations are gunned down by individuals linked in some way to those we are already bombing? Do Arab lives matter less than American/British ones?15 Do we really believe in the legitimacy of one-sided wars: do we really believe that violence is okay if we do it to others, but not okay if it is done by others to us?

In the UK at least, the main opposition leader has challenged the wisdom of yet more bombing,16 arguing that it can only increase civilian casualties and play into the ISIS song book: reinforcing their claim that western imperialism is the Arab world’s main problem, and that a mighty confrontation is coming soon between the forces of Islam and Christianity in which Islam will inevitably prevail. So prevalent in the western corridors of power is the counter-view, however – that the West is engaged in a global war with Evil – that merely by raising those questions Jeremy Corbyn found himself accused by the British Prime Minister of being a terrorist sympathizer.17 The accusation was quickly withdrawn and apologized for, but the damage had already been done. Our political leaders, on both sides of the Atlantic, are allowing individual acts of terror on their own territory to dictate the trajectory of their entire foreign policy – so inviting more acts of terror from an enemy that actually wants us to fight them.18 And our political leaders seem now hell-bent on yet more war, as though a decade and a half of such conflicts have taught us nothing;19 even though the latest reports suggest that the flow of foreign fighters from America and Western Europe into the ranks of ISIS is still intensifying, in spite of all the efforts to stem that flow.20

Maybe the advocates of war are right. Maybe pottery barn rules apply here: if you break it, you own it. After all, it was George W. Bush and Tony Blair who laid the ground for this horrendous and lethal mess by their illegitimate invasion of a sovereign nation. Maybe we do have to reap the bitter harvest of what they sowed. Maybe blow-back terrorism21 is now too entrenched to be removed by any late-day change in US and UK foreign policy. Maybe we are genuinely trapped in ISIS’s war. But shouldn’t we all be talking about precisely this, to the exclusion of all else? Shouldn’t we be asking precisely these kinds of questions? Shouldn’t we be asking if this isn’t a war within the Arab world that western powers should observe rather than lead? And shouldn’t we be saying to countries with a more direct and immediate stake in the outcome of that war – Russia in the Caucuses,22 Turkey in Kurdistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Middle East proper – that they deal with this? That we are done with all the heavy lifting.


Such a change in US and UK military strategy may make the Russian and Saudi populations less safe, but wouldn’t it make ours safer? And wouldn’t we, the United States, increase the pressure on those regional actors to find a genuine political settlement if we told them that we will not, this time, bankroll and staff militarily a struggle against an extreme form of Islam that is more their immediate problem than ours? If global civilization is genuinely as stake, as our war-hawks insist, then international bodies exist to coordinate its defense. If however, civilization is not at stake, if all that is under challenge here is a regional distribution of power and resources, why are we turning a regional fight into a global one by a bombing campaign that can only add to ISIS’ international following? If the Saudis don’t like fundamentalist Islam, shouldn’t they stop funding it?23 And if Shiite and Sunni Muslims have serious housekeeping problems of their own, problems inherited from their own complex and bloody past, aren’t they the ones – indeed ultimately the only ones – who are best positioned to find some mutual reconciliation?

Will someone please start asking fundamental questions of this kind, before we all sink into a morass of anti-Muslim sentiment at home and permanent war overseas?

See also an earlier posting “Weighing the Arguments on US Military Action against ISIS”24

The domestic costs of excessive US military involvement abroad are discussed more fully in David Coates America in the Shadow of Empires (London & New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)25

1 Ed Pilkington, “Donald Trump calls to ban all Muslims from entering US,” The Guardian, December 8, 2015: available at http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/07/donald-trump-ban-all-muslims-entering-us-san-bernardino-shooting

2 David A. Fahrenthold and Jose A DelReal, “’Rabid” dogs and closing mosques: Anti-Islam rhetoric grows in GOP,” The Washington Post, November 19, 2015: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/rabid-dogs-and-muslim-id-cards-anti-islam-rhetoric-grows-in-gop/2015/11/19/1cdf9f04-8ee5-11e5-baf4-bdf37355da0c_story.html

6 E. J. Dionne, “Class War comes to GOP,” The Washington Post, December 6, 2015: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/class-war-comes-to-the-gop/2015/12/06/d62afe64-9ace-11e5-8917-653b65c809eb_story.html

7 Greg Jaffe, “Obama’s Oval Office address reflects struggle to be heard,” The Washington Post, December 6, 2015: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/obamas-oval-office-address-reflects-his-own-struggle-to-be-heard/2015/12/06/ca9b5976-9c41-11e5-8728-1af6af208198_story.html

8 David Ignatius, “The big hole in Obama’s Islamic State strategy,” The Washington Post, December 7, 2015: available at www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-big-hole-in-obamas-islamic-state-strategy/2015/12/07/04ce2d16-9d01-11e5-bce4-708fe33e3288_story.html

9 Michael D. Shear et al, ‘Obama Administration Ends Efforts to Train Syrians to Combat ISIS,” The New York Times, October 9, 2015: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/10/world/middleeast/pentagon-program-islamic-state-syria.html

10 Amy Chozick and David E. Sanger, “Hillary Clinton Goes Beyond President Obama in Plan to Defeat ISIS,” The New York Times, November 19, 2015: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/20/us/politics/hillary-clinton-syria-islamic-state.html

12 Ira Chernus, “America’s Reckless War Against Evil,” Posted on Huffington Post, December 8, 2015: available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ira-chernus/americas-reckless-war-aga_b_8748504.html

13 Jeffrey Sachs, “Ending Blowback Terrorism,” posted on Facts & Arts November 20, 2015: available at https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/islamic-state-blowback-terrorism-by-jeffrey-d-sachs-2015-11

14 Peter Baker, “A Coalition in Which Some Do More Than Others to Fight ISIS,” The New York Times, November 29, 2015: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/30/us/politics/a-coalition-in-which-some-do-more-than-others-to-fight-isis.html

15 Gideon Rachman, ‘Why the west’s view of the Saudis is shifting,” The Financial Times, December 7, 2015: available at http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/a33c5e6c-9ccc-11e5-8ce1-f6219b685d74.html#axzz3tlSQkFOH

16 Jeremy Corbyn, “David Cameron has failed to show that bombing Syria would work,” The Guardian, December 1, 2015: available at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/01/cameron-failed-show-bombing-syria-isil-work-jihadist

17 Nicholas Watt, “David Cameron accuses Jeremy Corbyn of being ‘terrorist sympathiser’,” The Guardian, December 2, 2015: available at http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/dec/01/cameron-accuses-corbyn-of-being-terrorist-sympathiser

18 Jeremy Shapiro, ‘How not to overreact to ISIS,” posted on Brookings, November 17, 2015: available at http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/order-from-chaos/posts/2015/11/17-dont-overreact-to-isis-shapiro

19 Andrew Bacevich, “An Invitation to Collective Suicide,” posted on TomDispatch.com, December 3, 2015: available at http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/176076/tomgram%3A_andrew_bacevich,_an_invitation_to_collective_suicide/

21 Jeffrey Sachs, “Ending Blowback Terrorism,” posted on Facts & Arts November 20, 2015: available at https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/islamic-state-blowback-terrorism-by-jeffrey-d-sachs-2015-11

22 Kathrin Hille, “Russia and radicalization: Homegrown problem,” The Financial Times, December 7, 2015: available at http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/77156ed2-9ab0-11e5-be4f-0abd1978acaa.html#axzz3tlSQkFOH

23 Gideon Rachman, ‘Why the west’s view of the Saudis is shifting,” The Financial Times, December 7, 2015: available at http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/a33c5e6c-9ccc-11e5-8ce1-f6219b685d74.html#axzz3tlSQkFOH

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David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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