My friend Janet is a passionate West Coast tree-hugging antiwar lefty who still retains a soft spot in her heart for revolutionaries such as Fidel Castro. Yet, when I had a drink with her the other night and the conversation turned to the latest atrocities committed by the psychopaths who call themselves Islamic State, she was ready to go to war.
More precisely, she said she would be willing to shoot the marauding monsters herself. For once, it seems, most Americans from one end of the ideological spectrum to the other can agree on one thing: These guys are evil.
Given that, one would think the United States Congress would be able to concur on a bill to authorize the continued use of force against ISIS or ISIL or whichever acronym one cares to attach to these creeps. Such an assumption, though, fails to take into account both the ongoing dysfunction that has made it nearly impossible for our senators and representatives to agree on anything and the complexities of stamping out a peril that is less of an invasion than an infestation.
The U.S. began bombing Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq six months ago, but it was not until last week that the Obama administration sent a draft resolution to Congress that would authorize and set parameters for a continued war against Islamic State. Rather than a resounding huzzah, the reaction on Capitol Hill split in three directions. For some, the resolution goes too far, for others it does not go far enough, and for a third group, it simply puts them uncomfortably on the spot.
Liberal Democrats are the ones wary of giving the OK to deeper military involvement. They saw how the Bush-Cheney White House used a congressional authorization of force back in 2002 to justify wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that cost the nation trillions of dollars and dragged on for more than a decade. To them, the battle with Islamic State seems to be just a restart of hostilities in Iraq and the new resolution would open the door to a wider war that could spread to Libya and other outposts of anarchy where the black flag of Islamic State is being raised.
Republican hawks, such as Arizona Sen. John McCain, are on the other end of the argument. Obama’s resolution is far too timid, in their view, and needs to be strengthened to allow the full military might of the United States to be brought to bear against the enemy. On Fox News Sunday, House Speaker John Boehner said, “We need a robust strategy to attack ISIL and no one has seen one yet.” The draft resolution certainly doesn’t do the trick, in Boehner’s opinion.
Oddly, the president argues that he can do whatever he wishes anyway, with or without a new resolution, because the authorizations given to his predecessor in the White House still apply. Apparently, what he really wants is for Congress to sign on to this fight so that he will not be stuck with all the blame should it go terribly awry.
That is exactly what a third faction of lawmakers is thinking about. They would prefer not to be forced to vote on anything so that, down the line, they can avoid sharing the inevitable blame when things get really messy.
And messiness is likely. The Islamic State horde is especially loathsome because they perpetrate their vile deeds in shockingly personal ways -- beheadings, crucifixions, immolations, slaughter of children, rape and enslavement of women. All of this makes them a worthy target. But they are not ruled by a government in a particular capital or contained within the borders one country. They are not even a regular sort of army. They are more like a swarm of insects that, beaten down in one spot, regroups in greater numbers somewhere else.
Destroying Islamic State on the battlefield may be a Sisyphean task. Only when there are no more disaffected young men in the broad Islamic world rushing to reinforce the ranks of Islamic State will this fight be over. That will happen only through a difficult weave of economic, political and social developments in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.
Yes, most Americans from left to right would like to see Islamic State crushed. However, after the hard lessons learned in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya -- as well as in Vietnam -- the daunting challenge is figuring out exactly how that can be done.