As the U.S. rapidly closes in on a $1 billion price tag for its shiny new war on the Islamic State, the media is jumping aboard the escalation train as well, with Congress in broad agreement that U.S. jets and bombs are key to winning the war on ISIS. Selling this plan to the American public requires portraying the group as an imminent threat that needs to be countered with decisive force as soon as possible, rather than a strategic problem that requires long-term planning and concessions to reality. Just how much of the line we're being fed is for real, though?
For example, news broke last month of ISIS' execution of human rights lawyer Samira Saleh al-Naimi in Iraq, with gruesome details. She was allegedly tortured, tried in sharia court, and shot to death for apostasy. There's no evidence to contradict the AP report on her death, but thanks an to urge to get the story out as quickly as possible, the image that so many people saw of al-Naimi was actually not the person killed by ISIS. Thanks to an anonymous Iraqi blogger I found that the photo of a niqab-wearing, smiling woman featured prominently in coverage of the execution is an education journalist of the same name in the United Arab Emirates. I was able to contact her via LinkedIn, and here's the response I got:
Yes you are right it is mine, and this story is really upset me and bothering my time,
I knew about it before and I tried to contact many of website and social media's administrators, some of them cooperated with me and others did not reply, in the same time, the rumors are increasing and I cant control it, it really effect me.
Thanks for caring
The photo ended up becoming permanently associated with the late al-Naimi, despite being of a completely different woman in a different country.
This is far from a minor detail. Photo mix-ups like these call into question the veracity of many other stories filtering out of Iraq and Syria into the Western media, as well as whether news sources distributing information to scores of viewers are adequately vetting information.
The misused photo additionally must remain a source of stress for the al-Naimi pictured. It's probably not very fun to be falsely announced as a murder victim, let alone the direct target of an ISIS hit job.
At times, these mixed-up points can trigger quite a lot of attention. Another spurious story struck the airwaves last week about supposedly imminent ISIS attacks on New York and Paris, courtesy of Iraq's new prime minister:
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said he was told of the plot by Baghdad, and that it was the work of foreign fighters of the Islamic State group in Iraq. Asked if the attacks were imminent, he said, "Yes."
Asked if the attacks had been thwarted, he said, "No." Al-Abadi said the United States had been alerted.
Was there even a coherent plot to attack the subway, and if so how far did it progress?
It quickly became clear that the theorized attack wasn't so far in motion as to justify the momentary jolt of panic. ISIS had certainly not come so far as to actually put any residents of New York or Paris in immediate physical danger. City and regional authorities were clear on this within the day, with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, police commissioner Bill Bratton, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo taking the time to personally ride the trains.
Within a short time frame, the original AP bulletin had been rewritten with a pretty huge update: "Asked if the attack was imminent, [al-Abadi] said, 'I’m not sure.' Asked if the attacks had been thwarted, he said, 'No, it has not been disrupted yet— this is a network.'"
U.S. security officials also clarified that there was no evidence of such an attack, meaning it's only as credible as the original statements by al-Abadi. Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence, of which al-Abadi provided none. Once his actual words were on the record, it turned out he didn't make those claims at all. This just goes to show how far a few poorly-sourced comments can produce an unfounded sense of urgency.
That's a real danger. American foreign policy-makers are largely arguing over things like the scale of U.S. military involvement, a debate that has included calls for ground troops or a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force that would give the president the power to wage war on any terrorist, anywhere. After the debacle of the past decade, there's been little serious talk of avoiding another war in Iraq, and in fact, the theater has now expanded into Syria.
We can't even be entirely sure of how much territory ISIS controls, thanks to its constantly shifting borders and oft-noted shotgun distribution across pockets of Syria and Iraq. Here's a recent map (Sept. 23) from the New York Times:
And here's where the U.S. is bombing in Syria:
This area is far too huge, dispersed and chaotic to be controlled from the air alone, not to mention that the strikes so far haven't been especially effective. If looking at that map makes you hanker for U.S. ground troops, then please do get your head checked.
Few mention that some U.S. allies in the fight, like Saudi Arabia, have atrocious human rights records of their own and may feel particularly threatened by ISIS because their own poor governance has spawned powerful Islamist movements. In another example, Egyptian autocrat Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seems eager to join the fight, and removing Assad is no longer a priority. U.S. military action could help entrench the same kind of sociopolitical conditions that spawned Islamic militancy in the first place, or even make them worse. But the narrative that urgent action is needed to forestall a disaster has no place for these considerations.
A few U.S. legislators -- particularly on the right -- have bravely forged ahead by spreading irresponsible hyperbole or parroting dubious claims. For example, the GOP has begun linking security on the southern border with Mexico to the threat of ISIS terrorism, painting both as immediate threats to American security. Scott Brown, waging a nasty race against Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, came out with this jaw-dropping campaign ad attempting to not-so-subtly do just that:
He was joined by the second most senior Republican official in Texas, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who repeated a conspiracy theory about Muslim terrorists sneaking through the border. His original source was almost certainly this Breitbart article claiming "independent American security contractors" had discovered terrorist prayer rugs out in the desert. But the photo provided is just, well ... a dirty rag.
Then, we have Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), who earlier this month made an extraordinary claim about ISIS:
"[T]hey’re intending to come here. So, I will not let this president suggest to the American people we can outsource our security and this is not about our safety. There is no way in hell you can form an army on the ground to go into Syria, to destroy ISIL without a substantial American component. And to destroy ISIL, you have to kill or capture their leaders, take the territory they hold back, cut off their financing and destroy their capability to regenerate.
"This is a war we’re fighting, it is not a counterterrorism operation! This is not Somalia; this is not Yemen; this is a turning point in the war on terror. Our strategy will fail yet again. This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home."
Got it. Unless we invade Syria with American ground troops, the terrorists will kill us all. Wow.
Of course misplaced details, photo mistakes, and false rumors about terrorist attacks don't disprove the case for war. But exaggerations and half-truths have a disproportionate effect on the way news is consumed online, while the regular media has been happy to let pro-war pundits with conflicts of interest in the security establishment build the case for airstrikes or more more or less unimpeded. The Nation's Lee Fang, for example, points out that retired Gen. Jack Keanes of the neoconservative Institute for the Study of War, regularly appears on Fox News and testifies for Congress while collecting undisclosed contracting fees from General Dynamics, defense contractors and even Academi, the successor to hated mercenary company Blackwater. A mix of other commentators are pretty sure that the only option against IS is raw American military muscle. Look at Ron Fournier, who suggested that not leaving the option of ground troops on the table was a moment of weakness. There's nary an anti-war sentiment to be found, including among Democrats. The party's likeliest next nominee, Hillary Clinton, backs the current strategy and is among the most hawkish of all 2016 contenders.
Considering the possible implications of the course of action the U.S. is now embarking on, it's not very encouraging to see everyone rushing to the same conclusion. Those of us on the left who are suspicious of the burgeoning "bomb them to hell" movement find ourselves in the unfortunate position of agreeing with none other than Thomas Friedman, who wrote a column at the beginning of September warning the president that without a cautious and well-thought-out plan "we'll end up in the middle of a God-awful mess of duplicitous allies and sectarian passions, and nothing good we do will last." How bad do things need to be when the "six more months" guy is warning us all to take a chill pill? Or perhaps Doug Bandow, who recently showed the stopped clock that is the Cato Institute is still right twice a day with a ballsy op-ed in Forbes chastising our "impossible objectives"?
When the smoke begins to clear, we might find out that air strikes and armies aren't going to be very effective at dislodging the Islamic State. Already, news is emerging that U.S. forces have "underestimated" the group's ability to evade strikes, meaning a campaign originally pitched as a last-ditch effort to prevent a massacre seems likely to become a protracted campaign that could last into the next administration. Americans may realize the story they've heard from the mainstream press and hawkish politicians wasn't so clear after all, and that once again we marched American military forces straight into a problem that we had no real plan for fixing. We should have had a debate on that before we started bombing, but as usual, it looks like we're going to do it after.