Call it what you will -- Iraq War 3.0, the war against ISIS, the new Syrian War -- it was regularly headline-making news in this country in the second half of last year: the stunning advances of the Islamic State (IS) movement; its newly proclaimed “caliphate”; the collapse of the Iraqi Army; the Obama administration’s spreading bombing campaign that, it was said, might last for years and years; the deployment of American advisers by the thousands. All of that and more was presented in the media as part of a narrative about The Greatest Threat in History, or at least in a while, and it was all News (with a capital “N”) all the time.
That was then, this is now. Despite the recent nightmarish events in Paris, the claim by Amedy Coulibaly that he committed his murders in a kosher grocery store in support of the Islamic State, and further alarms about ISIS-inspired lone-wolf attacks in the U.S., that movement's acts in Syria and Iraq and the war against it seem to have fallen out of the news. And yet, here’s the strange thing: remarkably little has changed. Take Kobani, the town on the Turkish border where Kurdish resistance fighters stood their ground against IS militants, while American planes bombed away. It led the TV news regularly in late 2014 (with correspondents sneaking across the border to offer us all an inside look). And when was the last time you saw a report like that? Yet the battle for and bombing of Kobani hasn’t ended; you’d just never know it.
In a sense, it all worked like a charm from the point of view of the Obama administration. In those headline-screaming months, a staggering 70% of Americans were convinced that the Islamic State was “the number one threat to American interests” globally. In other words, support for another endless war in the Middle East was already guaranteed when, as 2014 ended, IS gave way to Chris Christie’s hug in Dallas; Jeb Bush’s launch of his 2016 presidential campaign; Mitt Romney’s hint (“I want to be president”) that he would become the Harold Stassen of our age; freezing weather across the U.S. and ensuing massive “chain reaction” traffic pile-ups; and of course the murders in Paris that transfixed the planet (even while significantly more horrific terrorist slaughters from Yemen to Nigeria were largely ignored).
Meanwhile, the new Islamic State, its advances seemingly halted, struggles to rule several million people, while facing -- as the world’s newest mini-petro state -- collapsing oil prices and a hole in its finances. The Syrian “moderate” opposition, to which the U.S. regularly proclaims its fealty, continues to go the way of the Dodo. Iraq remains desperately embattled and tripartite, awash in deaths and refugees. And above all, having evidently learned nothing from the dismal results of its previous efforts, Washington continues along one of the more strikingly déjà-vu-all-over-again paths of recent times. It sends in air power in a major way, proclaiming, in a now familiar fashion, the staggering precision of its bombs and missiles, while the first accounts of civilian casualties begin to come in. It supports a Shia government in Baghdad, while Shia militias “cleanse” Sunni towns and villages; it tries to rally Sunnis via a new plan to form a “national guard” that looks suspiciously like the old Anbar Awakening; and above all, some of the very same American military men who, at a cost of $25 billion or more, once trained the Iraqi army, are doing it all over again, attempting to instill Baghdad’s troops with the elusive “will to fight.”
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