U.S.’s democratic rhetoric at odds with inaction on ISIS

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

In the wake of a spat with al Qaeda leadership over a merge with another arm in the organization, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) refused to restrict their operations solely within Iraqi territory. AQI broke off and formed the group called the Islamic State (IS).

This group is often referred to by its former name, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), since the name “IS” wrongly associates Islam with the group’s despicable actions. The change in name, in addition to ISIS’s methods of mobilizing against “the near enemy” instead of the West, led to the belief that al Qaeda broke off relations because ISIS was “too extreme.”

While that is a bit of an oversimplification, al Qaeda did believe that ISIS was unnecessarily brutal, to the point of hurting their cause. However, current events seem to suggest that ISIS has been and will continue to be successful. Its fairly extensive network of captured territories signifies what might be one of the most well-designed radical groups in history, and radical is an extremely accurate descriptor. Just this week, ISIS released a video of a Jordanian pilot burning to death and the last American hostage was, according to ISIS, killed in a Jordanian airstrike (this claim is highly questionable, according to The Atlantic). This set off another round of debate as to what America should do.

ISIS’s ample funding and savvy organization have produced quick and stunning success. Overnight, ISIS took control of a strip of land that extends from Syria’s northern border with Turkey to the northeastern areas of Iraq. ISIS’s rapid rise to power went conspicuously unimpeded by Western forces, particularly America.

America has been extraordinarily hands-on in the region over the past decade, supporting rebellions and generally imposing its political will. ISIS is based on vicious religious oppression and systematic violence against those who disagree with its views. It is uncontroversial to say they pose a threat to the interests of both citizen and state, in both America and the northern stretches of the Levant. Why was this the moment America chose to turn its back?

One reason often cited is that ISIS happened to be fighting Iran’s strongest allies in the region, Iraq and Syria. This is a pretty questionable reason for America to leave ISIS alone. A destabilized Middle East is bad for both American interests and its allies in the region, including Israel.

The fact that ISIS was attacking Iran’s allies means nothing unless America sees ISIS as either an ally or neutral. However, the potential of ISIS being considered neutral is more likely the issue. ISIS’s obsession with destroying “the near enemy” before they tackle the West is favorable to the American government because ISIS wants to localize its battles instead of coming here.

While decades of pro-democracy and pro-freedom rhetoric certainly felt hollow and self-interested, the United States’ inaction has strongly confirmed these feelings. America initially went into Iraq with the stated goal of spreading democracy.

Cut to mid 2014, and an organization staunchly opposed to democracy rules the land America “liberated.” Since ISIS’s target has not been the United States, the American government dragged its feet, allowing ISIS to become a major international threat before America did anything meaningful. Eventually, public executions of American citizens forced the government’s hand, and Americans have been launching air strikes on ISIS, but that does not cut to the heart of the problem. America has a publicly stated foreign policy goal of intervening when governments become oppressive. It needs to either drop this fairly imperialist policy or start taking it at face value rather than using “oppressive” as code for “not an ally”. If America wanted to lend legitimacy to its policy of spreading democracy, it would not have stalled until Americans feared for their domestic security.

Countless people have been killed or injured both mentally and physically by ISIS, and even more have been displaced from their homes. People continue to be brutalized as the organization ravages their homelands. America’s sudden silence on spreading democracy and the notable hole in its often philosophically cosmopolitan rhetoric speaks volumes more than empty platitudes about Iraq’s first breaths of freedom ever did.