ISIS

Should What ISIS Hostages Endured Before Being Murdered Matter to US Policy?

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NYTimes

The New York Times reports on the brutal treatment of American hostages James Foley and Steven Sotloff before they were brutally beheaded by the Islamic State (ISIS):

Mr. Foley and his fellow hostages were routinely beaten and subjected to waterboarding. For months, they were starved and threatened with execution by one group of fighters, only to be handed off to another group that brought them sweets and contemplated freeing them. The prisoners banded together, playing games to pass the endless hours, but as conditions grew more desperate, they turned on one another. Some, including Mr. Foley, sought comfort in the faith of their captors, embracing Islam and taking Muslim names….

"You could see the scars on his ankles," Jejoen Bontinck, 19, of Belgium, a teenage convert to Islam who spent three weeks in the summer of 2013 in the same cell as Mr. Foley, said of him. "He told me how they had chained his feet to a bar and then hung the bar so that he was upside down from the ceiling. Then they left him there."

Read the whole thing.

The sources for the story include hostages who were freed (typically after ransoms were paid by various governments), local fixers who worked with journalists and aid workers, and others. It explains how various jihadist and other groups kidnap people and then trade them up to groups looking for high-level and potentially lucrative hostages. ISIS reportedly makes millions of dollars a year by ransoming captives.

It's a deeply disturbing article and, I'd argue, a must-read since it explores and explains not just the motivation and actions of ISIS but the successful ransoming of hostages by various governments (there's a graphic of the fates, some still unclear, of captives held by ISIS).

The article explicitly raises the question of whether ransoms should be paid—a practice in which the governments of many countries engage. The United States and Great Britain refuse to, an choice which apparently marks their nationals for death.

Despite that, I think that's the proper response for the U.S. government, especially when dealing with non-official represenatives of the country(both Foley and Sotloff were freelance journalists who were originally kidnapped by groups other than ISIS). Leaving aside the question of say, American diplomats or aid workers operating under offcial government sanction, any other sort of action would almost certainly increase the level of hostage-taking and create an even-more unstable situation.

The Times article also implicitly raises the question of whether the murders of Foley and Sotloff are a legitimate casus belli. In the United States, there's no question that the beheadings of the two Americans inflamed attitudes here and helped make ongoing military actions in Iraq and Syria not just politically viable but also popular.

However understandable from an emotional perspective, this strikes me as a mistake: If American foreign policy is being dictated by such events—no matter how grisly, barbaric, and deeply contemptible—we will constantly repeat the same sorts of strategic and operational disasters that involved us in the region to begin with. For the past quarter-century or more, our policy toward Iraq has produced nothing but disaster and the current re-introduction of troops and military force into the region is almost guaranteed to continue that record. As I suggested back in August:

If the first decade-plus of the 21st century should have taught us anything, it's that the United States' ability to terraform the world in its image is severely limited and leads to all sorts of unintended consequences. In terms of strict humanitarian concerns, it would better to help people leave war-torn regions and accept them on our shores.

But if the warrant for a new Iraq war is, in the president's words, to make sure that ISIL and other groups are "not engaging in actions that could cripple a country," America's worst days of playing World Police are still sadly ahead of us.

Neither Barack Obama, who won the White House in part because of his seeming repudiation of George W. Bush's foreign policy, nor the Republican Party (nor Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate for 2016) seems to have learned much of anything from the recent past.

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  1. Yeah, agree. The government, of course, will do the opposite, with a good dose of, “WHY DO YOU HATE AMERICA, ALMANIAN/NICK/EVERYONE WHO OPPOSES THIS??!”

    I hate the American government. I do not hate what’s left of my country. And it’s exactly shit like the govt’s actions in the middle east that have driven me there.

    Fuck the government with a rusty rail spike.

    1. Why do you hate rusty rail spikes Almanian?

  2. Once again: Not. Our. Business. Thanks you, Mr. G.

  3. Apparently, all a terrorist needs to do to cause the United States to mobilize it’s armed forces, spend billions of dollars, risk thousands of American lives and decimate their equipment in the process, is to behead a couple of journalists that voluntarily chose to place themselves in a very dangerous position.

    Yes, these guys are shitbags. Got it. But there are lots of shitbags in the world. How long can the US afford to engage in such operations? And if I’m a terrorist who sees the US spending BILLIONS to avenge a couple of journalists, what’s the best way to defeat the US? This ain’t rocket surgery.

    There are FAR MORE cost effective ways of exacting justice/revenge than going to war. And I haven’t even touched upon the moral implications of killing innocent people in the process of attempting to take out the bad guys.

    This policy is the equivalent of killing a snake with a tactical nuke. Might I suggest, using a stick?

    1. “Yes, these guys are shitbags. Got it. But there are lots of shitbags in the world.”

      This isn’t an argument for not killing these shitbags, so much as saying, “wow, there sure are a lot of them”

      What if killing these shitbags is *necessary* for reasons beyond them coincidentally also being shitbags?

      i.e. = to prevent a larger regional war?

      i’m not saying that’s the case, i’m just pointing out that the current manner in which this is being discussed is a false choice. No one says “lets go to war because these people are awful”. We go to war for geopolitical reasons; if the enemy is ALSO particularly horrible and contemptible, it simply makes the process easier to sell politically.

      “The Times article also implicitly raises the question of whether the murders of Foley and Sotloff are a legitimate casus belli.”

      No matter what the NYT’s “Implicit” questioning may be…

      …the story is nothing if not fuel for those who insist on fighting these people. I think it would be a mistake to confuse what the story ‘says’ with what the story ‘is’.

      1. I don’t follow any of this? What’s your point?

        They (ISIS) pose almost ZERO threat to our national security. If they did, I would still wait until they’ve actually attacked us in a manner that posed a threat to our national security, BEFORE going to war. Killing two journalists isn’t grounds for war. PERIOD! Never has been, shouldn’t be now, and the only reason people even suggest it should be is because they’ve been jaded by fighting for the last 13 years.

        We can’t afford to be dispatching common criminals with jets and bombs. That shit is fucking expensive and takes a serious toll on our readiness for real conflict.

        1. My point was simple =

          People are acting as though a ‘casus belli’ were being made on the back of “look how shitty these people are”.

          Its not. Attempting to argue (as you do, above) that ‘just because these people are shitty is no reason to go to war’ is arguing against a case that isn’t even being made. Staw Man/Red Herring, whatever.

          No one goes to war ‘because X group are genuine scumbags’. That’s just the helpful icing on the cake to make the war politically palatable.

          The reasons for going to war are, as noted, “Geopolitical”. I could belabor what that means, but will skip for the time being. That DOES NOT necessarily require ISIS (or any adversary) to be a ‘threat to national security’, in narrow terms.

          All I was doing was pointing out that a false argument was being set up to be knocked down. Its meaningless. No one is going to war over ‘two journalists’. Pretending that we are is foolish.

          Pointing this out, by the way, is not me making any case about how “going to war with ISIS is a good idea and here’s why”. I don’t necessarily think we should be fighting a war to prevent an Iranian/Arab regional shitstorm. But that is far closer to “why” than anything articulated here.

          1. Its not. Attempting to argue (as you do, above) that ‘just because these people are shitty is no reason to go to war’ is arguing against a case that isn’t even being made. Staw Man/Red Herring, whatever.

            Respectfully GILMORE, I call bullshit. I’ve had numerous warmongers, right here at good ole H&R argue that killing the journalists (+ ISIS declaring war on us) was provocation for war. I wasn’t setting up strawmen, I was preempting a previously made argument.

            PLUS, from the article:

            The Times article also implicitly raises the question of whether the murders of Foley and Sotloff are a legitimate casus belli.

            Finally, the point of my argument wasn’t even about casus belli. At most, it was a side note. My point is that we cannot afford to go to war over such trivial issues. It will crush us both financially and militarily, and presents any future opposition an avenue from which to defeat our military.

            1. “. I’ve had numerous warmongers, right here at good ole H&R argue that killing the journalists was provocation for war.”

              I had no idea that these warmongers on H&R were in control of US Policy.

              I pointed out “the icing on the cake” part about ‘how wars are sold’. Some people like icing.

              That doesn’t mean that is what is actually motivating US involvement. You can debate the ‘red herring’ with these people all day if you want. It wont matter who wins that argument because it is completely irrelevant to the actual conflict.

              “My point is that we cannot afford to go to war over such trivial issues”

              And my point was that we are NOT ‘going to war over the trivial issue you are discussing’.

              we’re “going to war” for broader geopolitical reasons that this article (and you) completely ignore/brush aside.

              We could talk about those issues if anyone cared. Most people don’t.

              As i noted above, the specific sentence you quote is misleading in at least 2 ways =

              1) it pretends that anyone in Government is actually making the case that the ‘Casus Belli’ is to ‘avenge these journalists’ or something. This is idiotic.

              2) It pretends that the article is attempting to undermine the case for war – when in fact, the implicit argument made by doing a *detailed piece about the inhuman, cruel behaviors of ISIS* is in fact the opposite: it feeds the narrative that these guys are Major League Shitheels who deserve to be wiped out.

              1. we’re “going to war” for broader geopolitical reasons that this article (and you) completely ignore/brush aside.

                I don’t brush them aside. But those broader geopolitical reasons are even less convincing than the deaths of the journalists as casus belli.

                Let me be clear:

                We have absolutely NO national interest for going to war in Iraq. None, nada, zilch. ISIS is not a threat to us in any stretch of the imagination AND they have not attacked us in any manner that justifies war.

                1. “We have absolutely NO national interest for going to war in Iraq. “

                  None you’ve bothered to actually address.

                  “But those broader geopolitical reasons are even less convincing than the deaths of the journalists as casus belli.”

                  Less convincing? We just finished noting that the Beheaded Journalists are not in any way part of a rationale to justify ‘war’?

                  ‘Less than nothing’ seems an odd way to characterize the reasons why we’re currently conducting airstrikes in Syria and Northern Iraq.

                  If you want to make the case that =

                  ISIS is doing the entire world a favor by stimulating an ‘inevitable power-struggle between Sunni and Shia in the Gulf Region’ that will necessarily result in an improved balance of power and a more lasting and stable security arrangement for oil producing states as well as Israel“…

                  …then fine: make that case. Its entirely possible that ‘doing nothing’ will result in the ideal state of affairs.

                  Simply waving one’s hands and assuming it isn’t going to convince anyone not already in agreement with you.

                  The end result of this process – whether or not we get involved – is going to be “two (or three) Iraqs”.

                  The reason we’re involved is because we want to broker the deal that results in this change.

                  Why? because we can. And because if we don’t, Iran will.

                  1. Tell me G. What do you think is our national interest for involvement?

                    We have NONE. Why do we give a flying fuck what happens in Iraq? We no longer need ME oil. They have nothing we need. They can kill each other until the cows come home and it doesn’t affect me or the United States of America AT ALL! Let em burn.

                    Again, G, what do you think our national interest is?

                    1. “What do you think is our national interest for involvement?

                      We have NONE.”

                      You should explain that to the 5th Fleet

                      You suggest that “we” don’t need ME oil. That’s debatable, but hardly the point = the rest of the world does. We currently spend billions protecting the gulf from Iranian interference on the world’s behalf, and a huge amount of our foreign policy establishment is devoted entirely to managing relationships with the nations of the Gulf and trying to maintain some kind of relative stability in that region.

                      If you think that’s all wasted effort that should be abandoned, fine. But you have an uphill battle explaining that to the powers that be.

                      Don’t confuse me telling you that your argument is ’empty’ with me endorsing the idea of our current war-by-proxy modus operandi.

                      The entire State Dept and Pentagon have a standing mandate to ‘contain Iran’ that goes back to the 80s. The war in Syria & Iraq is effectively a hot fight between Iranian and Sunni proxies. We want Sunnis to win… but ‘our’ sunnis (i.e. ones we can buy off). We are unsure of the outcomes, so we’ve stuck airpower in to see if we can’t lean things in the direction we prefer.

                      Its not about journalists, to say the least.

                      Do I endorse the current state of affairs? No. That doesn’t mean I ignore it.

                    2. the rest of the world does.

                      Then let the rest of the world defend it. Not our problem.

                    3. “Then let the rest of the world defend it. Not our problem.”

                      sure. And good luck with that.

                      At least we’re past the part where headless-journalists were being treated like Franz Ferdinand.

                    4. FYI, this piece @ Counterpunch is actually a pretty cogent summary of affairs.

                      They are a vocally anti-war outfit, and sometimes veer into more-extreme left-wing conspiratorial “Imperialisms! Teh Oils!”-type rhetoric. But they pretty much nail the analysis there on the head.

                      Cockburn also writes about the escalating Sunni/Shia conflict in detail there.

              2. *We could talk about those issues if anyone cared. Most people don’t.*

                Good luck reasoning with reasonoids. They hate cops and the military and war. That’s all they know. And that’s why they are nowhere near the levers of power.

                1. They hate cops and the military and war.

                  I’m a retired veteran, moron.

  4. James Foley died a Catholic.

  5. Given that a potential death sentence lay on your head as an American entering these countries (and presumably an ever widening number of countries), would this feedback into the general American “tuning out” of international issues?

    1. When was America ‘tuned in’?

      Do you have any particular measure for the current ‘tuning’ level, or is that something you just made up?

      FWIW, historically, polls have shown ‘Foreign Relations/International Affairs’ to rank near the bottom of issues ranked ‘important’ for voters. Levels of awareness of foreign relations has always been driven entirely by ‘front page headlines’ (i.e. what editors choose to cover), and the segment of the population that follows international news in more detail is extremely small, even as a subset of your college-educated, ‘well-informed’ population.

      As an example = most Americans learned about the Sunni/Shia split in Islam with the onset of the iraq war.

      nevermind that its about 1400 years old, and the defining feature of most middle east politics.

  6. *Should What ISIS Hostages Endured Before Being Murdered Matter to US Policy?*

    Heck naw. Anyone with a balaclava over their head or a tattoo on their face/neck needs to be liquidated.

    1. The balaclava thing might have merit: it would get rid of a whole bunch of swaggering assholes – every member of pretty much every SWAT team, for example.

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