Bombing the Caliphate


Ottoman soldiers march through Iraq in 1915, the last time the country was ruled by an organized caliphate. By intervening in Iraq now, the U.S. could be unifying ISIS’ nascent caliphate just as internal divisions were starting to pull it apart. (Photo: Ottoman Imperial Archives / Flickr)

The last Islamic caliphate ended in 1924. Claimed by the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century, the caliphate saw its fortunes rise and fall with those of its imperial protectors.

When the Ottoman Empire expired at the end of World War I, the caliphate’s days were numbered. Never recognized in far-flung areas like Somalia or Malaysia or by the Shi’a and other minority communities, the Sunni caliphate didn’t represent the entire Muslim world any more than the Vatican spoke for all Christians. But it had great symbolic value, promising a kind of universal Muslim order that fused the religious and political spheres.

The weakened caliphate was no match for the modernizing nationalism of Kemal Ataturk, who built Turkey from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Ataturk drove a stake through the caliphate as one more proof that he intended to banish religion to the periphery of Turkish society. In 1924, The Economist declared the end of the caliphate with typical Eurocentric triumphalism.

“The repudiation of the Caliphate by the Turks marks an epoch in the expansion of Western ideas over the non-Western world, for our Western principles of national sovereignty and self-government are the real forces to which the unfortunate ‘Abdu’l Mejid Efendi has fallen a victim,” the magazine editorialized. “Both by tradition and by theory, the Caliph is an absolute monarch over a united Islamic world, and it is therefore almost impossible to find a place for him in a national state (whether it be called a republic or a constitutional monarchy) in which the sovereignty is vested in the parliamentary representatives of the people.”

The Economist spoke too soon. True, Turkey managed to hold together as a nation-state in the ensuing decades, preserving its territorial integrity by using considerable military force against its perceived enemies at home and abroad (including the “dirty war” against the Kurds and the battle with Greece over Cyprus). But the rest of what was once the Ottoman Empire continues to struggle to maintain traditional nation-states. Syria is trapped in a devastating civil war. Iraq has effectively broken into three or four parts. Israel and Palestine have fought for decades over borders and sovereignty. Western colonialism, followed by a counter-surge of Arab nationalism, failed to turn the Middle East into a durable patchwork of Westphalian states.

Meanwhile, the caliphate has returned with a vengeance. In what seems an impossibly short time, the Islamic State (IS) has challenged the borders of three nation-states—Syria, Iraq, and now Lebanon—and established its own caliphate in this territory. It has no patience for “our Western principles of national sovereignty and self-government” that The Economist proclaimed victorious 90 years ago.  It doesn’t even subscribe to the de facto multiculturalism that intermittently held sway during the previous Ottoman caliphate, under which Shi’ites, Christians, Jews, and members of other faiths lived in some approximation of tolerance for long stretches of time. Even al-Qaeda, which shares IS’s contempt for existing governments in the Middle East, hesitated to declare a caliphate because it hadn’t yet prepared the necessary groundwork. IS is nothing if not presumptuous.

IS doesn’t care what al-Qaeda thinks. Nor does it give a fig for the opinions of prominent Sunni scholars like the International Union of Muslim Scholars, which declared its caliphate “null and void.” And it certainly doesn’t pay attention to the blathering of infidels, a rather large category of humanity that includes Muslim apostates, all non-Muslims, and, naturally, that inheritor of “our Western principles,” the United States.

Now, if the United States doesn’t do something stupid—like bombing this newly declared caliphate and its army—IS will likely be consumed by the fires of its own extremism. All manner of groups fought alongside IS in order to defeat their common enemy—the woefully corrupt and dangerously sectarian leader of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki. But IS signaled its inability to maintain a popular front of Maliki haters by recently rounding up former Baathists that had been fighting on their side and forcing them to swear allegiance to the new entity or risk execution.

With Maliki finally on the way out, further splits will take place within IS. Again, if the United States doesn’t do something stupid like…


The United States did something stupid.

The Obama administration’s newly restated doctrine—don’t do stupid shit—has just gone up in smoke. I’m not sure why Hillary Clinton has just chosen just this moment to observe that not doing stupid shit doesn’t constitute a foreign policy strategy. After all, what’s her alternative? The Hippocratic oath—first, do not harm—is a more politely stated version of the Obama doctrine. So, Clinton’s anti-Hippocratic approach logically amounts to: first, do some stupid shit. Now, with bombs falling again on Iraq, Clinton and Obama can be on the same page.

Let me be clear. I have zero sympathy for IS. I’d love to read its obituary and that of its cardboard caliphate as well. I also value what remains of the confessional diversity in the Middle East and do not doubt the genocidal urge of IS to wipe out anyone and anything that challenges its totalitarian views. But a campaign of U.S. aerial strikes to save one such pocket of diversity, in this case the Yazidis, is just the kind of outside force that will keep ISIS strong and unified in the absence of an obvious focus of hatred, as Maliki was.

I understand the pressure the Obama administration is under to do something to help the beleaguered Yazidis, not to mention the anemic Kurdish army to the north and all the Shi’ites and Sunnis in Iraq that want to push IS back into the Syrian petri dish that spawned it. The Republican opposition, of course, would like the Pentagon to apply even more force since it believes that IS, as John McCain opined, “is a threat to America.” (Has anyone commented on the irony of McCain making this statement from Vietnam, which for more than a decade was deemed a threat to America only to evolve, after years of senseless U.S. bombing, into a semi-ally in the cordon sanitaire against China?)

IS, like al-Qaeda before it, would love to be considered an actual threat to the United States. Such posturing, backed up by the use of unilateral force, elevates IS’s status to legitimate combatant. It changes the tagline of Uncle Sam’s terrorist recruitment poster into: I Want You to Join IS! It draws the U.S. government even further into a tangle of political and sectarian disputes that it only dimly understands.

Did Obama have a choice in the matter? Politically, he could have resisted Republican calls for the use of force by reiterating that the solution to Iraq’s problems cannot be military. He could have relied on the polls suggesting deep-seated American aversion to putting boots back on the ground in Iraq (though Americans seem to support air strikes). He could have ignored the near-unanimous consensus among Beltway pundits—i.e., the Washington Post’s editorial pages—that he was not providing sufficiently strong leadership on foreign policy issues. He could have swatted away the concerns of oil companies and their “national security” enablers worried about restricted U.S. access to Iraqi oil, particularly in the Kurdish north.

Well, it’s tough to imagine Obama pushing against this tide. Even more difficult to imagine would be the president taking real leadership by spearheading a UN effort to provide humanitarian relief to the trapped Yazidis and all the others who have been dispossessed by IS.

The United States, like other wealthy powerful countries, has a responsibility to act on behalf of civilians in perilous conditions. I don’t agree with those who point to all the other victims around the world to undercut any argument to extend assistance to some subset of sufferers. Internationalists have to come up with something better than such dilute relativism.

How about this: every time the United States allocates $1 in emergency aid for a specific group of people, another $1 goes to the overall foreign assistance pot until we finally get up to the 0.7 percent of GDP level adopted as the Millennium Development Goal for the industrialized world (currently, the United States spends less than half that amount).

Be realistic, you might object. What’s the point of dropping food and blankets into what could very well be merely a holding tank for those about to be executed? What about the use of force?

But even the generals are cautious about the use of unilateral force. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently stated that IS will ultimately be defeated “because pressure is placed on it from multiple directions and with multiple partners.  So this isn’t about us deciding that ISIL is the latest in a series of threats and taking it on unilaterally.”

But surely the atrocities committed by IS offer one of the strongest cases for the use of multilateral force for humanitarian purposes. Virtually no one is willing to go to bat for IS, and Iraq is welcoming outside intervention. If the Obama administration really wants to prove its leadership chops, it would help create a truly international mechanism, like a UN standing army, that can apply force to protect civilians. To get the support of all those concerned about anything that would compromise sovereignty, this mechanism would have to be explicitly stripped of any “regime change” aspirations.

But even if the option were available to use multilateral force to save civilian lives, the problem ISIS poses is not, as the administration previously insisted, a military one. The underlying problem is political: the blatant Shi’ite favoritism of the government in Baghdad and the long simmering Sunni grievances. It’s not the U.S. role to pick and choose governments for the Iraqis. But putting pressure on the new government to maintain a confessional balance in the distribution of political offices and public goods is something Obama can usefully do.

At this point, with the bombs already falling on the caliphate, it’s best to remind the administration that IS is like one of those creatures in a horror movie that only grows stronger the more drone strikes or artillery shells that it absorbs. The IS blob thrives in an environment of violence and conflict. Unless we remove the sources of that conflict—political and sectarian grievances—IS will only grow larger. And we will face that inevitability of the horror movie genre: an unfortunate series of endless, bloody sequels.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus. 

  • Barry M. Watson

    It really is amazing how some Western Pundits are willing
    to wait while-‘events evolve’-and ‘ISIS will likely be consumed by the fires of its own extremism’!

    In the meantime people are being slaughtered, decapitated, crucified and displaced
    from their homes!

    And why does Mr Feffer grants these people the formality of using their own chosen
    name-Caliphate? This is just a large armed Islamist gang!

    ISIS developed from various disaffected extremist groups-Al-Qaida, Al-Nusra amongst
    others- plus many ex Iraqi Saddam supporters. But lets us not forget ISIS was
    developed and materially aided by the US and its Gulf proxies in Syria!

    Whatever Obama’s personal commitment was to Regime change in Syria, his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in full bellicose mode in ratcheting up the anti Iran/anti Hezbollah conflict by destroying Iran’s ally -the Assad regime!

    The US was pleased to have ‘All Comers’ to fight Assad irrespective of their
    political or religious proclivities. Some of these were extremists financed by
    the Gulf countries, and charged with an extra duty to the fight against Assad- of ensuring Sunni supremacy in Syria.

    So now as at last the US president realises the error of US policy for the last three
    years, and witnesses its tragic outcome-Mr Feffer denigrates Obama with the glib comment-
    ……’Whenever a president feels the need to show some leadership,
    the bombs start to drop somewhere in the world.’

    The US owes it to the Iraqi, Syrian and Kurdish peoples to redress the appalling
    results of short-sighted Western policy -Bomb ISIS now!

    • certop

      with the exception of your conclusion, barry, your comment shows a detailed understanding of the problems of blowback and unintended consequences. i agree that the u.s. owes a certain debt to the people living with the catastrophic consequences of its foreign policies. but i think john’s piece quite reasonably argues that responding with more of the same will only produce new, yet unforeseen nightmares.

      • dubinsky

        in what way is bombing these madmen “more of the same”?

        would you be quite as obtuse as to argue that every application of military force is “the same”?

        • certop

          despite our disagreements, dubinsky, i often appreciate your comments. but i don’t think i’m the one being obtuse here.

          no, i don’t believe the current situation with ISIS is exactly the same as prior military engagements in the region. i genuinely believe that the administration wants to limit its involvement, which is motivated by something different from prior calls for engagement in iraq, syria, and even libya.

          but military force is a blunt instrument however it’s used, particularly in a place where the security vacuum is driven by a fundamentally fractured political system. i don’t think it’s going to be possible to drop bombs on ISIS without getting tangled up in the local politics in ways we don’t want to be, and in ways we shouldn’t be.

          already the mission creep is setting in, and with it the possibility of further blowback (it should go without saying, of course, that ISIS wouldn’t even exist if the u.s. hadn’t invaded iraq previously). setting aside even whether the u.s. has the legal authority to act (which is a subject of some debate among people who care about that kind of thing), there’s ample reason to believe the administration simply hasn’t thought this through.

          don’t get me wrong–i’d love to see ISIS routed, and despite my noninterventionist politics, i breathed a sigh of relief when it seemed the crisis in sinjar had abated somewhat. but with the u.s. already acting on the outskirts of mosul, we’re entering a different phase of the operation entirely.

          • dubinsky

            we are and long have been deeply involved in the politics of the region.

            we have been since the beginning of WWII when FDR undertook to guarantee to the Shah that the US would see to it that the UK and USSR would withdraw their troops from Iran at the conclusion of the war.

            our ties with the House of Saud are at least as long-standing

          • certop

            even longer with the sauds, actually–american oil companies built the saudi oil industry in the 1930s. (and i’m sure you know what wonderful fruits came of our guarantees to the shah.)

            there’s nothing wrong with being “involved” in a region. but it would be an understatement to say that our last two decades in the region at least, and certainly the last year or two, should raise gigantic questions about whether the particular kinds of involvement we’ve indulged in have been good for us or the region.

          • dubinsky

            never have I said that it’s good that we’re involved in the political life of the nations of the Persian Gulf. the politics of the place range from ugly to vile to worse.

            it’s always been more necessary than good.

    • madame48

      Wil you be sending your kids in to fight?

  • Keith McClary

    “The underlying problem is political: the blatant Shi’ite favoritism of
    the government in Baghdad and the long simmering Sunni grievances. It’s
    not the U.S. role to pick and choose governments for the Iraqis. But
    putting pressure on the new government to maintain a confessional
    balance in the distribution of political offices and public goods is
    something Obama can usefully do.”

    Obama has been pushing for an “inclusive” regime Iraq. Somehow this approach does not apply in Palestine and Ukraine.

  • Bluhorizons

    The various groups who dream of the “6th Caliphate” may be unrealistic. They may hate each other and even kill each other and this fighting amongst them may seem to some to promise the Caliphate’s demise. But, in reality, evan though they hate each other, they all share the same goal, a theocratic non-democracy under Shira law, excluding, killing or subjugating people of other religions. So, their disunity is in reality more smoke and mirrors than fact.

    Another important feature all these groups share, which Mr. Feiffer points out, is that none of them give a fig about what we or western governments think unless it benefits them. Lying to us is perfectly acceptable. For example, Mr. Abbas talks about peace in English but never, ever in Arabic. In Arabic he talks about Palestine from the river to the sea.

    It is an axiom that war solves little and usually makes things worse, but this does not mean that police action and limited military strikes with specific, limited goals fall into the same category. Clearly, there is no negotiations or compromises to be made with those terrorists any more than with Hamas, which is one of them. The world faces the very same challenge Israel faces–stand up to terrorism or roll over and die.

    The alternative to a strong response is the Chamberlain approach. Compromise. Peace in our time. Trade land for peace. Form a committee. Negotiate. Refer the problem to the UN. People who want to face up to these thugs are seen as anti-Muslim; We are bad because most Muslims’s are ‘good people,” forgetting that most of the victims of these terrorists are Muslims. If we like Muslims and/or are sympathetic to them the best way to help them is to help destroy the Caliphate.

    • gurneycb

      A well reasoned response, but your last line undermines your opening argument. The fact is, the majority of Muslims worldwide DO support a return of the caliphate, cardboard or not. Islam is undergoing a period of ‘awakening’ not unlike similar periods in U.S. history. I have to agree with Feffer: our best option is non-interference while powerful forces like nationalism and development erode the appeal of lost (or never-existent) glories.

      • Bluhorizons

        The possibility that you are right and most Muslims want the Caliphate is the scariest possibility of all. But, I have lived about half my life in Muslim countries providing medial services, including years in the GCC and Turkey. What I know is that my Muslim friends are well-educated, wonderfully kind and interact very comfortably with non-Muslims.

        By contrast, many of the Muslims who immigrate to other countries are poorer, do not integrate well and have an underlying fury. That is why you see them in places like the UK carrying hateful signs and promising the end of the democracy. When their women walk around in London and Paris wearing a hajib, the message is: “We are us. We will never be like you.”

        Their “friends,” the terrorists, will overwhelm the whole world if we use the Chamberlain approach and do nothing. So, police action and limited military action with specific goals may be what is needed, otherwise one day those guys will be knocking on your door.

  • Final Slooshin

    John Feffer knows nothing about the Middle East. He should stop writing this pap, which directly contradicts the recent article in Foreign Policy, The Re-Baathification of Iraq by a Mideast specialist who predicts an impending collapse of support for ISIS in Iraq.