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Lawmakers on ISIS: Be Very Afraid

A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa June 29, 2014.
Reuters
A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa June 29, 2014.

Viewers of the Sunday morning talk shows this week might be forgiven if they came away from this weekend's offerings expecting to see landing craft full of soldiers from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria storming the beaches of the United States sometime this summer.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, described ISIS on CBS's Face the Nation as "the number one threat to the homeland, the number one national security threat since 9/11."

McCaul thinks the Obama administration should take preemptive action against ISIS now, with "targeted airstrikes" that avoid collateral damage to Iraqis not engaged with the group.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and chair of the Republican Policy Committee, echoed his colleagues, calling ISIS, "the richest, the most powerful and the most savage group of terrorists in the history of mankind."

He continued, "I see ISIS as a direct threat to the United States. They have the capacity, and I believe they have the intent. They have stated it."

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Appearing on CNN's State of the Union, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers described the group, which now occupies large swathes of Iraq and Syria, as "Al Qaeda-minded individuals that now have an army." Right now, Rogers said, "is as dangerous a time for an Al Qaeda threat to the United States as I have ever seen."

The opinion among the lawmakers was unanimous that current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki "must go," though how the United States is expected to effectuate the removal of a foreign head of state was left conveniently unsaid.

As though determined to foment hysteria, ABC led This Week with a segment about a "new" kind of bomb that ISIS militants are reportedly developing that could evade current airline security scans. It was only after the scary introduction, complete with homemade video of what looked like a folding card table being blown up that, it was revealed that this is the same "new" bomb that was the subject of much hyperventilating in the run up to the Winter Olympics in Russia a few months ago.

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By contrast, Gen. Michael Hayden, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency seemed a model of understatement when he said ISIS' takeover of part of eastern Syria and parts of northern and western Iraq is "probably not 9/11, but it's certainly in the same area code."

Now, none of this is to say that ISIS is anything other than a horrific terrorist organization. The group is bent on subjugating large parts of the Middle East and imposing its archaic ideology on millions of people. The group holds to a strict version of Sunni Islam that views other Muslims, like the Shia who dominate Iraq's government, as apostates worthy of death.

ISIS may indeed have the intent to attack the United States; with hundreds of members who hold passports from the U.S. or from countries whose citizens can enter the U.S. without a waiver, ISIS might also have the capacity to do so.

It seems safe to say, though, that with the Iraqi army at least attempting to retake territory the groups has claimed, and the Syrian Air Force dropping bombs on its soldiers, the leadership of ISIS likely has more pressing things on its mind at the moment.

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As Hayden rightly pointed out, the Middle East in general, and the area where ISIS is operating in particular, is a terribly complicated place.

"Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, those are artificial states created by European diplomacy almost a century ago for the convenience of European diplomats," Hayden said. The rivalries of religious and ethnic factions, he said, have been suppressed for a century by colonialism and dictatorship, and they are now bubbling to the surface.

It would be overly optimistic to claim that the current mess in the Middle East can be sorted out without the application of U.S. military force – including the boots that everybody keeps promising will not be put on the ground. But if the experience of the last decade of war in Iraq has taught us anything, it ought to be that when blow-dried politicians show up on the Sunday shows telling us that we need to bomb somebody, it's time for Americans to take a deep breath.

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Consider: ISIS is being bombed by the same Syrian regime that has slaughtered millions of its own people and that members of Congress want the U.S. to help overthrow. It's also being attacked by Shia-dominated Iran – nobody's idea of a U.S. ally – which is backing the Shia-dominated Maliki regime. A regime which, by the way, was already widely detested by huge portions of the country before ISIS even turned up. And don't forget Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, which is pushing back against ISIS, but shows zero interest in cooperating with the Maliki regime in Baghdad.

Those who think the perfect seasoning for that toxic stew is a sprinkling of U.S. bombs, might just do us all a favor this time around by thinking twice.

—By Rob Garver, The Fiscal Times

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