Sometimes there are limits to what we can do

Much of the news has been dominated by the spreading threat of ISIS – a vicious and growing terror movement in the Middle East – that calls itself “The Islamic State.” BoomerCafé’s Co-Founder and Executive Editor Greg Dobbs spent much of his working career as a foreign correspondent for ABC News. He covered wars and hot spots around the world. Here is his perspective of ISIS.

“The Muslim world won’t let it happen,” a friend told me the other day, referring to the stated goal of ISIS to dominate all Muslims. His reasoning was, most Muslims don’t want to live under the cruel control of a Caliphate.

Greg Dobbs (right) with TV cameraman on location in Egypt several years ago.

Greg Dobbs (right) with TV cameraman on location in Egypt several years ago.

I couldn’t agree more. From many years covering the Middle East, I feel certain that most Muslims don’t want to live in the Dark Ages. The trouble is, up against the merciless militias of ISIS, that doesn’t necessarily make much difference. As history sometimes shows, even if the preponderance of a population loathes its leadership, nothing changes, at least not for generations.

Exhibit A: The Soviet Union. I never worked there without meeting citizens who wanted out from under the repression. And from the drab, deprived, fretful lives they lived, I could only guess that they were the majority. But in a police state like that, what could they do? They had neither open elections nor the liberty to call for their own liberation. If flagrant dissidents got too brazen, they might find themselves slogging through the gulag with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Exhibit B: South Africa. During the era of apartheid, I didn’t even need to ask anyone in the black majority there how they felt about minority white rule. All I had to do was look at the unconcealed contrast between lives lived in luxury in all-white suburbs and lives lived without electricity or running water in all-black townships. If blacks got too rebellious, they might find themselves working a limestone quarry with Nelson Mandela.

Iraqi Shiites under Saddam Hussein, Chinese civilians under Mao Tse-Tung, probably the bulk of North Koreans under Kim Jung-un, maybe even most ordinary German citizens under Adolf Hitler, they all might fall into the class of the silent majority. They have no army, no political power, no voice.

Which brings us back to the question, who’s going to rise up against ISIS? The John McCains of the world assert that if the United States puts more muscle into this war, we can kill the cancer. I don’t want to be a doomsayer, but I’m not a dreamer either. Look at the facts on the ground. We fire a hundred-thousand-dollar missile, they lose a ten-thousand-dollar truck. We kill ten zealots, they recruit twenty.


ISIS on parade.

Sure, we have allies: the United Arab Emirates have resumed their off-again-on-again air campaign against ISIS in Syria; Egypt took out some ISIS assets in Libya; now Jordan’s talking tough; the Iraqi military plans to recapture from ISIS the key supply-line city of Mosul. But how’s that going? Tens of thousands of weapons the United States says it already has sent to the Iraqis (with more on the way) are missing, and their parliamentary defense committee chairman is quoted saying that without those weapons, “any operation would be fruitless.” Some of our Arab allies look at us and complain that we’re not pulling out all the stops. But are they? Would they ever? And if they did, would they win? Qatar’s emir said last week that Arab leaders must commit “to the values… in the Arab Spring.” Dream on.

Greg Dobbs

Greg Dobbs

Or maybe it’s more like a nightmare, because ISIS isn’t even a single entity any more, operating only in Syria and Iraq. In a case of “déjà vu all over again,” remember how in Afghanistan, we chased out al-Qaeda only to see lookalikes turn up in a dozen different countries? Well today, intelligence identifies ISIS-like units, whether official affiliates or aspiring wannabes, in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, as deep into Africa as Nigeria, and yes, Afghanistan. ISIS has even tweeted, “We will conquer Rome,” (meaning, the West).

If we have learned nothing else since Vietnam, we have learned that even though we are mightier and hopefully more moral than our enemies, we don’t always win. There are too many variables in war. And too many enemies we just don’t understand.

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  1. I couldn’t agree with you more, Greg, this is a great post, you hit it on the nail. These things need to be said, and I hope there are a lot of people in America who see the situation the way you do. I know that over here in Europe, we all do – in fact, on the Ukraine question, European leaders, Merkel and Hollande in primis, are pushing back on the idea of sending weapons and much prefer to pursue sanctions. Though, to be frank, I find that’s leaning too far in the other direction: it is absolutely clear that Putin doesn’t give a damn about sanctions and it would be far better to help Poroshenko directly and strengthen Kiev’s army (I hope they do it anyway, under cover!)

    All you say about the Soviet Union is absolutely true, I know, I lived there twice in my life, in 1956-57 and in 1972-74. People can live under a dictator and in horrible conditions for generations.

    What it will take to stop Islamic extremism is difficult to fathom. But I do think that one direction that people tend to overlook should be taken and should be taken asap: as Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, a Jordanian prince and the first UN human rights chief from the Muslim and Arab world, told the UN Security Council, there is NO PLACE in the UN Declaration of Human Rights for the ISIS violence and disdain of human life and dignity (see the article about his declaration here:,7340,L-4593596,00.html). He urged the Security Council to support efforts to overturn the Islamic insurgents.

    To no avail of course. At least so far.

    The point is this: our world is rapidly getting more dangerous and this is because the Big Powers are constantly using their veto power at the Security Council (at this point China and Russia are the culprits – but the US has also used it many times, mainly to shield Israel).

    In short, the United Nations is blocked. As Amnesty International’s head recently wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed, there is an urgent need to unshackle the United Nations: the Big Powers should agree NOT to use their veto when human lives and dignity are under attack, when crimes against humanity are clearly being perpetrated – the case of ISIS.

    The trouble is that the Big Powers prefer to work outside the UN with the G-7 and G-20 and of course a string of limited alliances – in the Iran nuclear talks, the P5 + 1, (which means the 5 Big Powers with veto power at the Security Council, US, UK, France, Russia and China plus Germany) ; or the P4 in the case of Ukraine (France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine-Kiev) .

    This means that political leaders are increasingly running negotiations in person and that’s not their job. They’re not trained to do it like diplomats or technical experts. Sure, they’ve got the experts backing them, but they are still the ones staying up all night, as Merkel and Hollande recently did with Putin to discuss Ukraine and hammer out the Minsk II cease-fire. A sorry spectacle, 17 hours of talks and with what results? Very meager indeed. We’re all holding our fingers crossed and hoping the cease-fire won’t collapse totally quite yet…

    And all this is happening because negotiations are taking place OUTSIDE the UN, i.e. outside an institutional structure that forces people to keep talking to each other rather than go to war. Case in point: last year, after Putin invaded Crimea, what happened? Russia was thrown out of the G-8 (that is now back down to G-7). This is something that never could have happened if the G-7 had been part of the UN. Because throwing someone out like that also means cutting out (or reducing) any chance to renew dialogue. Very stupid.

    Ok, I stop my rant here! But I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciated your excellent article.

  2. It’s a very complex situation and there are no good solutions in sight. Maybe a better approach would have been not to get involved in the first place. Perhaps helping to depose undemocratic leaders only leads to chaos in the long run. This seems to be a new kind of war where all bets are off.

  3. Where is Saudi Arabia in all this. They are the head of the kingdom. They are the one’s that can communicate with these people (I don’t know what to call them). Granted it’s an international economy and we have people and companies in these countries, but it’s not our problem. We can’t solve the world’s problems. The people of the middle east need to step up to the plate. We should not be losing more of our soliders, whether thru death or coming up disabled.

    Let the middle east solve their own problems. Granted we started alot of the problems. And we need to learn to stay out of other countries issues.

  4. Greg: I heard a Jordanian proclaim a week ago, “We have to rescue our religion from these butchers,” meaning ISIS. Maybe I really do live in a cave, but I’ve never heard anything that vocally passionate emerge from a Muslim in years of world terrorism. It leaves me with minimal hope that maybe, just maybe enough Muslims like this one may recognize how finite, fatal, and selfish terrorism really is and they’ll work to smash it. Otherwise that side of the world might end up singing, “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone…” Thanks for the wise words and sobering outlook.

  5. Two of the most important things to remember when dealing with the Middle East
    1. There is no logical debate with a religious zealot.
    2. The enemy of my enemy is still my enemy.

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