WASHINGTON — It was exhilarating to drop a bunch of 500-pound bombs on whatstheirname.
Just when Americans thought they could stop trying to figure out the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, we’re in a new war in Iraq with some bad “folks,” as the president might say, whose name we’re still fuzzy about.
We never know what we’re getting into over there, and this time, we can’t even agree what to call the enemy. All we know is that a barbaric force is pillaging so swiftly and brutally across the Middle East that it seems like some mutated virus from a sci-fi film.
Most news organizations call the sulfurous spawn of al-Qaida leading the rampage through Iraq “ISIS,” short for “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” or “Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham.” (Isis is also the name of an Egyptian goddess and the Earl of Grantham’s yellow lab on “Downton Abbey.”) Yet, the White House, State Department and United Nations refer to the group as “ISIL,” short for “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.”
The BBC reported that some people also started referring to the jihadis as “Da’ish” or “Daesh,” a designation that the extremists object to because it is “a seemingly pejorative term that is based on an acronym formed from the letters of the name in Arabic, ‘al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa al-Sham.’” Al-Sham, the BBC noted, can be translated as “the Levant,” “Greater Syria,” “Syria” or “Damascus.”
Adding to the confusion, ISIS, aka ISIL, engaged in a slick “Mad Men” rebranding in June, announcing that, in tribute to its ambition to establish a caliphate, it was renaming itself “the Islamic State.” So, then Agence France-Presse began referring to the militants as “IS” or “the group formerly known as ISIS,” and The Wall Street Journal switched to “IS.” The Times, however, still calls our murderous new enemy “ISIS” while quoting administration officials and military officers using the acronym “ISIL.”
It’s a bit odd that the administration is using “the Levant,” given that it conjures up a colonial association from the early 20th century, when Britain and France drew their maps, carving up Mesopotamia guided by economic gain rather than tribal allegiances. Unless it’s a nostalgic nod to a time when puppets were more malleable and grateful to their imperial overlords.
If all that is not confusing enough, we also have to fathom a new entry in the vicious religious wars in Iraq: the Yazidis, a small and secretive sect belonging to one of the oldest surviving religions in the world. Their faith has origins in Islam and Zoroastrianism, a religion founded by the Iranian prophet Zoroaster in the 6th century B.C. As Time pointed out, though the name “Izidis” translates to “worshipers of God,” ISIS considers them “devil-worshipers” who must convert to Islam or be killed.
ISIS mistakenly torments the sect that has survived 72 genocides, The Telegraph explained, because the Yazidis worship a fallen angel called the Malek Tawwus, or Peacock Angel. But unlike Lucifer, their angel sought forgiveness and went back to heaven.
Fifty thousand Yazidis were driven by the jihadis to take refuge on Mount Sinjar in Kurdish-controlled Irbil, where they were trapped and dying of dehydration and exposure, which spurred President Barack Obama to order Navy planes to drop food and water for them.
Although it felt momentarily bracing to see American pilots trying to save innocents in a country we messed up so badly it’s not even a country any more, some critics warned that the pinprick bombings were a political gesture, not a military strategy, and “almost worse than nothing,” as John McCain put it.
The latest turn of the screw in Iraq also underscored how we keep getting pulled back, “Godfather”-style, without ever understanding the culture. Our boneheaded meddling just creates ever-more-virulent monsters. The United States has taken military action in Iraq during at least 17 of the last 24 years, the ultimate mission creep in a country smaller than Texas on the other side of the world.
What better symbol of the Middle East quicksand than the fact that Navy planes took off for their rescue mission — two years after Obama declared the war in Iraq finished — from the George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea?
Bush Senior’s war to expel Saddam from Kuwait — a gas station of a country chockablock with spoiled rich Arabs — would not have been necessary if Saddam, a tyrant first enabled by JFK’s CIA, had not been given the wrong signals by our side. W.’s war with Saddam, the prodigal son’s effort at outdoing his father, ended up undoing Iraq and the neglected Afghanistan.
Caught in the Sunni backlash and the back draft of his predecessor’s misguided attempt to impose democracy, Obama is leery and proceeding cautiously. But what can he do? He dispatched a few hundred advisers to Iraq to fix something that couldn’t be fixed with the hundreds of thousands of troops during a decade.
Some fellow Democrats are fretting the pull of Iraq will be too strong, after Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said, “The president has not laid out a specific end date.” Iraq, after all, is a country that seems to have a malignant magnetism for our leaders.
Maureen Dowd is a syndicated columnist who writes for the New York Times News Service.