Islamic State: it’s time for tough questions

The US media is doing a bad job of grilling the government on the Islamic State, and Americans deserve better.

Sometimes there are just conversations that stick in your head – some silly, others serious, some you just have no idea why they are lodged in there.

I’ve been thinking about one conversation from years back a lot recently. It was with a correspondent from a competing network soon after I arrived to cover the White House. She told me why she put up with the hours, the travel and the stress: “I wasn’t here before the Iraq war and I never want to have it on my conscience that the important questions were not asked.”

So many questions are not being asked when it comes to the Obama administration’s plans for the Islamic State group, which has taken over large areas of Syria and Iraq. 

The White House has repeatedly made the argument that the group is a threat to the US because Americans are fighting with them, and they could be put on a plane and launch attacks against the homeland.

No one points out that the two Americans we know were fighting in Syria were both killed there – not here. They say that could change, the threat will come in two to three years.

Other politicians have been making the case that they can’t just target American fighters – they have no idea who they are. Maybe it is time to remind politicians we know of their huge capability for spying. If the NSA can record every phone conversation in an entire country, perhaps they could use that capability to figure out who is there.

They have informants in mosques all over the US – they can’t ask around about who is missing and possibly recently flew over in that direction?

The president recently said that bombing the Islamic State group in Syria wouldn’t actually help president Bashar al-Assad, because his army can’t reach the areas they control. Take a moment and let that logic sink in. Yep, that wasn’t questioned either.

The predominant question has been whether the president “looks weak”. Is he “projecting weakness around the globe”? The media has taken the country to the place where it’s not a question of if the US should get involved to defeat the Islamic State group but how and when.

Al Jazeera recently interviewed Jeremy Holden, of the Media Matters for America group. He said the US media had presented an either/or dynamic: The US either gets more aggressive, or it’s seen as “feckless or we’re indecisive or we’re projecting weakness”. 

He added that journalists need to ask not when the bombs will start falling in Syria, but what happens the next day.

Anthony Zinni, a former general, volunteered his “next day” advice: “If you put two brigades on the ground right now of US forces, they would push ISIS back into Syria in a heartbeat. And probably take less time, less cost and, I think in the long run, fewer casualties overall.”

The idea of putting large numbers of US soldiers back in Iraq – two brigades is about 6,000 – went unchallenged by the moderator.

Only those on the front row of White House briefings get to ask questions every day. I lost mine, as did the correspondent I had that conversation with to so many years ago.

I’m not saying I know what the US should do it’s not my job to make those decisions. It is my job as a journalist to ask those basic questions we all learned in school: who, what, when, where and why?

It is my job to inform not to shape the narrative. Someone might want to remind the network journalist who recently claimed to millions of viewers, “Like it or not, the US may now be forced to take action against ISIS, not only in Iraq, but also in Syria.”

The American people might not “like” the idea of another military action, but at the very least they deserve to know why it’s happening and to have those explanations challenged, even just a little bit.

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