Nobody who has ever seen The Road should be all that horrified by what ISIS has done. When you’re in a post-acocalyptic nightmare land, you’ll grasp onto whatever straws of order you can get. So it is with the Sunnis of Iraq and Syria, who have now turned to a devil they don’t fully understand in hopes that the brutal simplicity of their rule will finally establish some kind of peace.

They won’t be getting it, though. The Islamic State declared war on the U.S. a long time ago; last week, the U.S. declared it back.

The problem with Mr. Bush

Blaming Bush seems simple (and biasedly liberal), but the actions of the Bush administration do explain the reluctance of Obama to do much of anything in Syria or Iraq up until this point. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was a political, military, and geopolitical disaster, and that toxic legacy has made both Obama and the Americans who elected him incredibly unlikely to intervene in Middle Eastern affairs with anything that might take too much effort.

Some of this is a reflection of American culture; at the end, we like to be good guys, and when we ended up being in the bad guys in Iraq, it put us off. For those who genuinely believed America had done a Good Thing in Iraq by deposing of a tyrant, the idea of saving yet another group of Arabs from yet another tyrant struck them as doomed to fail from the get go.

And up until the fall of Mosul and the advance into Kurdistan, the growth of the Islamic State could still be page four news

Hits to the site jumped for articles tagged “ISIS” during two recent events: the fall of Mosul and the execution of James Foley. Of the two, the grisly murder, plastered across websites and newspapers in the U.S., generated a lot of hits from Americans who wanted to know who the hell was ISIS.

Such actions are a pretty accurate reflection of a very human phenonmenon: we don’t care about a lot of stuff until we have to. James Foley’s murder was in the face of virtually every American who had a TV or walked by a newspaper stand. It was a clean narrative – evil men kill man trying to do good – that often sells well in the U.S.

But the reason it got loads of traction was, in addition to being a simple, easy-to-write story, was geopolitical. ISIS had reached Erbil; beyond that lay northern Iraq’s oilfields.

Danger zone.

Uh-oh! Once more oil starts another war

And it’s not just about the oil near Kirkuk, but the fact that ISIS wants to control the whole of the Arabian peninsula, with all that luscious, black oil. Such a disruption to oil markets can’t be allowed. Libya can go nuts; the Saudis can off-set its production. Bits of Iraq can fester; Abu Dhabi will just turn it up a notch. But nobody can cross the line into the Gulf Co-Operation Council, or GCC, which makes up the world’s richest oil states. They’re under American protection and are key to the entire world’s economic machine.

Even China and Russia will cheer this one on

As I’ve written before, the Islamic State can’t help but declare war on just about everyone. Like Nazi Germany, which just didn’t know when to quit (August 1940 seemed about right), part of the reason the Islamic State has any legitimacy is because it does not compromise. Here is a government that can walk that talk and will enforce the strict version of Islam many Muslims in the Middle East sympathize with (although many Muslims who might say they prefer such rules actually chafe under them when suddenly they’re enforced).

So the Islamic State can’t just stop with its current gains and be pleased the world tolerates their existence; it must march to Baghdad; from there, it must attack the Persian Gulf countries to gain access to all the military hardware those governments have collected over the past fifty years and all the cash the oil fields hold. The Islamic State is already selling oil pulled from its Syrian fields at half the market rate; Russian oil barons would not be pleased if they did the same with Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Meanwhile, Beijing can’t afford to let an energy interruption upset their delicate balancing act.

Nobody cared about East Timor, but invading Kuwait eventually got Saddam Hussein killed

East Timor is a tiny island in the Indonesian archipelago. It was its own country for a while (and is now again), but was invaded in 1976 by much bigger Indonesia, which thought of it as a colonial construct that needed to be erased from the map. Indonesia was then ruled by an anti-communist, ruthless dictator who very much pleased the U.S.

Whether or not Saddam Hussein was aware of that precedent is unknown to me, but what is known is that the U.S. has never gone to war with Indonesia. So when Saddam decided to invade his own colonial construct of a neighbor, he assumed he too could get away with occupation.

But we all know what happened to Saddam. And the only difference between the two was that Kuwait had oil and East Timor did not.


So Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and Libya’s roaming Islamists don’t get the same kind of drone attention that the Islamic State does

Boko Haram is not yet in a position to halt Nigeria’s oil (and Americans would be getting many hefty lessons in Nigerian history if they were); al-Shabaab is tangling with the AU for Somalia’s dusty, oil-less south, and Libya’s fields can be off-set by a coordinated effort in the GCC. So America can let those fester until a later date. Only ISIS has put together a dagger that could strike the heart of the world’s oil economy.

It may seem selfish, mostly because it is

Geopolitics often involves trade offs. A state can only do so much. So goes the superpower. America cannot stamp out all the fires everywhere; it must instead focus on the brightest and most dangerous ones. That’s selfish, but so too is feeding your family when your neighbors are starving. The international system still has much anarchy in it; sometimes, the least bad choice is all you’ve got.