WASHINGTON, D.C. - On Tuesday, the world learned that the American journalist Steven Sotloff had been beheaded. It rightly caused international outrage and revulsion.
That same day, three Syrian men and one Iranian also were beheaded. The news was carried only by obscure outlets and human rights organizations.
The perpetrator of those beheadings calls itself the Government of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.
That is the official name of the government of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia.
The four men whose heads were chopped off were alleged drug dealers executed by the Saudi government. Over 30 people were executed in Saudi Arabia in August, some for possession of hashish and others for “sorcery,” with beheading being the preferred method.
In drawing attention to the state-sponsored barbarism of the Saudis, I don’t mean to undermine the tragic and sickening murders of Steven Sotloff and James Foley, fellow journalists, by ISIS.
I do it to make two points. First, there is a certain parochial myopia, even randomness, to American outrage – and even what we pay attention to in the world. There are blood-curdling acts of sadism every day we somehow ignore. Sometimes they are in distant places, sometimes close to home.
There is a risk that the murders of Foley and Sotloff will feed a fire that is exaggerating the threat of ISIS to the interests and safety of the United States.
ISIS is many things. Choose your adjectives: barbaric, sadistic, criminal, vicious and so on. What it is not, at this point, is a terrorist group structured to make a major strike on the U.S. These Sunni outlaws are a bigger threat to Shiite Iran than to America.
Second, ISIS is not some rogue, independent militia spawned from the desert. Indeed, the group is clandestinely funded and supplied in part by Sunni countries that are supposedly American allies, such as Kuwait, Qatar and, yes, Saudi Arabia.
ISIS was fueled not by grievances with the United States and Europe, but from raging, if unofficial, civil wars between Muslims -- between Sunnis, backed mostly by the Saudis, and Shiites, backed by Iran. In Iraq, ISIS is terrorizing minority groups like the Yazidis and the Kurds.
So the idea that an omnipotent United States of America can control or extinguish ISIS with smart bombs and special forces is as naïve and dangerous as prior efforts to control Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.
A coalition of American, European and, crucially, Muslim countries probably could. And that is precisely what President Barack Obama is trying to do. There really is no history of Arab nations working together in such a way, however.
The United States has attacked ISIS forces in Iraq by air and has sent some special forces back to the country. But Obama is under pressure to do even more to combat this threat hardly any Americans had heard of eight months ago.
The history of U.S. interventions in that part of the world suggests that overreaction is more dangerous than caution.
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