Marketing Death: How US Is Using Foley and McCain to Sell War

People hold a photograph of James Foley, the freelance journalist killed by the IS group, during a memorial service in Irbil, 350 kilometers (220 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq
© AP Photo/ Marko Drobnjakovic

Another American citizen has been killed in Syria in the past week, albeit under completely different circumstances. Douglas McAuthur McCain was killed by ‘Free Syrian Army’ militants during a gunfight while fighting for Islamic State (IS), becoming the first American Islamist to die in Syria. This comes as the world is still reeling from the beheading of reporter James Foley, which was first broadcast last week. The deaths of Foley and McCain back-to-back provide the US with different justifications for the same objective – the bombing of Syria.

The Foley Factor

To begin with, Foley’s beheading last week drew global attention to the brutal tactics of IS, in an opportunity that was quickly seized by the US government. The presence of another American reporter, Steven Sotloff, and an unnamed female humanitarian activist in IS’s hands has added urgency to Obama’s promise that the US would “do everything we can to protect our people”. If it wasn’t for the notoriety of Foley’s violent execution, Americans would not be as concerned about the fate of their compatriots in Syria. Now, however, the Foley Factor has been pushed by US strategic communicators to argue that America must militarily intervene in Syria in order to destroy IS and save all American hostages in the country. This ‘humanitarian intervention’, despite the collateral civilian losses that it would likely entail, appeases both American and European liberals who are trumpeting war on supposed humanitarian grounds.

The McCain and al-Awlaki Connection

Douglas McCain’s death has thrown fuel on the fire for fans of the planned US bombing of Syria. The idea being established is that American extremists in Syria present an impending threat to the Homeland, as they can use the tactics they acquire in the battlefield to spread terror back home. The presence of foreign fighters in Syria is nothing new, however, as Damascus has been saying for years that thousands of them have flocked there from over 80 different countries, including Western ones. Using the publicity over McCain’s death, it is anticipated that the US will argue that it must strike against all other Americans currently in the warzone there, which would fulfill the desires of American conservatives and militant NATO hawks.

A precedent for this has already been established in 2011, when Anwar al-Awlaki and his teenage son, both American citizens, were assassinated by American drones in Yemen. Although his son’s killing was supposedly unintended collateral damage in a later strike, the US strongly maintained that al-Awlaki was a pressing threat to the US, despite only being engaged in Al-Qaeda propaganda operations at the time. One must keep in mind that Obama must sign off on every drone strike that occurs, and that his administration has defended the killing of American citizens abroad, such as al-Awlaki, as being legal under anti-terror justifications. Thus, if al-Awlaki could be killed for disseminating propaganda, then the US, following this logic, would obviously target Americans like McCain that are armed and actively partaking in jihad, especially on behalf of IS.

Constructing a new ‘Coalition of the Willing’

Foley and McCain’s deaths are increasingly forming the cornerstone of Washington’s new ‘Coalition of the Willing’ (COW), with each fatality attracting different constituent members. Folely’s death has been described as providing the impetus for a COW ‘humanitarian intervention’. Nations whose citizens are being held hostage by IS (such as the Turkish nationals that were captured in Mosul in June) have an interest in joining on these grounds. It can also soon turn out that the Turkish hostages have been transferred from Iraq to Syria, thus guaranteeing Turkish involvement in any future war against the country. IS or another related terrorist group could also provoke an incident in the Golan Heights, take a soldier hostage, and bring them into Syria, likely Damascus. This could invite the Israelis to bomb Syria with the same ferocity as they have been doing in Gaza. Additionally, it has been learned since Foley’s death that abductions are not always publicized in the media, so there could potentially be many more foreign citizens held hostage by IS that the world doesn’t know about. Pertinent information, whether real or fabricated, in these regards can be selectively released to justify the inclusion of various other members in the COW.

McCain’s death has prompted different nations to support the creation of a COW, specifically those who have nationals already waging jihad in Syria. If the US takes the lead in saying that it will kill its citizens fighting with IS in Syria, then the UK and France (which have seen many more of their citizens join terrorist forces there) will quickly jump aboard the campaign. This is a salient point because the three strongest NATO members would then be unified against Syria, which wasn’t the case during last year’s military standoff. As the military engines of the alliance, their support for war is crucial in transforming decisions into decisive action.

The Importance of International and Regional ‘Allies’

The US has underscored that it will only strike Syria if it has the support of its international and regional partners. This shouldn’t be understood as holding out hope that the US can be deterred, however, but should instead be seen as a force multiplier for any war that the US will launch, should it choose to, regardless of how many states join the COW. Internationally, this COW will likely encompass the same NATO states and more that have already been arming and equipping Iraq’s Kurds in recent months, such as the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Croatia, Canada, and Albania, thus making any war in Syria primarily another NATO war of conquest.

On the regional front, the US is all but assured the support of Turkey, Israel, Jordan, and the Gulf States, which are all rabidly opposed to Syria’s democratically-elected government. These countries are also close military partners of the US with a certain degree of interoperability, thus allowing the Pentagon to better ‘Lead From Behind’ (a slogan from the 2011 Libyan War) in any future war against Syria.  Israel may not even get actively involved, but Turkey and perhaps Jordan very well could. Qatar and the UAE could even assist with bombing runs in Syria, considering that both already have experience doing so in the region. Qatar bombed Libya during the 2011 war and the UAE is suspected of having done so last week. This demonstrates that both Gulf States have the ability and will to strike targets far away from their borders in pursuit of their national interests, and it is expected that the Saudis and Jordanians would open their airspace to facilitate this. Also, the Jordanians may even send a Bay of Pigs-like force towards Damascus if IS or the COW closes in on the capital from the north, in a classic flanking maneuver.

Concluding Thoughts

Foley and McCain’s deaths have been seen as a blessing by Washington’s decision makers, as they now enable its mouthpieces to attempt to justify a War in Syria using supposed ‘moral’ and ‘military’ reasons. The arguments are that the Foley incident shows that the US has an obligation to save the other Americans being held hostage in Syria, while McCain’s participation demonstrates that Americans fighting for IS must be assassinated before they bring their terror tactics back to the Homeland. These humanitarian and anti-terror arguments are attractive in assembling a new COW, and the US is expected call upon its NATO and Gulf allies to join it in attacking Syria. Ultimately, the entire episode of dead Americans in Syria is a tragic stroke of irony that shows how death is being marketed to beget even more death.