The demoralizing truth about ISIS
Did you experience a surge of righteous satisfaction the moment you heard that France had begun bombing Raqqa, Syria, in retaliation for ISIS's brazen attack on central Paris? I sure did. But my satisfaction was mixed with foreboding.
To judge from their public statements, everyone from French President François Hollande and U.S. President Barack Obama on down through the entire Republican and Democratic presidential fields appears to believe that there is a military solution to the problem of the Islamic State. But there isn't.
Yes, the spectacular and bloody attack on a long-time friend and ally of the United States by a singularly repellant organization requires a military response. Yes, we can and must work hard to protect ourselves against future attacks — both through intelligence gathering and police work at home and abroad, and through targeted attacks on the terrorist organization's senior leadership. But we need to be honest with ourselves about the nature of the enemy and its capacity to withstand our best efforts to destroy it.
Such honesty appears to be in short supply.
Consider: My statement above, about the need to gather intelligence and use police and military force, could have been written about al Qaeda in the fall of 2001. Indeed, it was written, over and over again, and delivered by George W. Bush in his September 20, 2001 speech to Congress and the American people in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
What followed was more than a decade of precisely what just about everyone is calling for now. First we attacked al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Then we took the fight to other countries, using covert ops, guided missiles, and drone strikes. Then we invaded Iraq and overthrew its government, which gave al Qaeda a new base of operations and a chance to do battle with the American military directly.
This American occupying force, which (especially after Bush's troop surge) was vastly larger than what even the most hawkish commentators are advocating now for the escalating fight against ISIS, eventually degraded al Qaeda in Iraq, took out the broader organization's senior leadership, and wore down its ability to launch attacks in the West. Then, at long last, we managed to kill Osama bin Laden. By the time President Obama completed our withdrawal from Iraq, most analysts considered al Qaeda to be vastly weaker than it once was.
That is, until the rise of a new terrorist threat — the Islamic State — which grew out of the chaos of the Syrian civil war.
Honesty requires that we face facts, no matter how demoralizing those facts may be. And the singular fact of our historical moment is that the Greater Middle East is in the midst of a massive, civilizational convulsion. This convulsion is marked by intense instability and violence. The violence takes the form of both conventional and asymmetrical warfare — and the latter, in the form of jihadism, radiates outward, periodically striking the West and other regions of the world.
Al Qaeda was an early expression of this reality. ISIS is the latest. And we have no reason at all to suppose it will be the last. Which is why optimistic pronouncements about the Islamic State being contained and weakened, whether they come from the president, indefatigably naïve journalists, or perennial fans of military adventurism, miss the point entirely.
If ISIS really were an "Islamic State," if it controlled fixed territory with defined borders, then it might be possible to destroy it using military force. But ISIS isn't a state, at least not yet. It is an idea — an idea that is both a radically revisionist (and apocalyptic) form of Islam and an anti-colonialist program that seeks to erase the national borders drawn by Western imperial powers 100 years ago and substitute a transnational Islamic empire modeled on the caliphate established by the immediate successors to Prophet Muhammad 14 centuries ago.
Do I seriously believe that this idea will be realized? No, I don't think that vast numbers of Muslims from around the globe will respond to ISIS's call for an ingathering of believers to avenge Islam's civilizational humiliation at the hands of the infidels and embrace a form of postmodern neo-medieval barbarism in the Mesopotamian desert.
But it doesn't much matter. Scholar Olivier Roy may be right that ISIS "recruits only at the margins," but those margins contain quite enough people to wreak an awful lot of havoc. It doesn't take many. Thanks to social media and other forms of 21st-century communication technologies, a virtual community of angry, disaffected Muslims living in Syria, the Parisian banlieues, immigrant neighborhoods of Belgium, and anywhere else on Earth can band together to plot and provide logistical support for bloody attacks that will supposedly advance the Islamist idea with nothing more sophisticated than a handful of rifles.
Ideas can only be vanquished on the battlefield when they are instantiated in a place with concrete institutions that can be decisively conquered and crushed. The idea that motivates jihadists from Raqqa and Tripoli to Brussels and beyond isn't like that. It lives mostly in the minds of those devoted to it, and so it can only be defeated by an alternative idea.
The Judeo-Christian and secular post-Christian West is singularly ill-suited to supply such an alternative idea to people consumed by visions of Islamic purity, grandeur, supremacy, and revenge. It will have to come from deep within Islamic civilization itself.
Does this mean that ISIS poses an "existential threat," as Republicans are so fond of putting it? Not at all. But that doesn't mean it won't inspire fear, drain blood and treasure, destabilize economies, undermine civil liberties, and provoke harmful right-wing reactions throughout the West for the foreseeable future.
And it's not at all clear what we can do about it — beyond continuing to play the high-stakes game of Whac-A-Mole that's already consumed American foreign policy and its intelligence services for 14 years.
That's called (barely) managing a problem, not solving it.
It means that at the moment the best we can reasonably hope for is to protect ourselves, however imperfectly.
And wait for the storm to pass.