ISIS is Winning

The United States and Europe are giving everything the perpetrators of the Paris attacks hoped for.


A week after the ISIS attacks in Paris, Brussels is on high alert, essentially shutting down the city. The US embassy has advised all US citizens in Belgium to shelter in place and US government personnel are prohibited from traveling to Brussels or Paris. The US Congress has passed, on a bipartisan basis, prohibitive restrictions on taking in refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war and the EU is likely to adopt travel restrictions that would undermine the Schengen protocols that are its basis.

It’s entirely possible that these decisions are entirely prudent given intelligence to which our governments are privy and we are not. But they demonstrate, yet again, the lamentable degree to which one successful terrorist attack in a Western city can massively disrupt our lives and cause us to re-examine core principles.

Robert Kagan, one of the leading neoconservative thinkers behind some really bad decisions after the 9/11 attacks, dubs this a “Crisis of World Order.” While we should certainly be dubious of his policy prescriptions, his assessment of the situation strikes me as spot on:

For several years, President Barack Obama has operated under a set of assumptions about the Middle East: First, there could be no return of U.S. ground troops in sizable numbers to the region; and second, undergirding the first, the U.S. has no interests in the region great enough to justify such a renewed commitment. The crises in the Middle East could be kept localized. There might be bloodshed and violence—even mass killing, in Syria and Libya and elsewhere, and some instability in Iraq—but the fighting, and its consequences, could be contained. The core elements of the world order would not be affected, and America’s own interests would not be directly threatened so long as good intelligence and well-placed drone strikes prevented terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Even Islamic State could be “degraded” and “contained” over time.

These assumptions could have been right—other conflicts in the Middle East have remained local—but they have proven to be wrong. The combined crises of Syria, Iraq and Islamic State have not been contained. Islamic State itself has proven both durable and capable, as the attacks in Paris showed. The Syrian conflict, with its exodus of refugees, is destabilizing Lebanon and Jordan and has put added pressure on Turkey’s already tenuous democracy. It has exacerbated the acute conflict between Sunnis and Shiites across the region.

That’s exactly right. While I’ve been critical of Obama’s rhetorical excesses—notably his “Assad must go” stance, his “red line” over chemical weapons, and his declaration that a very limited, air-only intervention by the United States would “defeat and ultimately destroy” ISIS—I’ve quibbled with his general policy only at the margins. I’ve shared the assumptions that Kagan attributes to the president.  Indeed, like Obama, I downplayed ISIS’ threat the day before the Paris attacks. Whereas he pronounced ISIS “contained,” I declared in a Twitter conversation with Jim Henley that it was “a rather marginal threat to the US,” adding that “Several flu strains have been more menacing.”

Even considering the Paris attacks an attack on the US by virtue of NATO’s Article 5, 168 deaths is hardly an existential threat. Yet there’s no denying that our attitudes have shifted.

Kagan goes on to observe,

The multisided war in the Middle East has now ceased to be a strictly Middle Eastern problem. It has become a European problem as well. The flood of refugees from the violence in Syria and the repression of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime have rocked the continent and overwhelmed its institutions. The horrific attacks in Paris, likely organized and directed by Islamic State from its base in Syria, and the prospect of more such attacks, threaten the cohesion of Europe, and with it the cohesion of the trans-Atlantic community, or what used to be known as the West. The crisis on the periphery, in short, has now spilled over into the core.

Europe was not in great shape before the refugee crisis and the terrorist attacks. The prolonged Eurozone crisis eroded the legitimacy of European political institutions and the centrist parties that run them, while weakening the economies of key European powers. The old troika—Britain, France and Germany—that used to provide leadership on the continent and with whom the U.S. worked most closely to set the global agenda is no more. Britain is a pale shadow of its former self. Once the indispensable partner for the U.S., influential in both Washington and Brussels, the mediator between America and Europe, Britain is now unmoored, drifting away from both. The Labor Party, once led by Tony Blair, is now headed by an anti-American pacifist, while the ruling Conservative government boasts of its “very special relationship” with China.

While Kagan vastly overstates the shift in the UK, which remains  staunch and reliable (if perhaps underfunded) American ally, he’s right that the Paris attacks and the prospect of more of the same has put further strain on the security architecture and other institutions of both Europe and the transatlantic alliance. Indeed, strengthening that bond is one reason I think we should declare solidarity with France by invoking Article 5.

The spillover of the Middle East crisis into this weakened Europe threatens to undermine the continent’s cohesion and sap the strength of trans-Atlantic ties. The refugee crisis has further weakened centrist parties and strengthened the right wing in France and elsewhere; now the terrorist attacks, which these parties have unfairly linked to the refugee crisis, have given them a further boost. The idea of Marine Le Pen, leader of the right-wing National Front, as France’s next president is no longer far-fetched.

Yes. And, while it ought to signal that unserious candidates like Donald Trump and Ben Carson can’t be trusted with the presidency, it’s just as likely to boost the candidacy of those who eschew moderation in responding to the crisis.

GW’s Marc Lynch, known on the interwebs as Abu Aardvark, fears that as well:

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump said this week that as president he would “look very, very carefully at mosques” and would not rule out the creation of a national database for Muslims. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) declared America to be “at war with radical Islam,” adding that failing to say so “would be like saying we weren’t at war with Nazis, because we were afraid to offend some Germans who may have been members of the Nazi Party but weren’t violent themselves.” Not long ago such views would have been far beyond the pale for acceptable mainstream discourse. But today theybarely stood out in a presidential field desperately outbidding each other to be the toughest on “radical Islam.”

Rhetorical excess in a presidential primary is nothing new, of course, but something more seems to be going on this time. The public discourse surrounding the so-called Islamic State seems like a major step backward from the hard-won analytical progress of the previous decade. Five years ago, political scientists and the broader policy community had developed a robust and sophisticated understanding of the nature of Islamist movements. The organizational and ideological differences between Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda were well-understood. So was the constructivist logic of al-Qaeda’s use of terrorism to encourage polarization, spread their unpopular worldview and promote a “clash of civilizations.” Politicians across the spectrum understood the strategic as well as moral importance of denying al-Qaeda its audacious claim to represent Islam. Today, the American public sphere is arguing over the political urgency of using the words “radical Islam,” the Islamic credentials of the Islamic State and whether “Islam is a religion of violence.”

This isn’t just the usual histrionics of presidential candidates. The op-ed pages, policy journals and talk shows are now filled with earnest discussions of the Islamic nature of the Islamic State and the pathologies of Islam as areligion. There’s nothing surprising about the persistence of such ideas within the anti-Islamic fringe, which is ideologically committed, well-funded and enjoys access to a robust conservative media ecosystem. It is themainstreaming of once fringe ideas about Islam that is so disturbing. The insistence by mainstream pundits that “the Islamic State is really Islamic” is a worthwhile analytical debate, but in the current climate it has served as a gateway for the mainstreaming of ideas about the pathologies of Islam once contained on the radical fringe. It isn’t just the politicians and the pundits – the center of gravity among the policy community has palpably shifted as well.

Again, all this is understandable if lamentable. While the fear of getting killed by ISIS is vastly overblown—we’re far more likely to die in an automobile accident or be murdered by some yahoo with a handgun—it’s nonetheless palpable and quite literally foreign. But Lynch thinks more is at play:

Jihadists have always sought to use terrorism to polarize politics, spread their ideas, discredit moderates and advance their preferred narrative of clashing civilizations. They have not always been so successful in winning mainstream acceptance for their narrative.

I would highlight three possible explanations. One part of the answer may be the pervasive effects of social media. By this I do not mean the Islamic State’s use of social media for recruitment and propaganda, as impressive andinteresting as this phenomenon has been. Instead, I mean the ways in which social media itself is structured, creating new openings for extreme ideas to gain traction with the broader public. Social media networks typically tend toencourage ideological clustering, in which self-selected communities of the like-minded cultivate shared narratives, identities and arguments. Today’s pervasive social media is organically interwoven with broadcast media and more traditional print publications in ways that facilitate the movement of these narratives from isolated clusters into the mainstream. The 9/11 attacks took place at a moment when blogs had only just begun to reshape the American political public sphere, but the Islamic State’s rise has occurred in an era of near complete social mediation of information and opinion. Such an environment seems highly conducive to the cultivation and nurturing of radical fringe ideas – and their transmission into the broader public arena.

A second strand is the absence of George W. Bush. For all his other foreign policy struggles, Bush was staunchly opposed to the demonization of Islam, and frequently argued — as Hillary Clinton does today — that America was not at war with Islam. He understood the importance of denying the al-Qaeda narrative of a clash of civilizations. Bush’s stance acted as a check on the anti-Islamic impulses of the right wing base. That obstacle has long since passed from the scene. President Obama’s invocation of the same themes invites the opposite response. The right wing now can be unified against this rhetoric, without Bush to restrain them. Meanwhile, the waning of the Obama presidency has encouraged a large portion of the policy community to position themselves against the outgoing administration, which typically means adopting more hawkish and interventionist positions. By the old political math, the majority of Democrats combined with the Bush Republicans to block the anti-Islamic trend. By the new political math, the vast majority of Republicans combines with enough Democrats to push the “center” well to the right.

A third factor is the real changes within the Islamist landscape, far beyond the Islamic State itself. Syria has generated a wide variety of jihadist groups, which often position themselves against the Islamic State. Local insurgencies that once took on the al-Qaeda label now embrace the Islamic State’s franchise. Above all, the 2013 Egyptian military coup and subsequent repressive campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood severely weakened one of al-Qaeda’s traditionally most powerful competitors. The destruction and demonization of the Brotherhood has likely contributed to eroding the idea of a mainstream Islamism buffering the jihadists. The political push by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to label the Brotherhood a terrorist organization has reshaped the politics of the issue as well. Propaganda from the region against the Muslim Brotherhood then refracts through the Western public discourse. Old debates revolving around the Brotherhood’s role as a firewall against extremism are now far less relevant, with its organization shattered and ideology of peaceful participation discredited. Analysts who follow Islamism closely are now in uncharted territory, creating openings for those peddling simple, well-rehearsed narratives about Islam.

There’s a certain irony in missing George W. Bush here, given the massive contribution the Iraq War (which I ultimately supported) in creating ISIS to begin with. But Lynch is right: Bush went out of his way, even in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, to proclaim Islam a “religion of peace” and to avoid demonizing a billion-plus people over the actions of a radical subset. He was often lampooned by his own side for doing so but, in the sense that only Nixon could go to China, he was much better able to keep the lid on the craziness.

Lynch’s conclusion is right:

Promoting a clash of civilizations and destroying the reality of productive coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims was always at the heart of al-Qaeda’s strategy. The Islamic State has avowed the same goal of eliminating the “gray zones” of toleration.  With American political discourse these days, the prospects for escaping the iron logic of this strategy have never looked more dismal.

Indeed. The argument that “the terrorists win if we (fill in the blank)” quickly became a punchline in the aftermath of 9/11 but the premise nonetheless remains true. ISIS got a hell of a bang for its buck in Paris and it’s unlikely we’ve seen the worst of it.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Environment, Terrorism, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Steve Hynd says:

    Kagan is part of the problem Lynch is describing, James.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Steve Hynd: Yep. I think he’s right in his assessment of what’s happening in the West, not what the West should do in response to ISIS.

  3. michael reynolds says:

    Excellent piece, James.

    The idea that we can avoid playing into the ISIS narrative is silly in the end. People can’t successfully ignore an obnoxious toddler, let alone a terrorist. The bad guys are capable of setting the table all by themselves. Knowing “what ISIS wants” is not enough in itself to recommend a course of action for us – we can’t just decide to do the opposite. That’s magical thinking, the foreign policy equivalent of Star Trek forever “reversing polarities” on this or that piece of tech. The winning move is not just the opposite of what ISIS wants.

    It is obviously in everyone’s interest if we avoid making this anti-Muslim per se. Insofar as we are ever going to get human intelligence, it has to come from Muslims. But that propagandistic and practical imperative should not blind us to the reality, which is genuinely that Islam is at odds with a modern, secular West. So, by the way, are Southern Baptists, Amish, Mormons and orthodox Jews, just to name a few. Religion in the West has been put into a box, lots of religious people resent it, but our version of civilization required the taming of religion by secular authority.

    The refugee crisis in Europe is not a concern simply because of the current crop of refugees, but rather the likelihood that it is just the beginning of a series of rolling crises. What if Gazans decide to hop in boats and head for Greece? What if south Sudanese find a route? What happens if/when Jordan or Egypt destabilizes and we’re faced with potentially millions more refugees? What happens if Turkey slides into civil war with Kurds and secularists? How many millions can Europe take and still be Europe?

    I have no confidence at all that any significant part of the ME is capable of enlightened self-government. Let people vote, and they vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, or their own religious sub-sect. When the voters want and choose bad government, and various kings and dictators are only capable of bad government, I think you’re going to get a whole bunch of bad government. And indeed, the entirety of the ME is horribly governed.

    In the end we either find a way to impose some kind of order on the ME, (a European/American reconquista?) or we build a figurative wall around it, walk away and let it descend into chaos. Either path is pretty brutal. But one thing is imperative: we of the West have to stop this contagion from spreading. We have a right and a duty to stand up for our civilization, our secular democratic values, and it would be foolish to pretend that radicalized Islam is not a threat.

  4. Joe says:

    I have a more simplistic approach to this. The goal of ISIS is not to win a war, it’s just to start one. How do you respond to that as a government or as a society? If you hit back, ISIS is winning. If you don’t hit back, everyone else — including most of your constituents — thinks ISIS is winning.

  5. grumpy realist says:

    Maybe we should just start requiring IQ tests before allowing people to fly on airplanes?

    (Good grief. How stupid can you get?)

  6. DrDaveT says:

    US government personnel are prohibited from traveling to Brussels or Paris.

    What legal authority does EUCOM think he has to forbid civilians from traveling to Paris on their personal time? Was martial law declared when I wasn’t looking?

  7. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT: DoD personnel, including civilians, are subject to travel restrictions as well as other restrictions on our civil liberties.

  8. James Pearce says:

    @michael reynolds: Some good stuff, bud.

    But, because you know me, I’m a “but” man:

    and it would be foolish to pretend that radicalized Islam is not a threat.

    Word choice. Radicalized Muslims are a threat. Radicalized Islam is just, like, an opinion, man.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds:

    But that propagandistic and practical imperative should not blind us to the reality, which is genuinely that Islam is at odds with a modern, secular West. So, by the way, are Southern Baptists, Amish, Mormons and orthodox Jews, just to name a few. Religion in the West has been put into a box, lots of religious people resent it, but our version of civilization required the taming of religion by secular authority.

    I’ve made a version of that argument in class this past week, as we just happen to be studying the origins of the modern Middle East (Thursday and Friday) and the rise of Islamist terrorism (coming Monday and Tuesday). There has been a class between secular modernists in various forms (Arab nationalists, Attaturk, various military rulers, the shah, etc.) and the traditionalists going back to the break up of the Ottoman Empire. We’ve had a much more muted version of the fight (mainly urban vs. rural), and are currently in a spike phase. But modernity has won out in the West over time whereas it’s seemingly losing in most of the Middle East.

  10. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    DoD personnel, including civilians, are subject to travel restrictions

    Contractors are not DoD personnel.

  11. anjin-san says:

    @ James

    cause us to re-examine core principles.

    My core principles are right where they have always been. It’s the leadership of your party that seems to think turning America into a fascist police state is a groovy idea.

  12. michael reynolds says:

    @James Pearce:

    A political opinion held by a large number of people is an ideology. There is an ideology here, not just random radicalized individuals.

  13. michael reynolds says:

    FYI, the Brits are now mirroring our polling with uncanny accuracy. 55 to 29 they oppose letting in Syrian refugees.

    So, that’s the Americans, the Canadian and the Brits all in lock-step on this issue. I haven’t seen polls of the French or Germans, but I’d bet a dollar they’re seeing things the same way.

    Worse, the Brits by 53 to 34 support stopping EU immigrants from residing permanently in the UK, and an astonishing and troubling 79 to 14 want the EU to bring back closed borders.

    This is a visceral western rejection of encroaching Islam. You can pretend it ain’t so, but it is. The western body politic is saying, “No.” You may think that’s right or wrong, but one thing is for sure: heaping scorn and ranting about bed-wetters is not going to turn the issue around. And neither will pictures of cute Syrian children.

  14. Mikey says:

    @michael reynolds: I can’t really disagree with you anymore.

    You’re right, it’s the reality right now. And that means James is right, too: IS is winning.

    So what do we do? Indeed. Shut them out? Give them nowhere to go but the Islamic State? Or leave them where they are to be slaughtered?

    I’m at a loss, really. It makes me very sad.

  15. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    This is overthinking the problem to the point of Vizzini vs. the Dread Pirate Roberts in “The Princess Bride.”

    The way to defeat ISIS, like any other enemy, boils down to some very simple concepts.

    1) Figure out their goal (their “victory conditions”).

    2) Deny them their goal while

    3) Persuading them to stop trying to achieve that goal.

    In this case, ISIS goal is clear: to establish a Muslim caliphate. That means conquering territory, conquering people, and either converting or killing those who refuse to convert to their particular strain of Islam.

    There are several ways to stop them from achieving that, but the simplest and most effective way is to kill them. Kill the leaders, kill the followers, kill the supporters.

    Doing things, or not doing things, “because that’s what ISIS wants” is, by and large, pointless. It mostly comes into play when referring to their tactics, and defeating a tactic usually means they will have to find a new tactic — and usually an uglier one. They hijacked planes, we mad it a lot harder to hijack planes. So they commandeered planes and used them as guided missiles. Not a great tradeoff for us.

    Scott Adams, the odd genius behind Dilbert, has a couple of ideas for dealing with ISIS. I think they are definitely worth considering.

  16. Barry says:


    First of all Kagan is one of the many fathers of ISIS; he and his neocon cronies got us into this mess. Giving him any respect hurts America. And he hasn’t had a thought worth hearing which somebody far better hasn’t already said.

    Second, what we’re seeing is indeed a disturbing trend, but it’s that the ‘liberal’ mass media is leading the way. Glenn Greenwald recently documented the fact that CNN punished a reporter was punished for tweeting something in favor of admitting refugeess (‘bias’, you know), but that there’s an easy dozen cases of radical right-wingism among CNN reporters which hasn’t been punished.

    CNN has now joined what Dave Niewert of ‘Orcinus’ called ‘the transmission belt’, which is the process of taking fascistic ideas and giving them mainstream respectibility.

  17. anjin-san says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    ISIS goal is clear: to establish a Muslim caliphate. That means conquering territory,

    Well, ISIS territory has been reduced by roughly 25% under Obama’s policy. That’s probably why the changed tactics and launched a bloody attack on Paris. Now the hysterical right wing in America is playing into their hands. I doubt their leaders could have scripted a response more favorable to them.

  18. Mikey says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: Gah. I wish I’d never said “this is what IS wants.” I should have started out with the far more specific and accurate “this promotes IS achieving its ultimate goals.”

    Shutting out refugees and closing mosques and requiring special ID for Muslims are what IS wants promote IS achieving its ultimate goals.

    We can’t deny them their goal and get them to stop trying to achieve it while simultaneously advocating or taking actions that will actively assist them in achieving it.

  19. Gustopher says:

    That’s exactly right. While I’ve been critical of Obama’s rhetorical excesses—notably his “Assad must go” stance, his “red line” over chemical weapons, and his declaration that a very limited, air-only intervention by the United States would “defeat and ultimately destroy” ISIS—I’ve quibbled with his general policy only at the margins

    I’ve also supported the Obama administration’s policies, believing that containment was the best policy, while degrading ISIS and letting the locals take care of it — because our interventions have never gone well, it has to be done by the locals.

    But, the policy requires us to be strong. There will be pinprick attacks — vicious, nasty, bloody and messy pinprick attacks — and we have to be strong. Apparently I overestimated the strength of America.

    And, so, we’re going to have to get more involved. In the region, we should just give up and support Assad — he’s less worse. It will come back to haunt us, certainly, but we have no stomach for chaos.

  20. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: Interesting comment (and far above your usual level of simply parroting the latest from El Rushbo or some other knothead), but when you note

    In this case, ISIS goal is clear: to establish a Muslim caliphate.

    I think you’re off the mark in that there is an ultimate goal and there are intermediate goals that are necessary to the ultimate goal. ISIS has evolved.

    The goal is clear, but it is no longer to establish the caliphate. It is to create enough instability, fear, terror, and loathing of the West so that the caliphate will be embraced by the citizenry as a better alternative than what they have now. The type of instability that they need to create may need to last for a generation or three, but they are up to the task.

    The “kill the leaders, kill the followers, kill the supporters” tack will get the world about as far as it gets Agent Coulson in Marvel’s Agents of Shield. The organization is designed to survive the loss of any number of cannon fodder individuals. The approach to that goal is to kill everyone in the ME, including the Israelis (you can’t be sure how many Hamas/ISIS sleepers are among the Palestinians living inside the wall) and let their various gods sort them. Any takers?

  21. MarkedMan says:

    James, I’m curious: how do your students react to all this? The (mostly ex) military people I know are a pretty diverse lot, but there are also all these rumors that todays military is being overrun with Christian fanatics. It occurs to me that you have a pretty good view of what the future officers are like.

  22. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @anjin-san: Oh, look, annie’s going to pretend that he’s interested in an actual discussion. Let’s all clap and wish it’s true this time!

    Since you brought up ISIS losing 25% of its turf under Obama, could you elaborate on that? Say, give some dates for when it held how much?

    My suspicion is that ISIS’ territory is still considerably larger than it was when Obama took office.

  23. An Interested Party says:

    My suspicion is that ISIS’ territory is still considerably larger than it was when Obama took office.

    Yes, of course, let us politicize this right away…if we want to play that game we can talk about how the Bush Administration created ISIS…so without their bungled actions, we wouldn’t be talking about the size of ISIS territory…meanwhile, yes, the stated goal of ISIS is to create a caliphate, but, let us remember…

    Jihadists have always sought to use terrorism to polarize politics, spread their ideas, discredit moderates and advance their preferred narrative of clashing civilizations.

    …an overreaction by governments and people in the America and Europe helps Jihadists achieve those goals quite nicely…

  24. anjin-san says:
  25. anjin-san says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    My suspicion is that ISIS’ territory is still considerably larger than it was when Obama took office.

    Could you elaborate on that? Say, give some dates for when it held how much?

  26. Guarneri says:

    Measuring “winning” and “losing” by body count is a mistake. Chronic and well placed attacks, (think a half dozen over 3 months at schools, sporting events, airports or trains, shopping malls) will bring a country’s commerce and other activities to its knees. When so few people, who have no objective to escape and are therefore unencumbered in executing the attacks, are required to accomplish the goal, that’s very doable. That’s a better metric.

    To compare terrorism deaths to the number of car accidents or the flu is also faulty logic. The psychological impact is totally different. These are also “unforced errors” that are easily avoidable. We can fulfill humanitarian concerns by admitting but detaining “refugees” until truly vetted. Childish claims about being afraid of 3yr old orphans is neither a convincing or rational argument, nor helpful. They are fine for bar room arguments, but certainly not worthy of someone with the title POTUS.

  27. Jenos Idanian says:

    @anjin-san: After you, Alphonse.

  28. Pch101 says:

    The goal of White House policy is to protect the Baghdad government from ISIS, while avoiding (a) the use of substantial US ground troops, (b) any alliance with Assad and (c) a level of support for the Kurds that bolsters their independence movement.

    The idea that the US must defeat ISIS is folly. Not only is that not possible but there is no need for that kind of overreaching when the ultimate objective is to keep Iraq from falling apart.

    Perhaps we should reconsider the US position on Assad (supporting him until the insurgents have been defeated might be more prudent) and perhaps we should accept the idea of a collapsed Iraq (which will please the Kurds but upset the Turks and provide a power vacuum that will bolster Iran). But if the primary goal is to keep Iraq afloat for as long as possible without much US bloodshed, then the current approach is the right approach.

  29. Mikey says:


    Contractors are not DoD personnel.

    I’m a contractor and I have to request permission from the agency that holds my clearance every time I travel out of the country.

    They haven’t said no…yet.

  30. Rafer Janders says:


    cause us to re-examine core principles.

    If you’re constantly re-examining your core principles, then they’re not principles — they’re just preferences.

  31. DrDaveT says:


    I’m a contractor and I have to request permission from the agency that holds my clearance every time I travel out of the country.

    Yeah, I know. But they can’t prohibit you from going; they can only threaten to pull your clearance if you do. And my understanding was that not all cleared personnel generally need to get advance permission — only those with TS or higher.

    And certainly none of that applies to some of the people named in the travel restrictions, such as “command-sponsored dependents and family members”.

  32. An Interested Party says:

    Childish claims about being afraid of 3yr old orphans terrorists infiltrating themselves among refugees when there is already a vetting process in place to avoid such a possibility is neither a convincing or rational argument, nor helpful. They are fine for bar room arguments, but certainly not worthy of someone with the title POTUS state governors nor other politicians who are irrationally afraid or who may have vile motives like trying to score cheap political points.

    Happy to be of help…

  33. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Myself, I am thoroughly disgusted by this whole discussion. Blatant fear mongering mixed with xenophobia is not going to help.

    Fact #1: ISIS is not a threat to America. They don’t have even a rowboat. They don’t have as much as a Sopwith Camel. They can not harm America. However, we certainly can by massively overreacting.

    Fact #2: ISIS is a threat to Americans, here and abroad. So is violent crime (the Paris attacks did not amount to even 1 weeks toll from violent crime in America), tornadoes, drunk drivers, bee stings, the flu virus, and lightning strikes.

    Fact #3: ISIS isn’t anywhere near the threat to me as the numbnut loading up a cart of lumber at the local LOWES with a Glock on his hip. WTF…. Does he think he is going to get attacked by a 2×4? Or maybe it’s all the nail guns… Yeah, that’s it.

    I certainly don’t know what the complete answer to the ISIS problem is, maybe more should be done, maybe things should be done differently, maybe….. (shrug) I do have one thing that all the people who are wetting their pants over ISIS don’t have:


  34. Mikey says:

    @DrDaveT: You’re right, I forgot the foreign travel request requirement only applies to some of us.

    As far as command sponsored dependents goes…it has been a while but I believe the rules governing command sponsorship allow the placement of such conditions on travel. A non-command-sponsored dependent would not be similarly restricted.

  35. Tyrell says:

    This came over this morning: The FBI has announced that a credible threat has been made on an event today in Atlanta, GA. The event could be the WWE event or a football game. So if you are in Atlanta today, be watchful and careful.
    Anyone going to any event today where there will be a lot of people in attendance need to get there early and be ready for longer security checks. Also, watch out and report any person who is acting or looks suspicious.
    We are in troubled times and it is just going to get worse.

  36. Pch101 says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    The leadership of ISIS is comprised largely of Saddam Hussein’s henchmen. ISIS’ goal was to establish the pan-Arab regional empire that Hussein wanted. The religious angle may just be for public consumption — Hussein’s regime was Sunni but not particularly religious — although the brutality is certainly real enough.

    ISIS is trying to appeal to hearts and minds in its territory while suppressing all opposition, but it’s a costly effort. (Presumably, the decline in oil prices hasn’t helped them.) Some of the other posters here ought to figure that out — ISIS is incompetent and vicious, but it also pays relatively high salaries and benefits in order to induce the locals to join them rather than try to beat them.

    The foreign attacks seem to be scripted for television/social media, and are getting the reaction that they want — the air strikes are effective, and the Western response to the attacks is predictable (i.e. the anti-Muslim populist rhetoric will aid with the recruitment effort that has been faltering since the loss of Kobane and ISIS’ rising body count.)

  37. James Joyner says:


    The leadership of ISIS is comprised largely of Saddam Hussein’s henchmen. ISIS’ goal was to establish the pan-Arab regional empire that Hussein wanted.

    What’s your basis for this? Nothing I’ve read supports it.

    A lot of former officers and soldiers in Saddam’s army are trigger pullers for ISIS, but that’s hardly surprising. They need the work and they’re in the midst of a Sunni-Shia war and might as well get paid for it.

  38. Pch101 says:

    @James Joyner:

    “Even with the influx of thousands of foreign fighters, almost all of the leaders of the Islamic State are former Iraqi officers, including the members of its shadowy military and security committees, and the majority of its emirs and princes, according to Iraqis, Syrians and analysts who study the group.”

    The architect of ISIS’ military strategy was in Hussein’s intelligence service:

    Despite a deep philosophical divide between ISIS and the Baath Party, the two sides have found “sufficient coincidence of interest to overcome any ideological disagreement.”

    At this point, the linkage is no secret.

  39. James Joyner says:

    @Pch101: We’ve just got a semantic disagreement. Bagdadi and the core political/ideological leadership aren’t former Baathists but most of the military leadership is.

  40. anjin-san says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    If you’re constantly re-examining your core principles, then they’re not principles — they’re just preferences.

    In the case of modern “conservatives”, I think they are simply being driven by the expedience of the moment.

  41. Pch101 says:

    @James Joyner:

    In any case, I think that we have to keep in mind that the idea of this being a religious conflict is one that serves both ISIS and the far right in the US and Europe. This is a coalition of Baathists with a regressive primitivist soundtrack, a marriage of Pol Pot savagery and Stasi/KGB-style security. Going to war with an entire religion only helps our enemy and broadens the field far more than it should be.

    The desire to avoid a ground conflict with US boots on the ground is not an indication that we don’t care, but that realpolitik calls for limiting the US role to air power and some modest ground support. ISIS can be expected to hide behind civilians, then use their deaths as an opportunity to blame the US and the west, which will aid with its recruitment.

  42. Cian says:

    So what do we do? Indeed. Shut them out? Give them nowhere to go but the Islamic State? Or leave them where they are to be slaughtered?

    I haven’t read all of Michael’s posts over the past few days, but it seems to be a question he considers only the weak ask. But it is the essential one, and if the west is to win out in the end, it is the answer you imply- give them shelter from our enemy.

  43. DrDaveT says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    If you’re constantly re-examining your core principles, then they’re not principles — they’re just preferences.

    Or perhaps you have confused means with ends. There are progressive who consider taking the side of organized labor to be a “core principle”, losing sight of the true ends of fair labor practices, good wages, and equal opportunity. Conservatives make the same kinds of mistake.

    I think there are two kinds of conservative at play just now: the ones who have fastened on to peripheral tactics as if they were core values, and the ones who understand that stating their true desired ends (e.g. an evangelical Christian theocracy in the US) would be poor tactics.

  44. Jim Henley says:

    @James: I’ve thought a lot about that exchange in the days since then, as you might imagine. Clearly, ISIS is more interested in action beyond its borders than I credited. I think they are fools to pull what they did in Paris, but political actors can be fools. As we have seen.

    I think you were still correct that they are much less of a threat in degree than various epidemics etc. And I think Kagan is completely wrong to say the Paris attacks are a response to inaction by the West. They, and the Russian airliner bombing, are clearly a response to military action. That action may have been wise or foolish, but the notion that the West and Russia have “ignored” ISIS stems from our weird notion that airstrikes and arms provision and special operations somehow aren’t really war.

    As to “What ISIS wants,” I think it’s likely a major aim of the attacks was to rob refugees of a haven in Europe. These are people voting with their feet against rule by ISIS. Europe and America are now resolving to send them all back to suffer under ISIS’s tender mercies. Those people will again be available to conscript, tax, rape and otherwise harness to the ends of ISIS’s rulership. Their return will swell ISIS’s power and harden the borders between their ramshackle “Caliphate” and livable modernity. It will be as if the Warsaw Pact somehow tricked NATO into building the Wall.

  45. Pch101 says:

    @Jim Henley:

    ISIS broke away from Al Qaeda In Iraq because AQ wanted to focus on western targets while ISIS wanted to take territory.

    The airstrikes and the defeat at Kobani have encouraged a change in tactics. Recruitment numbers are down due to the losses, so the goal is to get those who won’t come to do something at home, instead. Given what we have seen so far, they are obviously media-driven and motivated to provoke a response. Western overreaction will aid their recruitment.

  46. stonetools says:

    The problem I find with Lynch is that while a simple “clash of civilizations” analysis is to be rejected, his own analysis : that is this a plain old conflict between states and within states also seems too simplistic. (He himself counseled staying out of the Syrian conflict because it was purely a local civil war).
    It seems to me that what is happening is something that frankly looks like a civilizational clash-but it is more a clash WITHIN Islamic civilization, or whatever you want to call the realm of Islam. Marc Lynch does not want to admit this apparently , but clearly there is a significant minority within Islam that is violently opposed to the West and /or the modern world. We should remember that they are even more opposed to those Muslims who are reconciled to the modern world, and that the burden of this conflict is falling mostly on the “moderate Muslim ” majority. Indeed, what we are experiencing in the West is the spillover of an intra-Islam struggle-not that this all that reassuring.
    What is even less reassuring is that conflict looks like an intergeneration conflict. At least a Thirty Years War.

  47. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @James Joyner: Kagan might remember that Tony Blair still had a lot of popularity in the UK, until he insisted in lashing himself closely to Bush’s Iraq policy. His column struck me as a prolonged whinge that 2015 isn’t 2001. What might have happened in the interim to change that escapes his analysis.

  48. Bill Lefrak says:

    This really is an astonishingly dumb blog post, even by academic and Internet standards, which is saying something.

    ISIS is “winning” because of leftism as policy, as so stridently advocated by the academic-media-pundit-politico segments of society, even as reality keeps unsuccessfully beating them about their empty heads.

    ISIS as of January 2009 was a non-entity. All that remained in Iraq at that time terrorist wise were the shredded remnants of al Qaeda-in-Iraq. The surged had worked. Go figure. The war belatedly had been won, militarily speaking. What remained was to secure the peace. What so obviously was necessary, and by obvious I mean to everyone outside the academia-media-politico classes, was to retain some amount of real combat capability there. An aircraft carrier or two on semi-permanent stations. Perhaps in addition to or separate from something along the lines of what we’ve retained in South Korea for generations, albeit not necessarily such a large ground force for Iraq. 37,000 troops weren’t necessary for the latter. Maybe as little as 7,000 would have done the trick.

    What happened? Team Obama pulled every last trooper out of Iraq and didn’t leave any form of nearby Naval-based combat capability. To appease the sort of dopey academics, reporters, politicos and pundits who are now sitting around, Gobsmacked, at what’s happened in Paris and Brussels. Flabbergasted at how numbingly wrong and naïve they were.

    Not even a picket battalion was left behind in Iraq. No attempt even was made to craft or to recraft a sober forces agreement with the Iraqi government for a small contingent of remaining combat ground troops. Maybe a force of helicopter gunships. Nothing was done. Sayonara.

    Well, duh. Vacuums get filled. ISIS spawned itself out of the post-2008 absence of U.S. military will. Then there was the whole Asad redline-not a redline fiasco. Then last summer, as ISIS was rampaging around much of Iraq and Syria, the Obama administration thought it would be cool to dress up the White House is the rainbow colors of gaydom. How do you suppose that visual was perceived as ISIS HQ?

    It’s the cloudy thinking of leftism and quasi-leftism that’s resulted in ISIS being where it is and having its capabilities. Pulling entirely out of Iraq. Blustering but then not doing a damn thing about Asad’s use of chemical weapons. Non-borders in Europe. Weak visa and other immigration policies throughout Europe. Passive law enforcement. Passive intelligence gathering. A domestic focus on PC nonsense. Connect the dots. They’re staring at you, in neon. Maybe next time if you emerge from your coma you won’t be so shocked by the likes of Paris. Doubtful, but people do occasionally get hit by such a moment of clarity that it keeps.

  49. dazedandconfused says:

    Achieving a tactical goal does not equate to winning. ISIL may be making a big mistake. Depends on their motive partially. Did they wish to draw more foreign military intervention? “Be careful what you wish for” springs to mind, the Charlie Sheen school of “Winning!”

    I wonder if it’s that or if it’s an effort to get other nations to close their borders for them. They do not just depend on oil they depend on the people and their economy to tax. They have an economic need to stem the exodus. There is a possibility they wish to duplicate the success of their Turkish bombing a few months ago, wherein the Turks largely responded by attacking each other. Call it the “BENGHAZI!!!!” effect.

    It seems to me Kagan doesn’t take into account the possibility Obama decided at the beginning of this IS mess that the US goal would be to help others destroy IS but stand by to contain if that didn’t happen. If the EU and the locals could not muster up to beat down even a rabid dog like this then there will be an IS. Our long habit of riding to the rescue of nations which collectively have economic power to mobilize to take on small threats, some even with economic power on a par with our own, has created a learned helplessness within them and that needs to end. We can’t afford it and our people won’t support it except in short bursts.

    IOW, Kagan can’t imagine the US as anything but the divinely ordained Policeman Of The World and carries that assumption into all analysis.