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.