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The Wrong War

September 24, 2014

With all due respect to President Obama and pretty much the rest of the American political establishment, degrading ISIS is the wrong goal. ISIS isn’t the problem.

Remember that we set about to degrade the Taliban, and we were successful. We set about to degrade al Qaeda, and we were successful. But the Taliban and al Qaeda were just terrorist organizations – degrading those organizations was useful and important, but degrading those organizations did not fundamentally degrade terrorism.

ISIS is just another terrorist organization. Of course, degrading ISIS is useful and important, but degrading ISIS will not fundamentally degrade terrorism. When ISIS is done, other terrorist organizations will take its place.

ISIS, like the Taliban and al Qaeda before it, can be degraded with military force. I fully expect that we will be successful in that military effort. But terrorism itself cannot be degraded with military force. Terrorism is much more complicated than any terrorist organization, and much harder to degrade – which probably explains why everyone wants to focus on ISIS.

I suspect that President Obama fully knows that ISIS is not the problem. He made a top priority of enlisting Arab, especially Sunni Arab, support for the military attack on ISIS, and that is an important step toward degrading terrorism generally.

For far too long, Arab governments have whispered their support for American attacks on Muslim extremists in English into American ears, while their state-run media outlets have blared their condemnation of America’s “war on Islam” in Arabic to their populations. Terrorism as such will not be successfully degraded until respected Muslim leaders stand loud and proud against it. American Muslim leaders do this almost unanimously; many Muslim leaders around the world stand firm against terrorism; too few Muslim leaders in the Middle East have yet done so.

An important reason for this is that Muslim leaders in the Middle East lack legitimacy with their own peoples. Too many of those leaders maintain power not by consent of the governed, but by suppression of dissent seasoned with rhetorical attacks on Israel and the U.S. Instead of delivering better lives to their people, Arab governments have delivered only demonization of Israel for existing, and of the U.S. for attacking the very extremists those governments most fear.

The Arab Spring changes all that. The illegitimate potentates of Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen are gone, and others remain under threat. The peoples of those countries are struggling for self-government for the first time in their histories. Their governments now must earn legitimacy, if not at the ballot box, then at least by delivering hope for better lives. Carrying on about Israel and the U.S. does not make life better in Bahrain.

I have written that the Arab Spring almost certainly owes its birth to the American war in Iraq – more specifically, to the Iraqi elections in 2010. Iraqis formed a government on November 11, 2010, and just five weeks later, on December 17, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi sparked the Arab Spring by a lone act of protest that in another historical context would have passed in vain and without note.

Thus I have a different view of the Iraq War than most other liberals – I regard it as a worthwhile undertaking, and as a success. Conventional liberal wisdom right now is that American military intervention in the Middle East always makes things worse. Exhibit A to this line of thinking is the Iraq War, which liberals conventionally blame for Shiite domination of Iraq, Sunni Iraqi discontent, and therefore the rise of ISIS. I think this conventional wisdom is fundamentally misconceived.

Saddam Hussein left an Iraqi polity that was deeply pathological; no dictator so brutal could leave behind a healthy society ready for easy transition to democracy.  We expect too much when we expect Afghan, Iraqi, or Egyptian democracy to spring full-blown from the brow of a dictator, and we expect too much if we expect that the deposition of Bashar al-Assad will produce a mature Syrian democracy. Nowhere in history has that happened.

Our own democracy was deeply flawed at its conception, yet we regard our founders as among the most enlightened nation builders in history. Our own unity was bought with a bloody civil war, four score and seven years after our founding. We ask too much when we ask Iraqis to produce better results from far worse circumstances.

Iraq’s Shiite majority is struggling with the realization that it must work with its Sunni majority rather than suppress it as Hussein’s Sunnis suppressed Shiites. Why is this so hard for Americans to grasp? – Americans, whose white forebears struggled with the realization that they must work with the African-American minority rather than enslave them?

The struggle itself marks progress; the struggle is itself a good thing. Pluralism will not win, in Iraq or anywhere else in the world, without struggle. The struggle must be had.

If the road from dictatorship to democracy is inevitably bumpy, then it is no failure that Iraqi democracy is suffering some bumps. I have pointed out that South Korea did not accomplish real democracy until 35 years after the Korean War; in my book, that makes the Korean War a huge success.

Beating terrorism requires more than beating terrorist organizations, although we must do that. Beating terrorism requires creating an alternative to terrorism, and that alternative is pluralism. Pluralism requires constitutional democracy – popular self-government with institutionalized protections for minorities. Pluralist democracy requires that members of minorities hold rights enforceable against the majority, and against the government itself.

Pluralism also requires a culture of tolerance, a culture of relativism that respects differing beliefs and practices instead of seeking to stamp them out, a culture that permits people to hold firmly to their own beliefs and practices without seeking to impose them on everyone else.

Pluralist culture cannot be imposed by military force. Pluralism must grow from the recognition that its only alternative is perpetual war; the recognition that it is better to get along with people who are different from oneself than to live in constant struggle to kill or be killed by those people. Pluralism must grow from experience.

There are certainly ways that the West can promote that experience. We can promote pluralist role models in the Muslim world, like Indonesia, and in the Arab world, perhaps Tunisia, and therefore we must try to do that. But we cannot impose pluralism, and therefore we must not try to do that.

Meanwhile, we must contain terrorist organizations like ISIS. Obviously, we have to do that in a way that is effective; ideally, we should do that in a way that fosters Arabic pluralism. We should nurture Arab leaders who are willing to stand publicly against terrorist organizations, who are willing to say to their peoples, terrorism is not the way to redress our grievances. This is a step toward pluralism, toward democracy, and toward the degradation of terrorism, which is our truest goal in the Middle East.


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