On the Road: Detangling ISIS (Updated)

An important review, by an unidentified author, in this week’s New York Review of Books, argues that ISIS’s resurgence cannot be explained by much more than the availability, suddenly, of “a territory available to attract and house” it’s motivated members. That ISIS exists because it can exist is a tautology the author admits, but their otherwise competent description and analysis leaves few other explanations of ISIS’s rise.

Lacking adequate information/rationales about/for ISIS’s causes/rise -as a group or phenomenon- the author believes “Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS” and that this won’t necessarily be rectified by “the accumulation of more facts.” 

Unsatisfying as his/her conclusion is — that “we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled”— it is crucial to accept what isn’t known, instead of hiding behind “theories and concepts that do not bear deep investigation.”

This shouldn’t preclude the important work of investigation and analysis, but inspire a commitment to the lengthy and laborious task of understanding modern extremism (in all the corners of the world it now mars.)

UPDATE: Pankaj Mishra has written his own riveting and riotous review (in The Guardian) of our current historical moment —one dealing with marginalization and disappointment colored with violence and vitriol. He tackles both ISIS and the shootings in Charleston —not as counterpoints, per se, but as diodes across a network of international actors as they deal with the erosion belief systems, particularly as it relates to future prosperity (or their expectations of such prosperity). As always, Mishra builds his commentary with uncommon depth. Agree or disagree? You should read it. 

Resisting Resistance: Why Syria isn’t Rwanda…. Or Iraq.

Either way, the distinction in approach should prod a reader towards the ultimate question: On what grounds should the international community (or even The United States) risk the lives of their own for others?

In an op-ed penned last week, Prof. Anne-Marie Slaughter took square aim at President Obama regarding his administration’s reaction (or lack thereof) to new evidence that the Syrian government is using chemical weapons against it’s own people.

Invoking memories of Former President Clinton’s ill-handled response to reports of genocide in Rwanda, Slaughter is quick to warn readers about the cost of inaction:

The reason the Obama administration does not want to recognize that chemical weapons are being used in Syria is because Obama warned the Syrian regime clearly and sharply in August against using such weapons. “There would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical-weapons front or the use of chemical weapons,” he said. “That would change my calculations significantly.”

But while I would like to (and often do) agree that action is not only necessary, but also required in situations of human suffering, the 10-year anniversary of George Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech —and a reflection written by James Wright, yesterday— suggests that the situation presents something more akin to a ‘do and die’ situation

Unabashedly, Wright is quick to note that when a country chooses to fight in war, that country must also accept that they will die in that war. Wright’s suggestion, then, is that the true cost of conflict is not only greater that anticipated, but it is also exacerbated when the mission or outcome (these “goalposts” as Wright calls them) morph over time:

President Bush is correct that it will take time for history to judge the consequences for Iraq of the American military involvement. It is not too soon to acknowledge the costs of that involvement. Nor is it premature to recognize that wars with shifting objectives, wars that pursue values rather than tangible targets, are far harder to reconcile against the costs.

But that is why dualities (to intervene or not) posed by Slaughter should strike the reader as too simplified, too… hell… Hawkish.

In a country like Syria, we’re only just beginning to understand the ways the impact of conflict has deformed our measures of right and wrong, how long-term hostilities, and the people who suffer them, only complicate our understanding of enemy and ally, and how instability that threatens one actor is liable to compel responses from another (i.e. Iran).

To avoid repeated (error-ridden) forays internationally, Wright calls for cooler heads, rational and tested analysis, and clear objectives when intervention is necessary. In this light, it is difficult to adopt (blindly) the clarion call of Slaughter.

In fact, in Slaughter’s own words, intervention should take place regardless of challenges that could create even further complexity and suffering in the long term:

The world does not see the complex calculations inside the White House — the difficulty of achieving any positive outcomes in Syria even with intervention, the possible harm to Obama’s domestic agenda if he plunges into the morass of another conflict in the Middle East.

Opting to challenge Obama’s administration on the basis of populism:

The world would see Syrian civilians rolling on the ground, foaming at the mouth, dying by the thousands while the United States stands by.

With there respective pedigrees, both academics surely understand the immense cost and consequence of the issues they tackle. But behind their arguments, are two radically different assumptions; assumptions that —if correct, and by this I mean in-keeping with the personal philosophies of each academic— follow logically from their worldviews.

For Wright, acts of war or intervention must be informed, or perhaps even derived from, accounting of costs and benefits: providing force for the purpose of principle may well jeopardize any positive “end game.”

For Slaughter, the act of intervention appears as American duty, owed to others given the values espoused by the United States. While Slaughter is not agnostic about the cost of intervention, “the decision to do nothing” violates a far more essential moral code.  [It may also have to do with Slaughter’s privileging of US “soft power,” but that is a story for another post].

Thus, the challenge is overcoming a “level of analysis” problem: the granularities of why war is ‘bad’ are tough to reconcile with an ideological argument that asserts  wars of justice, or on principle, as necessary for their own sake.  Either way, the distinction in approach should prod a reader towards the ultimate question: On what grounds should the international community (or even The United States) risk the lives of their own for others?

If the answer to that question is limited, our expectations for success should be too.