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Thursday, September 11, 2014


America's attention has been focused on ISIS for some time now, culminating in the address by President Obama to the nation concerning the actions he has decided to take.  Always remembering that I am mostly ignorant of the history of the region, totally ignorant of its languages, and only fitfully aware of the details of the religious beliefs being invoked as a justification of the actions of ISIS, I should like to raise a question that I have not heard discussed.  I welcome comments, particularly from any readers who are more knowledgeable than I [which doesn't require much!]

In the decades after World War Two, international relations was dominated by a state of mutual nuclear deterrence between the United States and the Soviet Union, under which umbrella of relative safety both empires pursued a variety of regional expansions, interventions, and wars, some successful, such as the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran by the United States and the long-run domination of eastern Europe by the Soviet Union, some not successful, such as the Viet Nam War and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, a quite different situation emerged, posing a serious challenge to those in the United States who wished to continue the enormous investment in the U. S. war machine even in the absence of a credible threat to the United States [assuming, for the sake of argument, that the Soviet Union ever posed such a threat, something I seriously doubt.]  Out of the confusion of those early post-Cold War years there emerged the doctrine of "asymmetric warfare" involving threats from, and wars against, what were called "non-state actors."

The central idea of asymmetric warfare, pushed especially by Donald Rumsfeld and in many ways adapted from the thought of Mao, is that in conflicts between great powers like the United States and stateless collections of "terrorists" like Al Qaida, it is, counterintuitively, the weaker party that has certain advantages.  As interpreted by the neo-cons, this asymmetry demands even greater defense expenditures [naturally] together with a fundamental reconfiguration of U. S. military forces -- more Special Forces, and Psy-Ops programs, less in the way of big muscle-bound agglomerations of hardware designed to win World War Two.

There is much to challenge in this vision of the new world order, but the central insight is not at all stupid.  Whether one considers attacks by small groups of individuals against the persons and property of large states -- such as the 9/11 attacks we memorialize today -- to be a form of warfare or not, it is quite true that the attackers, despite their small numbers and material weakness, have certain advantages.  The most obvious advantage they possess is that they have no home address, if I may speak somewhat facetiously.  Precisely because they are not the forces of territorial states, the target nation has great difficulty knowing against whom to retaliate, or indeed even where to direct that retaliation.

Enter the ISIS, which alone among all of the "terrorist' groups that have launched attacks against people and property, aspires to be a state, indeed, to be a Caliphate.  ISIS looks now to be making a strenuous effort to seize, hold, and transform into a state a fairly large swath of contiguous territory some of which is in Iraq and some of which is in Syria. [I keep putting the word terrorist in scare quotes because it is a matter of political evaluation and ideology, not of fact, whether a group of people are terrorists, as opposed, let us say, to freedom fighters.  That said, ISIS seems to me from the reports I have read to be a group completely without any redeeming social value whatsoever, so I would be quite happy to see them killed.]

My question, to put it as simply as I can, is this:  If ISIS succeeds in its ambition to become a state, do they not then become easier rather than more difficult to deal with?  As a stateless "terrorist" group, it is amorphous, difficult to locate, difficult to engage.  As a state, it would be a small, militarily weak regional power that ought to be quite susceptible to the usual sorts of military, economic, and diplomatic pressures and containments.  It would still be a horror to the population it ruled, but that would not be a problem for the United States.  It would pose a threat to the surrounding Muslim nations, but that would be their problem, and one that perhaps they would finally do something about.

This is, to be sure, a cold-eyed heartless view, but I think that is an appropriate attitude for the United States to take to the rest of the world, at least until that longed-for day when this country can be counted on to weigh in on the correct side of disputes abroad, rather than always on the wrong side.

I would be curious to hear your reactions.


Ridiculousicculus said...

The response from the Neo-Con and Neo-Liberal interventionists would probably be that to the extent ISIS could become a "state", it would be a state in the same way that pre-9/11 Afghanistan was a "state": really more of a tribal feudal society than a nation per-se. This sort of thinking says that Afghanistan to function the way it did in the '90's resulted in the incubation of Al-Queda's successful plot to knock down the twin towers, and allowing ISIS to form a Caliphate would be an instance of us failing to learn from our past mistakes. I personally don't agree with this argument, but I do believe that after destroying the infrastructure in Iraq in the 2nd gulf war that at least provided some protections to the Assyrian, Zoroastrian and Yazidi communities of Northern Iraq, we owe it to those people to prevent them from getting exterminated by the genocidal maniacs running ISIS.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

If we do, and I understand your point, the paradox is that it may be easier to take down ISIS as a state than as a non-state actor.

Michael Llenos said...

I imagine that one reason they want to be considered a state is that they want a nuclear bomb or nuclear missile as fast as possible, and I believe they can get it a lot faster as a state or more importantly: as a recognized nation state. I think even a fool, like myself, can see that they want a nuclear arsenal. They're playing present and future 'chess', and the world should act accordingly.

Tony Couture said...

The threat of ISIS as a state is probably more metaphysical than it is political. If successful, it makes the gangsters look like they are following a script from the Koran's prophecies (re-founding the caliphate, and the coming of a Mehdi/prophet to lead the world into submission to Allah in their version of end times). SO ISIS as an Islamic state makes their religion appear to be the one true religion; whereas the founding of Israel and Israel's success in its wars makes it appear to be the one true religion; and the Christian West and God-centered America's success in imposing its will on the situation makes Christianity appear to be the one true religion. I don't think ISIS's script is to remain within present boundaries, but to expand the caliphate, so it is also being founded as a rogue state. What is also very worrisome about ISIS is that they are connected to our networks and computers and have cyber-terrorism capability. The case of Anders Breivik (Norweigian mass murderer who put his plans online in a compendium outlining his methods and how others could imitate him successfully) has not yet been well understood. One of the great ironies of Breivik's research into revolutions and war was that he plagiarized a large part of a book called Political Correctness (2004) by William S. Lind, who was a major proponent of "Fourth Generation War" theory (similar to what you refer to as asymetrical warfare) which suggests that states cannot win wars against non-state enemies (the one exception in history is the IRA defeat by UK according to Lind). Lind vanished after the Breivik book was put online, and was only one of many authors plagiarized by Breivik (another leftist named Laurence Cox, from Ireland, had a course outline on revolutions and their study plagiarized by Breivik). Breivik represents a new generation of computer-assisted terrorists who have great invisibility and propaganda ability than any previous species of revolutionary. His compendium "2083" was meant to be a handbook for conservative revolutionaries (particular white christians and cyber-vikings). Adding cyber-capacities to ancient ideas of jihad is something very dangerous, as democratic politics is being shut out by metaphysical trump cards in the Islamic ideology. How about America round up the ISIS people and put them on an island up in ALaska to cool them off? Remind you too much of Guantanamo/Cuba? It is really hard to say there is a reasonable solution, or a political solution.

C Rossi said...

I think you are correct that ISIS and other such groups are more effective and less vulnerable as insurgencies rather than as states. Their purpose as insurgencies seem to be to draw the US into ground wars, which will sap their will and bleed their treasury. The political philosopher Stephen Holmes of NYU made this argument in his powerful book "The Matador's Cape," published after September 11, which he witnessed from his home in NY. This argument is also made by your former student and my former professor Andrew Levine in a short video interview on The Real News

A few other comments: asymmetric warfare, the thing nor the term, much predates the years after the Cold War. William Polk in his book "Violent Politics" begins his discussion of insurgency with the American Revolution in which American rebels indulged in acts of terror against the British and the Colonial loyalists. The American Army did not fight in rank against the feared "redcoats," the most powerful army in the world at the time (although Washington wished they would fight thus). The insurgency in Viet Nam against both the French and the US was also effective because of its lack of a central governing authority. A friend of mine who fought and was wounded in Viet Nam said that he realized after a few months of combat that he was a "redcoat, " and the insurgents were the rebels.

An aside: the delightful 10-minute two-scene play "Mozart and Salieri" by Pushkin (who seems to have seen himself as a Mozart) is available online here

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Good heavens, Rossi. I had not realized that you are my intellectual grandson! :) I read the snippet by Pushkin, How wonderful. But every time I try to access the Andrew Levine bit I am directed right back to this blog. I do not understand why.

At any rate, I am delighted to hear that others have had this thought before me. Recall what Kant says about novelty in Ethics.

Unknown said...

It never ceases to amaze and dishearten me how quickly people are to heap epithets like "barbaric", "genocidal", "inhuman", "terrorist", etc., when they read in the press or see on TV accounts of some admittedly dreadful things being done by groups like ISIS about which they know next to nothing, completely and utterly oblivious to the fact that the barbaric actions of the United States are of such enormous magnitude that they dwarf to insignificance the actions of the groups they are up in arms about and are ready to annihilate. I don't know what it is that enables people to forget Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the millions we killed and napalmed in Vietnam and Cambodia, the hundreds of thousands we killed and displaced in Iraq, the wrecking of Libya, the many people we tortured and killed in the CIA rendition programs, the support we give to Israel's occupation and settlement of the West Bank and brutalities in Gaza -- the list goes on and on. Somehow American exceptionalism is so deeply rooted in us that we are completely blind to the sad fact that it is the United States with its bloated military and war-related industry and insane desire for world hegemony that poses by far the greatest threat to world peace that there is.

Robert Shore