“Veritas odit moras” – Seneca
The conventional wisdom about strategic inertia, doing too little or nothing, is that whatever might be done might make things worse. No proof is ever offered for such reasoning because none ever exists. The future is unknowable.
A forecast or estimate is not a prophecy, and both have shaky legs. Most deductive reasoning proceeds from asserted conclusions or lame assumptions in any case. The conventional wisdom, or beaten path, is often more convenient than it is wise.
Fear of consequence inspires inaction or timidity. Predators and aggressors thrive on panic, indecision, and weakness. The consequences of fear are well known. The associated behavioral evidence is well understood too.
Vertebrates, including humans, usually react to threats one of four ways: fight, flight, freeze, or faint. Autonomic experts now include related responses like arousal and acute or prolonged stress.
Although there seem to be six possible visceral responses to threat, one or more in combination is likely – and fight might be the most unlikely for modern men. You could argue that a typical human response to fear or threat is a series of half measures – some amalgam of indecisiveness that often confuses friend and foe alike.
The Islamist threat, terror and associated small wars, might be a case study of contemporary collective inertia, decades of half measures in the West where candid analysis and common sense policies are hostage to dread, the unreasonable fear that analytical truth or decisive political/military action will make matters worse.
Boko Haram, the Muslim slave traders of East Africa, is an example. Their depredations are euphemized as “child trafficking.” These Sunni Islamists were exempt from a “terrorist” designation for years until their atrocities went wholesale, seizing an entire girl’s school.
Government and academic analyses of the Egyptian based Muslim Brotherhood (al Ikhwan) suffered from the same immunities. Brotherhood affiliates and derivatives now girdle the globe. Some peddle rhetorical imperialism while others (like al Qaeda and Hamas) are blatantly kinetic. Terror is a function of propaganda, the knife, the bomb – and passive victims.
Threat inflation is a no-lose hedge, underestimates can be fatal.
The Egyptian and Libyan examples are illustrative. Western Media, Washington, and Brussels tried to put lipstick on the Brotherhood pig (nee Arab Spring). A military coup was necessary to restore civility in Cairo. Any Janissary is preferable to every theocracy.
In Libya, a failed state was the price of regime change. Gadhafi doesn’t look so bad in retrospect. Europe and America now pay lip service to democracy in Arabia for all the wrong reasons.
Boko Haram and al Ikhwan are but two of the dozens of Sunni Islamist groups that are treated with deference or kid gloves. Now comes the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The American Commander-in-Chief (CINC) prefers to call the “new” threat ISIL, the Islamic State in the Levant.
Clearly the White House, or John Brennan at CIA, is rebranding another Islamist terror splinter to mask the horrid truth about the latest mutation of Islam. Renaming ISIS also serves to fudge serial military folly and failure in Iraq and Syria. Oval Office spin is an easy sell to a Facebook or Twitter generation that might think the Levant is a hookah bar in Soho.
Indeed, the American air and ground war has now been expanded in Iraq and Syria by fiat, another knee-jerk response to Media, not moral outrage. (Is it possible to stop the “boots on the ground” nonsense? American boots never left Iraq – or Syria, if surrogates and mercenaries matter.) Nevertheless, if ISIS had not posted beheadings on the internet, one wonders whether the White House or the Pentagon would have done anything differently.
The arts of policy, strategy, and tactics are communal human attempts to anticipate threats and develop political/military options that respond to or eliminate threat. If Washington and Brussels can be said to have any strategy, it is autonomic, reactive only to the moment, the atrocity or regime du jour.
The odd-couple coalition now arrayed against ISIS says all that needs to be said about the absurdity of what passes for foreign/military policy today. Five Arab autocrats are led by a liberal American administration, “flying” against a hirsute nation of Muslim madmen outfitted with the latest American armored weapons! Call it Clinton redux, war from 10,000 feet, two miles too far.
The propaganda war is even more confused than the shooting war. On the one hand the president laments that 80 some odd countries, including America, are sending volunteers to ISIS. Without missing a beat, he holds up an Arab coalition of ‘five’ weak, anti-ISIS autocracies as a solution. A few NATO procrastinators might also join the airshow too. Do the math!
The administration also fails to mention that the American taxpayer has been financing, training, and equipping the very Sunni terrorists who are now beheading Americans. So-called Muslim allies in Syria/Iraq morphed into ISIS just as surely as the mujahedeen morphed into the Taliban in South Asia. When you consider precedents like Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, and Libya; the Obama national security team seems to have a negative learning curve when the subject is blowback.
An administration that cannot, or will not, define the threat candidly is unlikely to be able to separate friend from foe. Yes, a phenomenon like imperial religious fascism is complicated and sensitive, but it is made more so by apologetics and rationalizations proffered in the name of misguided notions of tolerance.
Terror is often justified as tribal vendetta, a kind an understandable reaction to real or imagined injustice. Such ethical or legal arguments, like Orientalism, drive a stake through the heart of any moral equivalence for Islam. Revenge reduces the Islamist, and their culture, to a lowest moral/legal plane, a universe where true justice and civility is arbitrary if not impossible.
By any moral standard, contemporary Islam is both a growing problem and the unlikely solution. Neither tolerance nor justice is a growth sector in the Ummah. Washington and Brussels seem ready to bleed to death in slow motion before the clear evidence of this threat is accepted. The menace of theocracy is the mimber not the marketplace.
Alas for the moment, there is no plan, no strategic goals, and no consistent policies that might lead to long-term success for the West or reform in the East. Indeed, by his own admission, the American commander-in-chief still insists that we are not at war with a global theocratic civilization. Barak Hussein Obama seeks solutions where there are no “no victors and no vanquished.”
Where victory is off the table, half-measures become the menu. Inertia is always served lukewarm. When Benjamin Netanyahu comes to the UN and tells the world that ISIS and Hamas are “fruit of the same poisonous tree,” he tells a truth that the West does not want to hear.
The threat from the Ummah is atomized in Brussels and Washington because it is more convenient to treat terrorism and religious jihad, wherever it appears, as local “criminal” phenomena with local motives. Acknowledging Muslim Wars as a global, albeit decentralized, existential threat would force the West to admit that Huntington was correct. The clash of civilizations is no longer a speculation. The conflict within and without has been metastasizing globally for 50 years or more.
And civilization is not winning. ISIS is just one more symptom of religious irredentism and cultural decay in the Muslim world, one sixth of the world’s population. For five decades now, the West retreats fearfully on most fronts behind a smoke screen of euphemism and apology.
Like all illusions of monoculture, Islamism is a greater threat to adherents than it is to infidels or apostates. Muslim “moderates” in such a struggle are mythical, largely an irrelevant, passive, and frightened demographic. If you staged a cage match between a moderate and a fanatic, what are the odds that any smart money picks the moderate?
There are more than a few realists who see conflict as a biological and cultural norm. Darwin, for one, makes a very convincing argument that biological evolution is, in the end, a zero-sum game. Samuel Huntington made a parallel argument for human social or cultural forces, “The fault lines of civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” Earlier, Douglas MacArthur dispensed similar wisdom about warfare, “There is no substitute for victory.”
Only hubris and fear allow men, or social democracies, to believe that political institutions, especially republics, are now somehow exempt from common sense and the self-evident axioms of military conflict.
If history, or reality for that matter, provides any precedents, war is the human condition past, present, and likely future. And conflict is not immoral by any scientific or ethical standard, nor is it sufficient. But it is often necessary. When war is necessary, picking the right side matters. Historical success, progress, and tolerant cultures are made possible by victors, not victims.
At the moment, the western democracies are both for and against Islam, at once defending the cultural and moral equivalence of Mohammed, the Koran, and Islam and at the same time killing or jailing the imperial Islamic vanguard in the name of saving the Ummah from itself. Playing two ends against the middle in a religious war isn’t strategy; it’s a dangerous game, a kind of Russian roulette.
Such absurdities might mystify even Kafka.
This essay appeared in the October Small Wars Journal, the online forum for Special Forces/Special operations.