A Global Compact Against ISIS/ISIL

By Professor Wayne McCormack for GlobalJusticeBlog.com

McCormack-WayneThree facts seem indisputable from recent reports. ISIL is winning against the U.S. and its purported “allies.” Russia has now formally weighed in to support the Assad regime. The U.S. has both overtly and covertly opposed just about everyone in the region (Assad, the Syrian rebel groups until we needed them against ISIS, ISIS itself). We built a shaky Shia regime in Iraq that led to both the emergence of ISIS and a strange sort of detente with Iran. The U.S. military and intelligence analysts openly admit that our policy in the region is in shambles. So this may be a good time to rethink whether we have any role whatsoever in this conflict – or if our role should be as a partner in a truly global consortium.

Having had some experience advising the Iraqi government in 2008-09, I would say that Iraq never was a viable entity and was always split into three regions. One of our principal mistakes, after the major one of invading in the first place, was the failure to recognize that fundamental aspect of the contending groups.

As attempts to build a coalition with Russia and Iran against ISIS move forward, it is increasingly important to ask two questions: should we be involved? if so, what happens after defeat of ISIS?

The second question is easy – WE GET OUT. Can the region be governed effectively? For centuries, the region of Mesopotamia has attempted to amalgamate the cultural divides among the three major contending groups (Kurd, Sunni, Shi’a), as well as those neighbors of Persian ancestry, but there has never been a successful melding of the competing interests – and the presence of oil only makes the matter that much worse.[1]

What makes us think we can govern where we failed so miserably before? Obviously, it is not our role to govern someone else’s culture – it is now high time for the despotic regimes in the region to take responsibility. For decades, the oil-rich sheikhs of the Arabian Peninsula have been funding the jihadist movement, whether because they believed in the cause or because it was considered protection money hardly matters. The perplexing issue is why the West continues to abide by the “oil for protection” bargain struck by FDR and King Saud in 1945.

WHY SHOULD I CARE IF ISIS/ISIL IS DEFEATED? One regime replaces another on a regular basis around the world, sometimes through brutal tactics, and nobody really seems to be terribly concerned.

Herein lies a significant dilemma. Of course, we must be concerned about the thousands of people being abused by ISIL, and I am acutely aware of the opprobrium cast upon Neville Chamberlain for the “appeasement” approach to Hitler. Yet we certainly did no good by invading Iraq in the first place, displacing a brutal dictator but leading to utter devastation of infrastructure, thousands of deaths, and the rise of insurgencies that evolved into ISIL itself. What can we expect from another military incursion?

True, many people are concerned about the jihadist movement’s ability to recruit “stay at home” attackers. Yes, that is a legitimate concern that certainly warrants efforts to counter their propaganda with our own propaganda. But let’s look at the numbers realistically. In the past 15 years, the Tsarnaevs and Major Hasan managed to kill 16 people, each of whom was an innocent victim of an unwarranted attack. Meanwhile, during those same 15 years there have been roughly 15,000 deaths per year in the U.S. classified by the FBI as “murder or non-negligent manslaughter.”[2] In other words, an average of almost 50 people per day have been killed intentionally by our own hands.

So to answer my own question, obviously I care for humanitarian reasons, but the real issue is what can be done. The only sensible answer to that question would be that a military intervention is necessary for humanitarian reasons. To work, it must be built on a truly global understanding of the need for bringing ISIS to justice. By global I include not only Russia and China but the oil-rich kingdoms as well. European meddling in the Middle East has always had a colonial aspect to it. No wonder the radical Islamist ideology is anti-Western. The best we could do once ISIL is defeated is to get out of the way and repeatedly assure the Arab, Persian, and Asian worlds that we have no colonial interests in the region.

I want to address further the question of whether I should be frightened for the lives of my children and fellow citizenry. Let’s compare this intervention to the disastrous War on Drugs. Both liberal and conservative groups have pointed out that spending billions on attempting to interdict illicit traffic in a habit-forming commodity merely drives the price up, which causes violence both by suppliers attempting to protect their turf and by users needing money for the habit. The beneficiaries of the effort are the law enforcement agencies and their personnel along with the suppliers and their cohorts. It is even likely that “narco-terrorism” has linked some of drug trafficking to attacks by militant groups in Afghanistan, while Colombian drug cartels remain on the State Department designated terrorist organization list.

Given the level of violence associated with the drug trade, it seems sensible to be more frightened of random street crime than acts of jihadist terrorism. Even when I travel to Europe, which has seen many more “terrorist” incidents than the U.S., I have never felt as threatened as when I walk the streets of impoversihed neighborhoods in the U.S.

Morever, what would be gained if we were to eliminate ISIL from the world? Would Islamist radicalism cease to exist? Would all the Arab world welcome us as conquering heroes? Hardly. It simply does not make sense to use threats to our homeland as an excuse for continuing to wage a war that can only result in continuing the East-West divide rather than making headway toward building bridges.

Next, a few comments with regard to the history of terrorist movements will highlight some important elements for future policy. Many pundits and even respected scholars have made the mistake of claiming that we are witnessing a new form of warfare. If the assertion refers to the rise of a small group into a formidable fighting force, it is simply wrong. Recorded history is replete with organized or at least semi-organized forces rampaging across territories occupied by others. Is it unusual for those forces to be successful? Not at all. The Hebrew tribes took Canaan from a whole collection of other tribes. Genghis Khan conquered most of the known world, from the Pacific almost to the Atlantic, with a force of only about 100,000 armed men. European settlers uprooted all Native American tribes and forced them into concentrated enclaves.

If the assertion refers only to the modern success of a group that started out as a relatively small cadre and emerged into a full-blown governing force, again one can quibble with the historical statement. Both the Leninist and Zionist movements effectively used “asymmetric tactics” to conquer a much more powerful foe. Revolutions of the 18th Century in the Americas and Europe successfully overthrew powerful monarchies. Further back in history, the Crusades set the tone for much of the anger and fear of the Islamist jihad of today. I could go on but the main point is that there is nothing unprecedented about ISIL’s success, it’s just a terrible shock that should have been anticipated. If ISIL seems much better funded and militarily more powerful than these other groups, that may be just a matter of scale relative to the forces of the particular era.

And with regard to the brutality of tactics, ISIL is right in there with Vlad the Impaler, Roman Emperor Diocletian, and the Inquisition.

Now, lest anyone accuse me of lending “material support to terrorists,” let me emphasize that I want the leadership and the sadists in ISIS brought to justice by any means available. But I also want to start building a world attitude of cooperation and mutual support. Those are not incompatible objectives once it is understood that colonialism is over and that globalized trade is coextensive with globalized human rights.


[1]For an excellent summary of the long history of the region, see Nick Danforth, Stop Blaming Colonial Borders for the Middle East’s Problems, The Atlantic (Sept. 11, 2013), http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/09/stop-blaming-colonial-borders-for-the-middle-easts-problems/279561/