by Prof. Louis René Beres
“I learn a science from the soul’s aggressions.”— Saint-John Perse
Our enemy is not ISIS per se, but rather a flagrantly sweeping Jihadist ideology with multiple, disparate, and sometimes reciprocally related terror offshoots.
Amid all current debate about the best way to defeat ISIS, one easily forgets that this Jihadist adversary is merely the most visible expression of a much wider and much deeper pathology. Failing to understand this vital hierarchy of importance will be very costly, no matter what one’s own subjective position on counter-terrorism strategy and tactics may be. After all, an inevitable consequence of any such failure would be to strike vainly against symptoms, and not meaningfully against actual “disease.”
The epidemic violence we continue to witness in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, is only microcosm. It is, more precisely, just the most visible reflection of far more pervasive determinants. They are,: (1) the relentlessly malignant tribalism of our world order system; and (2) the fusion of derivative and broadly sectarian violence with reinforcing claims of “sacredness.”
The philosopher Hegel once commented: “The State is the march of God in the world.” This crucial nineteenth-century observation now applies equally well to an expansive amalgam of twenty-first century Arab/Islamic terrorist groups, and not merely to ISIS.
Looking ahead, we must consider yet another ominous fusion. This is the prospective coming together of atomic capability with decisional irrationality. Such a fearful prospect should come to mind, not only in such “front page” venues as Iran and Pakistan, but also North Korea. As earlier instructed by the Prussian strategist, Carl von Clausewitz (On War), world politics are eternally and relentlessly systemic. It follows, we must finally understand, that what happens in north Asia, just as an example, could also substantially impact Europe and/or North America.
We can never really hope to fix the “ISIS problem” until we have first understood the more underlying human bases and expected rewards of Jihadist-engineered insurgent conflicts. It is important, therefore, that we soon learn to look seriously and continuously behind the news.
Always, it must be recalled, the conspicuously grinding threat from ISIS is more a visible symptom, than an actual disease.
If we should mistakenly focus too much on ridding ourselves of this singular symptom, and not the underlying disease, we could then find ourselves exacerbating the ultimately more fundamental and more insidiously “metastatic” pathology. To wit, if American policy should wrongly focus upon the “War Against ISIS” as consuming and overriding, we would then simultaneously strengthen other foes in Syria, Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah.
For other examples, focusing too much on ISIS could undermine our counter-terrorist regime allies in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who are presently engaged in combat operations against Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen, and also strengthen assorted Muslim Brotherhood forces, including Palestinian Hamas — the Islamic Resistance Movement — which is effectively the “Son of Muslim Brotherhood.” Of course, a too-consuming counter-terrorist focus on ISIS would correspondingly embolden a variety of core al-Qaeda organizations, groups from which ISIS itself had originally been spawned.
In essence, any disproportionate harms that are consciously directed toward eliminating a particular terror group could at the same time benefit different terrorist adversaries, both Sunni and Shia. We must never lose sight of the fact that our enemy is not ISIS per se, but rather a flagrantly sweeping Jihadist ideology with multiple, disparate, and sometimes reciprocally related terror offshoots.
Always, it is this underlying ideology that we must “defeat,” not just ISIS.
It is, therefore, a war of “mind over mind” that we must now learn to wage, and not just the more familiar and more orthodox war of “mind over matter.” In this connection, it goes without saying, such a cerebral conflict is much more difficult to conduct successfully, and is also more operationally challenging.
Although we might prefer an adversary against which we could somehow appeal to reason, it is never for us to decide any pertinent enemy’s degree of attachment to the presumptively comforting fogs of irrationality. In response, we ought not flee from reason ourselves, but must nonetheless learn to deal effectively with those Jihadist enemies who might still yearn for the incomparably seductive whisperings of personal immortality.
From the beginning, all principal violence in world politics has been driven by contrived tribal conflicts, both between and within nations, and by a conveniently “sacred” promise to reward the abundantly faithful with freedom from death. A related promise has always offered to include each believer in a uniquely privileged community of them “elect.” Significantly, this always lethal promise is not unique to the present religious moment in history. In one sense, at least, it was as evident in the expressly anti-religious policies of the Third Reich, as it is today in easily recognizable parts of the ‘dar al Islam.’
On this persistently omnivorous planet, we humans often remain dedicated to virtually all varieties of ritual violence, and, accordingly, to various sacrificial practices that are readily disguised as either war or terrorism. Ironically, however, this markedly convenient dedication is not necessarily an example of immorality, or even of plain foolishness.
Here, history takes pride of place. Our entire system of international relations, first shaped at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, is itself rooted in a seemingly immutable pattern of institutionalized horror. In this worldwide “state of nature,” as we already learned from the seventeenth century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan), the life of man is necessarily “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” No doubt, many of us may still manage to live well in this murderous condition of nature, but only because we stubbornly refuse to believe what terrors must still lie ahead.
Preoccupied with reality television, and with every other conceivable form of distracting and demeaning political entertainments, we in the West are not just tactically vulnerable to impending paroxysms of mega-terror. We are also and more importantly unprepared. To change this, to meaningfully improve our national and global security prospects, we must first learn to carefully distinguish between symptoms from disease, and then, to thoughtfully combat the substantially broader and connective ideology of our collective Jihadist enemy.
In this way, now engaged in a more purposeful war of “mind over mind,” we could finally fashion a useful “science” from the Jihadist soul’s still-planned aggression.
Sent by the author, a frequent columnist on Arutz Sheva, re-posted from the Oxford University Press blog.
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue University. He is the author of many major books and articles dealing with world politics, literature and philosophy, published at The Atlantic; US News & World Report; Washington Times; The New York Times; The Jerusalem Post; The Hill; Harvard National Security Journal; International Journal of Intelligence & Counterintelligence and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy, was published earlier this year.
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