Their rising all at once was as the sound
Of thunder heard remote.
Paradise Lost, 476-477
There’s something inside of you that can tell when a storm is brewing. Even sitting on the porch on a summer afternoon under clear skies, there is something that tells you that rain and lightning are in the forecast. Maybe it’s something on the air, or maybe we are receptive to a change in atmospheric pressure that our brains have learned to associate with the weather. For whatever reason, we shudder and know that the afternoon sun will pass away to gusts and thunder. The emotion is locked somewhere between anticipation and foreboding.
Is the Islamic State an Existential Threat to the United States?
The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (or the Levant), hereinafter the Islamic State (IS), does not present an existential threat to the United States at this time. Before we go further, it’s important to define what an existential threat really is. The fall of a government, the enslavement of a people, or a fundamental change in the way citizens live their lives is the appropriate understanding of the term existential threat.
The libertarian perspective rightly should find a problem with that definition of existential threat and the categorization of the Islamic State as not fitting that description. The reason, they should argue, is that the restrictive actions taken in the name of security since the advent of the age of Islamic terrorism has fundamentally altered the freedom-security dynamic in the United States. This perspective is correct in principle but not in practice. A significant alteration of the freedom-security balance in a nation is certainly justification for a claim that there is an existential threat to a nation. However, the United States has not yet reached a point where such a dynamic shift has occurred.
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.
C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology
This is the appropriate point to raise the specter of gradual or creeping incrementalism. This concept is generally summed up in the example of frogs and boiling water: in order to properly cook frogs, one should put the frogs in cool water and slowly raise the temperature up to boiling. By the time the frogs realize they’re boiling, there’s no escape. In politics, this is slowly ratcheting up statism while decreasing individual liberty over time. Years after the process has begun, people have no memory of past freedom and historians look back and wonder how a people who had such freedom ever let themselves go down such a path. Incrementalism is an exploitation of the fact that we are hard-wired to seek accommodation and live in the moment. As long as nothing throws out way of life so off-track, we are willing to find a neutral path forward.
So, is it valid to say that incrementalism can translate into an existential threat to the United States by the Islamic State? If you’re following the logic, it looks something like: the Islamic State is a terrorist-organization-turned-territory-holder that is making threats to human and real infrastructure. This threat is supported by a history of successful attacks around the world and gains in territory in the Middle East and North Africa. Because of this success, Western nations and their allies engage the Islamic State. The Islamic State and its affiliates carry out more attacks on Western targets. In response, nations pass laws and ordinances aimed at protecting citizens that undermine individual freedom. This undermining of individual freedom is an existential threat.
There is a degree of logic to this progression and it has a foundation in recent history. Certainly the United States of the last decade is of a different character than the 1990s. However, an existential threat is better realized in modern examples like Israel and Iran, Ukraine and Russia, Palestine and Israel, the Islamic State and Iraq, or China and Taiwan. The thought of troops marching through a capital or the possibility of ethno-religious extermination is a palpable fear in regions around the world.
If the Islamic State is not an existential threat to the United States at this time, is it important? Of course it’s important. The Islamic State is one of the best funded terrorist groups in history. This has led them away from being merely a terrorist organization, but has made them into a political entity governing territory. It remains to be seen whether the Islamic State will be capable of establishing any long-term form of government in conquered regions. If the Islamic State starts to provide rudimentary social services and its version of security in otherwise war-torn areas, it very well could raise its status to being a de facto nation-state.
Neo-conservative pundits are quick to make rash and unhelpful claims that the Islamic State could someday take over the United States and impose sharia law. Of course this type of rhetoric is simply meant to scare people and get folks on board with interventionism abroad. What such pundits fail to realize is that presenting the realistic Islamic State scenario is far more persuasive for taking an active interest in the organization.
How the Islamic State Seeks to Succeed in its Goals
The main problem for the Islamic State at this point is that it has a cap on manpower. While it may not seem like it to the ordinary people in the West, who regularly see news reports about this growing organization committing horrific acts and seemingly conquering large swaths of territory, the ability to recruit disaffected youth and extremists has a cap. Therefore, how can the Islamic State succeed in its goal: to unify Islam under a Caliphate?
At the outset, one may argue that force of arms would be successful. The historical basis for this is the original Caliphate that stretched across the Middle East and North Africa in the century following the death of the Prophet. The strategy for the original Muslim conquest was speed and lack of government. Islamic armies raced out of Arabia and throughout the Middle East and Africa without immediate repression of indigenous peoples. Obviously, this strategy cannot be employed by the current iteration of the Caliphate. The Islamic State has neither the manpower nor the technological superiority over the nation states in the Middle East to be able to make significant headway against the militaries of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, or Israel. This underscores the reason why the Islamic State has only been successful in failed or weak states like Syria, Iraq, and Libya and why, to date, the only successful conquest and holding of a major metropolitan area has been the capture of Mosul. With its current track record, the Islamic State has not proven itself to be a capable governor of territory.
So, if the Islamic State’s future power is limited by force of arms and its unproven ability to govern, is the Islamic State really only going to rely on public relations and good funding to build an army. While this has been sufficient to this point, the real strategy of the Islamic State is to force the West to build the Islamic State’s armies for it.
Here’s the scenario: the Islamic State has produced its brutal videos and has issued its threats against the usual Western targets (Presidents, Popes, Crusaders, cartoonists, etc.). At some point in Western Europe, the Islamic State will launch a string of successful attacks on civilian populations. The most likely targets would be Italy or France that have large Islamic underclasses. These attacks are calculated to have the governments of those nations capitulate to popular pressure for security. Because of already simmering disaffection in the Islamic underclass, the inevitable backlash against Muslims (whether it is closing the borders, deportation, registration, internment, or a host of other “solutions” being debated) will drive up the numbers of people sympathetic to the Islamic State. As these numbers increase, so too will the attacks on symbols of Western authority. This will lead to xenophobia and more reprisals. Obviously, you see the spiral here that inevitably benefits the Islamic State.
The surge in sympathy for the Islamic State will likely correspond to the same time the Islamic State is finally able to start providing some degree of social services in its conquered areas. If it can show that it is a quasi-homeland for disaffected European Muslims, the Islamic State could very well see a boom in its manpower. This, in turn, would lead to the actual conquest of cities in the Middle East (Baghdad or Damascus) and catapult the power and influence of the Caliph.
Despite unity rallies and engagement by current European leaders, the social underclass in many European nations is unified by religion (generally: Algerians and Tunisians in France; Libyans, displaced North Africans, Balkan refugees and transient peoples in Italy; Chechens in Russia to name a few). With the rise of rightist politicians and movements, fueled by fear and patriotism, the next few years of European politics look to shift against the underclasses.
Preventing the Islamic State from Succeeding
So, how do we prevent the Islamic State from achieving its goals? In the short-term, there is very little we will be able to do. While easy answers like “boots on the ground” or “jobs for terrorists” are good catch phrases, the long term strategy for defeating the Islamic State should look something like this:
- Balance the preparation for, and response to, inevitable attacks in Europe. Some degree of institutional reform will be necessary in the wake of additional attacks in Europe. While the security and police forces in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany are getting better at counter-terrorism, the reality is that Islamic extremism is festering in the lowest rungs of society. Stricter immigration laws are an absolute necessity, especially in Italy, whose finances are precariously close to collapse. While the humanitarian tragedy of turning away migrants will be met with outrage, the consequences of an Italian economic tailspin will cause the government to likely take even harsher action against migrants later.
- Promote strong governments in the Middle East in the short term. The United States has gotten in a great deal of trouble because of its meddling in internal affairs of Middle Eastern nations. Any promotion of strongmen into positions of authority in the Middle East must be taken with delicacy and be seen as a temporary solution to chaos. Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia must be given a free hand to address radicalism. This may be met with disgust by those who promote republican forms of government in the Middle East. However, the precursor to any election is stability. Especially in areas where stability and social services are entirely absent, the fundamental need for security is paramount. Even if this means redrawing national boundaries, we must endeavor to end the vacuums of power.
- Prevent the Islamic State from seizing any cities. This is the only point where the United States should consider using military force. In the event the Islamic State is able to seize a major metropolitan area in the Middle East, the entire calculus regarding the group will change. The Islamic State will cease to be a terrorist organization and will become a nation. For example, at the moment, with the exception of a few populated areas like Mosul, the Islamic State can be targeted without unacceptable collateral damage (note here that any civilian casualties should be met with disgust, but they are expected in “war”). In the event that a major city is conquered, the Islamic State will not be able to be simply targeted from a plane or drone. Rather, ground troops will be essential to the ultimate destruction of the organization.
- Continue to promote the production of domestic sources of oil. While this seems to be several steps away from the problem with the Islamic State, having leverage on the supply of oil will allow the United States to abandon its reliance on certain alliances and commitments in the Middle East. Being able to view the problems abroad without having to worry about huge volatility in energy prices can allow the United States to negotiate novel ways of dealing with extremism. Likewise, depressed oil prices will reduce the profits garnered by the Islamic State and its financiers among the Gulf States.
While the Islamic State is not an existential threat to the United States at this time, it does represent a major destabilizing force for Western Europe and the Middle East. The nuanced and compromising response that is necessary to take on the threat of the Islamic State is likely to be met with passionate criticism both from the socialists (curbing immigration and supporting repressive governments), from the neo-conservatives (not re-invading and being too tolerant of Islam in Europe), and from libertarians (meddling in the Middle East is what got us into this problem to begin with). However, charting a path forward must take into account what the Islamic State’s strategy is and the myriad of options the West has at its disposal. Naively thinking that unity rallies will stop extremism is juxtaposed with the thought that more bombs will stop extremism. Embracing reality and looking at strategy may be cold and calculated, but it may yield results that might be blind to passion.
In the end, knowing that the storm is coming can give us time to prepare.