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ISIS And The Perils Of Moral Clarity


I appreciate the thoughtful, well-argued response in The Federalist to my New York Times piece, and I am going to take this opportunity to respond to some of the points raised, because I think they are serious and worth a vigorous debate between friends. On this issue, and on others, I believe people of good conscience can reasonably disagree, while learning from the other side, as I have from the response’s author, Paul David Miller, many times over the years.

I don’t disagree that the Islamic State’s (ISIS’s) actions—the horrific beheading of James Foley, the killing, rape, assault and eviction of thousands—should be described as evil. I have never denied the existence of evil in the world, and it would be foolish to suggest that no action or, indeed, group should ever be described as evil based on their behavior. There are instances of clear moral evil in international politics—the Holocaust, the Rwandan or Cambodian genocides, among many others—and no one should be blind to this fact. Some have read this essay to suggest that I am embracing moral relativism, when nothing could be farther from the truth.

Rather, what I am urging is that in these cases the recognition that some action or some group (or state) is “evil” should be the beginning of the analysis, not the end. Too often in U.S. foreign policy, the language of good and evil is the end of the discussion rather than the beginning. It precludes the analysis of what to do, rather than advancing it. If we conclude that a group like ISIS is evil, then nothing more needs to be known about their goals and intentions. As an evil group, they can only be met with force and, in the words of John Kerry, “crushed/destroyed.” The purpose of my essay was to argue that moral clarity in recognizing evil can sometimes stop us from asking hard questions about how we plan to do just that. Moral clarity should not preclude analytic clarity about what is appropriate and inappropriate to defeat a particular group, but at a number of points in the last decade it has.

Enabling Us to Return Evil for Evil

Secretary Kerry illustrates this point by describing ISIS as “inexplicable” and “nihilistic,” implying that no further analysis of its goals is needed. This is flat-out wrong. ISIS might be an unusually vicious, even monstrous insurgent group, but it is explainable and it has a value system (an abhorrent one). It wishes to set up a Sunni caliphate, rejects the Sykes-Picot agreement, and has some of the characteristics of a state. Its notion of the caliphate would be a real one which erases the border of Iraq and Syria. It sees itself as a player in the current Middle East, and its vision is significantly different from the global imaginary of the caliphate that al Qaeda espoused. It is part of a wider Sunni uprising against the misrule of the Nouri al-Maliki government in Iraq, and it may be a matter of time before internal divisions in that uprising work against its favor. It has no purchase in the Iraqi south, and has enemies surrounding it (including the Kurds, Turks, and others). Treating ISIS as just the next wave of barbarians on the attack—an “apocalyptic evil” which must be stamped out—can lead analysts to overlook these facts, adopt ill-chosen strategies or miss opportunities to exploit its natural weaknesses.

Moral clarity in most conflicts needs to be accompanied by skepticism (not cynicism) and attention to how our own actions are enabled by that sense of righteousness.

I don’t disagree that moral clarity can have some virtues in wartime, and there are cases where it does provide a useful foundation for strategy and for the morale of those asked to fight and die for a cause. In World War II, for example, moral clarity about the realities of the Nazi regime was an invaluable asset in producing victory for Allied forces. Yet moral clarity in most conflicts needs to be accompanied by skepticism (not cynicism) and a due attention to how our own actions, even sometimes our abuses, are enabled by that sense of righteousness.

Miller says moral clarity provides an explanation why “we are right to kill and the other side is wrong to kill.” As a general point we should be skeptical about always assuming the moral righteousness of our cause and that God is on our side; many armies in history assumed this and justified some quite horrific things on that basis. But even in cases where we are in the moral right—and I would count the U.S. war against al Qaeda as a case where we are unambiguously in the moral right, and opposition to ISIS as another—that fact should not enable us to do things that are illegal or immoral in the service of our righteous cause. Too often, moral clarity does just that—it tells us that since our ends are just, then any means used to secure them are permissible. This leads us to go to, as Vice President Dick Cheney memorably put it, “the dark side,” and leaves us a decade on with our reputation stained by torture in Abu Ghraib and the legal and moral mess of the Guantanamo Bay prison. This is what I meant by moral clarity being seductive—it feeds the spirit with a sense of righteousness that can sometimes silence the conscience and quietly enable some nasty actions in the service of what we know, in the end, to be right.

States should try to avoid making the stakes cosmic, for doing so allows you to lose sight of your aims and sometimes your enemies.

On the more general point about moral clarity, Miller says we should not ask soldiers to fight and die “if the stakes were less anything than good and evil.” Yet in practice we do this: states fight for national interests such as territory, wealth, honor, et cetera, and not every conflict can (or should) be depicted as a cosmic struggle between good and evil. As for al Qaeda, I don’t dispute that we are at war with them—they have declared war on us and brought the fight to us, so to deny that a war exists would be foolish—but I do think that, whenever possible, states should try to avoid making the stakes cosmic, for doing so allows you to lose sight of your aims and sometimes your enemies. After September 11, we cast the war on terror as a global struggle for the forces of democracy against the forces of terror, to use a formulation popular at that time, and invaded Iraq to advance this campaign. Yet there was no operational relationship between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, and the ensuing chaos paradoxically led to years of civil war that strengthened al Qaeda in Iraq and ultimately set the stage for the return of ISIS. A more carefully focused campaign, surgical and precise, against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan would have avoided that, although at the cost of leaving Hussein in power. Casting our war against al Qaeda in cosmic terms as a successor to those against Nazism and Communism enabled these mistakes to happen.

We Can’t Win the War of Ideas

On the nature of the war, are we in an ideological struggle with the “jihadists,” as Miller says? We are certainly in a direct conflict with al Qaeda and its affiliated groups, all of whom say they are in a jihad against us. But is it an ideological struggle, akin to that against Nazism? Globally, the number of people subscribing to the ideologies of al Qaeda (or today, ISIS) is very small, and no recognized state in the international system yet subscribes to their ideology (more on this later). For most Muslims, the ideology of bin Laden and now al-Baghdadi represents a fanatical perversion of their belief. Saying we are in a struggle with the forces of “radical Islam,” in my view, is imprecise, lumping a range of groups with diverse goals and dispositions to the United States together as a single enemy. Are we, for example, at war with the Muslim Brotherhood? Are we at war with South Asian Islamist groups? These are different groups, with different goals, and recasting them together as a single enemy is not helpful in developing a targeted global strategy.

Don’t try to recast a real fight as a global ideological struggle in which we will exhaust ourselves trying to win a war of ideas in a region which distrusts us and our ideas.

Moreover, this is not a replay of the Cold War, where we had an ideological struggle across the Third World about the most efficient and just economic and political order. In the Middle East, the ideological battle is occurring within the boundaries of these states, and the United States is only a voice in some of these battles. I have never been convinced we had the authority to win a battle of ideas within the Muslim world because we are so hated and distrusted; that battle, as many have argued, will be won or lost by forces inside those societies rather than by us. For this reason, we should stay focused on our enemy (al Qaeda), try to avoid making new ones by lumping other groups in with al Qaeda and now ISIS, and look for ways in which we can helpfully, but within our limits, tilt the balance of those internal battle in the Middle East towards those who would produce inclusive and democratic governments. In other words, don’t try to recast a real fight (against al Qaeda) as a global ideological struggle in which we will exhaust ourselves trying to win a war of ideas in a region which distrusts us and our ideas.

Miller argues I am so concerned about mission creep that we “might even make the mistake of trying to defeat the group.” But I never said it would be a mistake to defeat ISIS. There is an argument to do so because (1) a quasi-state with the ideology of ISIS threatens our interests; (2) its existence will dismember Iraq and Syria; and (3) it would provide a rich training ground for operatives to strike the United States and Europe. I said we need to be careful not to let the conclusion that ISIS is evil allow us to sleepwalk into a policy that we have not thought through or are prepared to sustain. After the horrific assassination of Foley, the Obama administration leapt from “we are just trying to keep the status quo and hopefully save the Yezidis” to “ISIS must be crushed.”

The administration should own up that defeating ISIS means going back to war in Iraq, possibly for a number of years.

If our policy is the latter, then the administration needs to stop and explain to us how this will happen, whether it is achievable by air assets, what is the strategy vis a vis the Kurds, Syrians, and whether ground troops will be needed. If crushing ISIS means going across the Syrian border, or engaging in hard fighting in cities, the administration should admit this and be prepared in terms of casualties, financial costs, and political will to sustain it. They should own up that it means going back to war in Iraq, possibly for a number of years. To do so is a strategic choice, informed by moral considerations but not exclusively moral in nature, and it needs to be treated as such. I have yet to see the Obama administration match the rhetoric that it uses now against ISIS with anything resembling a coherent strategy to defeat them. What the Obama administration has done is engage in loose language and threat inflation—for example, General Dempsey’s depiction of ISIS as having an “apocalyptic, end of days strategic vision”—that will make it nearly impossible for it to adopt more limited aims which might be sustainable given the war-weariness of Americans.

Finally, Miller objects to my argument that we should seek to delegitimize terrorism as a tactic. I stand by that argument. If we are thinking about the long term, about the world that I would want my children and grandchildren to live in, it would be one with fewer bombs in the marketplace, where subways and planes are safe, and where groups know that indiscriminate attacks on civilians simply do not pay. To get to that world, we will have to defeat al Qaeda and now probably ISIS, but we will also have to send a message to the thousands of other prospective terrorist groups that there is a better, more efficient way to make political demands. To do this, we do not need to hype the threats posed these groups or to accept their argument that we are in a cosmic struggle with them. Rather, we need to hold them in contempt as the marginal, desperate players that they are, fight them as needed, and hold ourselves to a high moral standard that is worth emulating. Showing moral clarity in this struggle involves not just understanding your enemy, but also knowing yourself and your limits.