Misunderstanding the Problem

Tuesday, November 17, 2015, President Obama was in the Philippines and still frustrated with the Republicans, who seem to want a new war in the Middle East and are calling for a halt to the entry of any Syrian refugees, because they’re afraid of them, so he lashed out:

“At first they were too scared of the press being too tough on them in the debates,” said Obama per the pool report. “Now they are scared of three year old orphans. That doesn’t seem so tough to me.”

Obama also argued that he “cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric coming out of here in the course of this debate” than the idea of discriminating against Muslim refugees.

“ISIL seeks to exploit the idea that there’s war between Islam and the West,” Obama said “and when you start seeing individuals in position of responsibility suggesting Christians are more worthy of protection than Muslims are in a war-torn land that feeds the ISIL narrative. It’s counterproductive. And it needs to stop.”

That won’t happen. There is disagreement about what to do about ISIS, and everyone has an opinion, from bombing them out of existence to… bombing them out of existence. Everyone seems to have settled on that, with the Republicans screaming at Obama to bomb them more, like the French and Russians are now doing, and screaming at his pointing out that he really is bombing them more, and their saying no you’re not, and him saying yes I am, and so on and so forth. It’s exhausting. They want a quick fix and he wonders what comes after all the bombing and suggests we think about that very carefully. It’s not that simple. What would follow ISIS? They say it is that simple – and we’ll worry about that stuff later. Either way, bombing is involved.

This is to be expected in an election year. They want to make Obama, and by extension all Democrats, look timid and weak and confused, and not careful but cowardly. They’ll be the “real men” here, and after what happened in Paris they know that’s a winner, because Americans are angry and frightened. The guy who says be careful in what you do, bad things could happen if you get what you want, can be painted as morally reprehensible – something had to be done and he wouldn’t do a damned thing, or wouldn’t do enough of what everyone now thinks he should have done, and the bad guys are going to kill us all. Vote Republican.

This is a useful campaign narrative. Refusing to take in even one refugee fleeing the hell we set in motion over there, unless they’re Christian, will radicalize another generation young Muslims, now certain that white Christian America hates Muslims – but we’ll worry about that later. Get rid of ISIS and then Assad in Syria and you create a power vacuum. Hezbollah will head north from Lebanon and fill that vacuum, or angry young men will form a new ISIS with a different name and then we’ll have to fight them – but we’ll worry about that later. We’ll wipe ISIS off the face of the map. Don’t worry about what comes next. We got rid of ISIS – and that’s that.

Cool, but even late-night comics know better than that. The night before Obama lashed out in the Philippines, on “The Late Show” when Stephen Colbert sat down with Bill Maher, we got this:

Maher began his appearance by arguing the only way to wipe out groups such as Islamic State is to “wipe out the idea” that motivates them – an idea that Maher believes is held by many mainstream Muslims, not just the extremists.

“We have to change those ideas, women as second-class citizens, gay people don’t deserve to be alive,” he said. “These are mainstream ideas unfortunately.”

The remarks, typical of Maher’s anti-religious standpoint, prompted an observation from Colbert.

“They say at a dinner party you should never talk about sex, politics or religion. Have you ever been invited to a dinner party in your life? Are there things you won’t talk about?”

That got a big laugh, but perhaps we should talk about this, because Maher is implying that there’s been a misunderstanding here. Maher is implying that ISIS isn’t that new caliphate being created in the wastes of Syria and Iraq. That’s the secondary effect of an absurd theology. And the terrorists in France and Belgium and everywhere else are not ISIS either. They too are the secondary effect of a warped theology. That’s what you get when people think that way, and the ISIS leaders are not ISIS either. As with al-Qaeda, we use another Hellfire missile from a Predator drone (we do name things well) to take out yet another key ISIS leader, this time a big one, and then there’s another leader the next day. Nothing changes. We haven’t wiped out the idea. We have gone after secondary manifestations of an idea – a very bad idea.

But how do you fight an idea? Late-night comics know. You fight ideas with counter-ideas, and with irony and ridicule – not bombs. You turn a bad idea into a bad joke, and everyone laughs, which makes it a great joke. Nonsense cannot survive the ridicule of logic, but that might not be necessary, because Maher might be wrong about which ideas are mainstream ideas:

Recent attacks in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have once again brought terrorism and Islamic extremism to the forefront of international relations. According to newly released data that the Pew Research Center collected in 11 countries with significant Muslim populations, people from Nigeria to Jordan to Indonesia overwhelmingly expressed negative views of ISIS. …

In no country surveyed did more than 15% of the population show favorable attitudes toward Islamic State. And in those countries with mixed religious and ethnic populations, negative views of ISIS cut across these lines.

In Lebanon, a victim of one of the most recent attacks, almost every person surveyed who gave an opinion had an unfavorable view of ISIS, including 99% with a very unfavorable opinion. Distaste toward ISIS was shared by Lebanese Sunni Muslims (98% unfavorable) and 100% of Shia Muslims and Lebanese Christians.

What we have in ISIS then is a relatively small band of fanatic jerks everyone hates, but a large enough band of jerks to cause mayhem around the world, wedded to a very bad idea, a version of Islam that appalls most Muslims – and ISIS is that idea. To borrow the words of the Catholic catechism, they are the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual… really bad idea. And we need to defeat that idea.

Bill Maher may not be able to help that much – he’s a comic – but there is this woman:

Janine di Giovanni is an author, award-winning foreign correspondent, and current Middle East editor at Newsweek. She is a regular contributor to The Times, Vanity Fair, Granta, The New York Times, and The Guardian. Di Giovanni is also a consultant on Syria for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and a Senior Policy Manager/Advisor at the Centre for Conflict, Resolution and Recovery for the School of Public Policy at Central European University.

That’s impressive, and while Maher does the late-night shows, di Giovanni has been making the rounds on the morning cable news shows in their coverage of the Paris attacks, and Heather Parton transcribes what she said to Thomas Roberts on MSNBC the morning after Maher spoke to Colbert:

Di Giovanni: I think we have to understand first of all what ISIS wants more than anything is to provoke retaliation. They don’t like to see unity. The thing they fear the most is a cohesive society of people living together united. So, for instance, the photographs of Germans welcoming refugees into their society to make it more of a mixed society is terrible for them. They want a society, a country, a caliphate that is extreme Islam.

Roberts: When we talk about the country or the territory, they don’t have that. What they have is the territory that borders between Syria and Iraq. If that is stripped from them Janine, do they fall away?

Di Giovanni: Personally, I believe that you cannot destroy their ideology. Even if we took Raqqa tomorrow, if we crushed it, I have to point out there is one thing about the bombing of Raqqa, there are five hundred thousand civilians who are inside Raqqa. It’s not just ISIS who is suffering. It’s civilians that have been overcome by them. But even if we took out Raqqa tomorrow, how do you destroy this ideology which is sweeping so many youth, which is recruiting so many, if they have what is a very sophisticated social media, as we know, and their psychology is very appealing to those who are downtrodden, who are disenfranchised from society.

So what I’m saying Thomas is even if we can stop a caliphate – they’re not going to get to Mecca, which is what they want – we still have to deal with the underlying reasons of where they came from and why they prey on countries like France which they see as weak because there are divisions here between the Muslim populations which is the highest is all of Europe. They saw that as an opportunity and that’s why this operation was horrifically and tragically successful.

In short, take their land, bomb the crap out them, but understand you cannot destroy their ideology. ISIS is the ideology, not the land or the membership – and she points out that if we keep squabbling with each other, about how many bombs to drop and refugees and whatnot, we’re only playing into their hands. We have to have a better idea than they have.

Parton adds this:

If you have even the slightest bit of common sense this is all something you can easily discern by just reading the newspapers. But on cable TV she’s the equivalent of the Oracle of Delphi for pointing out that this problem isn’t just a matter of “taking out those bastards.”

It would be really helpful if these people would not feed the revenge fantasies of the American right wing which is playing into the terrorists’ hand so perfectly they might as well join the jihad and get it over with.

That is, however, the way we’re heading. In the Washington Post, Jeffery Guo writes about the likelihood that the Paris attacks will inspire reprisals against Muslims:

“This is precisely what ISIS was aiming for – to provoke communities to commit actions against Muslims,” said Arie Kruglanski, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland who studies how people become terrorists. “Then ISIS will be able to say, ‘I told you so. These are your enemies and the enemies of Islam.'” …

The researchers see the Paris attacks increasing radicalization in two potential ways. First, the killings project power and prestige, burnishing ISIS’s image and attracting those who want to feel potent themselves.

Second, the attacks will escalate tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims. They have already led to some anti-Muslim activity, and will likely provoke more. Not only will these events make Muslims in the West feel marginalized, but they will also provide extremist propagandists with examples of Western oppression.

That’s kind of obvious, and Kevin Drum is dismayed:

What really gets me about this is not just that it’s true. It’s that we’ve seen this movie before with Al-Qaeda. We know perfectly well that it’s ISIS that wants to turn this into a war of civilizations, just as Al-Qaeda wanted to do. It’s no secret. Why are so many conservative hawks so willing to play along with this?

More generally, it’s astonishing – or depressing, take your pick – how soon we forget what we learned just a few years ago. Should we send a massive force into Anbar to crush ISIS once and for all? Well, we’ve tried that before. Remember? We sent a massive force into Iraq and, sure enough, we toppled Saddam Hussein’s regular army units pretty quickly. Then, despite a huge military presence, the country fell apart. The Sunni insurgency lasted for years before it was finally beaten back. Then the Shiite government of Iraq decided that fealty to its Shia supporters was more important than uniting their country, and before long Anbar was in flames again, this time with ISIS leading the charge.

And now:

You want to take out ISIS? Me too- but if you want to do it fast in order to demonstrate how tough you are, it’s going to require 100,000 troops or more; it will cost hundreds or thousands of American lives; and the bill will run to tens of billions of dollars. Remember Fallujah? It took the better part of a year and nearly 15,000 troops to take a medium-sized city held by a few thousand poorly trained militants. Now multiply that by ten or so. And multiply the casualties by 10 or 20 or 30 too. This isn’t two armies facing off on the field of battle. It’s house-to-house fighting against local insurgents, which isn’t something we’re especially good at.

Still, we could do it. The problem is that President Obama is right: unless we leave a permanent occupying force there, it will just blow up yet again – especially if we take Ted Cruz’s advice and decide we don’t really care about civilian casualties. Having defeated Al-Qaeda 2.0, we’ll end up with Al-Qaeda 3.0. Aside from a permanent occupation, the only thing that can stop this is an Iraqi government that takes Sunni grievances seriously and is genuinely willing to govern in a non-sectarian way.

This isn’t just a guess. We went through this just a few years ago. But everyone seems to have forgotten it already. Just send in the troops and crush the bastards! That worked great against the Nazis. It doesn’t work so great in Iraq.

It seems no one was reading The Onion back in late 2011:

With the United States facing a daunting array of problems at home and abroad, leading historians courteously reminded the nation Thursday that when making tough choices, it never hurts to stop a moment, take a look at similar situations from the past, and then think about whether the decisions people made back then were good or bad.

According to the historians, by looking at things that have already happened, Americans can learn a lot about which actions made things better versus which actions made things worse, and can then plan their own actions accordingly.

“In the coming weeks and months, people will have to make some really important decisions about some really important issues,” Columbia University historian Douglas R. Collins said during a press conference, speaking very slowly and clearly so the nation could follow his words. “And one thing we can do, before making a choice that has permanent consequences for our entire civilization, is check real quick first to see if human beings have ever done anything like it previously, and see if turned out to be a good idea or not.”

This isn’t hard:

“It’s actually pretty simple: We just have to ask ourselves if people doing the same thing in the past caused something bad to happen,” Collins continued. “Did the thing we’re thinking of doing make people upset? Did it start a war? If it did, then we might want to think about not doing it.”

In addition, Collins carefully explained that if a past decision proved to be favorable – if, for example, it led to increased employment, caused fewer deaths, or made lots of people feel good inside – then the nation should consider following through with the same decision now.

Follow closely here:

While the new strategy, known as “Look Back before You Act,” has raised concerns among people worried they will have to remember lots of events from long ago, the historians have assured Americans they won’t be required to read all the way through thick books or memorize anything.

Instead, citizens have been told they can just find a large-print, illustrated timeline of historical events, place their finger on an important moment, and then look to the right of that point to see what happened afterward, paying especially close attention to whether things got worse or better.

“You know how the economy is not doing so well right now?” Professor Elizabeth Schuller of the University of North Carolina said. “Well, in the 1930s, financial markets – no, wait, I’m sorry. Here: A long, long time ago, way far in the past, certain things happened that were a lot like things now, and they made people hungry and sad.”

“How do you feel when you’re hungry? Doesn’t feel good, does it?” Schuller added. “So, maybe we should avoid doing those things that caused people to feel that way, don’t you think?”

It’s too bad this is satire:

While many citizens have expressed skepticism of the historians’ assertions, the majority of Americans have reportedly grasped the concept of noticing bad things from earlier times and trying not to repeat them.

“I get it. If we do something bad that happened before, then the same bad thing could happen again,” said Barb Ennis, 48, of Pawtucket, RI. “We don’t want history to happen again, unless the thing that happened was good.”

“When you think about it, a lot of things have happened already,” Ennis added. “That’s what history is.”

And there’ this:

In Washington, several elected officials praised the looking-back-first strategy as a helpful, practical tool with the potential to revolutionize government.

“The things the historians were saying seemed complicated at first, but now it makes sense to me,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who reversed his opposition to oil-drilling safety regulations after checking past events and finding a number of “very, very sad things [he] didn’t like.” “I just wished they’d told us about this trick before.”

If only these had been real historians six years ago and everyone had said “Oh, so THAT’S how it works! Cool!”

But that’s not how it works, and ridicule cannot fix that. So we’ll bomb what we think is ISIS but isn’t – because ISIS is a bad idea, not the new scattered caliphate or the terrorists – and we’ll probably send in troops, and many will die making sure the others guys die, and then, in a year or two, we’ll get the same thing with a new name – Bob, perhaps. And then we’ll have to bomb Bob, because we misunderstood the problem in the first place. We do need to get better at understanding the actual problem. But that’s not likely.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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