The acrid smell that hovered over New York City after the World Trade Center bombings had not yet cleared from the air of my waterfront neighborhood in September of 2001 when I found myself beset on all sides by panicked disquisitions about the root causes of political violence, the historical forces roiling the Middle East, and the essential nature of Islam, and indeed of all religions, which were either inherently peaceful or else consumed by a timeless blood-lust. Some of these discussions were right-side-up, while others seemed to be upside-down, or sideways, or else from Mars. It was a bizarre experience, hearing people on television news programs who had lately been chattering about chads and Destiny’s Child segue to Sayed Qutb, Bernard Lewis, the history of the Ba’ath party in Iraq, and the exegetical traditions that formed in different times and places around the Quran. The cumulative effect of hearing those discussions night after night for anyone who reported in any depth from the Middle East, or studied there, or had relatives living there, was like watching scenes from one’s family dinner-table conversation cut up into 30-second-long snippets and projected on the side of a warehouse as part of a Bill Graham-era Haight-Ashbury sound-and-light show.
As the years rolled on, the dislocations became more subtle and at the same time more significant in their effects. The author of a particularly trenchant journal article might disappear from academia and re-appear running a region of the world from an office in Washington. People one knew in different countries developed attachments to security services, which they publicized or, more often, implausibly denied. Chimerical theories of historical change were floated in successive administrations, and some of these theories became the basis for policies on which hundreds of billions of dollars were spent, and in whose names tens of thousands of people more or less like oneself, but living in more desperate places, were encouraged to sacrifice their lives. Friends went off to Egypt, or Lebanon, or Libya and came back with very different ideas and perceptions than when they left, some of which were quite troubling; even more troubling were the friends who came back repeating the same mantras they had before they left. Experts were celebrated and then shown to be full of hot air. Journalists became cheerleaders for the Iraq War, then changed their minds and charged that the war had actually been caused by a conspiracy of Zionist lobbyists. Other bizarre ideas were floated, some by people who should have known better, and others by people who were quite obviously deranged but whose derangement was preferable to observable reality for large numbers of educated people, including people in high decision-making places.
The Bush years ended. President Barack Obama was elected and re-elected by large majority votes based partly on the premise that he would end America’s toxic enmeshment with the Middle East, allowing servicemen and -women and the rest of us to return to a country that would be safer, fairer, and more equal. In the intervening years, it seems fair to say that the American conversation about the Middle East has become normalized, meaning that it has gone from something resembling a bad scholarly-military-regional specialist acid trip to a conventional point-scoring exercise conducted with the usual bad faith, bad manners, phony pretenses to knowledge, and partisan snap judgments of Sunday morning political talk shows. In turn, these judgments are reduced to 140 characters by political operatives, who push their lines on Twitter and Facebook in order to scare large-enough numbers of children and grandparents. And for that level of normalcy, at least, we should be properly thankful.
It is also clear that a bad acid trip would be a very trivial way to describe lived reality in many places in the Middle East, which has gone from bad to varieties of worse that were simply not imaginable to anyone, except for the leaders of apocalyptic death-cults. For Americans, Sept. 11, 2001, may represent a collective loss of innocence, or a day of reckoning, or a memorably bad day in the history of New York City, filled with horror and loss. For citizens of Syria, or Iraq, or Egypt, or Lebanon, or Yemen, and many other places, a one-way time-machine ticket back to 2001, or even 2006, or 2009, or 2011, for a week, or even a day, would be an unbearably precious gift: a chance to return home and see loved ones alive, to walk down familiar streets not yet destroyed by bombings, to glimpse a covering sky that contained something besides the promise of more chaos, more destruction, and more death.
Like many people who love the Middle East, and the people of the Middle East, I wish that I could go back there with them, and I feel lucky that I can freely choose not to travel to places where the level of physical risk no longer feels worthwhile. Will Paris, where I spent summers in college, and was looking forward to bringing my daughter on a visit in June, be on that list six months from now, or 12 months from now? I don’t know, and anyone who tells you otherwise is some kind of liar.
In response to the tragic events of the past week, which are inseparable, to whatever extent, from the events of the past 12 months, and the policy approaches taken by two successive U.S. administrations, I have asked some of my friends, colleagues, and their bosses to weigh in on a few potentially illuminating questions. While it’s impossible to agree with all of their answers, I believe that each one of them knows things that are important, and that the differences of opinion between them are even more important. We are still at the beginning or in the middle of something that is difficult for us to describe, or even to name. —David Samuels
Elliott Abrams, former Deputy National Security Adviser to George W. Bush, and senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations
Paul Berman, Tablet magazine’s critic-at-large, author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals
Robert Blecher, Deputy Program Director for the Middle East and North Africa for the International Crisis Group
Hanin Ghaddar, managing editor of NOW Lebanon and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council
Edward Luttwak, military strategist and historian, Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies
Lee Smith, Tablet columnist, Senior Editor at the Weekly Standard, and author of The Strong Horse
Nathan Thrall, contributor to The New York Review of Books and Jerusalem-based Senior Analyst for the International Crisis Group
Robert F. Worth, former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, where he served as Beirut bureau chief and reported extensively on the revolution in Libya
Q: Accounts of President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy efforts and strategies these days, whether approving or not, tend to fall into two main camps. The first sees a series of ad hoc responses to events that are largely being dictated by events such as the Arab Spring, or Vladimir Putin’s decision to intervene in Syria. The second camp sees the president as pursuing a coherent and deliberate regional strategy, which has been alternately painted as a visionary effort to ween America off the use of blunt-force military instruments and costly alliances, or else as hopelessly naïve and/or dangerously misguided. What do you see?
Hanin Ghaddar: What strategy? From where I’m sitting in Beirut, all I see is a dangerous absence of the United States—one that is being filled by forces that do not care about liberal values and democracy. Maybe President Obama thinks that international cooperation and consensus would make the world a better place, but as he approaches the end of his second term as president, the world feels worse than it has in a very long time. Look at the Middle East and Europe. A day after Obama announced that ISIS has been “contained,” Beirut and Paris were struck with horrible explosions that killed hundreds.
And the United States is not in zero danger. Terrorism sees no limits and does not acknowledge borders. The consequences of absence and denial are going to be grave in every corner of the earth. From where I’m sitting, I see the world heading to a much darker place, and no “containment policy” is going to stop it.
Robert Worth: I think Obama’s policy in the Mideast is guided mostly by the sporadic attention he pays to the region. There is certainly no grand strategy. There are certain guiding principles. He believes there is almost nothing to be gained from the region, and much to be lost; so he has tried to steer clear. In Iraq, this led him into what I consider his single worst foreign-policy mistake, the over-hasty withdrawal of 2011. He believes the Arabs are utterly unreliable and have nothing to offer beyond Gulf oil. He sees one prize: accommodation with Iran, which could (he hopes) remove a potential source of nuclear conflict and leave him with a historic achievement.
Elliott Abrams: Does Obama have a coherent worldview and foreign policy, including Middle East policy? I think so. If one thinks of his Iran, Syria, China, Russia, and Cuba, and his treatment of enemies and opponents vs. treatment of allies and friends, his actions are not incoherent or ad hoc. The man is a committed ideologue who believes that American power is dangerous and should be reduced, and that many if not most of the world’s troubles result from American misuse of that power over the last half century. Thus he treats Xi better than Netanyahu; he reduces U.S. military strength; when he uses force (as in Syria and Iraq) it is often too little too late and years after advisers (e.g., Clinton, Panetta, Petraeus) have recommended it; he imposes near zero costs on Putin for his actions in Ukraine.
Obama wants to downsize the American role in the world and in that pursuit has had great success. Ask any ally facing danger: Israel, Jordan, the UAE, and the Saudis facing Iran; Vietnam, Australia, Japan, South Korea facing China; Poland, the Czechs, and the Balts facing Russia.
Rob Blecher: Let’s reflect on President Obama’s political disposition rather than his strategy or lack thereof, since policy rarely, if ever, unfolds in line with a pre-existing plan. Obama doesn’t oppose the use of blunt force military instruments nor does he believe that international cooperation and consensus are everywhere and always necessary. But he does think that the exercise of U.S. military power in the Middle East, at least in the recent past, has had negative outcomes—for both the U.S. and the region—and is a distraction from overriding needs at home. He has done everything possible to minimize the use of force. There is no indication that this basic orientation will change in the next 18 months—though out of political necessity, U.S. involvement in the region might again tick upward in response to the Paris attacks, just as it gradually has throughout Obama’s tenure in office.
Obama’s aversion to pursuing political change through military means has led him to strengthen global alliances, but more important than his engagement with any part of the international community or self-selecting coalition is his policy of reinforcing state structures in the Middle East, so that they can do the policing that he sees the United States as unable to do. Thus while U.S. policy in Yemen and Iraq seems contradictory—in the former, the United States supports a Sunni coalition against a Zaydi (Shia) insurgency that in some measure cooperates with Iran, and in the latter a Shia government backed by Iran against a Sunni insurgency—the two are consistent when viewed through the lens of state politics as opposed to sectarian identity. In Syria, while the United States hasn’t cooperated with the regime, it has chosen a path designed to preserve what is possible of the state in order to avoid the deleterious consequences of institutional breakdown seen elsewhere in the region.
Obama’s problem is that there just isn’t much to work with: These are states in name only. They resemble the insurgents they are fighting, both in their militia-like organization and their links to more powerful states in the region that use them as proxies in their own fights.
Edward Luttwak: President Obama’s policy has been marked by continuity with the disengagement that started under his predecessor. By Jan. 20, 2009, it was perfectly evident that the United States could not in fact establish a functional, reasonably democratic, reasonably stable and secure state in either Afghanistan or Iraq. Hence disengagement—or if one prefers, abandonment—was the only possible policy with only the length of “decent intervals” to be determined, because the theoretical alternative of a long-term colonization that would include the subjugation of Islam (the Russian solution) was never even proposed.
The only difference introduced by the Obama Administration was to wrap disengagement in an aura of weakness and irresolution instead of offsetting the twin retreats with convincing shows of strength.
Elliott Abrams: Luttwak is wrong. By 2009 the surge had succeeded and Iraq was relatively calm—indeed calm enough for Obama to withdraw our troops. The war had largely been won. There was a decent chance of a balance of Kurds and Sunnis against the Shia and of preventing Iraq from becoming an Iranian colony. That chance was thrown away. But we were on the verge of showing Iraqis that political and financial bargaining was a better option than killing.
Nathan Thrall: U.S. domestic politics, particularly during a presidential campaign, tends to exaggerate differences between the parties and underplay commonalities that are driven by majority opinion. Indeed, to the great disappointment of many Obama supporters, this turned out to be the case after he took office in 2009. This was true not only of Guantanamo and domestic surveillance but also of the strong desire to avoid confrontation with Iran even as its nuclear program was expanding, a policy that began not under Obama but his predecessor. One of the consequences of the Bush Administration’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was that the American public wanted a lot less to do with the Middle East.
The trouble for Obama, as for any president elected and re-elected with a mandate to reduce America’s commitment to the Middle East, is that American public opinion is at the same time far too interventionist to allow a full and unapologetic withdrawal or to accept leaders who state plainly that the American interest in rescuing hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrians, particularly at a time of growing U.S. energy independence, is not much greater than the interest in rescuing the more than 5 million killed during and after the Second Congo War (1998-2003). It seems to me quite possible that future U.S. leaders will be as reluctant as Obama to spend more blood and treasure in the Middle East’s killing fields, and it is just as possible that, like Obama, they will calculate that the costs of being criticized for abdicating U.S. leadership are less than the costs of being criticized for waging wars that make America and the region less secure.
Q: In the specific case of Syria, President Obama famously—and perhaps thoughtlessly—drew a “red line” against the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, then erased that “red line” when the regime continued to use chemical weapons, while insisting that Assad must not stay in power. Today, Assad is still in power, supported by a sizable deployment of Russian air power, while the United States appears to be twisting the arms of erstwhile Arab allies like Saudi Arabia in the hopes of gaining their assent for Assad to continue in power for an open-ended “transitional” period. Do you see these policy twists and turns as responses to unanticipated changes in the situation on the ground, or are they a smoke screen to disguise a policy that has consistently sought to avoid any direct conflict with the Assad regime, perhaps in the hopes of striking a grand bargain with its backers in Iran?
Robert Worth: I don’t think it’s fair to say that Obama tried to preserve the Assad regime with a view to Iran negotiations. He wasn’t thinking that far ahead. It may be that his reluctance to topple Bashar was bolstered by a desire to retain something to offer Tehran. But he scarcely needed any additional reasons to stay out of Syria. Toppling Bashar (or arming a proxy that might have eventually done so) would have violated his primary impulse in foreign policy: to avoid doing anything that resembled the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
A digression on Syria: Most criticism of Obama’s Syria policy strikes me as either grief and anger disguised as analysis on the one hand, or partisan point-scoring on the other. Obama made mistakes, but I don’t think they were consequential ones. The fundamental variables of the conflict were always beyond American control. It is nonsense to assert, as some people in Washington and elsewhere do, that Obama is responsible for Syria’s unraveling and its human cost, or that a different American policy could have averted it.
I should say right away that I share the grief and anger of many of these critics. I have spent a lot of time in Syria and have many Syrian friends. Most of them are now living in exile. Some friends suffered torture, and some were murdered. Many of those still living are deeply traumatized and depressed. They all want to make sense of their tragedy, and many alleviate their confusion by pointing a finger of blame at those who (they believe) could have done more to help.
What exactly should Obama have done differently? Arming a proxy force with much deadlier weapons? A formula for even worse disaster than we have now. A humanitarian safe zone? Much harder to impose than the critics are willing to acknowledge. Iran always had the power to undermine any such efforts by the United States and its allies. The neoconservative dream of separating Syria from Iran was always unmoored from reality.
In retrospect, it seems we would have been better served by going to the Iranians in the spring of 2011, letting them know we were in deadly earnest, and trying to reach some kind of accommodation that would head off civil war. But even assuming that we were armed with foreknowledge about the conflict’s direction, pulling off such an unlikely accommodation would have been wildly difficult, perhaps impossible.
And the larger point is that no one is armed with foreknowledge. Not one of the major powers had a realistic assessment of what was going on in the spring of 2011. The West had gone glassy-eyed during Tahrir Square, drunk on the idea of an Arab Age of Aquarius: Obama’s advisers wanted to be on the “right side of history.” Bashar thought he could crush the uprising just as his father crushed the rebels in Hama in 1982. The Iranians believed him. Only the jihadis saw what was coming.
Edward Luttwak: In the specific case of Syria at this time (it was different before) the United States must contend with Putin’s Russian Federation. Or rather, its own feckless multilateralism must compete with Putin’s entirely coherent strategic statecraft. From Obama’s point of view, Putin is very strange because he attacks Russia’s enemies and defends Russia’s friends. Because Obama does the opposite, he has almost no leverage over the course of events in Syria.
Rob Blecher: The United States and anyone interested in peace and security should hope for a grand regional bargain that includes Iran, however remote that prospect may be. But the United States was never planning to get there through an open-ended transitional process in Syria that would allow Assad to continue in power indefinitely. The Obama Administration might not want to take the fight to the Russians and Iranians as many in the United States and elsewhere would like, but it is not willing to join the Shia-Russian axis against the Sunnis. So long as the Assad regime remains in place, its war with the rebels will radicalize fighters on all sides and the Islamic State will not be brought to heel.
Hanin Ghaddar: I really cannot hear the phrase “red line” anymore. It has been rendered a meaningless and void phrase recently, mainly when it comes to the Assad regime. It is obvious now for the people in the Middle East, whether they like it or not, that Iran is now the U.S. strategic ally in the region.
If you had told me a couple of years ago that Assad was going to still be in power today, that world leaders in Vienna are actually talking about him leading reforms during a transitional period and eventually running for presidential elections, after they all strongly condemned him for using chemical weapons against his own people, and saying repeatedly that he is a dictator and a criminal who has to go, I would have said you are crazy. Well, it seems that we are mad. We have been given many promises and only saw the opposite of these promises implemented. Today Assad is weak but is still the president of Syria, protected by Iran and Russia while the world looks helpless.
Q: What is Putin doing in Syria and why? Is he defending Russia against the Islamic State? Is he picking up the shattered pieces of the American imperium at bargain prices? Is he being paid by Iran? Is he securing the stability of China’s Middle Eastern oil sources, while cementing future Russian dominance over global energy markets? Or is he sinking Russia into a hopeless quagmire from which he is likely to retreat sooner rather than later?
Rob Blecher: It’s a mistake to invest Putin with every quality, from derring-do to strategic thinking, that you think Obama is lacking. The Russian premier might be able to put a hockey puck in the back of a net, and ride horses half-naked, but that doesn’t mean that he can bend global political reality to his will any more than any other world leader can. In Syria, Putin saw threats—an ascendant jihadi movement and a slipping ally that is Moscow’s only in the region—as well as the opportunity to project Russian power into a void left not by just by the United States but by liberal internationalism writ large. As in Ukraine, in Syria he created a card that he can play in several ways. He plunged ahead, acting now and seeing what he can get out of it later. The rest depends on how well he plays his hand. If he’s smart, he’ll use the leverage to push for a political agreement. If the United States and others are smart, they will work with him.
Lee Smith: I agree that it is wrong to think of Putin as a strategic genius. He’s a KGB officer sitting at the head of a very large criminal enterprise with a lot of mouths to feed. His escalation in Syria will allow him to do that, since it makes Russia the indispensable player in an immensely large historical event. Syria is where the Middle East has fixed to fight a generational war in order resolve a host of issues, strategic, historical, political, religious, etc. Some of the regional actors who have an interest in the Syrian conflict, like Saudi Arabia, are apt to make it a very lucrative venture for Putin. If they want the conflict resolved favorably to them, they’ll have to pay.
Second, insofar as this war has moved to the continent, Europe will also have to pay. In effect, Putin controls the flow of Syrian refugees, further leveraged by his control over the European energy market. One way or another, Europe is going to have to fill his pockets. OK, maybe he’s not a strategic genius, but he stumbled into a key strategic position, and it’s not obvious how any American policymaker is going to dislodge him.
The White House of course sees it very differently. Let Putin dodge bullets on the front lines, they’re telling themselves—the Russian bully is doing our dirty work on the ground. His presence in Syria, they believe, is actually balancing out all the actors that the administration has sought to balance—Iran and Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, etc.—through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. From that perspective, why grudge him the chump change, when the big winner is a United States that is no longer bound to the Middle East.
Edward Luttwak: Putin’s goals are straightforward and coherent. He wants to secure the only overseas base of the Russian armed forces in Tartus by becoming the de facto protecting power of the separate Alawite state that is now emerging. Second, Putin wants to advertise Russia’s constancy: The Americans dropped their loyal client-ruler Mubarak after a day or two of street affrays, while Russia is still protecting the egregious Bashar Assad after four years of massacres. Non-democratic rulers in both Central and Western Asia and beyond now know that to be America’s liege is unsafe, while Russia is a very reliable patron.
Robert Worth: I can’t pretend to have any special insight into Putin’s motives. One thing is known: The Iranians told the Russians that Bashar would fall if they did not become more involved. Putin hates disorder, the absence of the state. He wanted to shore up his allies and his access to Middle Eastern energy markets. He also feared the prospect of another jihadi sanctuary, which might have ramifications in the Caucasus. In other words, Putin’s core motives may not be so different from our own. But he also, no doubt, relished the idea of putting a finger in Obama’s eye, and of playing Metternich, if peace talks get anywhere.
Paul Berman: I think Putin is, in fact, a bit of a strategic genius. It’s just that he is addressing a different problem than what everyone supposes. His problem is in Europe and at home in Russia. He worries about the political and philosophical ideas that influence people in his own part of the world, and he thinks that, by intervening in Syria, he can change those ideas.
Putin knows that, until just now, the reigning political notion in Europe has been defined by the revolutions of 1989, which adds up to a belief in the moral and practical advantages of liberal democracy. The 1989 revolutions have encouraged a belief in the philosophy of history—the belief that mankind is advancing toward a better world of freedom and prosperity. Putin does not share those ideas. He thinks that, if they were ever to get a foothold in Russia, the country would be destroyed.
He regards the last quarter century as a prolonged imperialist assault on the health and stability of Russia and other countries by the United States and its allies—a destructive era, disguised as a high-minded crusade for lofty principles. He wants to unmask the lofty principles. Therefore he has invaded Ukraine. He knows that, in Poland, liberal democracy is thought to have been a success, and he worries that, if Ukraine were ever to achieve a similar success, the boost in prestige for liberal ideas would end up pushing Russia into the abyss. And so, he has guaranteed that Ukraine’s revolution will be a failure.
Putin’s intervention in Syria is an extension of his Ukrainian policy. He wants to show that liberal and American ideas have led to civil war and terrorism, and Vladimir Putin is the anti-terrorist. He wants the world to recognize that cruel dictatorship is good, not bad; that Russian dictatorship is a boon to the world, not a danger. He wants to demonstrate that the philosophy of history is a lie. There is no better future, no superior society, no reign of peace and prosperity, for which people should yearn. There is merely the struggle for survival, of which Putin is a master.
He is already bringing his own people around to these points. If, by showing decisive qualities, he can raise his prestige in the Western countries, his success will be still greater. And then he can move on to his ultimate goal, which is to disrupt the democratic successes in his neighboring countries, even if they are NATO countries. That is why his intervention in Syria has been accompanied by a leaked document about nuclear submarine drones.
Q: In addition to being a killing ground in which 300,000 people have died, and a public theater where Sunni and Shia power collide, the Syrian civil war is fast becoming the epicenter of a potentially enormous social and political crisis inside Europe. Do you believe that the Syrian civil war will end soon, now that Russia and Europe have clear stakes in ending the conflict—or is it likely to get worse and become a major political fault-line that causes even greater instability, with waves of migrants continuing to arrive on European shores and bombs going off in European capitals? Or will it simply grind on, in a more contained, Middle Eastern equivalent of the Thirty Years War?
Edward Luttwak: The refugee crisis has exposed the nullity of European institutions: The original achievement of the Common Market still stands as a great success. But the European Union’s institutions have failed and keep failing. The Euro parliament is a mere talking shop, the European central bank is an unemployment factory, and the council of ministers has so far been able to agree on only one thing: the labeling of Israeli products made beyond the defunct 1967 armistice lines. That is scant recompense for the failure of economic policy, monetary policy, industrial policy, and now demographic policy vis-à-vis the influx of male economic migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and Central Asia who greatly outnumber Syrian war-refugee families, and whose sum total of cultural capital is Islam inclusive of Jihad. The last time Europe was invaded by barbarians its recovery required almost a thousand years.
Paul Berman: Putin considers himself a great strategist, and President Obama appears to consider himself a greater one; and, as a result, Obama commands not just one grand strategy for the Middle East, but five. The five strategies are: A) a continuation of the liberal revolutionary strategy of the past, which, for the United States, is a natural strategy to adopt—indeed, is difficult for the United States to avoid; B) a withdrawal of military forces in favor of diplomacy, even if a withdrawal of forces undercuts strategy A, given that liberal revolutions need to be stabilized; C) a Kissingerian attempt to forge an alliance with the Iranian Islamists, which corresponds to strategy B, though it contradicts strategy A; and D) a policy of forceful counter-terrorism, which has led to a return of military forces, in contradiction to strategy B. There is also strategy E, which calls for friendly relations with moderate Islamists, in the belief that friendly relations will further each of the other strategies, though evidence might be adduced to the contrary.
From Putin’s standpoint, all of this is marvelous. In his interpretation, the Soviet Union collapsed chiefly because Gorbachev went mad and renounced the use of power—which is to say, the Soviet Union collapsed because of chance factors that had nothing to do with the philosophy of history. Putin interprets Obama’s various strategies A, B, C, D, and E to mean that America is undergoing its own Gorbachevian phase. And he has seized the opportunity.
I can imagine the Syrian war coming to an end only in one way: through an immense and centralized mobilization of the Western powers. But it is important to remember that, on the last occasion when France was attacked, in January of this year, leaders from all over the world traveled to Paris to participate in the “republican march” and express their solidarity with France and its republican values; and the Leader of the Free World made himself conspicuous by his absence, probably because he has never been keen on strategy A and was reluctant to contradict strategies B, C, and E.
Hanin Ghaddar: The Syrian crisis will not end anytime soon as long as Assad is in power and ISIS is getting stronger. Even if all of Iran, Russia, the United States, and other Vienna participants agree on this “transitional phase” in Syria, the problem will not be over, mainly in Europe. ISIS said it very clearly this past week. As world powers were heading to Vienna to discuss the political solution, ISIS struck Beirut and Paris, in a clear message to the international community that they have chosen war.
The refuges are going to Europe to escape Assad’s barrel bombs and Iran’s militias. Those who live in ISIS-controlled areas are not suffering from barrel bombs. They are suffering from ISIS rule, but not imminent death. To encourage them to go back to Syria, they need to feel that they have a home, a country, to go back to. If Assad stays, even his barrel bombs stop, they will not feel secure or motivated to go back home. On the contrary, more will lose hope of a better future and will seek refuge somewhere else. To create hope for these refugees, so they could go back and rebuild Syria, Assad should go.
It should be obvious now that you cannot bomb ISIS away. Only Sunnis can fight ISIS, and the majority of Sunnis prefer Syria without ISIS rule. However, Sunnis need to feel that Iran hegemony and hunger for power in the region will be contained, too. The Sunnis will not fight ISIS if they feel that the United States is giving Iran a free hand in their own countries to kill and control them.
Rob Blecher: If the conflict ends any time soon—not that there’s much chance of that—it won’t be because Russia (and all the more so Europe) brings it to an end. Moscow might have more skin in the Syria game since its intervention, but it doesn’t hold all or even most of the cards. Its problem is how to translate its heightened stake in the outcome into a settlement that protects its interests. Even if it could find an arrangement that would also satisfy the armed opposition and its backers—which would be no mean feat, given that Russia sees the entire rebel spectrum as terrorists and the Syrian political opposition, to the extent that one can refer to it in the singular, is very far from being able to function as such—it would also have to bring Iran on board. Moscow and Tehran’s interests might align today, but they will quickly diverge if Putin considers a deal that short-changes Iran.
Robert Worth: I do not see a near-term solution to the Syrian conflict, though I hope I am wrong. The Paris attacks ought to generate much greater pressure for some kind of settlement: God knows it is in Europe’s interest. Far more likely, I fear, is that the attacks will strengthen right-wing nativist sentiment in France and other European countries and bring figures like Marine Le Pen to greater prominence.
Lee Smith: What surprises me is how quickly the Syrian civil war moved to Europe. I was in Vienna in July for the signing of the Iranian nuclear deal, and in those four months Europe has changed utterly and irrevocably because of the refugee crisis. The way I see it, what opened Europe’s gates to millions of Middle Eastern refugees is partly Angela Merkel’s invitation to 800,000 immigrants to come work in Germany, but mostly the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which emerges now as a key moment not only in Middle Eastern history but also, and perhaps most importantly, in European history.
Yes, Obama didn’t want to commit force to the Syrian conflict because he sees himself as the president who extricated America from the Middle East and its wars. But the other reason for staying on the sidelines in Syria was to avoid angering the Iranians by targeting their Arab ally Bashar al-Assad. As Obama watched a humanitarian crisis unfold in the Levant, he presumably comforted himself by thinking that he had to look at the bigger picture: The brutal murders of so many would be redeemed for the sake of a larger peace that would eventually settle once the furies had exhausted themselves, and the regional powers began to balance each other out.
However, there was a much bigger picture that was entirely lost on the Obama Administration, namely, that as the Syrian crisis developed, the Arab state system was falling apart. At the time, events seemed to support the long-running Arab nationalist myth that the Arabs are a coherent nation, which the great powers divided into Westernized states after WWI in order to weaken them: Sykes and Picot were the villains, whose plot was now unraveling. Yet what the rise and fall of both the Arab nationalism as well as the Arab nation-state system had obscured, as I argued in my book The Strong Horse, is that the Arabs are neither a single nation nor a tributary branch of the larger European nation-state system. Rather, they are a complex indigenous system of competing, often warring, tribes, clans, and sects.
And what the attacks in Paris last week made clear is that various Arab parties, like ISIS as well as regional security services, will continue their war on the continent—only now, with significantly more and better-trained man-power.
It’s too early to tell, but maybe the JCPOA really will help stabilize the Middle East. The problem is that it’s already helped destabilize a major American ally and trading partner—Europe.
Q: Most accounts of the Iran Deal, including public accounts by administration principals, suggest that in addition to slowing Iran’s drive to obtain nuclear weapons, the deal was also meant to strengthen the position of “moderates” inside the Iranian regime against “hard-liners.” Do you think that was in fact the intention of the deal? How do you see the effects of the Iran Deal playing out so far in the particular countries and areas of the Middle East that you know best? Do you believe that the United States is now pursuing a de facto regional alliance or confluence of interests with Iran, and how do think that such an arrangement serves the interests of both countries, and the region as a whole?
Hanin Ghaddar: I am literally laughing out loud now! Strengthen “moderates”? First, the deal is strengthening President Rouhani and Co., and these are not the “moderates” in Iran. He wouldn’t have been allowed to be President if he was actually a moderate figure. There are moderates in Iran, but these are persecuted and silenced. Many of them are actually in jail.
Since the deal was signed, the crackdown on freedom of speech in Iran has intensified. Journalists, writers, and artists are being arrested and sentenced to long periods in prison. Rouhani criticized these arrests, mainly made by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. But that’s just talk to the media. He cannot and will not do anything about it because he has no authority over Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards, who, by the way, head and control Iran’s military operations in the region. As soon as Khamenei approved the deal, arrests in Iran intensified and a day later, Hezbollah’s chief in Lebanon Hassan Nasrallah appeared in person in the southern suburbs of Beirut and dedicated half a speech to express anger against the United States and its policies in the region.
This was a calculated plan in both countries to show that no matter what happened with the Nuclear Deal, Khamenei and his people will not change their policy toward the United States and will also not start opening up the Iranian society to opinions and democracy. On the contrary, Hezbollah and its regional militias will become more aggressive, to make sure no one gets the wrong idea.
Edward Luttwak: Iran’s policies notably hardened once the agreement was signed: The dispatch of troops to Syria was proclaimed rather than concealed; two U.S. citizens were arrested (oh delicious irony: both were fervent advocates of normalization) and another previously held was declared guilty of espionage; there was a major (and UNSC-prohibited) ballistic missile test launch; and the supreme bleater proclaimed that “Death to America” is Iran’s eternal slogan …
Having camped for five days in Geneva visibly unwilling to leave without his agreement, Secretary of State Kerry made the most disastrous concessions during those last days—including the absurd 24-day advance notice for inspections. Naturally he tried to re-sell the carpet he had bought (unique, imperial, very ancient yet unaccountably “made in Pakistan” last year) with the bonus of amity and cooperation with a newly moderate Iran. Given the non-existence of the latter, the former is mere fantasy.
Rob Blecher: Washington saw strengthening Iran’s moderates as a potential by-product of the nuclear deal, not as a reason in and of itself to conclude one. Should the United States now try to leverage that deal to shift Iran’s internal power balance, it would be ill conceived. The United States has demonstrated an inability to successfully play inside political systems that it knows better, to which it has better access, and that are smaller and probably easier to manipulate. Even if the republican part of the Iranian political spectrum were to increase its weight in the country’s elected institutions because of the nuclear deal, it’s unclear that it would gain a greater say overall, since the supreme leader, who oversees the entire system, would balance its weight in the other direction—as he has done since the nuclear deal was signed.
Robert Worth: I believe the Iran deal should be seen as a necessary evil. Its failure would have set us on a path to deeper confrontation and almost certain war. But the deal itself has had terrible consequences already, and its benefits thus far remain entirely hypothetical. Consider Yemen. Why is the United States participating in the catastrophic Saudi-led war there? Because we are afraid to lose Saudi support for the Iran deal. This is a war that was begun with no strategy whatsoever. Day after day, the Middle East’s poorest country is being destroyed, and a humanitarian catastrophe is worsening. The military campaign has achieved none of its goals. The Houthi rebels have been driven from Aden, but they have taken over other parts of the country, and their grip is, if anything, firmer than it was when the bombing started.
Lee Smith: I believe Obama understood from the outset that if he wanted a nuclear agreement with the regime, and if he wanted to reach some sort of historical reconciliation after 30 years of enmity, he’d need to deal with the hardliners, not the moderates. Indeed, from his perspective, the reason that Washington hadn’t made a deal with Iran previously is that Obama’s predecessors—Carter, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, and Bush 43—were all too squeamish. Obama’s test came early, in June 2009 when the regime started killing protesters in the streets of Tehran. You had to hold your nose to deal with the Iranians, but Obama was determined to do so because he saw the big picture—get some sort of agreement with Iran before America stumbled into another Middle East war.
Obama’s experience told him that you have to cut deals with the real hard cases because if you strike a bargain with the “moderates” the hardliners can crash it at any time. Only the latter can enforce a deal, and that’s what makes them stakeholders and gives them an interest in holding up their end of the bargain. However, there’s little doubt that Obama assumes that the JCPOA has started the necessary shift in their thinking, and soon, as the hard-liners come to appreciate their re-entry into the community of nations, they’ll also choose to become more moderate.
Nathan Thrall: Israel’s government still views Iran as an expansionary, destabilizing force, but no more so than it did half a year ago. Hezbollah continues to be preoccupied with the war in Syria and with attacks on it by Sunni militants within Lebanon. Hamas and Islamic Jihad, once Iran’s closest allies in the West Bank and Gaza, continue to be estranged from Iran, financially strangled, politically isolated, and eager for a ceasefire in Gaza. The United States has not exacted any retribution for Israel’s campaign against the nuclear agreement, is negotiating a significant increase in military aid to Israel, and has been cooperating with it on measures to curb Iranian assistance to Israel’s enemies. The Sunni Arab states see only increased need for cooperation with Israel against Iran.
Q: To explain his approach to foreign affairs, President Obama and some of his aides have offered various formulations of Lord Palmerston’s famous remark that “England has no eternal friends, England has no perpetual enemies, England has only eternal and perpetual interests.” Do you believe that this is indeed a guiding precept of current U.S. policy, and does it make it easier or harder for America to win friends and deter its enemies?
Robert Worth: A tacit corollary of Lord Palmerston’s dictum could be presumed to run as follows: Do not coldly advertise to your “friends” that they are only temporary.
Principles are one thing, and the skillful practice of diplomacy—including with your allies—is another. Obama may have some chemistry with Merkel, but he generally lacks the ability to play the diplomatic role a president often needs to play: to rally and cajole his friends, to persuade them that he sees them as something more than chess pieces. Conversely, Obama lacks the ability to menace his enemies. They see his aversion to conflict, and they are emboldened. This is partly a matter of his track record—notably, his failure to follow up on the chemical weapons “red line” in Syria—but it is also a matter of character. Theodore Roosevelt understood this well, and deployed presidential bombast to very good effect; he would probably have winced at Obama’s inability to disguise his cat-like reticence.
Edward Luttwak: I am no longer amused by the milk-fed carnivores in Obama’s NSC. Palmerston was a tough guy who was eager to send gunboats if foreigners proved inattentive. President Obama has been ill-served by advisers who give impotence a bad name. The word is out: To be the ally of the United States is dangerous to your health.
Under the Obama Administration, enemies are the objects of hopeful expectations while America’s friends are viewed with some hostility. Never mind Netanyahu: The U.S. Ambassador in Tokyo, whose surname is her only qualification for the job, had the gall to criticize Japan’s Prime Minister Abe, the best ally the U.S. has ever had in Japanese politics, precisely because he is his own man while being totally supportive of U.S. policy.
Lee Smith: As often as Palmerston is quoted in American foreign-policy circles, it’s not an entirely useful way for a large island nation like the United States to think about its global position. In certain international systems, like Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, where the actors sit on each other’s borders, and the stakes are limited by geography, alliances often shift at the drop of a hat. But for a superpower separated from most of the rest of the world by an ocean on each coast, our alliances help illuminate our interests, and protect and advance them—even if our friends sometimes misrepresent the situation in their part of the world.
Nonetheless, I do believe that a version of Palmerston animates Obama’s foreign policy. The difference is that Obama thinks that America’s interests are not eternal and perpetual and in fact have changed drastically over time. Specifically, Obama believes that he’s the first president to understand that the Cold War is over. The administration’s foreign policy goals—reset with Russia, pivot to Asia, Iran nuclear deal, minimize footprint in the Middle East, re-open diplomatic relations with Cuba, etc.—are perhaps best understood as the blueprint for a post-Cold War American foreign policy.
The problem is that it’s not clear the current White House understands what the Cold War was really about. You can throw around ideas like “containment” and “deterrence,” which is what the administration means it intends to “push back” against Iranian expansionism, but during the Cold War, containment and deterrence made for an exceptionally bloody policy. Millions died on five continents in a superpower standoff that lasted nearly half a century.
Hanin Ghaddar: When it comes to foreign policy, of course interests are important. But I doubt Obama’s policy is in the U.S. interests. Alienating friends—or more accurately allies—is not in the U.S. interest. Alienating the majority of the region’s populations, mostly the Sunnis, is not in the U.S. interest. It will backfire.
On the other hand, thinking that Iran will become America’s ally is a crazy idea. Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards are never going to be U.S. allies. If they do, they will lose the main rhetoric that maintains their power.
Again, from where I am sitting, America is losing its friends and keeping its enemies. I can’t understand how this is good for Americans or for people in this region.
Nathan Thrall: From Israel’s perspective, one of the most unsettling regional changes of recent years is not the toppling of an ally or the formation of a new jihadist group on its border but what the country’s leaders perceive to be radical shifts in U.S. policy. One of the things that has so angered and frightened Israeli policymakers about the Obama Administration is that it has been, in their view, too “realist”: “abandoning” a Mubarak who could not be saved; not intervening in Syria or thwarting Iranian efforts in the region; preferring Iran as a threshold nuclear power to waging war against it; gradually pulling back from the costly headaches of the region as the United States produces more and more of its own oil. Israel’s sense of disappointment has not been lessened by its own history of acting with unsentimental realism: embracing the shah, apartheid South Africa, Idi Amin, the Palestinian Islamists who formed Hamas, the Turkish generals, and now Sisi and the Saudis.
Beneath the surface of Israel’s complaints about the U.S. withdrawal from the region and failure to stand up for its allies is a deeper fear that a U.S. turn toward greater realism will eventually result in drawing down U.S. support for Israel. As former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren writes in his book Ally, the U.S.-Israel “special relationship” was not originally based on shared values or the need to support Jews after the holocaust. It was, rather, based primarily on realism; the alliance was forged not in 1945 or 1948 but after Israel proved itself a useful Cold War satellite of the United States in the June 1967 war. Since the end of the Cold War, however, the realist case for the U.S.-Israel special relationship has weakened, and Israel has come to depend on the United States finding non-realist reasons (for example, Israel as a bulwark against anti-American Islamic radicalism) to maintain the strength of the alliance.
Paul Berman: If the Cold War were over, Putin would not be in Syria.
Q: To mark Prime Minister Netanyahu’s meeting with President Obama, the White House publicly gave up on the prospects of signing any kind of peace deal during the president’s remaining 14 months in office. Is the White House right to see negotiations between the two parties as a waste of time?
Edward Luttwak: Talks would be a good idea, regardless of their results. They make people feel good.
Elliott Abrams: There are several reasons why there’s no chance of a final status agreement between Israel and the PLO now. The most important is that their positions remain incompatible: The most the Israelis can offer is what Olmert offered in 2008, and the Palestinians did not accept that offer then and will not accept it now. Moreover, the PLO has entered a succession period: Abbas is in his eighties. Right now he is clinging to power and trying to crush opponents and critics, but this is the twilight of Abbas. And given that a succession battle is around the corner, no other Palestinian leader or would-be leader will support any concessions to Israel in the context of negotiations. Accordingly, it would be smarter to avoid the huge costs and opportunity costs of another American failure in pushing for a final status agreement. Far more sensible to try something practical, like increasing Palestinian self-rule, improving the West Bank economy, fighting Palestinian corruption, and at long last bring real pressure to bear to stop the PA from glorifying terrorism and terrorists.
Nathan Thrall: The White House is right to think a new round of bilateral talks between Israelis and Palestinians would not succeed, as many experts warned prior to John Kerry’s launch of the last set of talks in 2013. But giving up on hosting a signing ceremony for a peace agreement is not the same as giving up on Israeli-Palestinian peace.
It is quite possible that in the next 14 months the Obama Administration will outline its vision of the parameters that would seek to bridge the differences between the parties and serve as the basis of future talks. Issuing such parameters is not likely to make the parties any more intransigent, but nor is it likely to make them more flexible. Those who advocate putting forward such parameters do so with a long-term view and a belief that in the short run it will have little to no effect, with both sides politely rejecting the parameters and perhaps itemizing their reservations to it. What could potentially make parameters more consequential is if they were put forth not only in a presidential speech but also, or instead, in a U.N. Security Council resolution, though this is a step that the United States is far less likely to take.
Lee Smith: I think the notion that the Israelis and the Palestinians perceive the conflict differently is correct. To wit: The Israelis see it as competition between two entirely legitimate national narratives, one Jewish Israeli, and one Palestinian Arab, which therefore allows for all sorts of areas of potential compromise. The Palestinians, however, don’t believe the Israeli narrative is legitimate and see the Jews as colonial interlopers who will someday go home, like the French did when they left Algeria. These two incompatible narratives are a problem, but much worse is that Israel and the West, now increasingly including the United States, have very different ideas of peace.
The idea that peace is some sort of abstract value that comes through shared interests or hopes or feeling is strictly a 20th-century phenomenon, and one that may not survive the first half of the 21st century. It arose from the ashes of World War II, after which Europeans collectively resolved to stop killing each other, which is what Europe means by peace. However, most people around the world and throughout history understand that peace is what the victor imposes on losers—i.e., I’m going to live the way I choose and you’re going to live the way I choose, too, in exchange for which I will stop killing you. Hence the Pax Romana and the Pax Americana.
Israel already has peace, not an imperial peace like the Romans and Americans, but the only kind of peace a small country can unilaterally arrange for itself. Israel can’t force its neighbors to normalize and love the Jewish state, but it doesn’t have to. The Jews have a state, which means they have peace, even if they are often called to protect it with war.
Q: The rise of the Islamic State is often presented as a threat that can and should unite the peoples of the region along with regional and global powers to help stabilize countries like Syria and Libya that have descended into unbelievable chaos and carnage. Yet, while there is plenty of talk about the threat of the Islamic State, and plenty of press attention to the gruesome videos that the group periodically releases, there is startlingly little concerted effort on the ground to dislodge the Islamic State—and what action there is, from occasional U.S. bombing raids to Iranian ground offensives, seems entirely ineffective. Is the threat posed by the Islamic State simply a useful way for governments to coordinate potential agreements on other regional issues? Or is a real threat, one that regional governments and global powers simply aren’t capable of meeting?
Elliott Abrams: The IS arose for specific reasons, in my view: The regimes in Iraq and Syria were oppressing Sunnis, and in the Syrian case murdering Sunnis in huge numbers. The best recruiter for IS has been and remains Assad. There cannot be a global effort against IS unless and until there is an agreement on at least Syria, and a change in government there. But there is no agreement.
Robert Worth: ISIS is a real threat to the Arab states and to Turkey (it is less dangerous for Iran). But most Middle Eastern leaders are so consumed with protecting themselves from internal enemies (both real and imaginary) that they cannot fight it effectively. Some prefer to make use of it as a domestic weapon. The recent election in Turkey—and the government’s suspicious and disingenuous handling of the ISIS bombing in Ankara—provided one shameful example. This is nothing new: The “deep state” in Syria and Yemen and Algeria has manipulated jihadis as proxy warriors for decades, and Pakistan’s intelligence services have done the same thing in that country’s conflict with India. The lessons of Afghanistan—where such proxy tactics helped spawn al-Qaida—have been forgotten, and the stakes are higher now. ISIS poses a threat to the West too, and to Russia (as the recent spate of bombings in Egypt, Lebanon, and Paris made clear). But the West may be as incapable of combating it as the Arabs, for different reasons.
Hanin Ghaddar: ISIS is certainly a real threat. Beirut and Paris bombings are signs of that, and it could be the beginning of a wave of bombings across the Middle East and Europe. Last week, ISIS declared war. It showed that the Intentional community cannot give guarantees to Hezbollah and Iran, and it told us that a political solution is not going to work as long as they’re around.
ISIS should be dealt with, but not with the way it has been targeted so far. It only made them stronger and angrier. As I said earlier, the Sunnis can defeat ISIS by resisting them and fighting their power. But the Sunnis need guarantees and assurances that Iran will not control them when they fight and weaken ISIS. They will not do it for Iran. They will only fight ISIS if they were given these guarantees and some victories such as the removal of Assad.
Also, the removal of Assad will weaken ISIS. Fighters join ISIS for different reasons, including power and privileges. But many join ISIS in Syria because they believe they are fighting Assad, the Alawites, and the Shiites. But ISIS does not fight Assad. On the contrary, they sell him oil and in return he does not bomb their areas with barrel bombs. Remove Assad, and many will stop coming to the Islamic State.
The Muslim world has a big role to play too. Starting with our schools and mosques and media, the rhetoric is sectarian, poisonous and unhelpful. But when the International Community ignores liberal and secular voices, only ISIS and other Islamist groups on both Sunni and Shiite sides will be heard. You will have a stronger ISIS that operates worldwide, and more dictators like Assad.
Lee Smith: Lots of commentators argue that the Islamist State constitutes an entirely different kind of threat to regional and international security. However, it’s pretty standard Middle Eastern fare, especially the violence, which has been a part of every regional regime’s playbook, for the last several thousand years. ISIS may have put crucifixions on YouTube, but Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi didn’t invent the method.
ISIS is at its core the former intelligence and military officers from Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime and Arab tribes. The White House’s campaign against ISIS is therefore in its essence the third war America has waged against Saddam Hussein in the last 25 years. The Bush Administration won the second campaign when it managed to turn the tribes against foreign fighters and the former regime elements who managed them. Presumably, the Obama Administration or the next White House could do the same and break ISIS’s spine. The sticking point is that ISIS is no longer a Middle Eastern problem, but a European one.
What’s novel about ISIS is the number of foreign fighters that it has attracted from Western Europe. For several years now the prime concern of European security services is how to handle those fighters returning home. No doubt that the attacks in Paris last week have amplified those fears geometrically. But still the fundamental question is not what happens when they return, but why are they going to Syria to join ISIS in the first place?
I believe it’s because they think that for all the riches and opportunity Europe may offer, it is bereft of meaning. And the idea of a “caliphate” revived after nearly a hundred years is an exciting prospect for a young Muslim man searching for an authentic identity in a world awash with nonsense. Those coming back to Europe then are young men whose outstanding talent is a willingness to blow themselves up, and take others with them. This is an issue that is not going to be solved by increasing, for instance, the number of bombing raids that France runs against the Islamic State in Raqqa.
Edward Luttwak: For the first time since the rise of Islam, the historic cities of the Sunnis, Basrah, Baghdad, and Damascus, are all ruled by Twelver Shi’a heretics, most of whom have followed Iran’s lot in adding more and more Zahidist anomalies and Mahdist encrustations (by now the 12th, hidden, Imam who is to come out of a well near Qum to redeem the world and force chadors on all females, has been super-sized into a Muhammad-plus, which is the ultimate sacrilege). This adds to the outrage of heretical rule over Basrah, Baghdad, and Damascus—think of the Vatican under Mormon rule. The Dawlat al Islamiyya, the Islamic state, that Obama calls “Isol” and the poor French call Daesh (if you are afraid even to name your enemy you will not defeat him), is the Sunni Islamic power fighting the Shia by diminishing their numbers and enticing Iran in a war against Arabs, thus upending its overall strategy of seeking leadership over the entire Middle East.
Wait and see what happens if the pathetic Iraqi army and Shi’a militias commanded by Iran attack Mosul, the last historic city still in Sunni hands defended by the Islamic State. You will see it receiving help from the Sunni Saudis, Turks, Gulfies, and volunteers from everywhere. If it were legal to do so, I would myself make a contribution to the United Islamic State Appeal.
Robert Worth: We should know better than to repeat the ignorant Fox News line that using the word Daesh amounts to a cowardly failure to call the enemy by its name. It’s fine with me if one prefers ISIS, but the rationale for Daesh is valid enough: that by using ISIS we are echoing jihadi propaganda. If they called themselves “the Noble Islamic State,” would we agree to call them that?
Edward Luttwak: I have never used ISIS any more than Obama’s “Isol.” I call them by their name, the Dawlat al Islamiyya, The Islamic Government, or State. It is precisely because they are the Islamic State that they attract volunteers by the thousands, including talented people. They have the virtue of sincerity in representing what they and their many Muslim sympathizers believe to be the essential nature of Islam.
Paul Berman: There is something strange and preposterous about the debate over using the name “Islamic State.” I realize that a great many people freak out over using it, but the upset it causes is a part of the larger reluctance even to discuss the problem.
I also do not think the thing-that-should-not-be-named has arisen for specific reasons. The political circumstances in Iraq and Syria are merely facilitating factors, of which there appears to be no lack, here and there around the world. Nor can the popularity of the Islamic State in immigrant suburbs of France and Belgium and elsewhere be attributed to any specific factor. The Islamic State is an apocalyptic death cult, and it blossoms in a zone of obscurity outside of normal political categories.
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