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The Reign of Terror, Year XX

The state of jihad and counter-jihad, in the middle of a long war

Paul Berman
March 17, 2015
Original photo: Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images
Original photo: Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images
Original photo: Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images
Original photo: Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

The global jihad, Sunni variant, got under way in August 1996 in the juridical or pseudo-juridical form of the “Ladenese epistle,” otherwise known as the “Declaration of War Against Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” by Osama Bin Laden, as clarified and expanded by the subsequent “Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders”—which means that, with the 20th anniversary bearing down upon us, we are entitled to ask: How is it going, the jihad? All too well, thank you. Back in 1996 the wider world had never heard of Bin Laden.

But look at the jihad now—at the sundry Islamist insurgencies around the world, each of them marked by local peculiarities, and all of them emitting the same medieval fragrance of paranoia, millenarianism, and superstition. The jihad in Afghanistan: evidently undefeatable, regardless of NATO, the world’s most powerful military alliance. In various provinces of Pakistan: thriving, despite the CIA’s drones, the world’s most sophisticated weapon. In the Caucasus: clinging to life, regardless of Vladimir Putin, the world’s most powerful dictator. In Yemen: a stubborn base for al-Qaida, regardless of still more American drones. And thence to the Gaza Strip (where jihad presides), the Sinai Peninsula, Libya (where the jihad is contending for power), Mali and the Sahel, Somalia, and onward to amazing successes in northern Nigeria and beyond—a geographical sprawl indicating levels of energy astronomically beyond what anyone would have imagined 20 years ago.

Or look in Shiite directions, where the news is dismaying from still another standpoint. The Shiite jihad is older than its Sunni rival and not so long ago seemed to be showing its years. By 2009, the Islamic Republic of Iran appeared to have entered the decrepitude, at age 30, that we expect of all revolutionary governments: public splits within the leadership, masses of liberal-minded protesters in the streets, a “color revolution” on everyone’s mind. Such were the hopes. But decrepitude turned out to be a passing phase. The Islamic Republic found its second wind, which has proved to be hegemonically more expansive than anything achieved during the first wind, as shown in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen (where the Islamic Republic’s allies have overthrown one of the last lingering democratic successes of the Arab Spring, not that anyone cares about the Arab Spring anymore), and Bahrain, apart even from the centrifuges and uranium. And so, the cause of Islamist revolution has demonstrated an ability not just to spread geographically, but to shrug off the weight of time.

The catastrophes in Syria have dashed a different kind of hope, or, rather, three hopes—the hope in 2011 that Syria’s liberal revolutionaries would enjoy a straightforward success; the hope in 2013 that, with an American and Western European intervention, the liberals would still come away with some kind of success, if not quite as beautiful a one; and finally a hope that is too ugly to describe. But I will describe. It was the whispered hope that, by killing each other en masse, the sundry terrifying factions in the Syrian war would leave each other depleted and defanged, which would allow the rest of the world to sigh in relief, even if it was too bad for the Syrians. Only, nothing of the sort has occurred. These are factions that batten on their own sufferings. The more the Syrian Baath party slaughters Syrians, the more secure seems to be its ability to survive.

The warriors of Hezbollah: stronger than ever, gearing up for future wars. Al-Qaida’s Al Nusra Front, on the anti-government side: military triumphs of its own. As for al-Qaida’s splinter group the Islamic State, it has entered the annals of military history. Resentful young men of 19th-century Europe used to draw inspiration from Napoleon’s rise from humble origins to world conquest, and their counterparts in 21st-century Europe draw a ghastlier but similar inspiration from the Islamic State: a story awaiting its Stendhal. Still another triumph for the jihad: Every Jewish institution in large parts of the world is now under armed guard. Even the guards need guards.

I remember the atmosphere a dozen years ago or more, when a handful of writers, myself among them, had the temerity to suggest that we were in for a protracted conflict not unlike the Cold War—a worldwide contest lasting decades, containing medium-sized hot wars and underground tiny wars, enlisting the participation of many millions, a power struggle that was also destined to be a struggle of principle and of ideas: ultimately a contest between liberal democracy and its enemies (though no one needs to be reminded that, in the case of the Cold War, darker motives and uglinesses sometimes canceled the larger logic in whole continents at a time). This evaluation was taken to be, by our critics, melodramatic and self-serving. The reprimand was severe. To be honest, you can hear the reprimand being made even now. But I notice that, as the years go by, the people making the reprimand have begun to sound a little sheepish.


And the counter-jihad—how has this been going? I mean the counter-jihad in the one field that we entirely control, which is the field of our own political and military strategic thinking. The counter-jihad in this particular field has been going badly, thank you. The various theoreticians have advanced their doctrines, and each new doctrine has proved to be faulty and has given way to a newer one, which has fared poorly until, like a man tripping down the stairs, the entire enterprise of concocting theories about the war has gone crashing downward in a helter-skelter of disorientation and broken bones. The history of those confusions and contusions is the history of the war, viewed from a certain angle—a four-part history, plus a prehistory.

The prehistory consists of everything that antedated the Ladenese epistle. Conventional opinion in the Western countries and in Israel in those long-ago times regarded the sundry jihads already under way as village idiosyncrasies or anthropological quirks. And conventional opinion tended to picture the larger Islamist cause as a movement that had already passed its peak—a popular theme among the most distinguished Western scholars of modern Islam, c. 1992. On the basis of those evaluations, one government after another figured that Islamist organizations could be manipulated in crafty ways by shrewd diplomats—e.g., the Americans in Afghanistan in the 1980s, who hoped to deploy the jihad cost-free against the Soviet Union; or the Americans in regard to the Iran-Iraq War of that same decade, with the hope of deploying the jihad against the Baath, and vice versa; or the Israelis in regard to Hamas, who hoped to deploy the pieties of an Islamic revival against the radicalism of the Palestinian nationalists. None of those manipulations turned out well.

Their failure led to the first of the anti-jihad formulations. This was not too sophisticated. It was a sheriff’s reflex, akin to tacking up a Wanted poster and sending a posse. Al-Qaida blew up the American embassies in East Africa in 1998, and Bill Clinton responded with cruise missiles, which, given the choice between “Dead or Alive,” suggested a preference for “Dead.” Only, the sheriff’s reflex was no match for the subtleties and grandiosities of the Islamist cause. And so, the reflex gave way to a second theory, which, whatever its flaws, could at least claim that, in regard to grandiosity, it was Islamism’s match.

This was the Philosophy of History, as propounded by Clinton’s successor, who, before ascending to the White House, had sometimes enjoyed the privilege of surveying the revolutions of 1989 at his father’s side, where he evidently conceived a habit of thinking on a grand scale. And he drew conclusions—to wit, that world events in the modern age are dominated by a 1989-like struggle between democratic liberty and tyranny; that God and human nature are on the side of democratic liberty; that America is the beloved champion of democratic liberty everywhere; and that history’s liberal and democratic direction is clear. These were doctrines from the era of Andrew Jackson. They proved to be entirely alive, circa 1989. And, with these philosophical ideas or impulses fermenting in his imagination, George W. Bush, from atop the rubble of the World Trade Center, gazed in Arab and Muslim directions.

He saw that, in more than a few of the Muslim countries, dictators were in power; the masses, in misery; and terrorism, in bloom—not just the single jihadi organization that had lately attacked the United States but a bouquet of noxious groups, some of which had gone after the United States on other occasions. Bush was aware that American foreign policy, with its support for the regional dictators over the decades, had contributed to the predicament. About the American past, he was entirely critical. He proposed to turn a new leaf, in which America would play the kind of revolutionary role it had played in Eastern Europe, except this time with a military push. The idea was to overthrow the whole festering political system throughout the zone and to allow the oppressed and the enlightened to rise up and bring about a new and higher stage of development.

Only, Bush and his administration combined these several lofty notions with a low impulse to allow the American police agencies to run amok; and a further low impulse to prefer manipulation over persuasion; and still another impulse to disdain their critics and political opponents, all of which had the effect of inspiring incredulity and panic. Bush lacked political skills. He never knew how to deliver his own most interesting arguments. Administrative skills were not his strong point. Military incompetence did him in, at least until his last couple of years in office. Ultimately he was the victim of his own doctrine. If he chose to present his revolutionary argument in an off-hand style, or if he declined to cock an ear to his critics, or to take account of the pesky details of political and military reality, it was because, at bottom, he believed that destiny was on his side, and his own humble decisions scarcely mattered. This was another blunder. Destiny let him down. And so, even before Bush had left office, the Philosophy of History gave way, just as the Wanted poster had done, to a third analysis, which became fully visible under his successor.

This was a return to the Wanted poster, updated to new circumstances. The idea was to shrink the Bush Administration’s early program for democratic revolution to an oratorical flourish, and to avoid any new large-scale military operations, and to withdraw from the ones already under way, and, instead, to send still more posses to remote places to hunt down selected dangerous individuals. In sum, a program to oversee the receding tides of war and replace them with narrow counterterrorist operations. Only, in the era of Barack Obama, the new circumstances required the counterterrorist posses to operate discreetly in a staggering number of countries, which suggested a more than police-like scale. In any event, King Canute was not too successful at ordering the tides to recede. Under his command the American troops withdrew from Iraq, and it was precisely their withdrawal, together with the American and British reluctance to intervene in Syria, that facilitated the Islamic State’s entrance into the military annals. Obama accordingly ordered the troops back into Iraq, a few thousand of them, together with an air campaign that ended up spreading into Syria, too, where Bush’s military adventures had never led: seven months of air war, by now. In Afghanistan, too, Obama has felt obliged to preside during the last year over an uptick in American military action. And in these ways, Obama has returned, as well, to the Bush policy of saying one thing (the receding tide) and doing another (the incoming tide of American troops and planes).

Another contradiction: Policing requires a precise definition of the perps and culprits. The Obama Administration has therefore gone about drawing a distinction between out-and-out anti-Western terrorists with bombs in their hands (whose ideology ought not to be mentioned, out of prudence) and the rest of the Islamist movement, to whom might be imputed a progressive and democratic potential. Only, the drawing of this distinction has entailed a price. In 2011, the Bush Administration’s long-forgotten dream of a mass regional uprising in favor of liberal democracy astonished everyone by actually breaking out. Obama took the view (as all of the modern American presidents have done) that revolutionary developments accorded with capital-H History itself. He put the United States on History’s side—in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria.

And yet, the administration had meanwhile talked itself into believing its own propaganda about the moderate Islamists and their democratic potential. The Muslim Brotherhood and fraternal parties basked in what appeared to be American approval. In Tunisia, in Egypt, and in lesser degree in other places, the Brotherhood and its allies duly acquired power. And, as any anti-Islamist would have predicted, the moderates opened the door to the radicals. Low-level jihads got under way, with a prospect of swelling into high-level jihads. Large publics in North Africa and elsewhere responded with outrage. Masses of anti-Islamist demonstrators took to marching in the streets or assembling in the squares, quite as if an anti-Islamist revolt were a proper next phase for the Arab Spring. In Tunisia, the moderate Islamists displayed actual moderation by agreeing to step down from power.

In Egypt, though, the Muslim Brotherhood did nothing of the sort. The Syrian jihad was under way, and the Egyptian Brothers felt a religious duty to encourage young Egyptian men to journey eastward and enlist in the Syrian war. President Morsi, the Brother, delivered a major speech offering his own encouragement—which, if you think about it, suggested a policy guaranteed to import Syria’s jihad back into Egypt sometime in the future, once Egypt’s jihadis had returned home. The Egyptian army officers thought about it. Two weeks after Morsi’s speech they staged their very popular coup. And the United States, having championed the democratic credentials of the Brotherhood and its fraternal parties, and having gone on to protest against the coup, ended up looking as if, entirely by accident, it had become the jihad’s witless friend. Here was one more humiliating failure for American policy—together with the humiliation of having encouraged the Syrian liberals to rise up against Assad, without offering the support that might have allowed the liberals to succeed; together with the humiliation of having facilitated the overthrow of Qaddafi in Libya, without offering the support afterward that might have allowed the liberals of Libya to construct a new order of their own; together with the larger humiliation of having helped bring into being a modern Middle East in which hardly anyone seems to look warmly on Washington, D.C.

And so, a still newer formulation has come tumbling down the staircase, the fourth and latest stage in the doctrinal response to the war. The new formulation appears to be Kissingerian, even if Kissinger himself disapproves. It is the idea of fashioning a Middle Eastern stability based on a balance of powers among the regional blocs—a Peace of Westphalia between, on one side, the Shiite powers of Iran and sundry allies, and, on the other side, Israelis and Saudis and their own allies, in the hope that each of the two blocs will do its own policing. And who is to say? Fifty years from now, Obama’s regional concept may appear to have been as brilliantly conceived as was Kissinger’s diabolical anti-Soviet pact with the Chinese Communists. The Iranian Islamists—yes, why not? They may well turn out to be, like Mao’s Communists, pragmatic sheep in fanatics’ clothing. Only, it has to be acknowledged that, in our own time, the evidence for this evaluation appears to be either classified, or speculative, or fantastical. The program itself appears to be a justification for avoiding a program.

A famous photograph of our moment makes this point. It is the historic photo of the front line of the vast “republican” march in Paris, two months ago, after the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher massacres—the photo in which we see, marching arm in arm, François Hollande and Angela Merkel, with Donald Tusk, the Polish president of the European Council, at Merkel’s other elbow. Far to the left, we see Benjamin Netanyahu shoulder to shoulder with President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta of Mali and, far to the right, Mahmoud Abbas with Tusk. Politically speaking, a more inspiring photo has never been taken. To gaze at those national leaders is to reflect that, between 1792 and 1945, France and Germany went to war so frequently and terribly as to destroy Europe; and now they march arm in arm. Likewise Poland and Germany. Everyone knows that Netanyahu and Abbas are themselves not ready to link arms, and yet in this photo they are already doing so indirectly, via the kindly elbows of their fellow leaders.

The people in this photo are marching in the cause of anti-terrorism. And they are marching in opposition to the Islamist program of imposing censorship on the entire world—the program that got under way with Ayatollah Khomeini’s call to murder Salman Rushdie and his publishers back in 1989 and has continued ever after, now in one form, now in another. It is true that, among the leaders marching in the Paris street, not everyone would normally have stood up on behalf of the left-wing jokesters at Charlie, nor on behalf of the crowd shopping for kosher goods. Still, circumstances required a march, and the sundry leaders rose to the occasion, and willy-nilly they were champions, for the moment, not just of order but of freedom.

Gazing at the photo, though, we are bound also to observe that, even if we Americans like to boast of our glorious place in the universal history of democracy, the leader of the Free World appears to be oddly missing from the march. The tall head, the noble gaze—are they perhaps hidden behind some other person? Lafayette, good luck! It is a puzzlement. I think the leader of the Free World is missing from the photo because, having sustained too many bruises on his way down the stairs, he has not been able to figure out that duty requires him to make an appearance. Or maybe the State Department fantasy about the democratic potential of the Muslim Brotherhood, or the White House fantasy about Kissingerian deals with the Iranian mullahs, has ruled out participating in any sort of event likely to infuriate the Islamists, Sunni and Shiite alike. Also, Obama’s tin ear when it comes to anti-Semitism is legendary. In any case, his absence confers on the photo an additional and unhappy meaning.

The portrait of the assembled worthies, which appears at first glance to convey the political and military might of a vast community of nations, turns out, upon further inspection, to reveal a weakness. Here is a powerful alliance, minus the element that possesses the power. An image of unity that turns out to be an image of fracture. Here also is a funerary image. Those marching chiefs of state are not, after all, engaged in a victory celebration, even if the photo looks celebratory. The only victories lately have belonged to the jihad. It is a photo from the middle of the war, and not from the end of the war.


Read more about 40 years of the Iranian Revolution in Tablet’s special series this week.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.