The Unbearable Lightness of America’s War Against the Islamic State

The Unbearable Lightness of America’s War Against the Islamic State

In the classic World War II novel The Caine Mutiny, author Herman Wouk quoted an “ancient adage” about the typical bureaucratic response to a crisis:

“When in danger or in doubt,

Run in circles, scream and shout.”

That couplet summarizes the prevailing U.S. response to global terrorism perfectly. All one has to do is read the panicky, narrow-minded, and irresponsible ravings of the current GOP presidential aspirants, as well as look at the latest poll numbers, and it’s clear that a good portion of the U.S. electorate is prepared to follow them off the deep end.

Yet the unhinged nature of the current discourse on terrorism also reveals how profoundly unserious U.S. counterterrorism efforts really are. To say this sounds odd, given the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been thrown at the problem, and the tens of thousands of lives (both American and foreign) that have been lost waging the “global war on terror” (or if you prefer, the “campaign against violent extremism”), is an understatement. It sounds even odder when one considers the vast army of people who are now employed to protect us from terrorism, not to mention the countries we’ve invaded, the drone strikes and targeted assassinations we’ve performed, and the mountains of metadata we’ve collected. Surely all this effort shows that Washington is deeply engaged in the challenge of thwarting al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other violent radicals.

If only. For starters, consider what we have to show for all this effort and expense. We now have a vast counterterrorism industry, much bigger intelligence budgets, and more energetic government surveillance, but the basic counterterrorist playbook has evolved little over the past 20 years. In particular, our national security establishment is still convinced that the main way to defeat extremist groups is U.S. military intervention, despite the nagging suspicion that it just creates more ungoverned spaces and makes it easier for groups like the Islamic State to recruit new members. The New York Times reported this week that the Pentagon is now seeking a new set of military bases in or around the Arab and Islamic world so that it can prosecute the military campaign against the Islamic State et al. more effectively.

Excuse me, but isn’t that exactly what we’ve been doing since the 1990s and with greater energy and effort over time? Yet there are more al Qaeda affiliates now than there were back in 2001, and organizations like the Islamic State didn’t even exist back then. Is it possible that our entire approach here has been ill-conceived and has been making the problem worse instead of better? And what would a more serious approach to terrorism look like?

If the United States were truly serious about terrorism, it would start by gauging the level of threat properly and communicating that appraisal to the American people.

As numerous scholarly studies have shown, the actual risk of terrorism to the average American is remarkably low. In their new book Chasing Ghosts, John Mueller and Mark Stewart estimate the odds that an American will be killed by a terrorist are about one in 4 million each year. Compared with more prosaic dangers that we accept on a daily basis, this level of risk is absurdly small. Yet instead of using logic and evidence to reassure the American people, leaders from both parties have encouraged, since 9/11, the irrational fear of terrorism to drive a host of counterproductive policies. Even President Barack Obama, who seems to have a more measured view than many of his counterparts, did a rather limp job of reassuring the public in his Oval Office speech last Sunday.

What is needed is not a single presidential speech, but rather a sustained, all-out effort by top U.S. officials to remind their fellow citizens how safe they actually are. One often hears that fear is inherently irrational and that such a campaign would never work, but how do we know until someone tries? By refusing to tell the truth about the actual (very low) level of risk, presidents and other officials cede the ground to threat-mongers and guarantee that the public will overreact to the rare but dramatic events that do occur.

So why haven’t we seen a serious and sustained effort to put the terrorist threat in perspective? The answer is, in part, because people and institutions with a vested interest in hyping the danger tend to dominate public discourse on this topic. Do you really expect the CIA, NSA, FBI, or the vast array of well-paid “counterterrorism” experts to offer reassuring testimony about these risks, when their own budgets, bureaucratic clout, autonomy, and prominence depend on keeping us trembling in our socks? As long as we have an unserious understanding of the danger, we’re going to have unsuccessful policies and a country that reacts from fear instead of common sense.

If the United States were truly serious about terrorism, we would also have a more honest and open discussion about our own role in generating it.

Our reluctance to consider whether certain aspects of U.S. foreign and defense policy inspire anti-American extremism began as early as the 9/11 Commission. As the late Ernest May, a distinguished historian who worked with the commission, later acknowledged:

“[T]he report skirts the question of whether American policies and actions fed the anger that manifested itself on September 11…. [it] is weak in laying out evidence for the alternative argument that the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the Capitol might not have been targeted absent America’s identification with Israel, support for regimes such as those in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan, and insensitivity to Muslims’ feelings about their holy places. The commissioners believed that American foreign policy was too controversial to be discussed except in recommendations written in the future tense. Here we compromised our commitment to set forth the full story.”


Even now, there is a widespread tendency to believe extremist violence comes out of nowhere or that it occurs because some unfortunate individuals are frustrated by their inability to find meaningful lives and thus vulnerable to fantasies of various sorts. To be sure, people alienated from the societies in which they dwell are sometimes drawn to acts of mass violence, but that fact hardly means U.S. foreign policy is irrelevant. As I pointed out back in 2009, the United States is directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Muslims over the past three decades, a sum vastly greater than the number of Americans killed by Muslims. It would be remarkable indeed if our actions had not led a small fraction of their co-religionists to want to retaliate in some way.

To say this does not justify the slaughter of innocents or suggest even remotely that what groups like the Islamic State are doing is justified. Nor does this imply that U.S. policy is solely responsible for this problem. Rather, my point is that any serious effort to address this problem has to begin by understanding its origins. If we ignore any of the key underlying causes, we are likely to keep doing things that nurture and sustain the very behavior we are trying to prevent.

If the United States were truly serious about terrorism, we would now be having a frank discussion about the role of the media.

I’m positive organizations like Fox News and CNN do not intend to help al Qaeda or the Islamic State, but that is in fact precisely what they are doing. Whenever a terrorist incident occurs, TV and radio outlets immediately offer up a frenzy of overheated reportage, most of it intended to keep people scared and their eyeballs glued to the screen or their ears glued to the radio. (It’s the nature of modern media; the Weather Channel does the same thing with every major storm.) Yet this Pavlovian response is precisely what groups like the Islamic State are hoping for: It gives them more free publicity; convinces people who are in little to no danger that they should be really, really scared; and makes a comparatively weak movement like the Islamic State seem like a vast multi-headed hydra that is penetrating our society and threatening every one of us. Frankly, the media couldn’t be doing more to help these movements if they were being paid by them directly.

I’m no fan of government censorship, and I don’t think the American people would be better off if they were even less informed about these issues. But we need to have a serious national conversation about a more responsible way to cover such incidents. For starters, Obama could invite the presidents of major news organizations to an all-day summit at the White House to discuss a “code of conduct” for covering events like the Paris or San Bernardino attacks. Media watchdogs need to devote more effort to calling out major news organizations when they indulge in disaster porn or when they give most of the airtime to commentators who have a direct interest in hyping the threat. Similarly, public officials should not hesitate to press news organizations to adopt a more sober and less market-driven approach, and use their bully pulpits to call out media outlets that act irresponsibly.

Imagine how much trouble it would cause the Islamic State if its best efforts ended up on page A-17 of the newspaper or if an attack got only 30 seconds worth of coverage on Wolf Blitzer’s The Situation Room. If terrorists staged an attack and nobody paid that much attention, their entire strategy might collapse.

If the United States were truly serious about terrorism, we’d also see more creative efforts to discredit, marginalize, spoof, and embarrass the groups we oppose.

The Islamic State has a pretty sophisticated social media operation, designed to convince recruits that they are joining a movement that is exciting, visionary, dedicated, and that will change the world. There are many ways to combat this message, but let’s not leave out the role of humor and ridicule. One of the best ways to discredit extremist movements is to make them look ridiculous, so that joining or backing them is seen as stupid, uncool, or embarrassing. Instead of constantly portraying the Islamic State and its ilk as cruel, cunning, fanatical, dedicated, dangerous, etc., we should spend at least as much time depicting them as ignorant, backward, inept, misguided, and absurd.

To be sure, there is nothing silly about a group that relies on beheadings, rape, and suicide attacks to advance its cause, and efforts to lampoon such groups have to be done in a sophisticated way. It is also a tricky matter for Hollywood or other Western media organizations to make fun of fanatical Muslims, for doing so can play into the latter’s sense of moral outrage. Among other things, this suggests that other Muslims should be actively involved in the effort to portray the Islamic State et al. as a bunch of fools. (For some examples of what I have in mind, see here and here.)

The broader point is that humor and satire are potent weapons that should be in our counterterrorism arsenal to cut these groups down to size, encourage morale, and discredit their message. It is worth remembering that we’ve done similar things in the past, with groups every bit as heinous as today’s extremists. On the eve of World War II, for example, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator brilliantly lampooned fascist leaders like Adolf Hitler, using satire and comedy instead of chest-thumping rhetoric. Hollywood got into the act, too, producing cartoons that brilliantly portrayed Hitler and the Nazis as buffoons. As the brilliant Mel Brooks told an interviewer, regarding his own portrayals of Hitler over the years, “You can’t get on a soapbox with these orators, because they’re very good at convincing the masses that they’re right. But if you can make them look ridiculous, you can win over the people.” Precisely.

If the United States were truly serious about terrorism, you’d see a more hardnosed approach to the various American “allies” who are part of the problem rather than being part of the solution.

U.S. officials would be calling out Turkey publicly for its actions against the Kurdish forces battling the Islamic State, for the porosity of its border with Islamic State-controlled territory, and for its blind eye toward smuggling and other actions that are keeping the militant group in business. Instead of going overboard to reassure Saudi Arabia in the wake of the deal with Iran, we’d be having some unpleasant conversations about the Saudi role in promoting Wahhabism and its connection to extremist movements like the Islamic State. And, by the way, putting that issue at the top of the agenda is not an unfriendly act, given that al Qaeda and the Islamic State are themselves potential threats to the House of Saud. We would also make it clear to the Israeli government that its treatment of the Palestinians is a national security issue for us, and we would make our “special relationship” conditional on the creation of Palestinian state and not just the usual empty promises (I know, I’m dreaming here, but our failure to take this obvious step just shows how unserious our policy still is).

So why don’t we adopt a more serious approach to this issue? To some extent, for the same reasons serious gun control efforts are a non-starter despite the epidemic of gun violence and shocking events like the Columbine or Newtown massacres. In fact, terrorism just isn’t a serious threat to American security or prosperity, especially compared to other dangers, and at some level the American people know that no matter what they tell pollsters. They get excited and fearful after an attack here at home, or after some tragic carnage overseas, but they don’t want government officials to do anything that might inconvenience them or force them to abandon some cherished special interest. They don’t demand fundamental shifts in U.S. Middle East policy (in part because the connection between that policy and the terrorist problem is obscured), and they don’t want to pay more taxes, register their guns, or go through any more security checkpoints. It’s easier just to target some minority population, blow smoke about “sealing the border,” and believe you can solve the problem by “banning Muslims” or electing an unqualified blowhard president.

All of which goes to underscore a theme I’ve made clear many times before: The United States is a very lucky country. It is rich enough that it can throw large sums of money at minor problems. It is secure enough that it can interfere all over the world and experience painful but endurable moments of backlash here at home. Indeed, it is so well-off that it can even afford a political class that is increasingly an embarrassment on a wide array of important issues. With this good fortune comes the luxury of being able to do the same dumb things over and over, which is a pretty fair summary of our entire approach to contemporary terrorism.

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