FSG Blog
August 26, 2014

ISIS, Hitler, Orwell

Roger Cohen has an op-ed in the New York Times this morning (“The Making of a Disaster”) in which he criticizes the Obama administration’s handling of the Middle East.

ISIS has been allowed to fester, he says, because of red lines that were drawn by Obama and then not acted upon: we said we would not tolerate use of chemical weapons in Syria, and then when they were used, we ended up negotiating with Assad, allowing a vacuum in Syria that was filled by extremists.

Now, one might ask what the Cohen-acceptable alternatives were for Obama. They seem to break down to two: either follow up “red line” talk with warlike action, and attack the Syrian government; or simply refrain from “red-line” talk at all. The latter option would seem to offer little in the way of opposition to the Islamists; the former would essentially mean siding with ISIS, which rather begs the question. 

But it is not simply the drawing of disappearing red lines to which Cohen objects. Cohen quotes Ghaffar Hussain, Managing Director of Quilliam (formerly the Quilliam Foundation, named for William Quilliam, a 19th century British convert to Islam who built the first mosque in the United Kingdom), as saying that “If you don’t have a concerted strategy to undermine their narrative, their values, their worldview, you are not going to succeed. Everyone in society has to take on the challenge.”

Intuitively it seems to me that a universal societal movement to do anything starts to sound something like a jihad; and a jihad for moderation sounds to me like a contradiction in terms, or at least very unlikely.

But Cohen’s column put me in mind of another journalist, Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell. In 1940, reviewing Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, he wrote the following:

“[Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude toward life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all ‘Progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security, and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t want only comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags, and loyalty parades…. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.” [George Orwell, review of Mein Kampf, in the New English Weekly, March 21, 1940]

Capitalism has, since Orwell’s day, seemingly completely dropped the grudging attitude towards good times; western-style capitalism, even in places like China, offers billions of new customers plenty of good times (if not always plenty of political freedom). But there remains an appetite for “struggle, danger and death” that capitalism still cannot satisfy. In the United States we offer, through the military, an opportunity for hundreds of thousands of young men, and now young women, to experience”struggle and sacrifice.” Ideological political and religious movements within the United States also offer a version of “drums, flags, and loyalty parades” in opposition to the “good time” generally available in American society. To date, in America and most of Western Europe, these release valves seem to have forestalled the rise of a broader extremist militarist movement that might enforce a less objectively pleasant order upon their populations. 

But in places like Iraq, Libya, and parts of Subsaharan Africa, movements of this type have found more fertile ground, almost certainly because of more desperate economic and security conditions. The Arab Spring seems to have been distorted from a general movement for democratic reforms into a two-way fight between autocratic Muslim regimes (restored in Egypt, still regnant in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), the Kurdish proto-state in northern Iraq, the Shiite rump state of Iraq, and possibly Iran on the one hand; and a combination of extremist Sunni Islamist movements (ISIS, Libyan Islamists, al Qaeda, etc.) and some Islamist-friendly nations in the region (Turkey, Qatar). The allegiances are cross-cutting and tortured: Turkey’s position may well owe much more to its hostility to the idea of a Kurdish state that might want territory from Turkey, Syria, and Iran as it does to friendliness to ISIS’ aims; and Sunni Saudi Arabia fears both Shiite Iran and Sunni ISIS. And then of course there is the situation in Palestine and Israel, almost overshadowed by the larger chaos around it. 

Yesterday’s report in the New York Times that Egypt and the UAE had combined forces to attack Libyan Islamist forces from the air, without informing their ally and military supplier the United States, showed the larger Middle East alliance picture coming into fractured focus. Lacking the glamorous appeal of their opponents, the autocratic regimes threatened by ISIS and similar groups are banding together to use their superior equipment and firepower to quash these movements. But it is difficult to tell who the “good guys” are in this picture. If ISIS is on the “Hitler” side, does that make Bashar al-Assad into Winston Churchill? 

No. There are no good, clean sides in this fight for the United States to side with. We have few palatable options. If Obama had followed up his “red line” rhetoric with military action, it might not have changed anything, but it might have made things slightly easier for ISIS. It certainly would have identified America with ISIS. Our allies in this region appear to be the autocrats – Egypt, UAE, Shiite Iraq, Saudi Arabia. But we remain allies with Turkey and Qatar, who appear to be helping Islamist movements. 

The big question seems to be, if this is not another chapter in the Iraq War, what is it? Is it the Middle East version of World War II? Surely that seemed a more clear-cut war of good (democracy) against evil (fascism).

We may be witnessing something from much farther back, more akin to the Christian European Wars of Religion of the 1500s and 1600s, in which a revolutionary Protestantism was violently confronted by resurgent autocratic Catholic monarchs.

In short, if you are sure you know what the United States should do at this moment in the Middle East, you are obviously overlooking something. And if you are confused, then you are paying attention. 

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