Bill Gertz’s article “Surrender in the War of Ideas” suggests to me that confusion exists on all sides of the spectrum when it comes to the fight against ISIS. President Obama views “ideas” as central in the struggle against ISIS but, as Gertz points out, wants to farm the ideological battle out to foreign states and Muslim communities that often share some of the same goals as the groups the administration calls violent extremists. And he studiously avoids identifying links between jihadist terrorism and Islam.
Many on the right agree that ideas are central, but want the U.S. to be more ideologically engaged. And they want the administration to identify the religious doctrine behind the ideology of ISIS. We cannot wage an effective war of ideas if we are unwilling to speak honestly about the roots of the ideas we are combatting, they insist.
Meanwhile, according to Gertz, some at the State Department maintain that ideology — whether or not related to Islam — plays no real role in Islamist terror. Instead, the terrorism arises from “local grievances” such as poverty or other economic and social privation.
In my view, all sides in this debate are misguided. It’s true that the struggle against ISIS has an ideological component and that religion is very much a part of that component. And local economic and social grievances sometimes factor in as well.
But like most wars, this war is a power struggle that needs to be won militarily. It cannot be won by outdebating Islamists or by solving local grievances, even if somehow we could solve them.
Moreover, ISIS fighters are not driven by Islam. Many are simply sociopaths. As for the rest, as Michael Ledeen has argued, they are trying to give meaning to their lives. They seek the thrill of the fight, and of contributing to the creation of a new world, by joining an irresistible force. Again, it’s about power, not religion, although religion supplies an added dose of toxicity to the mix.
As for potential recruits and sympathizers on the sidelines — the intended audience for the “war of ideas” — the way to dissuade them from supporting ISIS is to demonstrate that ISIS is neither an irresistible force nor the wave of the future. This can only be accomplished through military victories.
Stated differently, the central idea behind ISIS’s jihad (and the jihad of other Islamists) is that the jihadists are destined to triumph. The only way to defeat this idea is to prove, militarily, that are destined to be defeated. Thus, by winning militarily, we win this round of an age-old “war of ideas.”
I don’t mean to deny that (1) there is a religious component to ISIS or (2) that its ideology is related to Islam. Nor do I mean to suggest that the relationship should be ignored.
By paying attention to the religious component, we develop a better understanding of the enemy. In particular, we understand its seriousness of purpose. And we understand why so many jihadists are able to conclude that ISIS is an irresistible force (military successes during the past two years are probably even more persuasive in this regard).
Had Obama understood this, he probably wouldn’t have dismissed ISIS as “the jayvee.”
Thus, the administration needs clarity about the religious dimension of ISIS. But we don’t need to wage a “war of ideas” against ISIS. Nor do we need to concern ourselves with whether ISIS’s ideology is a perversion of Islam or reasonable interpretation of that religion (though it makes sense in terms of public relations to espouse the former view).
Towards the end of Gertz’s piece he quotes Rick Stengel, a former Time magazine reporter who is now undersecretary for public diplomacy. Stengel says:
There is no battle of ideas with ISIL. ISIL is bereft of ideas, they’re bankrupt of ideas. It’s not an organization that is animated by ideas. It’s a criminal, savage, barbaric organization—I feel like we won that battle already.
In fact, the sense that one is destined by history and by God to prevail is an idea. But otherwise, I think Stengel is right. There is no battle of ideas with ISIS separate from the military battle.
The Obama administration should act accordingly.