Reprinted from the Press and Journal:
She never saw it coming.
Appearing on MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf was caught off-guard by the host’s tough questions. When asked what it will take for the U.S. to defeat the Islamic State, Harf admitted “we cannot win this war by killing them.”
She went further: “We need in the medium and longer term to go after the root causes that leads people to join these groups, whether it’s a lack of opportunity for jobs.”
Islamic radicals are capturing vast swaths of Iraq and Syria because they want… jobs?
Non-interventionists, who at first favored President Obama’s reluctance for war, are tiring of the political-correctness. The administration appears clueless on how to deal with ISIS. The president’s team is more frightened to use the word “Islam” than of scores of Egyptian Copts murdered in cold blood by Islamic State soldiers.
The inability to “know thy enemy,” as Sun Tzu put it, is just one reason Obama won’t win the war against ISIS. His recent request to Congress for the use of military force is a mere formality.
Nearly 3,000 troops are already on the ground in Iraq, ominously echoing the beginnings of the Vietnam War. Airstrikes have been going on for 6 months, despite NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s admission that strikes won’t be enough to defeat the new caliphate.
Even if the Oval Office was occupied with someone more hawkish, America would still be inept at defeating ISIS. In brute force, the U.S. military is vastly superior to the estimated 20,000 jihadists pledged to the Islamic State. But ISIS isn’t operating on the same epistemological level as the generals at the Pentagon. For them, this fight goes beyond bullets and rockets. It’s a history-defining struggle to bring on the end times.
The Western mind can’t begin to comprehend such devotion. The rise of strict secularism in the public sphere has left us incapable of understanding the motivation behind the Sunni-dominated Islamic State.
We live in what philosopher Charles Taylor calls the “Secular Age” and it shows. Public policy follows god-less reason. We see ISIS only as a threat to American embassies in Iraq. Islamic fighters see us as necessary evil in their holy war for global domination.
Graeme Wood of The Atlantic recently profiled the Islamic State, detailing its origins and goals. The one takeaway from the report is that the U.S. is engaged in a futile struggle. We have nothing to offer ISIS. They aren’t tortured souls yearning to breathe free. ISIS has one clear goal: Restore an Islamic caliphate governed by Shariah Law. Western democracy, with its secular bend and laws of tolerance, is a threat to their preferred way of life.
This is visible in the gruesome actions carried out by ISIS radicals. Throwing gay men off the top of buildings, stoning apostates, forcing Christians into servitude – these are things Americans would never think of doing. But to the Islamic State, all of this is necessary. It’s rooted in their “vision of life as obedience, order, and destiny.”
ISIS doesn’t even operate on the same plane of civic virtue as us. According to Sharia, Muslims can’t recognize borders of sovereign nation-states. Doing so is a form of apostasy or polytheism. The United States can’t carve out an Islamic-only country to placate ISIS, à la Israel. Nothing we offer is enough.
Our misunderstanding of ISIS’s motives stems from America’s unique beginnings. Our founding documents are a compromise between deism and Puritan fundamentalism. Thus, our Declaration of Independence contains the spirit of God who is both personal and removed from day-to-day life.
Over time, the balance led to religion retreating from the public square to an exclusively private vocation. The result is a mindset University of British Columbia psychology professor Joe Henrich calls WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.
Being WEIRD is unlike anything else known in the world up until the 19th Century. Our values of reason, fairness, and rights are not shared by the rest of the world. In mindset, America is exceptional. But the irony is that this exceptionalism may be our undoing in trying to eliminate ISIS.
Islamic State members don’t think like us. They are more than religiously devout; they firmly believe the apocalypse is approaching and their conclave will be led to victory by a messiah named Mahdi. In their view, the ransacking of homes stealing of wealth, and trail of death and destruction will soon be justified with the world’s end. The final confrontation between the good Muslims and evil forces will take place in the Syrian city of Dabiq. One of the perceived enemies is America.
ISIS isn’t looking for peace; the caliphate is seeking confrontation. As Wood writes, “The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself. “
How do we compete with an enemy that is asking to be destroyed?
Nobody, Democrat or Republican, has the answer. We are at a lack for what conservative writer Rod Dreher calls “the intensity with which religion is felt in most of the world.”
Centuries of enlightened thought have left the West numb to the power of spiritual ideas. Our values have no bearing on the Islamic State.
Reason can only go so far in combating people who believe beheadings and immolation are lawful requirements. The uncomfortable truth the Obama administration won’t admit is that ISIS is not an anomaly of Islam; they adhere to a strict Sunni interpretation.
There is good news, however. It’s entirely possible the Islamic State could fail on its own. Religious devotion, it turns out, doesn’t provide water or electricity to cities. The towns ISIS controls are, for the most part, impoverished. They risk losing support simply because they can’t keep the lights on.
That’s may be our only path to victory. Force will only get us so far. Tearing down their government and giving them jobs and democracy won’t eradicate ISIS. They don’t want a constitutional government. They want us dead, and a path to paradise.
Let’s hope that never happens.