The threat was real and fundamental. The believers showed no sign of allowing any group or state to pursue self-determination – just the opposite, its world view demanded that all must share its beliefs and those who did not must be swept into the dustbin of history. In a number of instances that translated to mass murder on the order of genocide. It was truly ruthless in imposing its views on any territories which it occupied and its reach was global. Clearly its intent was world domination, that was inherent it its leaders world views and their followers were seen to be fanatic in pursuit of their leader’s orders. The immediate risk was that they would dominate most of the Middle East, much of SW Asia and would then look towards Europe. What was equally frightening was their ability to project influence and advance their agenda in territories removed from its own direct military control. There appeared to be no way to stop them and the crisis seemed overwhelming.
All that sounds frighteningly contemporary, yet that verbiage is not about jihadi terrorism, radical Islam or ISIS. It is all excerpted from a very insightful book, The National Security, written by Norman Graebner and his book describes America’s earliest view of the international Communist conspiracy, sponsored by the Soviet Union in the years immediately following World War II – Grabner was writing about remarks actually made at the highest circles of American leadership circa 1945-1948. .
And here we are in 2015, debating the source and causes of a brand new threat – which sounds in many ways virtually identical. The risk is that we will once again commit the same errors we made so often during the Cold War, which meant treating every area of confrontation the same – and assuming it all has a single root cause. Of course there is a common mantra in play, all today’s jihadi militants are happy to wave the black flag – to posture for psychological impact and in pursuit of obtaining weapons and money from ISIS, al Qaeda or wealthy pan-national, Islamists of any stripe.
The same could be said of many of the Communist movements during the decades of the Cold War. Play the “International”, wave the red flag, focus on the brotherhood of the struggle – and look from money and support from Moscow or later from Red China. It was great for recruiting and its claim to moral superiority allowed an outreach to the most progressive and liberal elements in all the Western nations; just as today many of ISIS recruits are middle class, professionals or children of very well to do parents, the same was true for many of the recruits of World Communism.
Of course in many instances it was all just a gambit, where leaders could twist the ideology to their own purposes of local political power, nationalism, anti-colonialism, revolution against the established classes, etc. There were instances in which the leaders were truly fanatic, that produced the most violence and ongoing massacres – whether it was Stalin’s or Mao’s purges, or the raw lust for killing seen with the Simba’s in the Congo, Shining Path in Peru, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Those groups all recited the Communist class mantra while on the rampage.
The point of all this is that we show no signs of applying our history with this type of threat to today’s violence. Some of it is most definitely about religious fanaticism on the order of “we are coming to kill and enslave non-believers”. Calling those individuals “terrorists” is off the mark, thinking of them as driven by economic deprivation is as well. Fanaticism exists on its own terms and needs to be recognized and dealt with as such it demands extreme measures. However, there certainly are local ethnic, political, economic and governance issues driving the jihadi movement, especially across much of Africa. And we are not likely to effectively deal with it all in the short term of a single AUMF – especially if we cannot differentiate between all the different groups visibly waving the black flag. Some of it is absolutely about religion and domination, much of it is simply skilled opportunism for the fanatics. And, sorry Mr. President, none of it is about “terrorism”, terrorism is a tool, a tactic – in my view it should be used as a verb, not a noun. It tells us what groups or individuals are capable of but that is as in “terror of the deed”. We need a finer level of differentiation when we are talking about the nature and motives of the different groups – it appears that a large number of the atrocities in Iraq are done under the black flag but really are the settling of old personal and ethic grudges among Arabs or between Arabs and Kurds. In that case ISIS is an enabler for long term problems in the region, which are not going to be settled by our simplistic support of a central government in Baghdad. Perhaps the first step for all our leaders is to grasp that distinction and to begin using the right words. Words are powerful things and if you are using the wrong ones you have a very fundamental problem.
For those that want to take this further and read an experienced view of the subject, I recommend the following: