The New Yorker’s George Packer is a decent writer and occasionally insightful analyst, but he gets things spectacularly wrong sometimes. He was one of the so-called “national security liberals” who reluctantly supported the Iraq War. (To his credit, he later recanted.)
Packer has written a piece on ISIS and why they murdered Japanese journalist Kenji Goto. It’s a timely question, given the breaking news that ISIS released yet another sick snuff film today, this time depicting ISIS fighters burning a caged Jordanian pilot alive.
Here’s an excerpt from Packer’s article:
The Islamic State doesn’t behave according to recognizable cost-benefit analyses…. The Islamic State doesn’t leave thousands of corpses in its wake as a means to an end. Slaughter is its goal—slaughter in the name of higher purification. Mass executions are proof of the Islamic State’s profound commitment to its vision.
There’s an undeniable attraction in this horror for a number of young people around the Middle East, North Africa, and even Europe and America, who want to leave behind the comfort and safety of normal life for the exaltation of the caliphate…. They are idealists—that’s what makes them so dangerous.
In this sense, ISIS is less like a conventional authoritarian or totalitarian state than like a mass death cult. Most such cults attract few followers and pose limited threats; the danger is mostly to themselves. But there are examples in modern history of whole societies falling under the influence and control of a mechanism whose aim is to dictate every aspect of life after an image of absolute virtue, and in doing so to produce a mountain of corpses. ISIS doesn’t behave like a regional insurgency or a global terrorist network, though it has elements of both. It joins the death cult to an army and a rudimentary state.
Possibly Packer is right about the irrationality of ISIS’s actions — certainly they are uncommonly cruel exhibitionists and bloodthirsty villains. But having heard the drumbeats that preceded too many wars and having seen too many tin-pot local tyrants tagged with the “Hitler” label, I’m suspicious when politicians and media figures describe even odious groups like ISIS in such apocalyptic terms. And sure enough, in the last sentence of the final graf of Packer’s article, there’s a grim prediction:
One thing we’ve learned from the history of such regimes is that they can be stronger and more enduring than rational analysis would predict. The other thing is that they rarely end in self-destruction. They usually have to be destroyed by others.
Well, that’s probably true too. Hitler didn’t off himself after all – oh wait, he did! But only after his armies had been conquered and his country laid waste by WW2. President Obama, commenting on the news about the horrific murder of the Jordanian pilot, seemed to agree with Packer, saying ISIS is “only interested in death and destruction.”
Maybe. Or maybe they’ve observed how easy it is to lure powerful states into a ruinous conflict, thereby elevating their (ISIS’s) stature from a local band of murderous fanatics to a consequential actor on the world stage and enhancing their cred / recruiting prowess with other fanatics.
Packer is probably right that ISIS will have to be destroyed by “others,” but the others in question must be the people whom they aspire to rule in Iraq and Syria. If anyone doubts ISIS’s ability to drag the US back into a major conflict in Iraq — even with a sane, competent president in charge — imagine what would be happening right now if the unlucky serviceman they shot down, caged and set ablaze had been an American pilot.
By getting involved militarily in the campaign against ISIS, the US is playing a dangerous game. The opponent may be depraved death cult, but its leaders aren’t necessarily stupid or irrational; they may hope to bring out the stupid and irrational in us.
As tragic and horrific as these murders are, they are not reason to take action we otherwise would not take for strategic reasons (about which people can differ.)
(FWIW, I’m not exactly sure ISIS is any worse than that Boko group in Nigeria, to the extent the prize for worst humans on the planet is a thing.)
Good fucking post, Betty.
ISIS sure seems intent on motivating countries in the neighborhood to take them on. Sure, these groups won’t spontaneously self-destruct, but their vile crimes are often self-destructive.
I had not heard that news on the Pilot. If ISIS had worked things right, they could have upped the pressure in Jordan to back off fighting ISIS. Jordan is Sunni Muslim, so somewhat sympathetic to ISIS.
There goes that plan.
David in NY
I’ve wondered why “that Boko group” isn’t getting more of this treatment. I suppose that 1) oil, 2) proximity to Israel, 3) ISIS’s superior PR skills, and 4) oil are probably the differences. Maybe I’m missing something, though.
If Boko Haram gets closer to the oil in Nigeria, maybe we’ll find out. A quick look at Wikipedia suggests that at the moment, BK is probably even more vicious than ISIS, in pure number of people killed.
That’s an excellent and frightening point. We are so screwed if they manage to capture an American pilot.
However awful these guys are, I’m not seeing a threat to America.
I don’t mean “American interests, but America itself.
There doesn’t seem to be any chance that ISIS has the capacity to grow to become such a threat either.
Not one to disagree but I disagree. ISIS’s leaders are stupid and irrational. Being single-minded and close minded does not mean they can’t also be dumb and crazy. I say this because it is their very actions that will bring their down fall.
The only people acting irrationally here are the ones looking for moderate unicorns or thinking more courtesy bombs are going to stop this.
I see no evidence ISIS is acting irrationally. They’re winning on the ground and they’ll win the psychological war. Wait until they catch one of our non-boots who aren’t on the ground.
OBL was the greatest troll who ever lived, his legacy will be the Celiphate he dreamed of.
Even the religious fanatics of the 1500 and 1600’s had the basic humanity to strangle people condemned to the stake.
I say fry every one of these mother fuckers with napalm. Even the Taliban have honor and exchange prisoners. These ISIS people have separated themselves from any possibility of being considered humans with rights.
They are no more to be engaged with than a rabid dog.
@David in NY:
5) They are in the middle of fucking nowhere and damn hard to get to with the type of force profile that the western governments are most comfortable using.
@catclub: Current thinking is that the pilot was killed over a month ago. If that’s true, it’s notable that ISIS was forward-looking enough to make a little documentary about his execution at the time.
All pretty horrific, but one should note that ISIS evidently pays a lot of attention to public relations.
I wish that ISIS was uniquely terrible, but a cursory glance at 20th Century history says otherwise.
And we have enthusiastically supported people not too much different than them. My congressman, Dana Rohrabacher, publicized a photo of him posing with Taliban leaders.
Back when they were freedom fighters, of course. And their savagery was a resolute Churchillian posture required to stand up to the Evil Empire and do what had to be done.
Now, however, they are savages who should be wiped of the face of the earth, and anyone who says otherwise is a cowardly dhimmi.
We have always been at war with Eastasia…
As for Packer, I think he is more right than wrong. He is saying things that I have heard others say, so maybe there is a type of conventional wisdom shaping up about this issue. Part of that conventional wisdom might be (seems to be) to hell with social justice for the time being. We need Assad, el-Sisi, and Salman to be large and in charge (despite public utterances to the contrary).
Kissinger-style real politic might be coming back into vogue until ISIS burns itself out and the area strongmen can piss on the embers.
Mike in NC
We just need to put together a crack leadership team to go after ISIS. What are Paul Wolfowitz, Tommy Franks, and Dick Cheney up to these days?
I see no evidence ISIS is acting irrationally.
Me neither. They’ve got just about everyone pissing themselves at the prospect of facing them, and have captured a lot of territory without a fight. They are psychotic assholes, but hardly a group that “doesn’t behave according to recognizable cost-benefit analyses.” Packer seems kinda dumb here.
@Mike in NC:
And fill out the ranks with the 101st Chairborne.
I think this points out a piece of very simple wisdom that everyone should follow: never give up on plan A until you’re sure you know what plan B is. We have spent a huge amount of time presenting people like Assad- and Saddam Hussein- as being so terrible that we need to get rid of them even when there was no plausible replacement available. We certainly went in and deposed Saddam without a serious plan for what was going to happen next.
By committing to the need to get rid of some dictator without having an obvious plan for his replacement, we leave ourselves stuck with an unpleasant choice. We either have to support anyone, no matter how terrible, who can plausibly promise to get rid of the old guy, or we have to publicly back down from our opposition when we see how horrible the proposed replacement is. We need to stop calling unconditionally for the removal of every tinpot dictator and start playing our cards closer to our chests.
Does this not also apply to the European austerians, and even our own conservatives? ISIL is dramatic in its brutality, but its body count is so far nowhere near that of the USA in Iraq.
That’s why we keep our pilots in the US and let the fly droooooooooooooooooones.
@Roger Moore: No, there was a plan. We knock off Saddam and put Ahmed Chalabi in charge. The grateful Iraqi people rush to support his benevolent administration So we don’t need a large occupying force. Chalabi recognizes Israel which changes the entire Middle East. That was the plan. It had little basis in reality, but there was a plan.
It seems to be that we are playing into their hands by publicizing the videos of these horrific executions. We should not acknowledge the existance of the videos. What they want is publicity of their actions; we should not provide it.
Another Holocene Human
@David in NY: There’s suspicion Boko Haram is being funded by the usual suspects in the Middle East but since they are slaughtering Black Africans nobody’s shitting their pants and asking Washington to get their nuts out of the fire. That’s my cynical take on it.
I think DC has been assisting Lagos but I think a lot of people are going to die before it gets better and certainly US-Americans don’t really give a flying fuck about villagers in the West African interior. (They don’t even know what countries are where, witness Ebola panic resulting in freaking out about travel to/from Kenya, or the Kony 2012 bullshit. And who can blame them, West Africa is a blackout zone in American social studies classes, g-d forbid American children learn where 15% of American’s ancestors come from because IDK, ignorance would go down and empathy go up, can’t have that.)
Another Holocene Human
@Mike J: Wait, Obama is playing N-dimensional chess and preventing a circumstance to draw the US into a greater war?
Do you mean DailyKos commenters lied to me?
Another Holocene Human
@Raven Onthehill: Very true. I was intrigued by his comparison to Khmer Rouge but come on, that shit did burn itself out, so do a lot of crazy ideological death cults, and the role of outside countries is to deny the killers the ‘oxygen’ in terms of money, weapons, fresh fighters.
Comparison to Nazi Germany is totally off the mark here, that is textbook fascism and Hitler absolutely played the game to keep big countries that could fuck his shit up out of the conflict as long as possible.
Fuck him. He was wrong when it counted.
Another Holocene Human
ISIS is not being smart, but violent people and people who love violence seem to confuse that with courage and smarts.
ISIS is playing into Obama’s hands here. He put together a regional coalition, did a pretty good job of it, but if ISIS had more damn sense they could have eroded that a bit as Packer recognizes. But they’re fanatical nutjobs and more about the violence porn than any sort of ‘plan’ or ‘analysis’. So they’ve actually shored up Obama’s coalition by misbehaving worse than Putin’s goons in Ukraine and those assholes know from fuckups.
There might be something to the theory that the pilot was already dead because Jordan was demanding proof of life and I guess they couldn’t provide that.
I did say a serious plan. Installing Chalabi and then disappearing was not a serious plan.
@SteveinSC: You had to bribe someone to do that. The fanatics in charge wanted you to suffer. And sadly there were worse ways to be executed than being burned at the stake.
@Brother Dingaling: but isis was capturing that territory before all these executions. Since then they haven’t captured squat. They think making insane demands (or rather, totally unrealistic demands) will work, and when it doesnt, they feel they have to follow through on their threats. But Jordan was ambivalent about fighting isis. Now they are pissed. Sooner or later they will attack some Turks and things will get ugly…
@Another Holocene Human: a correction, they khemer Rouge were beat by Vietnam communist troops. It didn’t just burn itself out.
@agorabum: I thought today that it is time Turkey’s million men get to work and end these bastards. Might just help the EU forgive them for the Armenians….???
ISIS is clearly getting desperate. It’s almost as if they are purposely trying to come up with ever more horrible snuff films to try and get a stupid reaction. The clear way to answer that of course is – don’t react just keep the pressure on them.
Second the death in Saudi Arabia underscores that the Saudis, not ISIS, nor Iran continue to be the biggest problem in the Region. Funding nutty extremist Islam abroad while beheading people at home. Horrible to contemplate what will happen if and when the regime collapses but they are clearly not an ally to anyone in the US except the big oil companies.
One of my fav writers about warfare and non-state actors has been blogging about this, in conjunction with a looming pivot towards Saudi Arabia and the threat to that kingdom and the oilfields. Interesting stuff.
@David in NY: Nigeria is a petro-state, as much as Saudi or Russia.
These guys are obviously the scum of the earth, but whenever people brandish atrocity pictures as proof of the need for military action, I think of all the pictures you could wave around to justify bombing the United States.
Heck, Osama bin Laden rattled off a whole list of American atrocities he claimed he was taking vengeance for, and that was before Abu Ghraib and Gitmo. Remember, we had soldiers posing and smiling with their torture victims and pundits back home laughing about it and saying they hoped we’d do more.
Are we equivalent to ISIS? Well, no. We’re not as ostentatiously, provocatively evil but we have greater power to kill people and a big head start.
But if you really insist on doing foreign policy by atrocity video, all such distinctions melt into air.
It’s goddamn traitors like you that keep people in the rest of the world from realizing that America is the greatest nation in the country.
I stand by Dwight Eisenhower’s immortal words: “Things are more like they are now than they have ever been.” And as Spiro Agnew pointed out, we have the finest and best-educated American people in the world.
Now shaddup and say your pledge of allegiance, you pinko!
The plan was that the 2003 Iraq invasion would pay for itself and the Iraqi people would greet us with flowers and candy and after the Bush administration uncovered the lakes of sarin gas and Himalayan mountains of nuclear weapons under Saddam’s palace, Karl Rove would shepherd the Republicans to a generation of political dominance in America.
In the words of Emperor Hirohito, that plan has developed not necessarily to the Bush administration’s advantage…