The US "Defeat" of ISIS: An Improbable Victory

President Donald Trump's announced "defeat" of ISIS was premature. Even more worrisome, it ignored that the key threat to America and its key allies (especially Israel) is not this particular terrorist group, but rather a still expanding and always underlying jihadist ideology. Opinion

Pro-ISIS demonstrators in Mosul (Archive photo: AP)

Rabbi Eleazar quoted Rabbi Hanina, who said: "Scholars build the structure of peace in the world." (The Babylonian Talmud, Order Zera'im, Tractate Berakoth, IX)

On several occasions, US President Donald Trump has proudly announced the "defeat" of ISIS. Aside from being factually incorrect – at the purely operational level, ISIS forces have sometimes been doing verifiably better in recent months – Mr. Trump misses a much larger point. This is that ISIS is not the critical threat per se. It is rather only the most visible expression of a far wider and much deeper pathology.

In tangible matters of counter-terrorism, the United States and its allies must build policy upon calculably firm foundations of penetrating scholarship. These are never simply challenges that can be properly handled by ad hoc prescriptions.

In essence, all ongoing ISIS violence in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Nigeria and elsewhere remains microcosm. More precisely, this violence represents a cumulatively conspicuous fusion of diverse sectarian aggressions with variously barbarous claims of "sacredness."

Looking ahead, the US and its pertinent allies must consider still another ominous and derivative fusion. This is the coming together of atomic capability with decisional irrationality. Such an always fearful prospect should come to mind not only in such plausibly expected places as Iran and Pakistan, but also in North Korea. This is because world politics are eternally and insistently systemic. What happens in north Asia, as one obvious example, could very substantially impact stability in Europe, North America, or the Middle East.

Not that long ago, North Korea even built a nuclear reactor for Syria that was preemptively destroyed by Israel in its 2007 "Operation Orchard." Under authoritative international law, this operation was a fully permissible expression of "anticipatory self-defense."

US President Donald Trump and America's allies can never really hope to fix the "ISIS problem" until they first understand the always-underlying human bases of jihadist insurgent conflict. If they should all focus too much on ridding world politics of just this singular "symptom," we could quickly find ourselves exacerbating a more fundamental and deeply "metastatic" pathology. To wit, if Mr. Trump's counter-terrorism policy should continue to focus upon the "War against ISIS" per se, we might unwittingly strengthen certain other consequential foes in such places as Syria, Yemen, Iran, Russia, Lebanon, and Gaza. Here, the particular security implications for Israel are especially obvious and correspondingly incontestable.

Moreover, these calculations should prove very easy to understand. Any disproportionate harms consciously directed toward eliminating a particular Sunni terror group could simultaneously benefit assorted Shi’ite adversaries. Again, our common core enemy is not ISIS as such, but rather a sweeping jihadist ideology with many disparate, intersecting, and reciprocally related terror offshoots. Ultimately, it is this underlying ideology that we must all "defeat," not just ISIS. Accordingly, it is a bewildering war of "mind over mind" that President Trump and America's allies must now learn to wage, and not just the more familiar and predictably orthodox war of "mind over matter."

Our most basic enemy remains not ISIS, but a wider movement that holds unshakably fast to certain virulently seductive elements of unreason. Although we might all prefer an adversary against which we could somehow appeal to reason, it is never our analytic prerogative to decide an enemy's degree of attachment to variously comforting fogs of irrationality. Assuredly, we Americans, Israelis and certain others ought not flee from reason ourselves, but we must all nonetheless learn to deal more effectively with enemies who yearn openly for martyrdom/immortality.

Although still not fully understood in Washington or Jerusalem, these seductive whisperings represent the most genuinely compelling power on this earth – that is, power over death.

From the beginning, all primal violence in world politics has been driven by persistent tribal conflicts constructed between and within nations, and by a conveniently “sacred” promise to compensate the unhesitant faithful with freedom from death. This presumptively lethal promise, whether explicit or implicit, is not limited to just the present precarious moment in world history. It was in some sense as evident in the overtly anti-religious policies of the Third Reich as it is today in the dar al Islam.

We conflicted humans remain generally dedicated to virtually all varieties of ritual violence, and also to various sacrificial practices that routinely masquerade as war or terrorism. Ironically, this sanguinary dedication is not necessarily an example of species immorality or just plain foolishness. After all, our entire system of international relations, first shaped at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, is rooted in a seemingly immutable pattern of institutionalized horror.

In this worldwide "state of nature," as we should have already learned from the seventeenth century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan), the life of man is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

No doubt, at least for the moment, even in President Trump's America, many still manage to live well, but only because we stubbornly refuse to believe what must still lie ahead. Distracted by reality television and by almost every other conceivable form of demeaning social entertainments, not to mention a ubiquitous social media, western democracies are not just operationally vulnerable to mega-terror; they are also philosophically unschooled and intellectually unprepared. Now, in order to meaningfully improve all our expectedly problematic national security prospects, we must first learn to distinguish visible symptoms (ISIS) from authentic disease (a still-spreading jihadist ideology).

As corollary, we can all only hope that US President Donald Trump finally begins to better understand the underlying terrorist enemy, and to suitably augment what he calls "attitude" with true analytic "preparation."


Louis René Beres, a frequent contributor to IsraelDefense, is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. He lectures and publishes widely on matters of Israeli security and nuclear strategy.

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