There was a pivotal moment in the history of the United States when it went from aspiring to be a special place that would provide refuge to the oppressed to becoming an angel of God sent on a divine mission to vanquish evil around the world. Whereas the former is a laudable and attainable goal, the latter is not. Vanquishing evil cannot be the goal of any state or empire for the simple reason that evil, violence, and injustice are the foundation blocks of every state, not to mention empires.
All states have their foundation in force, usurpation, and injustice. That includes the oh-so-exceptional United States of America. The latter was founded on the abduction and enslavement of Africans, the slaughter of Native Americans, and the usurpation of land. Nor is it necessary to resort to history to appreciate the fact that America is not exactly a vessel of virtue: just think of Guantanamo Bay, Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and countless secret “black sites” around the world. Nevertheless, American politicians assume that it is their duty to vanquish evil wherever it may exist and that failing to do so is a betrayal of their country.
So, it is no wonder that President Barack Obama found it hard to resist the pressure to lead the fight against the latest manifestation of evil—a group of delusional thugs aspiring to establish an Islamic state in Iraq and the Levant, which includes Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Cyprus, and parts of southern Turkey (known as ISIL). It is a dystopia of oppression and misogyny.
In a speech to the United Nations Security Council Meeting on Iraq (September 19, 2014), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry listed ISIL’s shocking crimes—they have “executed captured prisoners,” including the infamous beheading of two American journalists. (But has not our ally Saudi Arabia beheaded people who were accused of adultery, apostasy, and witchcraft? And, is it not routine for this valued ally to stone homosexuals?) Kerry pointed out that ISIL has terrorized the populations of the territories it has conquered and has even killed children. (Is that not what American drones do every day in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere?) Kerry was aghast that ISIL has expelled all but their own coreligionists from the territory designated for their Islamic state. (Has this not been the founding principle of the Zionist state since its inception in 1948? Is this not the standard operating procedure of the Jewish-only settlements and Jewish-only roads in the West Bank? And, is Israel not the darling of all allies?)
It is simply impossible to divide the countries of the world into our friends who are “good” and our enemies who are “evil” without a colossal distortion of both reality and the meaning of words. This fiction not only distorts reality; it impedes the intelligent formulation of foreign policy—which is to say, it hampers the ability to act effectively in the world. For example, the United States could not amass an effective coalition to fight ISIL, despite the fact that there was no shortage of countries eager and willing to put everything they had into the fight, including their soldiers’ lives—these countries had money, trained armies, airpower, and much more. However, the United States would have nothing to do with these motivated, enthusiastic, and seasoned fighters. Why? Because this group was made up of those that United States has dubbed its “evil” enemies—Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Instead, President Obama and his team opted for a coalition that included France, Britain, Canada, and others. They offered advice, training, funds, airpower, but no ground troops. So, who will fight this war for the weary Americans who have had enough of wars in the Middle East? Well, the plan is to train the “moderate” Syrian opposition. This is a ragtag group of Syrian professors, doctors, dentists, and farmers who are opposed to the tyranny of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. These are people who know nothing about fighting. Nevertheless, it will be their task to defeat ISIL and then turn their guns on Assad and his well-trained army and air force, to say nothing of his chemical weapons. They will be joined by the Iraqi army, which the Americans have been training for over a decade with no apparent results. These two groups, along with the Kurds in northern Iraq, will be the “boots on the ground.” To make matters worse, this collation is characterized not only by incompetence but also by very poor optics. The specter of United States, a neocolonial empire, leading a coalition of old colonialists (Britain and France) and their friendly autocrats can only incite the very resentments that groups such as ISIL exploit.
So, what is a superpower to do when it is confronted with a clear manifestation of evil and tyranny in the world? First and foremost, it must not pretend to be so high and mighty, so pure and untainted. A language of restraint is absolutely necessary. Thundering that the enemy will be chased “to the gates of hell,” as Vice President Joe Biden put it, is not helpful. Claiming that ISIL is a “cancer” and a “scourge” on the face of the earth that must be exterminated because there can be no “reasoning or negotiation with this random evil,” as President Obama maintained, is unwise. After all, ISIL provides electricity, food, and other essentials to the Sunnis it protects from the Shia militias unleashed by the American-supported government of Iraq. To destroy ISIL, U.S. air strikes have targeted not only the oil fields that provide funds but the grain elevators—clearly, a war crime that will inspire more hatred for the Americans and more recruits for ISIL.
It is certainly the case that the medieval brutality of ISIL shocks the sensibilities of those accustomed to modern technological violence, which is seen only through the aesthetic prism of the mainstream media. For example, CNN presents American brutality as if it were a show of lights that fills the sky as the bombs are launched, but it assiduously protects its audience from the ghastly consequences of what happens when the bombs land. Foreign networks—to name one, Al Jazeera—have no qualms about displaying the severed heads and limbs of children and unarmed civilians caused by American bombs. So, the difference between the United States and ISIL is not a moral difference but a technological one.
By demonizing those who are in the best position to fight ISIL, President Obama relinquished the chance to deal adequately with the latest menace. It is not prudent to demonize or alienate any enemy—even one as odious as ISIL—because there is bound to come a time when an even more abhorrent foe will emerge, in which case ISIL may be the perfect antidote.
This was never better understood than by the Byzantine Empire, the longest-lasting empire in history (330–1453 CE). In his masterful work, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, Edward Luttwak attributed its longevity to its ability to contain, distract, obstruct, and manage its enemies. The Byzantines would never be foolish enough to denounce their enemies as unfit for reasoning or negotiation; they knew that every enemy was potentially a valuable ally in the unforeseeable future. Even though they had a very large army, they were reluctant to use it. They kept a low profile while enemies were busy fighting one other. It would never occur to them to lead a campaign of extermination against ISIL in Syria, where so many unsavory groups, who were busy with infighting, are now united in their determination to attack the United States.
In the face of threats, the United States should take a page out of the playbook of the Byzantines and keep a low profile. Granted, this is hard for a superpower, but it is not impossible. When a foolish and warmongering opposition demands to know what the strategy of the government is in dealing with the newest threat, the official line
should be, “We have no strategy.” The stupid party will no doubt fill the airwaves with outrage at such incompetence, vacillation, and lack of leadership. All the while, the drones are targeting the menace. But alas, there is too much stupidity and no one with the spine to stand up to it.
Moreover, it is not prudent to overestimate the danger. It is shrewder to be dismissive. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s declaration that ISIL is a threat “beyond anything that we have ever seen” is a gross exaggeration for a group with no air force and no weapons of mass destruction. Exaggerating the threat flatters enemies and makes them more daring.
Finally, it behooves the United States to accept the fact that global dominance alone is sufficient to inspire hatred. So a plethora of enemies should be expected as the norm, not the exception. But American naïveté leads to peculiar expectations—only Americans expect to dominate the globe and be loved at the same time. The result is that Americans are inclined to be shocked and alarmed at having inspired such implacable enmity. They are inclined to regard such enmity as perverse—something akin to Satan’s resentment of God.
So, am I suggesting a cold and calculating foreign policy, free from any moral considerations? Yes and no. I am rejecting moralism as an ineffective and hypocritical basis for foreign policy. Instead, I am endorsing a foreign policy rooted in prudence, not morality. And while the two are distinct, they are not mutually exclusive. It is not prudent to do more harm than is absolutely necessary to accomplish the goal of any and every state—controlling its territory and keeping its citizens safe from foreign attack. That is not the same as defeating evil in the world. Moralism makes political goals unrealistic; and when the goals are unrealistic, the moral cost of achieving them is bound to be too great, which in turn inspires hatred, contempt, and animosity.
The moralism of American foreign policy makes its goals unrealistic, which in turn leads it to commit more atrocities than is necessary. Of course, Americans are inclined to dismiss their own evils as “mistakes” that are simply at odds with their values and principles, but more impartial observers are less charitable. They regard the evils of drone warfare, targeted assassinations, Hellfire missiles, napalm, cluster bombs, white phosphorus, and nuclear weapons as the defining elements of a hypocritically moralistic empire. As a result, the United States creates more enemies than it can subdue. After thirteen years of war, al-Qaeda has not been destroyed; it has mushroomed into a plethora of franchises—ISIL, al-Nusrah, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, Jemaah Islamiya, and more.
It must be noted that the aspirations of ISIL are as moralistic and unrealistic as those of the United States. For it is foolish to establish a state exclusively for Sunni Muslims (while killing all unrighteous apostates and unbelievers) in a land populated by Shiites, Christians, Kurds, Alawites, Jews, and others. So, even if ISIL manages to create an Islamic state, the moral cost of this unrealistic venture is bound to discredit it. This why the best policy is to watch it self-destruct. It is high time for the West to leave these people alone to fight their own battles and make their own history.
Shadia B. Drury is Canada Research Chair at the University of Regina in Canada. Her books include Leo Strauss and the American Right (1997), Terror and Civilization (2004), and Aquinas and Modernity (2008). She is currently working on a book titled Chauvinism of the West.