NEW YORK— Never in my adult life have I ever experienced in the Middle East and the Western world anything like the prevailing disjunction today between the “Islamic State” (ISIS) threat that preoccupies all publics and governments, and the apparent inability of political systems to deal with it coherently. This is a problem everywhere, and I mean literally everywhere, in the world, making Arabs, Americans Europeans, Israelis, Russians, Iranians and all other concerned people equal partners in this astounding example of collective political and strategic transcontinental incompetence.
Take Friday’s New York Times front page as an example of both widespread concern and lack of progress on ISIS. It included: several news stories about the latest Islamist terror attack in Mali, the aftermath of the Paris attacks last week, and ISIS networks in Belgium; opinion columns about how to respond to ISIS threats; a story about Hillary Clinton’s strategy for dealing with ISIS; a story on Russia’s concerns about growing ISIS links in the Caucasus region; assorted items linked to American state governors’ debate about allowing or forbidding Syrian refugees from settling in their states; ideas from broadly bizarre Republican presidential contenders about Muslims having to register in the United States; an editorial about how to respond to ISIS, and other bits and pieces. And this is just the front page!
This disproportionate amount of attention to ISIS terror threats is typical of the American public realm that I have experienced in the last two months in the country. Several broad trends are evident in public reactions to ISIS attacks in several countries and expanding American military involvement in Syria-Iraq. A heartening one is that, unlike 2001, some wise, honest, and diligent American journalists and political analysts are responding to ISIS much more coherently and maturely than American society’s broadly incoherent and emotional response to Al-Qaeda. These remain in the minority, however, and in general the political system and public sphere — especially the cable television world dominated by low quality, sensationalism and quasi-racism from Fox and CNN — are defined mainly by a combination of five troubling sentiments: perplexity (“why are we in the West being attacked?”), ignorance (“who are these people and what do they want?”), arrogance (“only American leadership and military might can rid the world of this scourge”), militarism (“this is the war of our generation and our national destiny, and we must fight them hard over there before they come to the United States to destroy us”), and emotionalism (“we have to remain tough, reaffirm our values, stand our ground, defend freedom, load our rifles, protect our children, wake up every day and eat our Cheerios without giving in to their devilish intimidation, and God bless us because we’re the greatest country ever to exist on Earth”).
Each one of these attitudes is bad enough on its own, but in combination they are a catastrophe. Indeed, the American-led “global war on terror” response to Al-Qaeda since the late 1990s has been a continuing failure and catastrophe. Though the United States has been largely shielded from major terror attacks since 2001, the rest of the world, especially the Middle East, has become a hell-hole of escalating violence that is mostly beyond the control of sovereign states and therefore is almost impossible to stop. To enjoy military and financial support from the United States and oil-rich Arabs, most Arab states have shut-down any serious political or economic reforms, which has worsened life conditions for most citizens and therefore expanded and deepened the pool of willing recruits to groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
I must acknowledge, though, an important new streak among Americans from all quarters, from senior political leaders in Washington who once shaped the cloddish war on terror, and senior think tank and donor foundation officials, to professors, students, journalists and members of the public I have engaged in many discussions in recent months. This is a more humble and inquisitive attitude that asks questions such as: Are we in the United States doing the right thing in the Middle East? Do people over there want us to continue? What can others do better than we can? How can we respond beyond military attacks? Why do we have to go back and fight again after decades of fighting over there?
This reflects the best aspects of American culture, which asks why things are going badly, and why legitimate aims like fighting terrorism are not being achieved. This attitude is not reflected by Fox and CNN, or most public political figures, and certainly not the traveling circus that is the Republican presidential hopefuls. It is, however, the dominant strain of comments and questions I have encountered in my many engagements in the United States during the past two months, both in public and privately.
“What can and should the U.S. do more effectively to defeat ISIS?” everyone asks. Nobody I have talked to or read offers a fully convincing answer to this critical question. I do not claim to have the answer, either. But in my next column, based on my extensive discussions in the United States with thoughtful Americans and others, I will suggest some principles that we should apply in order to have a better chance of coming up with concrete answers and suggestions. That would require our working together across continents with humility, realism, courage and rationality, instead of the cartoon-world toolbox that the U.S.-led West and leading Arab states have used to drive us all like cattle to this moment when our Arab lands are drenched in blood, war, and refugees, and the world’s great newspapers’ front pages mirror corresponding spheres of death, fear and perplexity.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. Follow him on Twitter @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global
Released: 21 November 2015
Word Count: 940
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