This month’s ultimate enemy — the Islamic State

By Jack Shafer
August 26, 2014

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At an Aug. 21 Pentagon press conference, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel claimed that the Islamic State “is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded.”

Perhaps sensing that his comparison hadn’t reached sufficiently hyperbolic velocity to escape earth orbit, Hagel immediately amended himself.

“Oh, this is beyond anything that we’ve seen. So we must prepare for everything,” he said [emphasis added], thereby vaulting the brutal Islamic State over the Iranians, the North Koreans, the Russians, the Chinese, and all other entrants into the Number 1 slot in our ever-churning power-ranking of international enemies.

Hagel wasn’t so much fear-mongering as he was fear-tending. War is the health of the state, as Randolph Bourne observed a century ago. When at war—or about to go to war—the state craves greater acquiescence from its citizens and greater powers, and granted that acquiescence and those new powers it grows ever larger. Every now and again a foe like the USSR appears, one with 12,000 nuclear warheads ready for delivery, which makes the job of fear-tending simple. At other times, as was the case last week at the Pentagon, it takes a supreme act of rhetoric to instill exploitable fear in the public. The textbook example of this came several months after the 9/11 attacks, when President George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address amalgamated Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and North Korea, and “their terrorist allies” into a unified “axis of evil.”

When Hagel poured his “beyond and everything” summation last week, he did so into an emotional cauldron. Less than two days before, the Islamic State had released its execution video of journalist James Foley, terrorizing the people who wouldn’t watch it and mortifying those who did. In that environment, the secretary of defense could have said U.S. intelligence had determined that the Islamic State was kidnapping orphans and loading them on a streetcar-to-hell it had built in its spare time, and the American public would have believed him. I might have believed him!

I’m not accusing Hagel of consciously hyping the Islamic State threat for nefarious political purposes. His response was standard for national security officials who have been caught napping during a crisis—and without a doubt the eruption of the Islamic State constitutes a crisis. Hagel and President Barack Obama, who less than a year ago called the Islamic State the “jayvee,” weren’t prepared for the Islamic State’s breakout, so it stands to reason that they might want to stoke a panic.

When the press isn’t panicked about the Islamic State, it’s confused, as is the case at the Financial Times. Its Aug. 25 piece, “Opaque structure adds to the challenge of defeating Isis” (registration required) portrays the group as extra menacing because it is decentralized, unlike the centralized Al Qaeda. Authority is “dispersed” inside the Islamic State, Washington think-tanker Anthony Cordesman tells the FT, and this has allowed its members to take their own wild initiatives. If the Islamic State were as centralized as the old Soviet Union, the press would fear-monger the flip-side. They’d be talking non-stop about the existential threat posed by the organization’s monolithic face.

Brookings Institution scholar F. Gregory Gause III assesses the Islamic State without panic in a Aug. 25 piece, nullifying Hagel’s scary “beyond and everything” pronouncement. He describes the Islamic State as the beneficiary of the “new Middle East cold war.” As existing state authorities in the region have lost control of their borders, proved unable to provide services (and protection) to their populations, and failed forge a common political identity, the Islamic State has risen.

But this rise does not necessarily make Islamic State strong and fearful as much as it showcases the relative weaknesses of the Syrian and Iraq governments. For all its ferocity, the Islamic State has acquired no regional or great power ally, Gause continues, no open patrons. It depends almost exclusively on banditry and protection rackets for its survival. The group’s great skill so far has been in uniting almost the entire world against it, making potential allies of nations that can’t stand each other, such as the United States and Iran. This knack for uniting countries that have “parallel, if not identical interests,” Gause predicts, will probably do the Islamic State in.

Enemies exist, of course. But boogeymen don’t. Anyone who tells you otherwise is just trying to sell you something.

******

Send your enemies lists to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed has no open patron, no great power ally. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

 

PHOTO: A man holds up a knife as he rides on the back of a motorcycle touring the streets of Tabqa city with others in celebration after Islamic State militants took over Tabqa air base, in nearby Raqqa city August 24, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

17 comments

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”And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for he had no more worlds to conquer. So he created ISIS to have someone to conquer and for the military hardware contracts……” :-/

Posted by DeSwiss | Report as abusive

Any excuse for tyranny, any reason for power.

Fear-mongers here are a far greater threat to our way of life than jimmy-jehad will ever hope to be.

The true test of America will not be played out by soldiers fighting in some dirt-poor backwater, but here, on our own soil, by voters fighting desperately to find some half-decent candidate who will right the wrongs of a government gone insane.

I hope that I live long enough to see our deliverer.

Until then, I no longer see any truth in the words, ‘…land of the free, and home of the brave’.

Posted by Celebrindan | Report as abusive

Maniacs on motorcycles waving knives at kids get arrested in civilized countries- only barbarians follow the most violent as authorities.

Posted by DonD1977 | Report as abusive

“The land of the free?
Whoever told you that is your enemy”

- Rage Against the Machine

Posted by Seth82 | Report as abusive

Didn’t we arm this group to fight the Syrian regime? Seems like we keep arming groups that we later have to fight in the Middle East. Perhaps we should stop sending weapons over there and take an isolationist stance. That might give the Muslims one less reason to hate us. If an ally is attacked and asks for help then we can help but we should slow down our drone offensive that keeps on increasing in intensity. We need to stop trying to be the global police force. It is costing us too much money and usually makes enemies than allies.

Posted by Seth82 | Report as abusive

“Hagel immediately amended himself.

“Oh, this is beyond anything that we’ve seen. So we must prepare for everything,” he said

that is rich man code for “Buy some more Northrop, General Dynamics, Raytheon stock” because the corporate welfare is about to get pumped up.

Posted by Factoidz | Report as abusive

They shouldnt need to manufacture consent. Republican or Democrat, Libertarian or Statist, the world envisaged by the Islamic State is directly opposite the ideals of any American (barring some un-assimilated Muslim immigrants) or Liberal Humanist in the classical sense, to say nothing of the Christian right. There should be almost 100% agreement that this is a war that needs to be fought (and won). No state building, no semantics. Hunt and destroy, and then let the Emirates, Jordanians, Saudis, Turks, Kurds, and Iranians clean up the mess at a great conference after we have excised the cancer.

America has gone to war for terrible reasons over the last fifty years, lets go to war for the right reasons today. To destroy an apocalyptic seventh century death cult with more similarity to the Mongols than any modern state.

Posted by billt568 | Report as abusive

We’ll written. No wonder less than 19 percent of Americans want to interfere. No one believes the government.

Posted by taroil | Report as abusive

I think the US/USSR nuclear confrontation was a bit more serious – like the extinction of life on Earth. The ME mess is not an existential threat and US interventions so far have actually created the present situation.
We need a return to sanity – not to whip up hysteria and paranoia.
The media are very culpable in the dissemination of this propaganda

Posted by Interdog | Report as abusive

thank you Jack for a succinct, and timely appraisal of all things evil that dwell in this world. It is a concrete diagnosis that one’s state of mental health is judged by one’s ability to see the good in everything. States of agitated mental health are characterised by delusional perspectives that only perceive the evil inherent in Mankind. My suggestion to the beautiful people of the United States (our trusted allies_I am an Australian citizen) is to focus on your own great nation. Leave the governance and erratic and implausible strategies of leadership to the peoples of the desert lands. We as dwellers of First World Nations, are so distanced from any degree of comprehension of their plight and direction that we truly show a lack of wisdom to even contemplate interfering with their affairs. Are they nation states; are they actors in their regional affairs; yes! Do we as peoples of the free world have the birthright to dictate the way forward for these people of the Middle East? Certainly not! Dedicate your Treasury funding to the search for alternative energy supplies and let her Dictates work their wonder.

Posted by fyaox | Report as abusive

What a refreshing opinion piece when contrasted with the military analysis who make media appearances, and own defense sectors stocks valued in parts of a million dollars, or serve on boards, or have other conflicting interest. Those TV spots are like infomercials for Raytheon, et al. This isn’t some tin foil hat conspiracy theory or liberal whining, this is public information about a problem that cost me thousands of dollars every year come tax time.

Posted by diluded000 | Report as abusive

All the anti gov, ‘military industrial complex’ conspiracy nuts, are good and stirred up now Jack… You’ve done your job well.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

Holy Crap…

Posted by ineeditbad | Report as abusive

“Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel claimed that the Islamic State “is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded.”

…and this suddenly appeared on the radar screen of our brainiacs in DC?

This is why many people oppose large government. It’s idiocy to give more power to these incompetent fools. Time to muck out the stall in DC.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

Your Leftists and the New York Times at Work: Leftist university professor Michael Boyle of La Salle University condemns all of us who refer to ISIS as “evil” or a “cancer.” He refers to ISIS as “a successful insurgent group that wants a seat at that table” and rejects that a jihadist army that beheads journalists and is waging genocide against Christians is evil.

Posted by moralsmore | Report as abusive

There’s a good documentary about this, called the POWER OF NIGHTMARES https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LlA8KutU 2to

Posted by Foztah | Report as abusive

I wonder where they got their money from…any hints Chuck..?

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive