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What’s still wrong with the ‘War on Terror’?

January 20, 2016 at 2:36 pm

Former U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at a Democracy Forum event held by the Obama Foundation at the Javits Center on November 17, 2022 [Kyle Mazza/Anadolu Agency]

President Barack Obama’s final “State of the Union” speech to the US Congress addressed some controversial issues. In particular, though, when it came to US policy in the Middle East, the president made a serious gaff; he claimed that current conflicts in the region – complex as they are – “date back millennia”.

In doing so, Obama not only got the history of the region wrong, but he also perpetuated the harmful and implicitly racist myth that war in the Middle East is an inevitable product of ancient and irrational hatred. It presents current conflicts in the vein of an irresolvable “clash of civilisations” and, in so doing, would seem to imply the inferiority of Muslims to Western civilisation. (A myopic worldview that I’ve argued against previously.)

Perhaps most importantly, though, Obama’s gaff demonstrates that, at the end of his presidency, he has returned to the kind of lazy thinking about the Middle East that epitomised his predecessor’s two terms in office.

Indeed, despite running against President George W Bush’s record, Obama’s “War on Terror” has continued and – notwithstanding the administration’s laudable efforts to support a diplomatic relationship with Iran – the lack of imagination employed continues to mar US foreign policy. A particularly good example of this is Washington’s problematic approach towards dealing with Daesh (the so-called “Islamic State”) in Syria and Iraq.

The recent suicide bombing in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district, that killed 10 people, is another act of horrific terrorism by Daesh which demonstrates the group playing to its strengths and exploiting the natural weaknesses of its opponents. It is likely that, with this latest attack, Daesh seeks to demonstrate that it remains unbowed by the increase in military activity against it since the attacks in Paris late last year.

The need for realism

Twelve years into a costly and debilitating global “war on terror” rife with myriad blunders and some catastrophic mistakes, a realist approach is exactly what is needed here; it begins with a rethinking of what the phenomenon of Daesh really means. According to Stephen Walt, a prominent realist thinker and professor at Harvard University, this means putting aside the image we have of Daesh as a unique and unprecedented bogeyman and accepting the fact that it’s meaning is actually best understood as akin to other “revolutionary states” in history.

This means that Daesh is more like the kinds of political movements that have come to power – like the Jacobins in France, the Bolsheviks in Russia, Mao’s Communists in China, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and Khomeini’s revolutionary movement in Iran – where the existing regime either collapsed or vacated power. In each case the revolutionary movement that took over the state imposed radical reforms on the population and remained outliers in the international system. As Walt explains, “Its religious dimension notwithstanding, the group is just the latest in a long line of state-building revolutionaries… These movements were as hostile to prevailing international norms as the Islamic State is, and they also used ruthless violence to eliminate or intimidate rivals and demonstrate their power to a wider world.”

None of this is to take away from the utter horror of Daesh’s rule, nor the terror that it exports around the world. However, Walt’s perspective does challenge us to stop buying-in to the excitable mythology that surrounds the group and put its threat into context, and thus approach it with more rationality and less emotion.

The threat of Daesh (to the West) in context.

A very useful study by the New York Times tracks the number of attacks undertaken and inspired by Daesh around the world. According to the Institute for the Study of War, attacks on the West comprise one aspect of a three-pronged strategy, which also includes inciting regional conflict and building relationships with other jihadist groups. Yet while overall the number of people who have been killed by terrorism has increased dramatically, the West has been relatively unaffected. As the Global Terrorism Index 2015, explains: “The majority of deaths from terrorism do not occur in the West. Excluding the September 11 attack, only 0.5 per cent of deaths from terrorism have occurred in the West since 2000… Lone wolf attackers are the main perpetrators of terrorist activity in the West. Seventy per cent of all deaths from terrorism in the West since 2006 were by lone wolf terrorists… Islamic fundamentalism was not the main cause of terrorism in the West over the last nine years. Eighty per cent of deaths by lone wolf terrorists in the West were driven by right wing extremism, nationalism, anti-government sentiment and political extremism and other forms of supremacy.”

Indeed, as CNN demonstrated, since the start of this century Americans have faced a dramatically larger threat from gun violence than from terrorism, either at home or abroad (even when including the September 11 attacks of 2001).

The threat to Europe might be more tangible, particularly following the attacks in Paris and Istanbul, but it is hardly unprecedented. Indeed, prior to the emergence of Daesh, European states faced multiple threats of politically-motivated violence, often targeting civilians. This has included other Islamist organisations such as Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, neo-Nazi groups and far right wing individuals as well as organisations opposed to the colonial legacies of some European states.

There is no security case for this war

A major problem is that the current approach is actually unlikely to prevent further attacks. Indeed, as we have seen, Daesh’s strategy of choice – particularly when targeting the West – is to seek to inspire uncoordinated acts of violence by people who may be susceptible to its message. For instance, according to RAND (an organisation with close links to the US government): “Individuals join the jihadist cause for a variety of reasons, including the belief that the jihadist cause represents a thrilling call to action, the social bonds of friends and peer groups that galvanize the will to act, a misinformed view of scriptural tenets, and a desire to defend against a perceived war against Islam. Extremist narratives on the Internet seek to exploit all of these factors.”

Similarly, the Tony Blair “Faith Foundation” explains: “Violent ideologies do not operate in a vacuum. A fire requires oxygen to grow. A broader political culture overlaps significantly with some of the assumptions of the jihadi ideology, without necessarily being extreme or agreeing with its violence.”

Clearly then, Daesh’s ability to reach potential attackers is profound. It can disseminate its message widely (using a complex network of social media clients), tap into the genuine sense of grievance felt among some Muslims in the West and – like the best sophists – manipulate commonly understood doctrine to its own sinister goals.

Combine this reality with the fact that it is virtually impossible for non-police states to provide security for so-called “soft targets” like public spaces or tourist venues; this demonstrates that, no matter what steps Western governments take, in all reasonable likelihood some form of violence on the streets – tied to the Daesh phenomenon – will persist.

It is likely that most of this will be uncoordinated violence undertaken by the disenfranchised and marginalised individuals who are susceptible to Daesh’s propaganda (as they would be to the propaganda of similar groups). However, some of it may be coordinated, and representative of the fact that, no matter how good police and security measures are, there will always be gaps in the system and mistakes will be made. As Adam Shatz explained after the Paris and Beirut attacks, “We really do live in a single, if unequal world, where the torments in one region inevitably spill over into another, where everything connects, sometimes with lethal consequences.”


In the immediate background to this war against Daesh are the campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya that have taken place over the past 14 years. Even further back, the legacy of British and French colonialism looms large. It is, after all, the Sykes-Picot borders between Iraq and Syria that Daesh wishes to erase.

While the proponents of the air strikes in Syria are right to point out that there is no direct parallel between the goals of the current campaign and the (almost universally) discredited invasion of Iraq, this does not mean that there are no lessons to be learned. Indeed, as we know, the situation in Syria in 2015 is very different to what it was in Iraq in 2003.

Furthermore, in both Afghanistan and Iraq the military campaign was justified on the basis that it would end tyrannical regimes and also avert the potential for massive destructive attacks on civilians to take place. In Libya, a similar rationale was used, the goal of regime change was justified by the desire to protect civilians. However, in both cases, in the aftermath of war there was not order but disorder, and from this void emerged the apparently even greater threat of Daesh.

In the current war the goal is, evidently, the end of Daesh and the restoration of the kind of stability that prevailed under Sykes-Picot. Working with the regime is an acceptable price to pay for that, if only because it is an unavoidable cost.

What is evidently missing from this rationale, though, is that the more that violence is undertaken by the West in Syria and Iraq, the more Daesh will be able to play on the narrative that it is involved in an anti-colonial struggle.

In order to avoid this possibility it would be far wiser if the use of force were restricted only to the goal of containing Daesh and preventing its expansion. Undertaking this strategy reduces the effectiveness of the group’s anti-imperialist rhetoric and consequently means that it will become less alluring.

It should also force the Daesh leadership to confront the fact that they exist in the real world and that, sooner or later, vicious tactics are no serious substitute to ruling through consent. In other words, Daesh will be forced to rein-in its radicalism in order to survive.

“Over time,” explains Walt, “the movement may collapse from its own excesses and internal divisions. That outcome would be preferable, of course, but it is not guaranteed. Fortunately, history suggests that if ISIS survives, it will become a more normal state over time. Revolutionaries can fantasise about transforming the world while out of power, but to survive over the long term, they must learn to compromise their ideals and moderate their behaviour, even if they do not wholly abandon their original principles. Leon Trotsky’s dreams of ‘world revolution’ gave way to Stalin’s ‘socialism in one country’, and Mao’s radical policies at home were accompanied by a risk-averse policy toward other states. Revolutionary Iran has followed a similar trajectory and conducted its foreign policy in a mostly prudent and calculating manner.”

From the outset, the “war on terror” has been a product of wishful thinking and lazy rhetoric. It is perpetuated today because the emotional reactions play too strong a role in foreign policy-making in the West. We delude ourselves into believing that we should be safer than we can ever really be and that, when we are attacked, our responses can be more effective than they actually are.

Daesh itself is a product of this fantasy world. It emerged out of the war in Iraq and it recruits new members by selling a fanciful vision that overstates its own power and manipulates the religiosity and anger of others. It follows, then, that the best way to bring about the demise of this repulsive organisation is to prevent any further supply of fuel to its ideological fire.

This is no “epic struggle” rooted in events which happened “millennia” ago, as Obama has claimed. This is a military conflict about the mundane reality of power in the region. It is time that the West started treating it this way.

Dr Philip Leech is a visiting research fellow at the Council for British Research in the Levant. He is on twitter @phil_haqeeqa and his academic profile is available at

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.