Tag Archives: war

Niger, the Condolence Controversy, and Why the Founders Feared a Professional Military

Would we have troops in dangerous places the American public has never heard of, if everyone’s child were at risk to be sent there? Would we respond the same way when some of those Americans died?


When I first heard that four American soldiers had died in Niger on October 4, I had to ask two embarrassing questions:

  • Where the hell is Niger?
  • Do we really have troops there?

So I’ll assume that at least a few of you are as ignorant as I was and start there. Niger (I’m hearing it pronounced either NAI-jer or nee-JAIR — sometimes both ways by the same TV anchor in one broadcast) is in the northern half of Africa, close to the center of the wide part. It’s landlocked, and sits just to the north of Nigeria [1], between the equally unknown (to me) countries of Mali and Chad. Here’s a map.

Apparently, we have about 800 troops in Niger. They are part of our attempt to deal with the region’s multi-faceted Islamic insurgency: Boko Haram in Nigeria; a number of groups in Mali that recently united under Al Qaeda; and ISIS in the Greater Sahara, which the Pentagon believes is responsible for this attack.

Since Islamic jihad is more of a global vision than a national one, it’s not surprising that the conflicts spill over into neighboring countries. So the governments in the region are all working together against these groups. They’re backed by France, which used to consider the whole area French West Africa (except for Nigeria, which was a British colony). So far, Americans play a secondary role, mainly training local troops and flying drones.

The attack is being described as an ambush in an area where the Americans did not expect to run into trouble. (After all, they’re not supposed to be on a combat mission.) So far, our government has released very little about how this all happened, and the president has said nothing at all. This is bothering Senate Foreign Relations Chair John McCain to the point that he’s threatening a subpoena. [2]

This incident ought to raise another question in your mind: Where else does the U.S. have troops? Politico published this helpful map of U.S. military bases around the world.

Not all of those dots are danger zones, of course. (I don’t worry much about the one in Canada.) But a lot of them are near places where people are shooting at each other.

How many of those dots are in countries you could name? For how many of them could you explain why American troops are there, what local problems they are trying to solve, and what level of danger they face? How would you feel if you or your child or someone else you care about might be sent there at any moment?

The condolence distraction. When Americans are dying by the dozens week after week, as they did in Iraq, the President typically says little or nothing in public about individual deaths. But deaths of American troops or other government officials in a surprising place or manner usually calls for some public acknowledgment. For example: President Obama, flanked by Secretary Clinton, read a solemn five-minute statement in the Rose Garden the day after the Benghazi attack in Libya. (“No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.”)

So the day after the Niger attack, the NSC staff drafted a statement for President Trump, but for unexplained reasons he didn’t use it, or say anything at all. Last Monday, nearly two weeks after the attack, at an event about something else entirely [3], a reporter asked him:

Why haven’t we heard anything from you so far about the soldiers that were killed in Niger? And what do you have to say about that?

That question was not at all about the soldiers’ families. Trump was asked why he hadn’t made any statement to the public about the soldiers, their sacrifice, or their mission. (“Why haven’t we heard … “) The second question “what do you have to say about that?” gave him an opening to fix his apparent oversight.

But instead, Trump started talking about his private communications with the families, and opened a can of worms by lying about how President Obama and other previous presidents had treated them.

if you look at President Obama and other Presidents, most of them didn’t make calls, a lot of them didn’t make calls.

When challenged on the truth of this, he said, “I don’t know. That’s what I was told.” It’s as if he had been gossiping over the back fence, rather than speaking on the record as the President of the United States.

That claim touched off the whole week-long media firestorm, which never would have happened if Trump had simply answered the question he was asked, rather than distract everyone with his hot-button lie about Obama. Is that what he meant to do? Hard to say, but it’s also hard to argue with the result: Rather than question why we’re in Niger, we’ve been rehashing the endless argument about whether Trump is a crappy human being.

Sgt. Johnson’s family and Congresswoman Wilson. Trump’s claim that he treats the families of fallen soldiers better than previous presidents pulled those families into a political controversy — something that to the best of my knowledge had never happened before. [4] Respect for the families’ grief had always been a shared value, not something to claim an advantage from.

The press, naturally, tried to determine whether Trump’s claim was true. In the course of that collective investigation, someone talked to Rep. Fredrica Wilson of Florida, who was a friend of the family of one of the four men killed in Niger, Sgt. LaDavid Johnson. Wilson had been in a car with Johnson’s widow and his mother when the President’s call came, and she heard it because the widow, Myeshia Johnson, put it on speaker phone. Wilson recalls Trump saying that Johnson “knew what he signed up for”, a statement that she found insensitive and claimed that the family was offended by.

Trump went ballistic about this, accusing Wilson of making it all up. Even after her account had been verified by Johnson’s mother, and indirectly verified by his own Chief of Staff John Kelly [5], Trump continued to label Wilson’s version a “total lie“. It would follow that the grieving mother is a liar too. (This morning the widow gave her own account, saying she was very angry at Trump “stumbling on trying to remember my husband’s name”. Trump immediately went to Twitter to argue with her. In her interview, Myeshia Johnson asked the obvious question: “Why would we fabricate something like that?”)

Kelly and Sanders. What Kelly said in Trump’s defense is interesting on its own. It starts with his own experience when his son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.

Let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford, told me — because he was my casualty officer. He said, Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war. And when he died, in the four cases we’re talking about, Niger, and my son’s case in Afghanistan — when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth: his friends.

That’s what the President tried to say to four families the other day. [6] I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and broken-hearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing. A member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the President of the United States to a young wife, and in his way tried to express that opinion — that he’s a brave man, a fallen hero, he knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted. There’s no reason to enlist; he enlisted. And he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken.

Kelly then pressed his attack on Rep. Wilson by giving a false account of a speech she made in 2015, citing her as an example of the saying that “empty barrels make the most noise”. [7] He took a few questions, but only from reporters who “know a Gold Star parent or sibling”. Apparently, General Kelly believes he is not answerable to anyone else. As long as Trump hides behind Kelly, he’s not answerable to anyone else either.

When Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was confronted by the fact that Kelly had lied about Wilson [8], she at first tried to dodge, and then made this astounding claim:

If you want to go after General Kelly, that’s up to you. But I think that that—if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.

Four-star Marine generals — even retired ones who are doing Reince Preibus’ old job — are not to be questioned on the lies they tell.

The professional military. It’s striking how many of this week’s events are related in one way or another to the post-Vietnam professionalization of the American military. The United States’ armed forces have always been centered on a small core of career military officers, and in times of crisis many Americans have volunteered to fight for their country. But from Lexington to Saigon, we have relied on involuntary citizen-soldiers in times of war. Early on, they formed the militias. [9] From the Civil War to Vietnam, they were draftees. Military service was not their career choice, a way to raise money for college, or part of any other personal strategy. It was their duty to the country. The country, in turn, had a duty to use their service wisely.

That all changed after Vietnam, where the government learned how difficult it was to fight an unpopular war with citizen-soldiers. “What are we doing in Vietnam?” is a much more immediate question if members of your own family — and members of everyone’s families — face the risk of dying there. The movement against the Vietnam War had a much greater urgency than the subsequent efforts to end the Iraq or Afghanistan Wars. Conversely, many fewer people had the luxury of being apathetic.

Consider how many facts about the Niger attack and its aftermath would be different if most of the soldiers stationed in those far-flung bases were draftees rather than volunteers.

  • Parents with draft-age children would know where American soldiers were being sent, and would have opinions about whether they should be there.
  • Before sending troops into a hotspot, presidents would feel a stronger obligation to make a case to the American people.
  • Voters would expect their representatives in Congress to be asking the hard questions, and would not tolerate Congress ducking its responsibility to authorize or not authorize military commitments.
  • Neither Trump nor Kelly nor any of the rest of us could comfort ourselves by saying that a fallen soldier “knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted”. We would bear responsibility for interrupting people’s lives, making them soldiers, and sending them into danger. Even those who enlisted would have done so under the threat of being drafted.

And there is a fifth point that is more subtle: The country’s relationship to the military would be different. The all-volunteer Army has a relationship with fewer people, but that relationship is more intense. “Military family” has become a stronger identity.

The danger a professionalized military poses to democracy is that soldiers may come to think of themselves as a breed apart, with more loyalty to the Pentagon than to Congress or to the electorate (which has remained oblivious to them, no matter where they’ve been sent or what risks they’ve faced). Generals who commanded citizen-soldiers always had an ambiguous relationship with them; command, like the whole soldiering experience, was temporary. But generals leading professional soldiers may come to see them as their constituency and to count on their personal loyalty.

American voters have often looked favorably on successful generals, from Washington to Grant to Eisenhower. Political careers on both sides of the aisle — from John McCain to Tammy Duckworth — still arise out of military service. But in many other countries, soldiers develop a less healthy attitude towards government: They feel that their military service entitles them to rule. Such countries are often subject to military coups.

We are not there yet, but the signs are bad. The Trump administration devalues every non-military public institution: the civilian agencies (“bureaucrats!”), the press (“fake news!”), scientists, courts (“unelected judges”), Congress, and even the electorate, which it falsely portrays as corrupted by the fraudulent votes of non-citizens. The administration is full of generals, including in posts where generals are not supposed to serve, like Secretary of Defense. Trump’s own behavior has made the presidency so untrustworthy that liberals and conservatives alike are hoping that his generals (Kelly, Mattis, and McMaster) “manage” him. The New Republic‘s Jeet Heer was already discussing this in August:

Democracy does not work with a power vacuum for a president. As Trump makes a mockery of his office, he has left America to drift in two fundamentally anti-democratic directions, with the military exercising ever greater power as neo-Nazi street protesters form militias of their own. People of good faith around the country may be trying desperately to counter both, but this is fundamentally a political crisis that has to have a political solution. The president is unfit to serve, and until Congress comes to its senses and remembers its constitutional powers, this is what we can expect: a weakened president subservient to the military egging on armed fascists as they take to the streets.

The Founders worried about this. Both at the Constitutional Convention and in the First Congress (which wrote and passed the Bill of Rights), the Founders argued about how the new nation would defend itself. Having just fought a revolution, George Washington in particular recognized the importance of a well-drilled army that follows orders and isn’t tempted to head for home when the fields are ready to harvest.

But many others also feared such an army. An army that follows orders too easily can be sent places that a citizen militia would refuse to go. It might fight imperial wars rather than wars of national defense. “A standing army,” quipped Elbridge Gerry, “is like a standing member [i.e., penis] — an excellent assurance of domestic tranquility, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.”

Worst of all, it might install its own leader as ruler of the country. The original point of the Second Amendment was not that armed citizens might overthrow a tyrannical central government (as the NRA has it now), but that through local and state militias, the People might defend themselves, obviating the need for a standing federal army under all but emergency circumstances. A well-regulated militia is “essential to the security of a free state” because a large standing army is a threat to that freedom. [10]

Ships have sailed. Few Americans want to go back to the Jefferson-era system of militias. We don’t want to be Minutemen, ready to grab our muskets and assemble on the Green in case of invasion or Indian raid or pirate attack. We don’t want to disband the U.S. Army or our local police departments. We are also happy to be able to plan our careers without worrying that our draft numbers might come up and send us to God-knows-where.

What’s more, nobody’s too sure how any other system would work in this era. You can’t just take random people off the street, train them for a few weeks, hand them 21st-century weapons, and expect good things to happen. Even if we could all agree that we wanted the United States to get out of its current role in the global balance of power, those commitments would need to be carefully unwound, not just abandoned. We would need to re-envision the global mission of the United States, or else we’ll lurch back and forth between “What are we doing in Africa?” when our troops get ambushed, but then “Why aren’t we doing anything?” the next time Boko Haram kidnaps a few hundred Nigerian girls.

So for now and possibly for a long time into the future, we have a professional military spread all over the world. That fact creates risks for our democracy, risks that have been recognized for hundreds of years. If we can’t change the fact — at least not immediately — we should at the very least keep our eyes on those risks.

That means:

  • Paying attention to where our troops go and why, even if we don’t know any of them.
  • Pushing back against efforts to demean civilian institutions of government, and demanding that the people in charge of those institutions do their jobs rather than yield to the military.
  • Refusing to be cowed by military authorities, or to let them off the hook when they behave dishonorably.

And in the long run, we need to look for ways out of this situation. The Rome of Cicero’s era tried to be a republic at home and a military empire abroad. They failed, and eventually we will too.


[1] Both countries get their names from the Niger River, which they share.

[2] When the government says little or nothing, other voices fill the silence. Thursday night, Rachel Maddow did some speculative-but-plausible dot-connecting:

  1. For reasons that don’t quite add up, Chad wound up on the Trump administration’s latest travel-ban list, which was announced on September 24.
  2. Chad has one of the more effective anti-terrorist forces in the area. Shortly after the travel-ban insult, Chad began withdrawing its troops from Niger.
  3. On October 4, four Americans were ambushed ISIS fighters in a region of Niger previously believed to be safe.

“If I were president,” she suggested, “I might not want to talk about this either.”

[3] He was making a joint appearance with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in an effort to show that “We have the same agenda.”

[4] It also set off a race at the White House to get condolence letters out before the press could report their absence.

The full back-and-forth of this has been covered extensively elsewhere, so I’m not going to rehash it in detail. One the crazier stories, unrelated to any point I’m making here, concerns the $25,000 Trump promised to a soldier’s father in June, apparently forgot about, and then made good on after The Washington Post reported the story this week.

[5] Kelly explained why Trump might have said something like that and what he meant by it. He pointedly did not deny that Trump said it.

[6] It’s not clear why either Trump or Kelly thought that a pregnant widow would be comforted by the same thoughts that comforted a general about his son’s death, because some of the issues are very different. In addition to all the other reasons a young man or woman might enlist, a general’s son might be trying to follow in his father’s footsteps or win his father’s respect. In effect, Dunford was reassuring Kelly that his son’s death wasn’t his fault; it was the result of choices the son made for himself.

By contrast, I would expect a wife to want to believe that her husband’s last thoughts were of her, and not that his military comrades were “exactly the people he wanted to be with” as he died.

[7] It’s striking how many of Kelly’s criticisms of Wilson actually apply much better to Trump: He has politicized dead soldiers; he grandstands; he makes a lot of noise about things he doesn’t understand; instead of respecting those who deserve respect, he makes everything about himself and his own accomplishments. Obviously, Kelly doesn’t say any of that to Trump. So it’s no wonder he grabbed a chance to unleash those bottled-up feelings on a different target.

[8] A Kelly defender might say that he simply remembered the incident wrong. And that would be a valid defense if he had responded off-the-cuff to a question about something that happened two years ago. But it was Kelly who brought the incident up, in a setting where he had time to prepare. He had both the opportunity and the responsibility to get it right, but he chose not to.

[9] The militias of the early American Republic were not voluntary. All men of appropriate age and ability were required by law to arm themselves and show up periodically for training and drills.

[10] For a detailed account of this, see The Second Amendment, a biography by Michael Waldman. That’s also where I found the Gerry quote.

Taking Hostages

In one setting after another — DACA, Iran, ObamaCare — Trump has set a clock ticking towards disaster in hopes of getting concessions from Congress.


During the Obama years, I frequently found it necessary to explain the difference between negotiating and hostage-taking. If we’re negotiating, I push for what I want, you push for what you want, and we hope to meet somewhere in the middle. But if I demand that you give me what I want, under the threat that otherwise I’ll send us into a scenario that NO ONE wants, that’s hostage-taking. The defining mark of a hostage-taker is that the demand for cooperation unaccompanied by any positive offer: My proposed “compromise” isn’t that you’ll get some of what you want, but that I’ll remove a threat of my own making. “Do what I say and nobody gets hurt.”

The clearest examples of hostage-taking in recent American politics have been the debt-ceiling confrontations of 2011 and 2013, as well as the occasional posturing over the debt ceiling we still see from time to time. If Congress ever actually does refuse to raise the ceiling on the national debt, the country will be thrown into both a constitutional and an economic crisis that will benefit no one (possibly not even our enemies, who might get caught in the global economic downturn likely to follow the market’s loss of faith in U.S. bonds). In 2011 and 2013, Republicans wanted President Obama to agree to deep spending cuts and the end of ObamaCare. What they offered in exchange was nothing, beyond dropping their threat to set off a global crisis.

Recently, the Trump administration has brought us something I don’t think the U.S. has ever seen before: presidential hostage taking. American presidents usually assume that they’ll be blamed for whatever goes wrong, so they have nothing to gain from taking hostages; any catastrophe that spins out of the confrontation will ultimately be charged against them. But Trump has an unfortunate combination of character flaws that we’ve never seen in a president before:

  • He seems not to feel empathy for the people his policies might hurt.
  • He is convinced that no bad outcome can ever be his fault. If he sets up a confrontation that results in disaster, that just demonstrates that his enemies should have given in to him.

The failure of brute force. In the first half-year or so of his administration, Trump believed he didn’t need Democratic cooperation. With Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, he thought he could ignore Democratic resistance and win by brute force. In his first confrontation, that strategy worked: Nominating Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court gave Trump’s base what it wanted without offering Democrats any hint of compromise. A Democratic filibuster was defeated not by convincing any Democrats to support Gorsuch, but by eliminating the filibuster on Supreme Court nominations. Take that, Democrats!

But from spring into summer, right up to the September 30 reconciliation deadline, repeated attempts to win a brute-force victory on healthcare failed. Offered nothing, Democrats stayed united. But Republicans didn’t, so the small Republican majorities in both houses weren’t enough to push a bill through.

Trump’s current policy push, a tax-reform package centered on a major cut in corporate taxes, seems headed for a similar outcome. A proposal that reduces government revenue mainly by cutting taxes on corporations and the rich contains no provisions that a Democrat can take to his or her voters and say, “We got what we could out of the deal.” So Democrats will stay united. Republicans — each of whom represents a somewhat different configuration of interests — probably won’t.

Each of those efforts assumed the once-a-year reconciliation process that circumvents the filibuster in the Senate. Trump has urged the Senate to do away with the filibuster altogether, but there are enough traditionalists in the Republican Senate caucus to defeat that effort. For every other piece of legislation, Trump needs 60 votes in the Senate and only has 52 Republicans.

In short, Trump has already reached the limits of brute force in Congress. This is unlikely to change as the 2018 elections get closer, and if Republican majorities shrink (as seems likely, at least in the House), brute force is even less like to succeed in 2019 and beyond. So if Trump wants to get anything through Congress, he needs at least a small amount of Democratic cooperation. How to get it?

Start the time-bombs ticking. In the last couple of months we’ve seen a new tactic from Trump: Rather than propose even a framework of a policy and seek congressional approval, Trump unilaterally sets a clock ticking towards some outcome that hardly anybody wants. Congress is expected to do something to avert the looming disaster, though precisely what Trump wants it to do is usually unclear. This sets up the following possibilities.

  • If Congress does something popular, Trump can claim credit.
  • If Congress does something unpopular, Trump can save the country from it with a veto and/or a clock reset.
  • If Congress does nothing, he can denounce Congress for obstructing the “agenda” that he never actually proposed.

We’ve seen this set-up three times already in a fairly short time-period: DACA, ObamaCare, and Iran.

DACA. It’s not true that no one wants to deport the so-called Dreamers (the name derives from the DREAM Act — Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, which Congress never passed; that’s what motivated Obama’s DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — executive order), but they are the most popular of America’s undocumented immigrants. A poll in September found that 58% of Americans want Dreamers to have a path to citizenship. Another 18% would let them be permanent residents without citizenship. Only 15% want them deported.

In the face of that public opinion, even Republicans say nice things about the Dreamers. Orrin Hatch, for example:

I’ve long advocated for tougher enforcement of our existing immigration laws. But we also need a workable, permanent solution for individuals who entered our country unlawfully as children through no fault of their own and who have built their lives here.

But on September 5, Trump started a clock running.

Under the plan, announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Trump administration will stop considering new applications for legal status dated after Tuesday, but will allow any DACA recipients with a permit set to expire before March 5, 2018, the opportunity to apply for a two-year renewal if they apply by October 5.

So after March 5, Dreamers will start becoming subject to deportation. And they’ll be easy to find, because the DACA program required them to register with the government.

At first, Trump himself seemed to share the public’s sympathy for the Dreamers, tweeting “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military?” His problem seemed to be mainly that DACA was established by executive order rather than by an act of Congress. Democrats briefly thought they had reached a deal with him to fix that. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer released a joint statement after a meeting with Trump:

We agreed to enshrine the protections of DACA into law quickly, and to work out a package of border security, excluding the wall, that’s acceptable to both sides.

At the time, Trump seemed to endorse the Democrats’ version:

“DACA now, and the wall very soon,” Trump told reporters on the south lawn of the White House in mid-September. “But the wall will happen.”

But this week he disavowed any such deal, and issued his ransom note of 70 demands. Not only did it include funding for his border wall, but it also had one giant poison pill: It criminalizes millions of immigrants who (under current law) have only committed the civil infraction of overstaying their visas.

Of the 11 million unauthorized aliens in the country, about two million are DREAMers [1] and 4.5 million are visa overstays who entered the country legally but whose visas expired (the rest entered the country without proper papers). Currently, these latter folks are guilty of a civil infraction akin to an unpaid parking ticket. They can be deported for it but can’t be thrown in jail.

Many of them are eligible for a visa renewal or for refugee status, but haven’t been able to navigate our byzantine process. [2]

But Trump’s proposals (according to the Cato Institute)

would create a new misdemeanor offense for overstaying a visa. Immigration fraud is already a crime. This would criminalize the technical violation, regardless of the reason.

If, for example, your application gets lost in the mail, or vanishes into some bureaucrat’s files, you become a criminal. But there’s more:

It would also create new criminal penalties for filing “baseless” asylum applications and increase penalties for those who recross the border after a deportation.

So if you are in danger in your home country, be sure you thoroughly document your situation and bring the paperwork with you when you run for your life. Otherwise you may go to jail in the U.S. for filing a baseless asylum application.

In short, Trump’s price for giving the Dreamers legal status (he still hasn’t said what kind) isn’t just to build a wall, but to criminalize at least twice as many people as he legalizes. “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military?” he asks. But he’ll start doing it on March 5 unless his demands are met.

ObamaCare. The Constitution says that a primary duty of the President is to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed”. It doesn’t say “unless they were passed under your predecessor and you don’t like them”. But that’s the spin Trump has been putting on the Affordable Care Act since he took office.

The initial sabotage was low-level and seemed like the grousing of teen-agers who complain about going to school as they go to school. For example, HHS took some of the money appropriated to publicize the program and used it to create videos that criticized ObamaCare instead. Somewhat more seriously, the Trump administration has also made it harder to sign up by cutting the open enrollment period.

But this week he made two direct attempts at sabotage: He ordered HHS to expand the role of interstate association healthcare plans, which provides a way to siphon off healthier, younger people into cheaper plans, leaving older, sicker people behind in a more expensive risk pool that is in greater danger of collapsing. And he announced that he will cut off the cost-sharing-reduction payments that help people just above the poverty line cover their deductibles and make co-payments.

It’s important to realize that this is not the main ObamaCare subsidy, the one that helps people pay their premiums. (If people get the impression that all ObamaCare subsidies have been eliminated, that will sabotage sign-ups beyond what the actual situation implies.) Eliminating it will actually not help anybody.

If the payments are stopped, insurers would still be required to give low-income consumers plans with small deductibles and co-payments. But insurers would no longer be able to get financial help for the costs they are bearing.

Some insurance companies would likely decide that it was no longer worth selling health plans on the marketplaces. Others might conclude that they have to raise premiums across-the-board to cover the additional losses.

Insurance regulators predict that premiums nationwide will go up an average of 12% to 15% because of Trump’s decision. But the increase in some areas could be much larger.

Many of the people hurt worst will be Trump voters.

An estimated 4 million people were benefiting from the cost-sharing payments in the 30 states Trump carried, according to an analysis of 2017 enrollment data from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Of the 10 states with the highest percentage of consumers benefiting from cost-sharing, all but one — Massachusetts — went for Trump.

It won’t even save the government money. Increasing premiums increases the primary ObamaCare subsidies, which will cost the government money.The point of all this, then, isn’t to improve anything for anybody. (It’s worth pointing out that Trump still hasn’t put forward any healthcare plan at all. The Republican plans Congress has rejected were all constructed in Congress. So far, there is no reason to believe that Trump has any ideas for improving healthcare.) It’s to fulfill his promise to “let ObamaCare implode” so that Democrats will have to give in to a repeal-and-replace plan that throws millions of people out of the health-insurance system.

In other words: Agree to hurt a bunch of people, or I’ll hurt even more people.

Iran. The people in the Trump administration who are supposed to understand such things tell us that Iran is fulfilling the terms of the 2015 deal that keeps them from pursuing nuclear weapons. But Friday, Trump “decertified” the agreement.

When you first hear that, it sounds like the deal is kaput. But actually decertification just starts another clock running. Presidential certification actually isn’t part of the international agreement, it’s just part of an American law, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.

The immediate consequence of this is not that sanctions snap back into effect. Rather, it’s that the issue gets kicked back to Congress — giving them a 60-day window to reimpose Iran sanctions suspended by the deal using a special, extremely fast process.

The sanctions are part of the agreement, so if they go back into effect, we are in violation, even though Iran is not. So Congress has a special opportunity (again avoiding the Senate filibuster) to kill the deal.

Trump’s stated reasons for decertifying are that Iran continues to do bad things the deal doesn’t cover, like aiding Hezbollah and propping up the Assad regime in Syria. (Russia is also propping up the Assad regime, but Trump can’t criticize Russia.) Also, they are developing ballistic missiles (which the deal doesn’t cover). So they are violating “the spirit” of the agreement.

Trump wants Congress to do something (it’s not clear exactly what) that will re-open negotiations on the deal, not just with Iran, but with the United Kingdom, Russia, France, China, and Germany, who are also part of the agreement.  None of the other countries have expressed an interest in renegotiating, or in reimposing the sanctions that pushed Iran to make concessions. But

in the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated. It is under continuous review, and our participation can be cancelled by me, as President, at any time.

Several administration officials say we want to remain in the deal. Just blowing it up sets Iran back on the path to nuclear weapons and the United States on the path to war. No one benefits. But Trump says he’ll blow it up if his demands aren’t met.

So far, no one is giving in. There’s no indication that Democrats will pay ransom for DACA or ObamaCare, or that Iran and the other signers of the Iran nuclear deal will pay ransom to preserve the agreement. Like any terrorist, Trump will have to shoot some hostages before his enemies start taking his threats seriously. What remains to be seen is what Trump supporters, both in Congress and in the general public, will do once they understand that the hostages include people they care about.


[1] You’ll see a fairly wide range of estimates of the number of Dreamers, with this one on the high end. The number of people who have registered for DACA is usually estimated between 700K and 800K. I’m assuming that two million represents a guess at the number of undocumented immigrants who qualify in the vaguest sense: They came to this country as children and so could apply for DACA. An undocumented family might have any number of reasons not to call attention to itself by registering its DACA-eligible child.

[2] The goal of the sanctuary movement in liberal American churches isn’t to shelter forever people who can’t legally stay in this country, but to prevent the government from deporting people who would be eligible to stay if some neutral court could examine their cases. Such people are given temporary sanctuary so that the bureaucratic process has time to work.

On Memorial Day we ought to remember the dead, not celebrate the Empire.

I grew up in the era of the draft. Young men by the hundreds of thousands were remanded into the military under penalty of law. They were not sent to defend their homes and families against an invader, but to Vietnam to fight a war whose significance was hard to explain. (In retrospect, we lost and American life went on more-or-less as before. So what was that all about?)

Tens of thousands died there. Others came back alive, but left arms or legs behind. Some came back whole, but said little about their experiences afterwards. Some avoided the draft, either legally through student deferments (or whatever other loopholes were available when their names came up), or illegally, by going to Canada or Sweden, or (like Muhammad Ali) to prison.

I imagine that some must have had the kinds of positive experiences I liked to read about in formulaic World War II novels: They came of age. They discovered inside themselves a strength and courage that they had not previously been aware of. They bonded with other young men they probably would not have met any other way, and found friends for life.

This is all speculative for me, because I was never drafted. The draft wound down just in time to miss my age cohort: We had to register, and they held a lottery that told us what order we would have been drafted in, but no draft was held. So whether I would have died, lost a limb, locked the whole experience away in a dark corner of my mind, escaped to Toronto, gone or jail, or found myself — who can say? I was there for the beginning of the all-volunteer army, and I didn’t volunteer.

While I am personally grateful to have had the chance to make that choice, I am ambivalent about the policy that allowed me to do so. I sympathize with the Jeffersonian vision expressed in the opening of the Second Amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State …”. Jefferson and Madison pictured a militia-based military, where ordinary people defended their towns and farms, rather than a standing army that could be sent on imperial missions, or maybe could develop its own interests, separate from the rest of the country. When soldiering becomes a profession, they realized, military and civilian cultures can start to go in different directions. And that’s dangerous “to the security of a free State”.

That divergence has been happening, slowly but steadily, for almost half a century now. It hurts America in two different ways. On the one hand, we get chicken hawks: neo-conservative intellectuals or tough-talking radio hosts, who know that neither they nor their sons or daughters will ever be called on to back up their geopolitical theories or their jingoistic rhetoric. If anyone ends up getting shot it, it will be the rural kid whose college fund vanished after Dad lost his factory job, or the ghetto kid who sees no other way out than to sign away a few years of his life and take a chance on losing all of it.

On the other hand, families who maintain a military tradition without financial necessity may come to see themselves not as representatives of America, but as a breed apart from it — a better, braver breed that has been forced to deal with violent reality in a way that the rest of us avoid, and who therefore deserve to rule. If a fascist takeover ever succeeds in this country, it will be due not just to some Trump-like clown at the top, but also to warriors up and down the line who no longer respect civilian America.

These thoughts come to me on Memorial Day, because I have no one in particular to remember: Not only have I never been shot at, but no one close to me has died in war. Our soldiers continue to serve in war zones in Afghanistan and in parts of Iraq and Syria, but no one I know is in danger. I care about those wars only to the extent that I choose to care. If I ignore them, they will not slap me in the face by claiming someone important to me.

Memorial Day didn’t used to be like this. It began after the Civil War, a conflict that killed about 2% of the population, and is still responsible for nearly half of the total of Americans who have ever died in battle. It began, in other words, at a time when nearly everyone had someone to remember.

I picture the early Memorial Days as bittersweet holidays, full of personal anecdotes about the dead, respect, regret, and a touch of gratitude for the chance to be living in peace. You might take your children to the cemetery to tell them stories about a father or uncle they remembered either dimly or not at all, while silently you hoped that you would never have to visit their graves on a some future Memorial Day. If you prayed, it was not for the greater glory of the United States, but for peace.

For many, perhaps most of us, particularly those in the educated or managerial classes, that personal connection has been lost. We have no graves to visit, and we never seriously worry about our children going to war, because that’s not their job. They’re destined for colleges and offices and the exciting digital future. Bullets and bombs are for the lower classes to deal with.

What replaces the personal is pageantry. Rather than a reminder of the cost of war, this holiday has become either a content-free weekend marking the start of summer, or a celebration of the military. Friday night, I saw on television an example that was simultaneously trivial and ridiculous: The Boston Red Sox played the Seattle Mariners, and both teams marked the Memorial Day weekend by wearing caps of Army green with camouflage visors. (The caps are being marketed; yesterday on a sidewalk, I passed a young man wearing one.)

The changes in Memorial Day are part of a larger growth of nationalistic ritual and worship of things military. I have always been uncomfortable singing the national anthem at baseball games (a practice that began during World War I, in the 1918 World Series; perhaps this misappropriation was the true origin of the curse that prevented both teams — Red Sox and Cubs — from winning a world championship for the rest of the 20th century), because I don’t see what is patriotic about playing or watching baseball. By now, of course, that practice extends to virtually all sports events, to the point that football quarterback Colin Kaepernick could create a national controversy simply by kneeling down.

After 9-11, many teams started putting a second patriotic song (“God Bless America” or “America the Beautiful”) somewhere else in the program, like during the 7th inning stretch. Last summer, the college-summer-league team in my town began including a moment where all veterans in the house were asked to stand and be applauded by the rest of us; not just on a particular day, but every game.

This Thursday, I was at the graduation ceremony of a nearby community college. It also began with the national anthem, included “God Bless America” later in the program, and had a moment when all graduating veterans stood to be applauded. Again, nationalism and militarism seemed pasted onto this event. Why not, for example, the state song or the college song? We were told that graduates came from many different nations: Why were they required to participate in an American patriotic ritual? (Why, for that matter, are baseball players, many of whom come from Latin American countries that have no cause to remember us or our soldiers kindly?) Trump’s planners even looked into the possibility of military vehicles adding spectacle to his inaugural parade, as they did to the old Soviet Mayday celebrations.

As actual soldiers become more and more distant, we are offered the Soldier and the Veteran as symbols. They are to be honored and worshiped, not empathized with, or even taken care of. (They are, in essence, getting the Jesus treatment: Worship Him as Lord, but pay no attention to the actual person. Ignore that liberal Sermon on the Mount, or much of anything else He said.) We are offered the Nation and the Military as objects of veneration, and encouraged to take an imperial pride in their world-bestriding power.

I find myself missing the bittersweet holiday Memorial Day started out to be. Wouldn’t it be appropriate to have a day where we appreciate the huge difference in scale between the Nation’s ambitions and the costs that will filter down into our own lives? Or, perhaps, to recognize the ways that we have been insulated from those costs, which have not vanished, but are borne by someone else instead?

Memorial Day itself is becoming something to mourn for. Once a bittersweet recognition of the toll assessed by military power, it now too often becomes a celebration of that power.

Where Did That Come From?

The attack on Syria reverses what little we thought we knew about Trump’s foreign policy.


In his campaign and the early days of his administration, Trump did not lay out a detailed vision of foreign policy. But he did have a slogan:

From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first  America first.

No longer would we spend “trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.” We weren’t going to commit our blood and treasure for sentimental reasons, or to uphold abstract global principles, or perhaps not even to defend our allies. Our military would be used to promote our interests, and nobody else’s.

The administration’s early moves followed that course: His proposed budget sharply cuts foreign aid. By some accounts, he presented German’s Angela Merkel with a printed bill for Germany’s share of NATO’s defense expenses.

He particularly applied this view to Syria. Such troops and air strikes as we committed to Syria were to fight ISIS, and not to play any role in helping rebels oust the Assad regime. Not only did he want to reverse President Obama’s commitment to taking in Syrian refugees, he didn’t want anyone at all to come here from there, not even as tourists. Just 11 days ago, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were saying that we no longer were going to “focus on getting Assad out“.

Then Tuesday came Assad’s gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun, killing dozens of civilians and producing horrifying video. Trump’s initial reaction was to blame Obama for not taking military action against Assad after a previous chemical attack in 2013 — inaction that Trump demanded at the time. Then he made a semi-coherent statement expressing personal horror at the videos, blaming Assad, and praising himself in advance for his “flexibility”, i.e. not being bound by anything he had said in the past.

Thursday, he shot 59 Tomahawk missiles at the airbase the gas attack came from. The attack was mostly symbolic, since the base reportedly was back in operation quickly, and further airstrikes were made against the same rebel-held area, though apparently no chemical attacks.

So what’s the United States’ foreign policy now? No one seems to know.

What should we do? Before I get too far along in criticizing Trump, let me state for the record that I don’t know what to do about Syria either. Neither do you and neither does anybody else.

Revolutions and civil wars can have happy endings when there is a popular will or national identity that the current ruler is thwarting. In such a case, if you just get that ruler out of the way, things can take their natural course. Being conquered did wonders for Japan and Germany (at least in the west) because the people in those countries had a strong notion of what it meant to be Japanese or German. Given a benevolent conqueror, democratic institutions could be established and a popular government elected.

But while democracy can empower a popular consensus, it can’t create one from nothing. That’s what we’ve seen in Iraq. An occupying power can hold elections, but if the winning and losing sides still want to kill each other, the elected government can’t represent them both. When there is no popular will for democracy to bring to power, no consensus notion of what the country is or how it should be run, then there is no obvious happy ending to aim for. Any outside power that intervenes is looking at a menu of dismal outcomes, all of which will leave its people asking: “We killed and died for this?”

That’s Syria. There isn’t a popular resistance, there are a dozen or so of them, none of which gets along with the others.

Talking past each other. If I can’t give a just-do-this answer, I can at least try to disentangle some of the public discussion. A lot of the commentary on Syria consists of people talking past each other, and the main reason seems to be that “caring about Syria” can mean you care about a lot of different things. Here’s an incomplete list of what your concerns might be:

  • the Syrian people
  • the political stability of the region
  • the rivalries of great powers as they express themselves in the region
  • international law, particular as it concerns chemical weapons

For example, many have pointed out that the Syrian people probably don’t much care whether Assad kills them with gas or with explosives. But to others, the limited use of chemical weapons since World War I is one of the great successes of international diplomacy, and it would be a shame for that to fall apart, even if preserving it doesn’t help any Syrians.

Conversely, accepting more Syrian refugees doesn’t address any of the concerns of the international-law folks.

The limited menu. Whoever was president this week would have had the same three immediate military options:

  • Don’t respond. Let the civil war continue with its endless death. And let the world’s malefactors infer that (for practical purposes) chemical weapons are OK now.
  • Launch an attack to bring Assad down. Either we’d take over Syria with our own troops, or we’d cripple Assad’s military so badly from the air that some group of rebels could win. The risks are endless quagmire for our troops, a larger war with Russia and/or Iran, the possibility that the winning anti-Assad faction will be even worse, or that even after Assad is gone, the war between the other factions will continue and be just as bad.
  • Launch a symbolic attack that won’t affect the outcome of the war. Such an attack won’t help the Syrian people, but Russia and Iran will probably accept it, and it will preserve (to some extent) the international stigma on chemical weapons.

Trump made the third choice, which probably is pretty close to what Hillary Clinton would have done.

The question is whether there is any follow-up — Clinton probably would have had something in mind — and so far it appears that the answer is no. On the Sunday talk shows, Nikki Haley said regime change in Syria is “something that we think is going to happen”, but National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster strongly implied the ball was in Russia’s court, not ours.

We are not saying that we are the ones who are going to affect that change [in the Assad regime]. What we are saying is, other countries have to ask themselves some hard questions. Russia should ask themselves, what are we doing here?

So we’re waiting to see what Russia does, and so far they’re not backing away from Assad.

A few more points worth making:

Obama is getting a bad rap. Numerous commentators are giving Trump credit for “doing something”, compared to Obama who “did nothing” after Assad’s chemical attacks in 2013.

That’s only true if “something” has to be a military attack. What Obama did was get Russia to oversee the removal of large stockpiles of chemical weapons from Syria, which resulted in no chemical attacks for the rest of his administration. Given the either bad or negligible consequences of the military choices (which Trump is facing now), finding something off the menu was a pretty good move.

Don’t forget the climate change angle. The “Climate Wars” episode of Years of Living Dangerously features Thomas Friedman in Syria, exploring the role an exceptional drought played in starting the civil war.

What if Trump’s reaction really was spontaneous? One explanation of Trump’s missile attack is that he was so affected by images of the victims of the chemical attack that he felt a spontaneous desire to strike back, even if it contradicted all his previous positions.

Here’s the analogous story that popped into my mind: In 1952, bank robber Willie Sutton was caught because amateur detective Arnold Schuster spotted him on a New York subway. Schuster was then murdered, which was a mysterious development, since Sutton had never been that kind of criminal.

One explanation that eventually came out was that mob boss Albert Anastasia, who had no connection to Sutton and who was getting increasingly unstable as his power grew, saw Schuster tell his story on TV and spontaneously told his men “I can’t stand squealers! Hit that guy!”

An unstable guy with too much power has a violent-but-fleeting reaction to something he sees on TV, and people wind up dead. I think I’d rather believe a conspiracy theory.

ISIS is losing, but what happens next?

When people do something that doesn’t fit their self-image, they often have a hard time remembering it. “Me? No, I couldn’t have done that. It just doesn’t sound like me at all.”

Collectively, the American people are that way about fear. We see ourselves as a courageous country, so if you give us a good scare, and then the thing we were afraid of doesn’t happen, the whole episode has a way of slipping our minds. And if somebody deserves credit for avoiding what we were panicking about, well, too bad for them, because … us? afraid? What are you talking about?

President Obama has suffered from this kind of public amnesia before. The day before he was elected in 2008, USA Today ran a reassuring article telling people that a Second Great Depression was “unlikely”, even if things sort of looked that way.

Failed banks. Panicked markets. Rising unemployment. For students of history, or people of a certain age, it all has an all-too-familiar ring. Is this another Great Depression? Not yet.

By any measure, our current economic suffering pales in comparison with what the nation endured from 1929 through 1939. Still, most economists are predicting a long, difficult period ahead. Could it eventually become a depression? It’s possible — but not likely.

That’s what a calm, reasonable voice sounded like in November, 2008: Total catastrophe might happen, but it probably won’t, unless it does. At least it hasn’t happened yet.

But who remembers? If we discuss Obama’s economic record at all now, we probably talk about how anemic the recovery has been. Wages should be higher, poverty lower. “What’s wrong with this guy? Depression? I never worried about a Depression. That doesn’t sound like me at all.”

Something similar has happened with regard to the Islamic State. When ISIS first burst into the public consciousness in the spring of 2014, we weren’t afraid of handfuls of terrorists slipping across borders to carry out operations like the Paris attack last November. Nor did we worry about American individuals giving ISIS the credit for killing sprees like San Bernardino or Orlando (which without the credit to ISIS would be hard to distinguish from secular non-ideological killing sprees like Sandy Hook or Aurora).

In the spring and early summer of 2014, the question was on a different scale: whether Baghdad would fall, leading to the complete collapse of Iraq as a country. Maybe the restored Caliphate, the one Bin Laden had dreamed about but never expected to see, was happening right before our eyes.

In a widely discussed Atlantic article in the spring of 2015 (which I critiqued here), Graeme Wood told us what made ISIS different and far more dangerous that Al Qaeda had been: Large chunks of sharia describe a Muslim’s duties towards the Caliphate, and have been moot since the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

Before the caliphate, “maybe 85 percent of the Sharia was absent from our lives,” Choudary told me. “These laws are in abeyance until we have khilafa”—a caliphate—“and now we have one.” … In theory, all Muslims are obliged to immigrate to the territory where the caliph is applying these laws.

By controlling territory and declaring himself Caliph there, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was filling a role that an underground leader like Osama bin Laden never could. His advancing forces stirred memories of Muhammad’s armies improbably exploding out of Medina to capture the entire Arabian peninsula, then his successors continuing that rapid expansion until their empire was the largest in the world. The Emperor in Constantinople hadn’t been able to stop the armies of Allah; maybe the President in Washington couldn’t either.

So that was the challenge Obama faced two years ago when he formulated his anti-ISIS strategy: Stop al-Baghdadi’s advance and throw his forces back. But a new American invasion of Iraq (plus Syria) wasn’t a good idea because it would simultaneously

  • play into al-Baghdadi’s end-times fantasies
  • support ISIS’ narrative that it represents all of Islam in a Muslim/Christian holy war
  • cost fabulous amounts of money
  • get lots of American troops killed
  • not be supported by the American people
  • involve us in a new occupation that in the long run would probably be as counter-productive as the last one.

So Obama opted for a slow-strangulation approach instead: Use air power to prevent ISIS from advancing with a massed force, and also to kill its leaders and degrade its territory’s economic resources; aid local anti-ISIS forces like the patched-back-together Iraqi army, the Kurdish peshmerga, and whatever bands of Syrian rebels seem remotely trustworthy; together with our allies, prevent new recruits from emigrating to the Caliphate; and use our economic power to cut off ISIS’ sources of foreign funding.

He doesn’t get much credit for it, but it’s been working. By January, 2015, ISIS’ forward momentum had ground to a halt, robbing it of its greatest propaganda weapon. Since then, it has slowly but inexorably been losing territory: Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah, Manbij, and maybe soon Mosul and even the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa. Turkey has intervened in northern Syria, reducing the Islamic State’s ability to shift forces between Syria and Iraq.

One measure of how well the strangulation strategy has been working is that (no matter how often they proclaimed Obama’s ISIS policy a failure) none of the candidates in the Republican primaries offered a real alternative. Any detailed policy they offered was more-or-less what Obama is already doing, perhaps seasoned with some additional macho rhetoric like “carpet bombing” that they didn’t mean literally.

So now it is possible to imagine a day in the not-too-distant future when ISIS no longer holds territory, and is only a caliphate in some vague metaphorical sense. Al-Baghdadi himself may go down with the ship, or he may survive as a Bin-Ladin-style underground leader, but his mythic status as a caliph will be gone. Then what happens?

An article by Mark Jurgensmeyer in the The Cairo Review of Global Affairs tries to answer that question. In his view, ISIS is really three things:

  • a local Sunni empowerment movement
  • a global jihadist movement
  • an apocalyptic cult

The end of the al-Baghdadi caliphate, Jurgensmeyer thinks, will unbundle those three aspects, and each will have its own future.

Local Sunnis. No matter what happens to ISIS or al-Baghdadi, a lot of Sunnis will still live in eastern Syria and western Iraq, and they still will feel no loyalty to either the Alawite-dominated government in Damascus or the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. Eventually, and probably before too long, some political and/or military force will represent their interests again.

The three possibilities are: (1) Baghdad and Damascus re-assert control, but manage to give Sunnis enough respect and local autonomy to keep them happy, (2) Baghdad and Damascus decide they’re glad to be rid of those troublesome provinces and allow the creation of a non-jihadist Sunni state that covers most of the territory ISIS controlled, or (3) the region becomes a failed-state territory, nominally under government control but in practice ruled by warlords of one sort or another. Jurgensmeyer sees some combination of (2) and (3) as the most likely scenario:

In the Sunni heartland of eastern Syria and western Iraq, the Sunni tribal leaders will continue to maintain order, however, the way they always have done. There will be a de facto Sunnistan though not one officially proclaimed.

Global jihadists. For young Muslims who feel alienated from the Western or Western-dominated society where they live (and from the local mosque that attempts to fit into that society), ISIS has been a symbol, a brand, an identity, and a virtual community accessed via the internet. (TPM recently had a more detailed article on ISIS’ use of the internet.) The actual territory of ISIS is a place of aspiration, but most never go there. Recently, the Islamic State has been encouraging sympathizers in the U.S. and Europe to carry out attacks at home.

When Raqqa falls, it will be a huge blow to ISIS’ propaganda, and some recruits may see the err of their ways. But like the Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis, they will still be alienated. They will still be searching for an identity as Muslims, and the online jihadist community will be there to welcome them.

The pictures show the ISIS brotherhood together in physical space, but the sense of community appears to be almost as strong in the connections provided through the media of cyberspace.

For this reason, the cyber community of ISIS will likely persist long after the physical control of territory in Syria and Iraq has been abandoned. The digital apparatus of websites, cybermagazines, video uploads, Twitter communications, and dark web locations has been well established and though it may be interrupted by ISIS’s territorial defeat, it likely will be maintained in some form somewhere in the world other than in the ISIS-controlled cities of Raqqah and Mosul. There is no reason to think that they will be entirely dismantled.

… This branding of autonomous terrorist attacks may be part of the dark future of the ISIS global jihadist network. The encouragement of ISIS for individuals to take up bombs against secular and non-supportive Muslim societies leaves room for a plethora of acts of terrorism undertaken for mixed motives but given the legitimization of ISIS ideology through ISIS-branding. Individuals can be comforted by the fact that even though their horrible actions are condemned by most people, including most Muslims, around the globe, their comrades in the online communities forged through Internet connections will digitally applaud their crimes.

In other words: Capturing Raqqa or killing al-Baghdadi won’t stop the next Orlando attack.

This is one reason why American Islamophobia is so counter-productive. Anyone who proclaims that we are at war with Islam is telling our Muslim youth that they have no place in the West and never will. So why shouldn’t they try to burn it all down?

Cultists. One achievement of Wood’s Atlantic article was to introduce the American public to the apocalyptic vision of ISIS’ inner circle. Al-Baghdadi sees himself leading not just a liberation movement, but moving towards a long-prophesied battle of cosmic significance. Jurgensmeyer also emphasizes the importance of this belief:

The reason why some of the foreign fighters are so passionate about the ISIS enterprise is that they are convinced that it is at the leading edge of a cosmic battle between good and evil that will usher in the last days of the planet and signal the arrival of the Islamic savior, the Mahdi. Though only some of the fighters are propelled by this belief, and few Sunnis in ISIS-controlled territory share it, this is a dominant motive of the inner circle of the movement.

This Islamic Armageddon is supposed to happen at Dabiq, a town within ISIS’ control that also provides the name of its online magazine.

When Dabiq falls and the world keeps on spinning, the cultists will have suffered a major blow. Likewise, when al-Baghdadi’s forces splinter into underground bands of rebel fighters and can no longer be called an army in any meaningful sense, the final battle may start to seem very far away.

However, apocalyptic thinking pops up in almost all religions, and never completely goes away. Jurgensmeyer sees this aspect of ISIS surviving in small groups, many of which will be benign because they will lack the means to carry out their visions. However, the ability of small groups of extremists to occasionally do horrible things should not be forgotten.

Summing up. For a time, al-Baghdadi assembled religion, propaganda, territorial control, and military force into a threat to the Western-dominated world order that went far beyond anything Bin Laden wielded. President Obama’s strategy has addressed that threat without over-reacting. It has not given us the falling-Saddam-statue moments many would like, but it has been effective. Soon, probably during his successor’s term, that special threat will be broken.

But when it is, the Bin-Laden-style terror-attack threat will continue, and the political problems of Sunnis in Iraq/Syria will remain. The wellspring of violence is not charismatic leadership or clever propaganda, it is an alienated populace. That’s something you can’t solve with air power or the conquest of cities.

In times of hysteria

Six things ordinary people can do to restore sanity.


One of the most difficult experiences of democracy is to watch your country going crazy, and feel responsible. In a dictatorship you could just zone out: The Powers That Be will do what they do, and your opinion doesn’t matter anyway. Your neighbors, your friends, your co-workers — their opinions don’t matter either, so there’s no point in arguing with them, or even letting them know you disagree. You might as well just binge-watch something light on TV, and wait for the wave to pass.

In a democracy it’s different: We are the wave. Politicians really do respond to certain kinds of public opinion, sometimes to our shame. So, for example, my Democratic governor (Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, who I have voted for, given money to, and was planning to support for the Senate) called for a halt on admitting Syrian refugees. (She later reduced it to a “pause“, “until intelligence and defense officials can assure that the process for vetting all refugees is as strong as possible to ensure public safety.” But the damage was done: Any governor who wants to come out against refugees can claim bipartisan support.) My representative (Annie Kuster of NH-2, who I have also voted for and given money to) voted Yes on the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act, which at a minimum would delay any new refugee resettlements by 2 or 3 months, and might snafu the process altogether. [1] (Check your representative’s vote here.)

If my side has been characterized by politicians timidly letting the panic sweep them away, on the other side it’s been bedlam. Ben Carson is openly dehumanizing refugees with metaphors about “rabid dogs”. Donald Trump is talking about closing mosques, because “we’re going to have no choice”. He has advocated forcing American Muslims to register with the government, so that they can be tracked in a database. Marco Rubio expanded Trump’s proposal to call for shutting down “anyplace where radicals are being inspired”. Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush want a religious test for refugees: We should accept Christians, but not Muslims. John Kasich wants to create a government agency to promote “Judeo-Christian values” around the world. [2]

Chris Christie says we shouldn’t even let in little kids. Like, say, this Syrian girl, who mistook the photographer’s camera for a gun and tried to surrender.

And remember this Syrian boy? His photo evoked international compassion a couple months ago, but that never lasts, does it?

When Governor Jay Nixon didn’t try to block Syrian refugees, state Rep. Mike Moon called for a special session of the legislature to stop “the potential Islamization of Missouri“. But the bull goose loony (to borrow Ken Kesey’s phrase) was a Democrat: Roanoke Mayor David Bowers, who justified his refusal to cooperate with resettling refugees by citing FDR’s Japanese internment camps during World War II. That national disgrace is now a precedent. (Who knows? Maybe slavery or the Native American genocide will become precedents too.)

I had never heard of Rep. Moon or Mayor Bowers before, but none of the Republican presidential candidates seemed this insane when they started campaigning. So I suspect they’re just saying what they think will appeal to their voters. They may be pandering to the public fear, attempting to benefit from it, and playing their role in spreading it, but they didn’t start it.

We did that. Ordinary people like us. Our friends, our relatives, our co-workers, the people we know through social media. And so I suspect it’s up to us to stop it.

I have to confess I didn’t see this coming. After the Paris attacks, I expected a push to hit ISIS harder, maybe even to re-invade Iraq and add Syria to the occupation zone. (Jeb Bush recently joined Ben Carson, John Kasich, and Lindsey Graham in calling for ground troops, though he was vague about how many.) I didn’t foresee an Ebola-level panic [3] focused on the refugees who are running from the same people we want to fight, much less the yellow-starring of American citizens who practice an unpopular religion.

But OK, here we are. Our country is going crazy and we are right in the middle of it. What do we do now?

1. Don’t make it worse. In particular, don’t be the guy hysterically running around and yelling at other people not to panic. Sanity begins within. You have to find it in yourself before you can transmit it to other people.

So: calm down. If you need help, seek out other calm voices. The needed attitude is a firm determination to slow this panic down, not a mad urge to turn the mob around and run it in the opposite direction.

Once you start to feel that determination, you’re ready to engage: Participate in conversations (both face-to-face and in social media). Write letters to the editor. Write to your representatives in government.

Don’t yell. Don’t humiliate. Just spread calm, facts, and rationality. When engagement starts to make you crazy, back away. Calm down again. Repeat.

2. Disrupt the spread of rumors. Panics feed on fantasies and rumors. Fantasies tell people that horrible things could happen. Rumors assert that they already are happening.

Social media is the ideal rumor-spreading medium, so it takes a lot of us to slow a rumor down. But you don’t have to be a rhetorical genius to play your part. Simple comments like “I don’t think this is real” or “That’s been debunked” are often sufficient, especially if you have the right link to somebody who has checked it out. The debunking site Snopes.com has tags devoted to Paris attack claims and Syrian refugees.

Here are a couple of the false rumors I’ve run into lately:

Current Syrian refugees resettled in America are not “missing”. I heard this one during a Trump interview with Sean Hannity. Trump refers to “people” who are missing — with the implication that they have gone off the grid and joined some kind of underground. Hannity corrected to “one person … in New Orleans”. (Think about that: It’s gotten so bad that Sean Hannity has to tone stuff down.) But Catholic Charities has debunked that story: They resettled the guy in Louisiana, and then he moved. He’s not missing. (The source of this rumor was probably the desperate David Vitter campaign for governor, which tried to ride the refugee panic to a comeback victory. It didn’t work.)

No, lying to further the cause of Islam is not a thing. Under the doctrine of taqiya, a Muslim may lie about his faith to escape serious persecution or death. Anti-Muslim propagandists have tried to turn this into a sweeping principle that justifies any lie to an unbeliever — and consequently justifies non-Muslims in disbelieving anything Muslims say. But it doesn’t work that way. Now, I’m sure ISIS has undercover operatives (just like we do) and that Muslim leaders lie (just like leaders of other faiths). But there’s no special reason to think Muslims are less truthful than the rest of us.

I won’t try to predict what further rumors will arise. But when you run into one, check Snopes, google around a little, and see if somebody has already done the hard work of checking it out.

As you participate, remember: In social media, you’re not just talking to the person you’re responding to (who might be hopeless), you’re also talking to his or her friends. Some of those friends might have been ready to like or share the rumor until they saw your debunking comment. You’ll never know who they are, but their hesitation is your accomplishment.

3. Make fantasies confront reality. Fearful fantasies work best when they’re vague and open-ended. For example: Terrorists are going to sneak in as refugees and kill us!

Think about that: A terrorist is going to submit to a one-or-two-year screening process, establish a life in this country, and then drop off the grid, strap on a suicide vest, and blow himself up in some crowded place.

Does that scenario make any sense? Wouldn’t it be simpler to come as a tourist? An aspiring terrorist could get in much faster with less scrutiny, spend a few weeks visiting Disney World or hiking the Grand Canyon, and then start killing us, while his fake-refugee brothers-in-arms are still tangled in red tape.

Sometimes the most devastating response to a nightmare fantasy is the simple question: “How does that work, exactly?” If you can get a person to admit “I don’t know”, you’ve restored a little sanity to the world.

4. Call out distractions. The Slacktivist blog makes this point so well that I barely need to elaborate.

As a general rule with very few exceptions, whenever you encounter someone arguing that “We [America] shouldn’t be doing X to help those people over there until we fix Y over here for our own people,” then you have also just encountered someone who doesn’t really give a flying fig about actually doing anything to fix Y over here.

So if somebody says we shouldn’t be taking in Syrian refugees while there are still homeless children or veterans or whatever in this country, the right response is to ask what they’re currently doing to help the people they say are more deserving. Odds are: nothing. Their interest in homeless American vets begins and ends with the vets’ value as a distraction from helping refugees.

Once you grasp this tactic, you’ll see it everywhere. So: “All those resources you want to devote to fighting climate change would be better spent helping the poor.” “OK, then, what’s your plan for using those resources to help the poor? Can I count on your vote when that comes up?” Silence.

When people argue that there’s a limited amount of good in the world, so we shouldn’t waste it on anybody but the most deserving, ultimately they’re going to end up arguing that they should keep the limited amount of good they have, and not use it help anybody but themselves.

5. Make sensible points. If you can capture somebody’s attention long enough to make a point of your own, try to teach them something true, rather than just mirror the kind of bile they’re spreading. This is far from a complete list, but in case you’re stuck I have a few sensible points to suggest:

The process for vetting refugees is already serious. Time explains it here, and Vox has an actual refugee’s account of how she got here.

America needs mosques. Research on terrorism (not to mention common sense) tells us that the people to worry about aren’t the ones who are pillars of their communities. The young men most likely to become terrorists are not those who feel at home in their local houses of worship, but the loners, or the ones have only a handful of equally alienated friends. (That’s not just true for Muslims like the Tsarnaev brothers, but also white Christian terrorists like Dylann Roof.) When you can’t connect face-to-face, that’s when you start looking around online for other radical outcasts you can identify with.

So it would be bad if American mosques just magically went away, as if they had never existed. But it would be infinitely worse for the government to start closing them. What could be more alienating to precisely the young men that ISIS wants to recruit?

Religious institutions aide assimilation. Imagine what would have happened if we had closed Italian Catholic churches to fight the Mafia, or Irish Catholic churches for fear of the IRA, or Southern Baptist churches that had too many KKK members.

The Founders envisioned American religious freedom extending to Muslims. As Ben Franklin wrote:

Even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.

We seldom look back with pride on decisions made in a panic. This is where the Japanese internment precedent should be quoted: That’s the kind of stuff we do when we get caught up in a wave of fear and anger. So should our refusal to take in Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. The Red Scare is another precedent. More recently: Everybody who jumped from 9-11 to “Invade Iraq!” or “We need to torture people!” — are you proud of that now?

6. Look for unlikely allies, and quote them. Listening to Trump, Cruz, and the rest, it’s easy to imagine that everybody in the conservative base is part of the problem. But that’s not true. Here are a few places you may not realize you have allies.

Christians. I know: The self-serving Christians [4] so dominate the public conversation that sometimes it’s hard to remember the existence of actual American Christians, i.e., people trying to shape their lives around the example and teachings of Jesus. But if you screen out the clamor of “Christians” focused on the competition between their tribe and the rival tribe of Muslims, you will hear people who are trying to figure out what the Good Samaritan would do.

And I’m not just talking about liberal Christians from the mainstream sects. Lots of evangelical Christian churches have been involved in resettling refugees in their local areas. They know exactly how bad it is for refugees, and can put faces on the issue. They’re not happy with the people who are trying to demonize Jamaal and Abeela and their three kids.

The Mormon community retains its collective memory of being outcasts. [5] So Utah stands out as a red state whose governor has not rejected settling Syrian refugees.

Ryan Dueck sums up:

as Christians, there are certain things that we just don’t get to do.

We don’t get to hunt around for excuses for why we don’t need to include “those people” in the category of “neighbour.”

We don’t get to look for justifications for why it’s better to build a wall than open a door.

We don’t get to label people in convenient and self-serving ways in order to convince ourselves that we don’t have to care for them.

We don’t get to speak and act as if fear is a more pragmatic and useful response than love.

We don’t get to complain that other people aren’t doing the things that we don’t want to do.

We don’t get to reduce the gospel of peace and life and hope to a business-as-usual kind of political pragmatism with a bit of individual salvation on top.

We don’t get to ask, as our default question, “How can I protect myself and my way of life?” but “How does the love of Christ constrain and liberate me in this particular situation?”

And all of this is, of course, for the simple reason that as Christians, we are convinced that ultimately evil is not overcome by greater force or mightier weapons or higher walls or more entrenched divisions between “good people” and “bad people,” but by costly, self-sacrificial love. The kind of love that God displayed for his friends and his enemies on a Roman cross.

If you read the comments on that post, or look at this rejoinder from National Review, you’ll see that Dueck’s point of view is not universal among people who think of themselves as Christians. But it’s out there.

Libertarians. Some parts of the libertarian right understand that oppression is unlikely to stop with Muslims. So Wednesday the Cato Institute posted its analysis: “Syrian Refugees Don’t Pose a Serious Security Threat“. Conservatives who won’t believe you or Mother Jones might take Cato more seriously.

Scattered Republican politicans. I don’t want to exaggerate this, but here’s at least one Republican trying to slow the hysteria down: Oklahoma Congressman Steve Russell. He said this on the floor of the House:

America protects her liberty and defends her shores not by punishing those who would be free. She does it by guarding liberty with her life. Americans need to sacrifice and wake up. We must not become them. They win if we give up who we are and even more-so without a fight.

Russell eventually knuckled under to the pressure and voted for the SAFE Act, but says that he got something in return from the Republican leadership: the promise of a seat at the table in the subsequent negotiations with the Senate and the White House. We’ll see if that makes a difference.

 

These next few days, I think it’s particularly important for sensible people to make their voices heard, and to stand up for the courageous American values that make us proud, rather than the fear and paranoia that quake at the sight of orphan children.

Every time you stick your neck out — even just a little — you make it easier for your neighbor to do the same. Little by little, one person at a time, we can turn this around.


[1] What disturbs me most about the supporters of the SAFE Act is that they’re not calling for any specific changes in the way refugees are screened, they just want more of it. I suspect most of the congresspeople who voted for the act have no idea how refugees are vetted now, much less an idea for improving that process.

As we have seen in the discussion of border security, more is one of those desires that can never be satisfied. If this becomes law and in 2-3 months the administration comes out with its new refugee-screening process, we will once again face the cries of “More!”, along with the same nightmare fantasies about killer refugees.

[2] Actually, the main thing wrong with Kasich’s proposal is that he sticks an inappropriate religious label on the values he wants to promote: “the values of human rights, the values of democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of association.” Russian dissident (and former chess champion) Garry Kasparov has a better term for these: modern values.

In the West, these values were championed by Enlightenment philosophers, many of whom were denounced as heretics and atheists by the Christian and Jewish authorities of their era. So no, these are not Judeo-Christian values.

[3] The two panics have a number of similarities, as John McQuaid points out. In each case “a terrifying and poorly-understood risk has stirred up apocalyptic fantasies and brought out the worst in the political system.”

If you want a paradigm for fear-mongering, you can’t beat this Donald Trump quote, which combines the appearance of factuality with no actual content whatsoever:

Some really bad things are happening, and they’re happening fast. I think they’re happening a lot faster than anybody understands.

One similarity between the two panics is noteworthy: Both times Republicans attributed President Obama’s sane and measured response to his lack of loyalty to the United States. During Ebola, Jodi Ernst said Obama hadn’t demonstrated that he cares about the American people, and recently, Ted Cruz said Obama “does not wish to defend this country.”

Strangely, though, over-reacting during a panic seems to carry no political cost, because everyone forgets your excesses while they are forgetting their own. In a sane world, Chris Christie’s over-the-top response to Ebola would disqualify him from further leadership positions — especially since it turned out that the CDC was right and he was wrong. But no one remembers, so he is not discouraged from flipping his wig now as well.

[4] You know who I mean: The ones who find the Bible crystal clear when it justifies their condemnation of somebody they didn’t like anyway, but nearly impenetrable when it tells them to do something inconvenient. So the barely coherent rant of Romans 1 represents God’s complete rejection of any kind of homosexual relationship, but “Sell your possessions and give to the poor” is so profoundly mysterious that it defies interpretation.

[5] My hometown of Quincy, Illinois took in a bunch of them after they were expelled from Missouri in 1838. That event has its own little nook in the local history museum, because generous decisions are the ones descendants are proud of.

BTW, you read that right: The Mormons were expelled from Missouri. Just as pre-Civil-War states could establish slavery, they could also drive out unpopular religious groups. Didn’t hear about that in U.S. History class, did you?

If This Is Munich, We Must Be Germany

The public debate is framing the Iran nuclear deal exactly backwards.


As Congress prepares to vote on the recent agreement with Iran, the deal’s Republican opponents have been competing to see who can describe it in the most horrifying terms. Mike Huckabee claimed President Obama would “take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven”. Senator Ted Cruz said “it will make the Obama administration the world’s leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism.” In a committee hearing, Senator Lindsey Graham scolded the Secretaries of State, Defense, and Energy, implying that the administration had been too eager to avoid war.

Could we win a war with Iran? Who wins the war between us and Iran? Who wins? Do you have any doubt who wins? … We win!

In a speech whose video has been watched more than half a million times on YouTube, former congressman Alan West denounced the “weakling in the White House” saying:

How dare Barack Obama, how dare John Kerry, how dare Valerie Jarrett, or any of these other charlatans that occupy Washington D.C., surrender this great constitutional republic to the Republic of Iran!

Senator Marco Rubio also sees “weakness”:

President Obama has consistently negotiated from a position of weakness, giving concession after concession to a regime that has American blood on its hands, holds Americans hostage, and has consistently violated every agreement it ever signed.

Chris Christie said that President Obama was “giving Iran a nuclear weapon”. And he implied that they will bully more “gifts” out of us, now that the realize how weak our president is:

You give them your belt, they’ll want your pants next. That’s the way it goes

Defenses of the deal, by contrast, have been measured. The New Yorker‘s Steven Coll‘s positive analysis, for example, concludes:

The deal is imperfect but good enough, and it offers a tentative promise of a less dangerous Middle East.

Or, as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, put it:

Relieving the risk of a nuclear conflict with Iran diplomatically is superior than trying to do that militarily.

Listening to this discussion, particularly the portion that penetrates the conservative bubble and bounces around its echo chamber, you might reasonably imagine that whatever small concessions we got from Iran, we gave up far too much in return. Those hard-headed and hard-fisted mullahs bullied that hapless jellyfish that we call a president, who was so eager to get any kind of deal that he gave away the store.

If that’s what you believe, you have the story exactly backwards: There is a bully in the story, but it’s the United States. We got Iran’s lunch money, and we gave up nothing.

How can that be? And if it is that way, why doesn’t President Obama beat his chest and say so?

Who? Us? The central myth of the era of American dominance (i.e., since World War II) is that our power is benign. No matter how many countries we invade or bomb, or how many governments we overthrow (as we overthrew Iran’s fledgling democracy in 1953 and reinstalled the brutal Shah), we always act on the side of right and justice. Sure, we police the world, but we’re Officer Friendly. We’re never the kind of cops who throw their weight around.

In acceptable American political debate, neither Republican nor Democratic leaders are allowed to challenge that myth. And that puts the Obama administration at a significant disadvantage as it tries to claim credit for its diplomatic victory over Iran. Because this time we did throw our weight around, and we got something.

Retelling the story. So let’s put aside the myth of benign American power and retell the story of the current agreement, beginning with the basic issue: Will Iran construct a nuclear weapon? In other words, will Iran do something that we did 70 years ago, that Israel did 50 years ago, and that Pakistan (Iran’s rival in the looming Sunni/Shia conflict) did almost 20 years ago?

I grant that in many parts of the Middle East, Iran funds and supplies groups that fight against our allies (though we find ourselves on the same side against ISIS). I grant that we (and Israel and Saudi Arabia) have good reasons to want to keep Iran from building a bomb. But let’s not pretend that Iran was doing something monstrous and unheard of when they built a secret complex capable of producing (eventually) a weaponizable quantity of fissionable material.

Iran is a moderately large country (with a population larger than traditional nuclear powers like United Kingdom or France) with oil wealth and a heritage of civilization going back to Cyrus the Great (who freed the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity). It sees a club of great nations (plus a few lesser nations) and believes it deserves to join. The fact that we have reasons to want to keep them out does not imply that their desire to join is illegitimate.

Threats of war. OK, so what have we done to stop them? During the Bush years, we negotiated a few sanctions, but mainly we rattled our sabers. (The Bush U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, is still rattling. And Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker has said “the next president could be called to take aggressive actions, including military action, on the first day in office”.) Every few months, the press would publish rumors that we (or Israel with or without our approval) were planning an attack on Iran’s nuclear laboratories and reactors, as Israel attacked Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981.  Presumably, at least some of that buzz came from intentional leaks meant to intimidate the Iranians. When the Obama administration came in, it continued to insist that “all options are on the table“. In other words, if we don’t get what we want, we might launch an attack.

If you look for any corresponding Iranian saber-rattling at us, what you mainly find are threats to counter-attack if we attack them. (These threats usually get covered in the American press as if hitting back were barbarous.)

So if there’s a Munich analogy here — I wouldn’t go there, but Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, John Bolton, and many other Obama critics did (including The Drudge Report photoshopping Obama’s face onto Neville Chamberlain in the photo above)  — the only way it can make any sense is if we are in the Hitler role. We’re the ones who have been threatening war unless another nation agrees to our demands.

Economic warfare. But the saber-rattling wasn’t working, so the Obama administration opened a second front: Through diplomacy, it got the UN Security Council to impose far harsher sanctions on Iran than the Bush administration had managed. We had to convince Russia and China to go along with us on that, which wasn’t easy. (Russia’s desire to oppose the West in Iran goes back the Great Game between the Czars and the British Empire.) But President Obama and Secretary Clinton got it done.

The sanctions took a serious bite out of the Iranian economy, which pushed them to the negotiating table. In the negotiations that just concluded, they agreed to restrictions on their nuclear program that should prevent them from having nuclear weapons for the near-to-medium term. (Whoever is president when the agreement expires will still have all of his or her options on the table.)

Who’s the bully? In exchange for those very real concessions, we agreed to a gradual relaxing of the sanctions that we created. What we’re “giving” the Iranians are their own frozen assets. And we’re going to allow them to participate in the world economy, like any other country would.

In what sense is any of that a “concession” on our part? Imagine you’re in school, and you get a smaller kid in a headlock. He gives you his lunch money and you let him go. Have you “conceded” anything to him, really?

Your fellow bullies might claim that you let him off too easy, that if you’d squeezed a little harder he might have given you his sneakers too. And maybe they’re right: By walking away unscathed, the kid gained much more than you did, compared to the scenario where you beat the crap out of him and took his lunch money anyway. (As Senator Graham says, if it comes to war, “We win!”)

But in a larger sense, all you’ve done is let him out of a situation that you created. You have his lunch money and he has nothing of yours.

That’s the Iran deal: We have an agreement to keep them from building a bomb any time soon, and an inspection regime to make sure they keep that agreement. They got nothing from us.

The Islamic State: separating insight from stereotype

The Atlantic published a much-discussed article about ISIS.
About half of it was deeply insightful.


What does the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria want? How is it different from al Qaeda? Why does it act the way it does? What are its leaders trying to do? What draws in Muslims from all over the world? And if we understood all those things, what strategy would we use to fight it?

Graeme Wood’s article “What ISIS Really Wants” in The Atlantic touched off a heated discussion of these important questions, and was answered by a flurry of other articles like “The Atlantic‘s Big Islam Lie” in Salon, “What The Atlantic Gets Dangerously Wrong about ISIS and Islam” in ThinkProgress, and many others. Just looking at the headlines might convince you that Wood’s article just touches off another he-said/she-said argument and isn’t worth the investment you’d need to figure out what it’s about.

That would be a mistake, because Wood’s article is a rare combination of deep insight with deep flaws. What’s even rarer, the insights don’t depend on the flaws. In other words, you can learn a lot from Wood about how Islam figures in the self-image and self-definition of the Islamic State, but avoid picking up Wood’s stereotyped view of Islam in general.

Let’s start with the insight. Wood raises two topics that hadn’t gotten much attention previously in the mainstream articles about ISIS, and makes a good case that they are highly significant in understanding the Islamic State:

  • a particular Muslim vision of the end times
  • ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi styling himself as a caliph who controls territory.

The End Times. Wood writes:

The Islamic State differs from nearly every other current jihadist movement in believing that it is written into God’s script as a central character. It is in this casting that the Islamic State is most boldly distinctive from its predecessors, and clearest in the religious nature of its mission. …

The Islamic State has attached great importance to the Syrian city of Dabiq, near Aleppo. It named its propaganda magazine after the town, and celebrated madly when (at great cost) it conquered Dabiq’s strategically unimportant plains. It is here, the Prophet reportedly said, that the armies of Rome will set up their camp. The armies of Islam will meet them, and Dabiq will be Rome’s Waterloo or its Antietam. … Now that it has taken Dabiq, the Islamic State awaits the arrival of an enemy army there, whose defeat will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse.

Students of Christianity will recognize the parallels to Megiddo, a.k.a. Armageddon, a site in Israel about twenty miles from Haifa. Like Armageddon, whose single sketchy reference in one verse of Revelation gets spun into Volume 11 of the Left Behind series, Dabiq is part of an elaborate projection of ancient prophecy onto current events.

Groups that see themselves playing a role in a prophesied Apocalypse (like ISIS) are different from predominantly political groups (like al Qaeda).

In broad strokes, al-Qaeda acts like an underground political movement, with worldly goals in sight at all times—the expulsion of non-Muslims from the Arabian peninsula, the abolishment of the state of Israel, the end of support for dictatorships in Muslim lands. The Islamic State has its share of worldly concerns (including, in the places it controls, collecting garbage and keeping the water running), but the End of Days is a leitmotif of its propaganda.

Apocalyptic groups have access to a higher level of fervor, but they are also more rigid. When the Americans brought overwhelming force to Afghanistan, Bin Laden could fold his tents and disappear. But if an enemy army really does show up at Dabiq, the Islamic State will have to fight it or face enormous loss of legitimacy.

The Caliphate. Bin Laden’s “franchised” terrorist movement had a highly flexible post-modern organizational structure. He envisioned a restored Caliphate as a distant goal, not something he might hope to rule (or even see) in his lifetime.

The Islamic State, by contrast, controls territory and has (according to Wood) “billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins”. At the moment that territory might amount to slivers of land nobody else wants badly enough to bleed for (see Wood’s map), but the fact that it exists — and that al-Baghdadi has been proclaimed Caliph of it — has enormous significance inside a particular interpretation of Sharia.

Wood quotes an Australian follower (whom the Australian government has been prevented from emigrating to the Islamic State):

Cerantonio explained the joy he felt when Baghdadi was declared the caliph on June 29—and the sudden, magnetic attraction that Mesopotamia began to exert on him and his friends. “I was in a hotel [in the Philippines], and I saw the declaration on television,” he told me. “And I was just amazed, and I’m like, Why am I stuck here in this bloody room?

If there is a legitimate Caliph of Islam — like Popes and Highlander prize-winners, there can be only one — then all Muslims owe him allegiance.

Before the caliphate, “maybe 85 percent of the Sharia was absent from our lives,” Choudary told me. “These laws are in abeyance until we have khilafa”—a caliphate—“and now we have one.” Without a caliphate, for example, individual vigilantes are not obliged to amputate the hands of thieves they catch in the act. But create a caliphate, and this law, along with a huge body of other jurisprudence, suddenly awakens. In theory, all Muslims are obliged to immigrate to the territory where the caliph is applying these laws.

But maintaining control of that territory is part of the deal. A legitimate Caliph can’t just be the head of a franchised post-modern terror network, he has to control land and implement Sharia there.

So al-Baghdadi would lose his claim to the Caliphate if, like Bin Laden, he retreated to some equivalent of Tora Bora and then vanished. More than that: Islam would lose its Caliphate — which true Muslims have a duty to establish and maintain, according to Islamic State dogma — if it no longer controlled territory.

Dogma also puts restrictions on the kind of diplomacy ISIS can practice. In the long term, it is the duty of the Caliph to expand the Caliphate, so any treaties or boundaries established by treaties can only be temporary.

If the caliph consents to a longer-term peace or permanent border, he will be in error. Temporary peace treaties are renewable, but may not be applied to all enemies at once: the caliph must wage jihad at least once a year. He may not rest, or he will fall into a state of sin.

… It’s hard to overstate how hamstrung the Islamic State will be by its radicalism. The modern international system, born of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, relies on each state’s willingness to recognize borders, however grudgingly. For the Islamic State, that recognition is ideological suicide. Other Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, have succumbed to the blandishments of democracy and the potential for an invitation to the community of nations, complete with a UN seat. Negotiation and accommodation have worked, at times, for the Taliban as well. (Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan exchanged ambassadors with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates, an act that invalidated the Taliban’s authority in the Islamic State’s eyes.) To the Islamic State these are not options, but acts of apostasy.

This territory-focus also makes its followers less immediately dangerous to the West: Staying in your home country and blowing things up is a second-best option. The higher goal is to move to the Islamic State and live under true Sharia.

During his visit to Mosul in December, Jürgen Todenhöfer interviewed a portly German jihadist and asked whether any of his comrades had returned to Europe to carry out attacks. The jihadist seemed to regard returnees not as soldiers but as dropouts. “The fact is that the returnees from the Islamic State should repent from their return,” he said. “I hope they review their religion.”

What ISIS implies about Islam. Where Wood goes wrong — and gets soundly thrashed for it in a number of articles — is  in his framing of the nature of Islam — not just what it means to al-Baghdadi and his followers, but what it means in a more absolute sense. He begins by setting up the straw-man argument that the Islamic State is “un-Islamic” and then knocks it down like this:

Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”

TPM’s Josh Marshall reacted to the straw man with:

The Wood piece is a fascinating read. But did someone read this and think, Damn, these ISIS folks are really hardcore and they are seriously into Islam!

And Fareed Zakaria writes:

Wood’s essay reminds me of some of the breathless tracts during the Cold War that pointed out that the communists really, really believed in communism. [see endnote 1]

Wood’s (and Haykel’s) argument is a slight-of-hand that works by interchanging two meanings of Islamic. On the one hand, Islam is a tradition that begins with Muhammad and the Qur’an and continues through the centuries. In that sense, Wood’s claim that the Islamic State is “very Islamic” is true: ISIS arises out of one strand of interpretation of sources in the Islamic tradition. Few, if any, critics are claiming that ISIS’s religious fervor is simply a false face consciously wallpapered over secular intentions.

But Islam is also the spiritual practice of 1.6 billion people, each of whom has a unique perspective on the true spirit of the faith. When Muslims say that ISIS is “un-Islamic”, they mean that the religion they are in relationship with finds ISIS’s practices abhorrent. (It’s similar to the way you might react if a close friend were accused of a heinous crime: “The Bob I know would never do that.”)

An appropriate Christian analogy [2] would be the white-supremacist Christian Identity movement. Its rhetoric is incomprehensible without a detailed knowledge of the Bible, so it is very Christian in the sense that it grows out of the Christian tradition. But is it in harmony with the true spirit of Christianity? The vast majority of practicing Christians would say no.

And lest secularists think this is all some defect of religion, Soviet Communism is an inescapable part of the Western secular tradition. It billed its view of history as “scientific”, and its underlying philosophy of dialectical materialism was incomprehensible without reference to the secular Western concept of history as linear and conducive to progress.

There’s a lesson here: If you don’t want to take responsibility for everything that grows out of the roots of your own tradition, you don’t get to assign similar responsibilities to people from other traditions.

Seriousness. Wood’s article embodies an attitude I’ve criticized here and here: that only extremists are “serious” about their beliefs. Again he quotes Haykel, who attributes to ISIS “an assiduous, obsessive seriousness that Muslims don’t normally have.”

When you are the victim of this “seriousness” fallacy, the flaw is obvious: Communists are the only “serious” liberals and Fascists the only “serious” conservatives. If Martin Luther King had been “serious”, he would have demanded black supremacy rather than integration. Only the strictest Libertarians are “serious” about freedom. Have you ever based a decision on emotion or intuition? Ever appreciated a work of art or music without being able to explain why? Then you’re not “serious” about rationality. Would you fight against the rape of your daughter or take up arms to liberate Auschwitz? Sorry, but you’re really a war-monger at heart; only absolute pacifists are “serious” opponents of violence.

I could go on, but I hope I’ve given enough examples for you to find one that offends you.

Wood’s defeat of the ISIS-is-un-Islamic straw man leads him seamlessly into the implication that ISIS is where Islam goes if you are “serious” about it. Any tendency to co-exist with the modern world marks you as an un-serious Muslim, with a “cotton candy view” of Islam. [3] From a defense of the obviously true notion that the Islamic State is based on one interpretation of Islam, Wood segues to the dubious implication that it is the only “serious” interpretation.

Well, almost. Eventually, if you read far enough into Wood’s article, you get this caveat:

It would be facile, even exculpatory, to call the problem of the Islamic State “a problem with Islam.” The religion allows many interpretations, and Islamic State supporters are morally on the hook for the one they choose. And yet simply denouncing the Islamic State as un-Islamic can be counterproductive, especially if those who hear the message have read the holy texts and seen the endorsement of many of the caliphate’s practices written plainly within them.

He counters ISIS with another “serious” interpretation: one that also wants to recreate the 7th century, but has a personal rather than political focus.

These quietist Salafis, as they are known, agree with the Islamic State that God’s law is the only law, and they eschew practices like voting and the creation of political parties. But they interpret the Koran’s hatred of discord and chaos as requiring them to fall into line with just about any leader, including some manifestly sinful ones. … Much in the same way ultra-Orthodox Jews debate whether it’s kosher to tear off squares of toilet paper on the Sabbath (does that count as “rending cloth”?), they spend an inordinate amount of time ensuring that their trousers are not too long, that their beards are trimmed in some areas and shaggy in others. Through this fastidious observance, they believe, God will favor them with strength and numbers, and perhaps a caliphate will arise. At that moment, Muslims will take vengeance and, yes, achieve glorious victory at Dabiq. But Pocius cites a slew of modern Salafi theologians who argue that a caliphate cannot come into being in a righteous way except through the unmistakable will of God.

So those are your choices, Muslims: You can go to Dabiq, pledge allegiance to al-Baghdadi, and prepare to fight the Crusader invasion. Or you can spend your life avoiding politics, following sinful leaders, and worrying about the length of your trousers. Or, if you’d rather live in the 21st century, you can refuse to be “serious” and practice “cotton-candy” Islam.

Interpretation. Every useful insight Wood has about end-times prophecy or the Caliphate is compatible with the more common scholarly view that ISIS’s version of Islam is one interpretation among many. One writer who strikes that balance well is Hussein Ibish. As he said in an interview:

Neither is ISIS authentically Islamic, nor is it in any meaningful sense not Islamic. It is a bizarre interpretation of Islam yoked to a political agenda which is very modern. If we just stop fretting about the relationship of ISIS to the religious base of its ideology and accept that it’s a bunch of extremists who come out of a tradition that they manipulate to justify their crimes and their ambitions, it’s not so complicated.

Think Progress quotes Jerusha Tanner Lamptey, Professor of Islam and Ministry at Union Theological Seminary:

[Islamic] texts have never been only interpreted literally. They have always been interpreted in multiple ways — and that’s not a chronological thing, that’s been the case from the get-go.

Such interpretation is necessary, because (like any set of founding texts [4]), taking every line of the Qur’an as a truth that applies to every situation in the most obvious way leads to contradictions. Non-literal interpretation is also necessary for the Islamic State, because the Qur’an contains peaceful, merciful verses as well as violent, cruel ones.

ISIS exegetes these verses away I am sure, but that’s the point. It’s not really about one perspective being literal, one being legitimate, one ignoring things … it’s about diverse interpretations.

The various versions of Sharia — there’s not just one — are themselves interpretations that arose centuries after Muhammad. For example, all the Islamic State dogma about the significance of the Caliphate has to be post-Qur’anic interpretation for a very simple reason: In Muhammad’s day there was no institutional Caliphate; there was just Muhammad. (Similarly, the New Testament contains no mention of the Papacy. The institution-builders came later.)

Don’t give ISIS what it wants. There are two reasons we should try to understand ISIS: so what we can predict what it will do (and maybe even manipulate it to our advantage), and so that we don’t inadvertently give it what it wants.

Here are some things ISIS wants:

  • To be seen as the only Muslims who take Islam seriously. Wood and many others are giving al-Baghdadi what he wants.
  • To be Islam’s representative in an apocalyptic Islam-against-the-infidels holy war. So when Bill O’Reilly announces “The Holy War has begun.”, he’s endorsing ISIS’ narrative.
  • Polarization. An essential aspect of the Apocalypse is that everybody has to pick a side. The worst thing for ISIS is to be viewed as nothing more than one bizarre splinter of Islamic interpretation. We should be encouraging other Muslims to ask: “So how’s that working out for you? Are you prosperous and thriving? Or have you turned your corner of the Earth into a little piece of Hell?”
  • Drama. Jihadists come to the Islamic State looking to fight the ultimate battle. So the more boring we can make their lives, the harder it will be for them. Keeping ISIS bottled up inside its current boundaries may seem like no progress, but it may be the best strategy. The search for drama may lead ISIS to splinter into factions that fight each other over trivial doctrinal differences.
  • To strike terror into the hearts of infidels. Whenever American pundits frame ISIS’ jihadists as the baddest baddies in the history of badness, they’re serving the ISIS propaganda effort. The reason ISIS has to keep racheting things up — from beheadings to burning people alive — is that they need to shock us. We should refuse to be shocked.

Face it on our terms. In the long run, al-Baghdadi can only succeed if he can create an economy based on more than just loot and ransom. That will be hard to do with the territory he has, so keeping him bottled up in it is a good strategy.

The United States military has two major advantages: First, we can bomb the hell out of any army that tries to mass and advance. That’s how we stopped the progress of ISIS towards Kirkuk and Baghdad, and in general how we can hope to keep it bottled up.

Second, our troops can win any pitched battle on open ground. Where we run into trouble is in the kind of guerrilla fighting where we can’t tell who the enemy is.

If the Islamic State doesn’t dissolve into frustrated splinters, we may someday need to fight that pitched battle on open ground. And unlike al Qaeda or the Taliban, ISIS will have a hard time avoiding it.


[1] It’s striking how closely current anti-Islam rhetoric tracks Cold War anti-Communist rhetoric. For example, here’s a Cold War quote from Ronald Reagan in the 1960s (lifted from The Invisible Bridge): “The inescapable truth is that we are at war, and we are losing that war simply because we don’t or won’t realize we are in it.” Compare this to Newt Gingrich discussing our current war with Islam: “You cannot win this war if you don’t admit that it’s a war.”

[2] Whenever people make such analogies, a linguistic problem shows up: Muslims have two adjectives — Muslim and Islamic — where Christians have only the adjective Christian. A Muslim is an imperfect human being who practices Islam. To say that something is Muslim means only that it is associated with Muslims. So Egypt is Muslim country, because you can expect to run into a lot of Muslims there.

But to Muslims, something is Islamic only if it is part of the religion of Islam, and there is a strong implication that it is a true part of Islam, since Islam is the true faith. So it would be inappropriate to say that Egypt is an Islamic country, unless you believe that the current military junta governs according to Allah’s true will.

Hence the controversy over the phrase Islamic terrorism. The Charlie Hebdo massacre was clearly Muslim terrorism, since the people who carried it out were Muslims. But to call it Islamic terrorism implies that the terrorists were faithfully serving Allah when they killed their victims. The terrorists themselves made that claim, but Muslims around the world disagreed. Those who describe the massacre as Islamic terrorism are implicitly taking the terrorists’ side in this argument.

[3] Sam Harris uses serious in a similar way: “There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims, who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS.”

[4] As former Supreme Court Justice David Souter pointed out, the same is true of the Constitution. Interpretation is necessary because “the Constitution contains values that may well exist in tension with each other, not in harmony.”

There’s a whole other essay to write here, but traditional societies tend to govern themselves according to collections of contradictory aphorisms that serve to frame the community discussion of any particular case. (Is this a “look before you leap” situation, or a “he who hesitates is lost” situation?) That’s a system, not a flaw; it’s how timeless folk wisdom mixes with immediate circumstances. Only when you start using Enlightenment-style rationality and treating the aphorisms like Euclidean axioms do the contradictions become a problem.

Newspeaking About Torture

If you can’t ban a word, break it.


One major theme of George Orwell’s 1984 is the importance of language to oppressive governments. From the beginning of recorded history, crude dictators have punished people for criticizing their rule. But modern, sophisticated dictators change the language itself, so that thoughts undermining the ruling ideology are hard to put into words, and no one would understand what you were saying if you did.

Orwell described this technique in detail in an essay he appended to 1984, “The Principles of Newspeak“.

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. … This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever.

That’s a fine strategy if you already run a totalitarian government like the one in Orwell’s Oceania. But it completely ignores the problems faced by movements still trying to rise to power, like today’s American conservatives. Despite controlling Congress, they can’t just ban words they don’t like.

All they have besides Congress is a media empire, vast wealth, and an amazing degree of message discipline. What can you accomplish with those resources?

Just by being loud and persistent, you can try to alter common usage to favor your ideology. Sometimes that works (“death tax“) and sometimes it doesn’t (“homicide bomber“). But the real challenge is to disarm a word that works against you or for your enemies.

In Oceania they’d simply remove the word from the dictionary and correct everyone who kept using it. (“It’s not in the dictionary, so it’s not proper Newspeak.”) Or they’d keep the word, but remove all its offending meanings, again correcting the people who persisted in using it incorrectly.

But what if you don’t have that kind of power? American conservatives solved this problem a long time ago: If you can’t ban a word, you apply your resources to break it through misuse.

I’m not sure when this started. (That’s the great thing about breaking a word; eventually everybody stops using it, so it never comes to mind again. Your tracks are covered, because hardly anybody ever asks “How did zimzam become unusable?”) Maybe it was during the Reagan years, when liberal became an insult to throw at people you don’t like. I’m not sure. I wasn’t paying attention to the right things then. None of us were, or we might have tried to defend liberal rather than just stop using it.

I first noticed word-breaking* years later, during the second Bush administration. A lot of nasty stuff was happening then: The U.S. government was torturing people in secret prisons, spying on its own citizens, locking people up indefinitely without trials, and manufacturing bogus reasons to invade a foreign country. The administration was justifying all that by putting forward bizarre new legal interpretations of “the unitary executive” and the nearly unlimited “Article II power” he had whenever he determined that we were at war. Standing previous conservative small-government and fiscal-responsibility rhetoric on its head, the administration was creating huge new programs to buy off key constituencies, and not raising any revenue to pay for them. (Just tack them on to the deficit. No worries.)

As I was reading an Economist article characterizing Bush’s ideology as “big-government conservatism”, I wondered: Why use such a cumbersome phrase, when English already had a perfectly good word for this configuration of ideas and policies — fascism.

The answer was that fascism had become unusable, because misuse had broken it. Just when America needed the word to describe what was going on, conservatives were instead discussing “liberal fascism” and “Islamo-fascism” and so forth. In the conservative media, suddenly anything and everything was fascist, except the kind of militaristic, torturing, secretive, prying, corporatist, big-government conservatism that had been practiced by Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, and Pinochet — and was increasingly being adopted by Bush.

The word fascist could have been a rallying call for the enemies of American conservatism. But conservatives averted that threat by breaking fascist through misuse. As a result, today you are perfectly free to talk about fascism — I just did — but no one will know what you mean. Fascist is nothing but an insult now; it has no real content. If you use it, you aren’t saying anything in particular, you’re just being aggressive and rude.

Terrorism was broken in another way, like a proud wolf who gets turned into an attack dog. Terrorism used to have a clear meaning: threatening or perpetrating violence against civilians for political purposes. It was an ideologically neutral description of a tactic that any political movement might resort to. But after a decade of misuse, terrorism has become any violent act conservatives disapprove of. So the Fort Hood massacre is terrorism, even though it was an attack against a military base. Whatever ISIS does is terrorist, even fielding an army and fighting pitched battles against other soldiers. But hardly anyone (except me) called the Sikh Temple murderer what he was: a white right-wing Christian terrorist. White Christian right-wingers can’t be terrorists any more; it’s an oxymoron.

More recently, religious freedom and religious persecution have been broken. A generation ago those were ACLU words, used by atheists, Jews, and other minority movements that struggled against oppression by the Christian majority.

That oppression hasn’t disappeared; in many ways it’s getting worse. But the words to fight it have been hijacked so that they’re barely usable any more. Today, religious persecution is telling a Christian baker that a gay couple is part of the general public his business serves. Or maybe it’s just saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. Religious freedom means that a Christian employer is “free” to block any part of his employees’ health-care coverage that he doesn’t like, and a Christian pharmacist can freely decide whether he approves of your prescription (and the lifestyle it implies) before he fills it. Separation of church and state — which used to be the hallmark of religious freedom — is now a Communist idea that is part of the conspiracy to persecute Christians.

So now, when Kennesaw, Georgia won’t let a Muslim group rent space to worship in their town, or a parole officer forces an atheist to attend a religious program under threat of returning to jail, there are no words to describe what’s happening. Calling it “religious persecution” just confuses people.

And that brings us to torture. For the longest time, the primary defense of the Bush torture program was that it didn’t happen. There was no torture, there was just enhanced interrogation, a phrase brazen enough to do Newspeak proud.

But that defense has become untenable now that the Senate report on torture is out. Once the public heard the details, the claim that this wasn’t torture was exposed as ridiculous. (That’s only going to get worse as more details appear.) And although some are trying, the word torture can’t be reclaimed from the dark side. There’s no way to say, “We’re the Torture Party and that’s a good thing.”

But there is an alternative strategy: misuse the word torture until it breaks.

Dick Cheney pointed the way during his Meet the Press interview with Chuck Todd. When Todd asked how Cheney defined torture, Cheney deflected with this:

Well, torture, to me, Chuck, is an American citizen on a cell phone making a last call to his four young daughters shortly before he burns to death in the upper levels of the Trade Center in New York City on 9/11.

Todd followed up by asking whether rectal feeding was torture, and Cheney continued his distract-with-shiny-objects strategy.

I’ve told you what meets the definition of torture. It’s what 19 guys armed with airline tickets and box cutters did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11.

The misuse campaign is on. The American Thinker blog reports on the “real torture scandal in America“, which is abortion. General Boykin says “Torture is what we’ve done by having the IRS go after conservative groups.” The Koch-funded American Energy Alliance is calling EPA fossil-fuel regulations “torture”:

Whether it’s the costliest regulation in history or the coal-killing power plant rules (that Obama’s law professor says raise “constitutional questions”), it’s clear that the CIA isn’t the only government agency engaged in torture. At least the CIA isn’t torturing Americans.

The AEA illustrated its point with this cartoon:

Yes, “raising energy costs” and “harassing property owners” are now torture.

Expect to hear a lot more of this. Soon, every inconvenience to a conservative special interest group is going to be “torture”. Anything and everything will be “torture” — except a CIA interrogator looking into the eyes of a helpless (and possibly innocent) prisoner and threatening excruciating pain, trauma, or humiliation unless he talks.

Torture can’t be defended, so the word torture has to become meaningless. If you can’t ban a word, break it.


* I anticipate the question: “What about the ways that liberals try to change the language?” There are a number of words liberals have tried to remove from the language, like nigger or faggot. We discourage men from referring to adult females as girls, and so on. But these efforts have been above-board and transparent. For example, we have largely removed nigger from common usage among whites by openly discussing the reasons whites shouldn’t say nigger. If conservatives want to start a similarly open discussion to convince people to stop saying torture, I invite them to try.

Terrorist Strategy 101: a review

What if ISIS acts like our worst nightmare because it needs us to attack?


It’s been ten years since I wrote “Terrorist Strategy 101: a quiz” explaining how Osama bin Laden’s apparent insanity actually made sense. In retrospect, I overestimated Al Qaeda’s ability to launch attacks in the U.S. — a popular mistake at the time — but the general framework holds up pretty well. Replace “Bin Laden” with “al-Baghdadi” and “al Qaeda” with “ISIS”, and the main points still apply today.

The core message of TS-101 is that if you are a violent extremist with a big dream, your toughest problem isn’t that there are violent extremists on the other side ready to oppose you. Your toughest problem is that almost all the people who (at least at some level) share your big dream have better things to do with their lives. They have jobs and kids and classes, bands that might hit it big, possible lovers to flirt with, and novels they’re sure would be best-sellers if only they could get them finished.

If you’re a would-be Supreme Leader, it’s a huge challenge: Around the world, people would rather get on with the business of living than give their all to the Great Struggle.

Somehow you have to screw that up.

So your big mission — which, ironically, you share with the extremists on the other side of the spectrum — is to flatten the bell curve. In order to bring your air-castles to Earth, you need to make the center untenable. All those folks who consider themselves moderates — if you let them, they’ll muddle along while you get old and the Great Historical Moment slips away. You need everyone to realize right now that compromise is impossible, the other side can’t be trusted, and we all have to kill or be killed.

Perversely, your best allies in this phase of the struggle are the people you hate most, who also hate you. Of course you’d never actually conspire with them, minions of Satan that they are. But you don’t need to, because the steps in your dance are obvious from either tail of the distribution: rachet up the rhetoric and escalate an attack-and-reprisal cycle until compromise really is impossible and everyone is radicalized. Only after the center is gone do the two extremes meet in the second round of the play-offs. It’s a very basic pattern of history, and it never changes: from Caesar/Pompey to Bin Laden/Cheney, extremists have to come in pairs, because they need each other.

What ISIS has.

OK, so now imagine you’re Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIS. At the moment, you control a large swath of not very much. In Iraq, the Shiite government holds the southern oil fields around Basra, and the Kurds have the northern fields around Kirkuk. You’ve got the western desert. In Syria, flip it around: All the good stuff is in the west, and you’ve got the east. You made headlines by expanding your map-area really fast, but that’s because there wasn’t much there in the first place. (John McCain and Lesley Graham describe your territory as “the size of Indiana“, but a better analogy would be the parts of Nevada that don’t include Reno or Vegas.)

But you do have one important asset. You are the current holder of the Big Dream: a re-unified Caliphate, all the Muslims in the world (or at least the Sunnis) joined in the kind of empire that made Harun al-Rashid a storybook legend. Once, before the West cut the Dar-al-Islam into little pieces and put puppet kings and sticky-fingered generals in charge of each one, Baghdad was the jewel of the world, the center of the greatest empire on Earth.

It could be again.

Lots and lots of the world’s billion-or-so Muslims share that dream at a low level, the way suburban Methodists share the dream of Jesus’ return. It’ll happen someday and that’ll be great, but … you know … I’ve got to get ready for that thing at the office Monday afternoon, and then there’s little Jamal’s soccer game in the evening.

You need to screw that up — all the distracting stuff that gives Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia more to live for than the dream of the Caliphate — and you can’t do it alone. You need help if you’re going to radicalize enough idealistic young men and women to overthrow the current governments of Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and a dozen other places.

A restored Islamic Caliphate.

You need America.

In particular, you need a big, blundering, violent America that kills children and calls it “collateral damage” as if Muslims weren’t human at all. You need American troops kicking down doors of innocent families and looking under the chadors of virtuous women in case they might have weapons down there. You need the American president acting like he’s Emperor of the World, drawing other countries’ borders and deciding who can be involved in their governments.

You need an America that says it’s at war with all of Islam — not just you, all of it. Nobody believes you when you say that, but when Americans say it, they will.

You need an America that won’t let its own Muslims assimilate, that harasses them whenever they try to fly or build houses of worship or just walk around looking like Muslims.

You need an America that is scared of you. Nobody cares if you proclaim yourself Grand High Poobah of Everything. But if Americans are on global TV, telling the world that you’re the Baddest Baddy in the History of Badness … you can work with that. That looks great on your website. Deep down, lots of the people whose allegiance you are seeking wish they had what it takes to make U.S. senators quiver with fear or quake with anger. If you have that special something, they’re going to want to identify with you.

Maybe you need to wave a red handkerchief at the American bull to get him to charge. So don’t just execute the Americans you find. (Any thug can do that.) Cut off their heads and put the videos on YouTube. You and I both know that it makes no difference — dead is dead, after all, whether the instrument of death is a barbaric sword or a civilized missile from a high-tech aerial drone. But Americans go crazy when you do shit like that. Maybe crazy enough to come back and start killing people again, crazy enough to return their soldiers to places where ordinary people can get a shot at them. And then the cycle will become self-stoking, because the dead can’t have died in vain, can they? Once you get the feedback loop started, death justifies more death.

So far, it seems to be working.

And so you don’t have to be a mind-reader to know what al-Baghdadi is thinking right now: Thank you John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Thank you, Joe Biden. Thank you, Phil Robertson and Sean Hannity. Thanks to all the other crazy right-wing Christian preachers far too numerous to list. Thanks to everybody who is making it impossible for President Obama to follow his own advice not to “do stupid stuff“.

The stupid stuff ISIS needs from America is on its way, so al-Baghdadi is grateful to all of you. You’re doing a job he could never do for himself.

But he owes you nothing, because it’s a fair trade: He’s radicalizing your followers just like you’re radicalizing his. The bell curve is flattening. The center is becoming untenable.

It’s amazing what extremists can accomplish when they share a common goal.