Fighting ISIS

More than twenty years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the universities, military academies, and specialized institutes of which we are so proud seem incapable of educating graduates well equipped to understand the world of the 21st century.

There are striking parallels between the language our “experts” used during the Cold War and the policies they recommended or enacted and what they say or their disciples say and do in our time. They fought  “communism” in the 1950s and beyond; now they are “fighting terrorism” or “fighting ISIS.”

Focusing on an alien and threatening ideology, one or two generations ago our experts understood the ideology’s power and appeal but did not take the time to understand the specific reasons why the ideology took root in some societies and not in others.

For this reason, the experts largely missed the significance of communist movements embedded in century-old struggles for cultural and political identity.  In Vietnam and other places such movements would have stood up to the communist colossi of the 20th century, the Soviet Union and China.  European colonialism and subsequent U.S. interventions drove the leaders of those movements in exactly the opposite direction. In Cuba, the global war on communism continued for decades after the Soviet Union had packed up its military installations.

And so it is today. The global war on terror launched after the 9/11 attack was never a war against a major power like Communist Russia. It is a very expensive and wrong-headed endeavor to defeat an ideology, or more precisely a movement  — political Islam — that takes many different forms and whose leaders have widely different objectives, beyond, perhaps, a shared  resentment of economic and cultural domination by Western countries.

The tragic and continuing failure of our experts to understand a complex movement in its many local manifestations, their determination to “fight ISIS” as if it were a new incarnation of Soviet Russia or Mao’s China have had horrendous consequences, with no end in sight. States have been destroyed, social bonds and conventions shattered, fragile eco-systems damaged perhaps beyond repair.

The experts don’t seem to know what they have wrought; indeed, they are intent on cloning themselves. As it was said of the Bourbon rulers of France after the Revolution, they have forgotten nothing and learned nothing.

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