Skip to main content

A different response to ISIS after Paris

Such a grave crisis is deepened, rather than mitigated, by the bellicose stupidity of Francois Hollande who declares ‘war’ on ISIS

The horrific Paris attacks of 13 November challenge the West more deeply even than did the 9/11 attacks 14 years ago.

The attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center mounted by al-Qaeda were directed at the twin centres of American power: global military dominance, and especially large-scale deployments of American armed forces near to the holiest of Islamic religious sites in Saudi Arabia.

There was a terrorist logic associated with striking such symbolic blows, although it seemed to arouse a unified Western response that was relied upon as a mandate for intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq.

These wars have had the major "blowback" effect of fashioning the great menace of ISIS, above all by its willingness to send suicide bombers to attack "soft targets" of ordinary people that included a sports arena, a music hall, and several neighbourhood restaurants.

In other words, to a greater extent than was the case with Osama Bin Laden’s manifesto, ISIS has initiated a merciless totalisng campaign against the West, and appears to have the will and capability to continue the effort no matter what retaliatory blows are received.

Such a grave crisis is deepened, rather than mitigated, by the bellicose stupidity of Francois Hollande who declares ‘war’ on ISIS, promising to be unremittingly merciless in response.

Hollande told the French Parliament: “The acts committed on Friday night in Paris and at the Stade are acts of war. This constitutes an attack against our country, against its values, against its youth, against its way of life.”

Back to Bush

In so framing the French response, Hollande repeats the mistakes of George W Bush. It should be clear by now "war" is what these movements want, while "crime" is the manner in which such non-state violence of political extremists has been addressed in the past and should be handled in the present.

The American Vice President Joe Biden seemed to retreat a bit from "the war on terror" discourse, arguing unconvincingly that raising the level of interventionary violence against ISIS is the right course of action. Biden claimed “everyone knows what needs to be done and there’s no doubt we’ll prevail, but we need to do a hell of a lot more. We all have to step up our level of engagement: more troops, more planes, more money. This thing will go on for years unless we do.”

Depressingly, the Democratic presidential hopeful Hilary Clinton told the Council of Foreign Relations the same thing a few weeks ago.

All of these views, despite covering a range of tactical positions, hold in common a shared militarist definition of the proper response to the ISIS threat. Further the response is exclusively focus on offensive tactics and weaponry that are intended to destroy this elusive enemy.

There is no consideration of defending those minorities that are threatened with "boots on the ground" or exploring what kind of political options might make sense.

It should not be forgotten that the core capabilities of ISIS arose in response to the anti-Sunni tenor of the American-led regime-destroying occupation of Iraq that was preceded by a sanctions regime imposed for over 10 years and was held responsible for several hundred thousand Iraqi civilian deaths.

The fact that the roots of such an enormous crime are transnational is not decisive in altering its character. By elevating the status of ISIS to that of a belligerent against whom it is necessary to mobilise the society that was targeted, perversely adds to the gains of the attacker, and creates incentives to do more of the same.

If handled as a version of the most dangerous type of crime that deeply threatens human and state security, the society would still be mobilised to act, and other governments would be inclined to do whatever is necessary by way of cooperative criminal law enforcement.

The magnitude of the crime could be recognised by prosecuting the Paris attacks as an international crime against humanity that, as with piracy, the whole world has a shared interest in suppressing. When it is appreciated that the criminals engaged in the Paris attacks had grown up in the heart of Europe, this further aggravates the mistake of externalising the evil, situating the threat in the Arab world, and inflating the criminals as parties to a war.

Denial of grievances

The Bush/Hollande way of reacting also is harmful in two other fundamental respects: it removes attention from root causes and it refuses to acknowledge that extremist motivations might be linked to legitimate grievances.

The best remedy for terrorist violence is to address root causes. Otherwise, as even many conservative and militarist political figures have admitted (including Rumsfeld, Mubarak), recourse to warfare, whether by war of concerted campaign (eg Iraq) or through targeted assassinations (eg drones) most likely generates many more militants than it eliminates.

It certainly spreads the net of devastation more widely, causing massive displacement and threatening refugee flows that give rise to the sort of deep alienation that provides a new generation of recruits to extremist causes.

To consider the Paris attacks by a reductio of good versus evil has the further consequence of excluding diplomacy as an instrument of accommodation. How many of the supposedly intractable conflicts of the past, including the American Revolution, were resolved by bringing the terrorists in from the cold?

I would not suggest that this is currently a plausible option with ISIS, but keeping open this possibility, however remote and distasteful it seems, is to be sensitive to the "lessons of history".

More significantly, to avoid self-scrutiny is to miss the best opportunity to undercut the extremist rationale for attacking the West.

It needs to be appreciated that extremism does not flourish in a political and moral vacuum.

US policy and Israel

It may not be the case that ISIS can be explained as a reaction to the Palestinian ordeal or the mayhem brought to the people of Iraq, but absent the widespread sense of injustice associated with Israel’s regional role and the million-plus deaths as a result of the US geopolitical agenda, the emergence of al-Qaeda, al-Nusra and ISIS might not have happened, at least in its present form.

Such a conclusion is reinforced when it is appreciated that Arab governments, dependent on American protection, proved incapable, and in the end unwilling, to secure even the most minimal interests and values of Muslim and Arab peoples.

Of course, the conditions are not comparable, yet the Madrid train attacks of 11 March 2004 depict a different, more promising and imaginative line of response.

What Spain did was to pursue the perpetrators relentlessly and with eventual success, while quietly ending its participation in the Iraq war as a junior partner of the US/UK occupation.

This adjustment was facilitated by the good fortune of a Spanish national election that brought a more progressive leadership into control of the country, and thereby removed Jose Maria Aznar who was the only important European leader other than Tony Blair to go along with the Iraq response to 9/11.

It was further facilitated by the unpopularity of Aznar’s Iraq policy with the Spanish public that correctly understood that they had "no dog in that fight".

Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for 40 years. In 2008 he was also appointed by the UN to serve a six-year term as the Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights

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

Image: French soldiers take up positions after an operation in Saint Denis, a northern suburb of Paris on 18 November 2015. (AA)