Blaming the United States for ISIS and Al Qaeda – Unjustified

US flag in the desert

It is already the case that it will have taken the US longer to defeat Al Qaeda and ISIS than it did Germany and Japan. There are two reasons for this. The first is the tendency to blame the United States for these problems, and the second is the role of religion in foreign policy.

Blaming the US

I find the argument that the US is responsible for ISIS and we are reaping what we sow to be indefensible and a rather weak argument. Here’s how the current litany of arguments blaming the US goes: ISIS is George Bush’s fault because of Iran. The Taliban are Ronald Reagan’s fault because we armed them to fight the Soviets. The splinter groups in Syria and Yemen are offshoots of Al Qaeda. The PLO, Hezbollah and Hamas are Israeli creations all because of the occupied territories. The jihadists in Libya are our fault because we supported the overthrow of the vicious dictator Qaddafi. I suppose I haven’t heard an explanation for how we are responsible for Boko Haram but I’m sure someone can construct one. We seem to be engaging in “post hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacious reasoning such that the existence of a terrorist group is looking for a cause and pointing to some prior act of United States.

America apparently has more influence than Islam even though jihad has a long history and every Middle Eastern slight gets easily interpreted as caused by Europe or the West. There are more than a few motivations that have their basis in religious imperatives that existed before the United States did. I accept that there are two sides to the argument about the legitimacy of the war in Iraq and related terrorist activity, but there’s a difference between justification for the war in Iraq and its prosecution.

WMDs (nuclear weapons) are one day going to be responsible for catastrophic destruction. The US is going to have to remain diligent and aggressive to prevent a mushroom cloud over New York City. And this is not hyperbole. The most likely political entities to make them available to terrorists are Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan. Stopping their potentialities in Iraq or anyplace else before they’re able to be used elsewhere is sensible policy. The levels of violence, organizational structure, and ideology associated with Al Qaeda or ISIS is beyond the capabilities of the United States. Even if United States is implicated in the creation of a few of these groups claiming that we are directly responsible seems to be quite a stretch.

And if Bruce Hoffman’s predictions are correct then ISIS and Al Qaeda will merge and the US will be the only “answer” to the problem rather than its cause.

Religion and Foreign Policy

The second reason Al Qaeda and ISIS are so difficult to defeat is the role of religion. This is, of course, a large issue and we can address it more fully at another time. But Jacob Olidort explains how soft power and attempts at democratic and rational conflict management are no match for the pull of theology and religion for ISIS and Al Qaeda followers. Salafism and other tenets of Islam provide a theological basis for jihad and other relationships between religion and politics. The United States is in no position to challenge the theology of ISIS or Al Qaeda when in fact this is exactly what must be done. Foreign policy rooted in religion make problems more recalcitrant and difficult to manage. Religion makes the actors on both sides more “devoted” than “rational” as Scott Atran explains. This makes them less subject to a shared an intersubjective reality that one day can provide the basis for common ground.






About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on April 4, 2016, in Communication and Conflict Resolution, Peace and Conflict Politics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Jerry Brown Jr

    “I find the argument that the U.S. is responsible for Isis and that we are reaping what we sow to be indefensible” I disagree.

    No the U.S. did not start Isis but the situation we caused in Iraq through our actions (which was war which is death and destruction of their prior government, to say the least) left a fertile ground for Isis to grow. There is responsibility attached to that.

    My country took actions, justifiable or not. There were responses that happened , justifiable or not, to our actions.

  2. I have no problem with the notion that the US is at least implicated in the growth of ISIS and Al Qaeda. But the US is not responsible for the current conditions in any causal or significant way. You always have to look at justifiable reasons and the possibility of WMD is always justifiable. Let me give you five reasons for the invasion of Iraq.
    1. There was always still the possibility of WMD and that’s something you have to be sure about. The possibility of catastrophic destruction is to great if you are lax about oversight. Remember, Saddam Hussein had used WMD once before against his own people
    2. Saddam Hussein was genuinely a bad guy who had to be removed. How long do you stand by and watch a brutal dictator kill people and simply say “it’s not my business”
    3. You are talking about a massive amount of oil that the US must have access to and whose production must be stabilized.
    4. Iraq and violated UN resolutions to allow inspectors in stand down.
    5. The possibility of liberalizing Iraqi society, that is democratizing it, is difficult and controversial but certainly worth a try. Otherwise there will be no stability.

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