Category Archives: Peace and Conflict Politics
In the wake of Trump’s declaration about moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, any framework for peace has been destabilized and any sense of direction has been lost or at least seriously attenuated. And as of now, it doesn’t look like the peace process can meet the minimum standards of both sides. A peace process will proceed in one of two directions: given the volatility of the situation any “mistake” or unrealistic proposal can cause serious deterioration. On the one hand, the US and the PA can develop modest objectives that are stabilizing for the near term along with continuing to develop international coalitions. This is a stability path and is best for establishing the conditions of serious negotiations. It is a steady but slow path that can promote stability but also end up frustratingly grinding away at the same old issues.
The second path is more dangerous and can surely lead to tensions and differences. It is the path of escalating differentiations; that is, differences are exaggerated and produce progressive differentiation of the two groups. If political and cultural experiences are defined as sufficiently different or even incommensurate then the two sides can exaggerate those differences and drift increasingly into intractability.
If the announcement about moving the embassy is going to be used as a zero-sum game – in other words, each side sees itself as either gaining or losing only – then these adversarial groups will foreground the impediments to peace such as settlements, terrorism, religion, and begin the process of exaggerating differences. There was, as predicted, violence following the announcement but it was not particularly intense or drawn out violence. This is not to say that if the United States actually started to break ground on a building site then violence would be more imminent, but it was a good sign that the reaction was reasonably subdued.
Escalating differences is particularly destructive because the two sides grow farther apart and retreat into their own psychology of identity and historical narratives. The more the two groups are differentiated the more distorted the communication between them. Their group narratives and perceptions of the conflict are catapulted toward polarization on the basis of assumptions rooted in differentiation, separation, and between-group differences.
Given these two competing paths, what can be done? How can the process be influenced such that the two sides do not exaggerate differences but also engage in interactions that are supportive and lead the process in the desired direction.
First, there must be diplomatic efforts that blunt the pressures toward exaggerated differences. This requires dialogue and structured interactions designed to find mutuality. Ideally, the quartet (US, United Nations, European Union, and Russia) should be reconstituted and provide a constructive environment for the parties to reengage. Adding the two Arab countries that Israel has a peace agreement with (Egypt and Jordan) would be helpful.
Second, practical everyday issues must be addressed. The first is security. The training of Palestinian security forces by the United States to manage their own population and security issues has been successful. Such programs should be reinforced and continued. Next, is the issue of Gaza which is becoming increasingly explosive. There should be an increase in humanitarian aid and other Arab countries should be brought into the process, including funding, so as to bypass Hamas. And finally the Palestinian Authority must make efforts to eliminate corruption and promote a clean and transparent government that reverses the perceptions of corruption. Such perceptions delegitimize the peace process.
Changing the attitudes, beliefs, or values of someone else has always been a central research concern in the social sciences. Theories of social influence, group decision-making, contact, and conflict resolution are all concerned with solving problems or getting one party to change in an effort to redress differences or keep the peace. Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen in their book, Difficult Conversations, write about strategies for talking to one another when the subject is anything you find difficult to deal with. This could be political opinions expressed in a newspaper or relational issues between couples concerning gender, equity, or housework.
In my own book, Fierce Entanglements: Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict, I write about difficult conversations between ethnopolitical groups where ethnicity and religion are implicated and the conflicts are contentious and intense with deep implications for identity and nationalism. So this issue of change or solving problems runs the gamut from mundane micro issues to politically significant macro concerns.
We see this distinction expressed in the realm of politics in the contrast between those with a slow hand and diplomatic sensibilities who search for common ground and invoke a strategy of engagement, compared to those who carry a bigger stick and keep an opponent in check out of fear or raw power. Scholars continue to argue over the basic theory here about whether or not reaching out to opponents and overtures of engagement and mutual reciprocity actually have any effect on adversaries, or whether or not a strong stance forcing adversaries into submission is more effective. This question is even more interesting when posed as an option for dealing with strong autocratic forces that have little history of democratization or facilitative engagement. The oppositional stance differences between Obama and Trump is an example.
But I would argue that the historical record, and the brunt of research efforts, clearly favors a strategy of accommodation rather than intimidation – a strategy of communicative contact and reciprocity. During the last few decades in the United States those with a more confrontational stance have claimed they favor engagement and reciprocity but demand conditions be met first by the other side such as democratization. Telling Iran or some ethnopolitical group they must democratize before the US will engage in respectful reciprocal relations is a grand goal but pretty unattainable. There are reasons to engage the other side without requiring them first to be more democratic.
For example, business relations and interdependent economic and financial exchanges are typically thought to be a form of rational engagement that promotes cooperation and has economic benefits. The standard thinking is that such economic arrangements promote peace and rapprochement, but there are arguments for the other way around that peaceful and cooperative relationships must come first and business exchanges follow. Clearly, a politician like Obama was attacked for referring to such a strategy and called “weak.” In fact, it went further than that because Obama was described as putting the country in jeopardy and subjecting us to disrespect.
But cautious engagement is better than mutual hostility that can escalate at any moment. Surely, cautious engagement requires the participation of both sides and reciprocity and this will take time. These “difficult conversations” must be developed and nurtured along a pathway to peace and their complexities are many. But still, by the standards of history and scholarship it is better than the alternative.
The two-state solution to the Palestinian problem continues to be a hopeful image and a rational solution that benefits everyone. Historically there was considerable popular support for the two -state solution but surprisingly enough it seems to be waning. The two-state solution is now in jeopardy. Mosaic, a magazine of Jewish thought, recently published a thorough article reporting polling results that serve as evidence for what Palestinians actually think of the two-state solution. The most common line of thinking has been that everyone supports the two-state solution but leadership and provocative actions from both sides threaten its possibilities.
And we don’t have to guess Palestinian opinions about two-states because polling the Palestinians is persistent and, according to experts, of high quality. Moreover, a variety of reputable organizations frequently poll the Palestinians.
So what do the Palestinians think of the two-state solution?
When asked a direct question about their support for the two-state solution, over a two-year period (from 2012 to 2014), 52% of the Palestinians supported a two-state solution. That number dropped to just under 50% from 2014 to 2016. The average level of support by Israelis was 59%. Over time that number decreased slightly.
This general question about two states is by itself only minimally of interest but when it is converted into specific policy the results are very interesting. One polling study offered to Palestinians a solution package that was beyond what had ever been endorsed by an Israeli government. Palestinians were presented with a two-state solution in which the state was established in line with 1967 borders, East Jerusalem would be the capital and Palestinians would control the Al-Aqsa mosque, they would be allowed a strong security force, and provisions would be made for refugees. The solution package was considered to be acceptable to Israelis and include a generous response to all key issues.
This hypothetical solution was met with more opponents than supporters. There were more opponents 14 times out of the 16 times the package was presented to the Palestinian public. The deal was rejected about 54% of the time and decreased over time such that an average of 61% opposed the deal. Palestinian opposition intensified when they were presented with specific components of a resolution. They rejected the definition of East Jerusalem as their capital, did not think the proposal for refugees was sufficient, and strongly rejected the requirement that Palestine be a demilitarized state. Finally, only 39% of the Palestinians responded affirmatively to a statement that required the recognition of the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.
There are other responses to the specific planks of the proposal but the main point as of now is that the Palestinians generally indicate support for two-state solution, but continue to express opposition to the specifics of a generous offer available in the near future. I would add that a number of Palestinians (especially intellectuals) support a one-state or a binational solution, which has never been acceptable to the Israelis or discussed seriously as a political possibility.
But the most troubling finding reported in the Mosaic article is that there has been a regular increase (13% to 18%) in the number of Palestinians who support an “Islamic solution” which calls for a Palestinian state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. This is a position more in line with a “liberation of Palestine” perspective rather than a negotiated political solution. When polls asked Palestinians to make a choice between a single state, or a two-state solution, an unexpected 62% indicate their preference for a Palestinian single state in all of historic Palestine. Subsequent polls found that “reclaiming historic Palestine” was the first choice of 60% of respondents.
This more extreme position does not bode well for negotiations or solutions to problems. It indicates a radicalization that will only further divide the two groups. It represents a rejection of the recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people and polarizes the discourse by assuming positions that are untenable or considered extreme by the other side. The next post will explore in more detail the implications and the explanations for this liberation preference.
I recently returned from five months in Israel where I did many things but also had a chance to refine my understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But this trip I spent a little more time trying to understand Palestinians – their wishes, goals, mentalities, and political aspirations. Below I say a few things about what I concluded. I know, and one hears this refrain regularly, that the Palestinians do not need one more Western academic, or any Westerner, telling them what to do. But I am going to offer up some observations anyway.
In short, the evidence seems to indicate that the Palestinians have missed opportunities, squandered finances, and generally failed to build institutions and infrastructure. Again, I understand that these are complex issues with complex explanations, and the Israelis are certainly not innocent. Let’s take a look at some specific points that I believe undergird this argument. There is a short informative reading on the state of the Palestinians here.
- The Palestinians have been governed by Fatah and Hamas. Fatah is secular and Hamas is a creation of the Muslim brotherhood. The competition between these two organizations has not served the Palestinians well. Neither Fatah nor Hamas governs in an effective and transparent manner. There has been no emergent collective political ideology and the divide between the two parties is wider than ever.
- Both Fatah and Hamas rely on authoritarian governance which alienates them from large sections of their population. The use of violence, patronage, and general corruption is a conservative influence and makes change difficult.
- The Palestinians have not moved beyond” liberation” as their primary agenda item. The two political parties spend little time on the challenges of governing because liberation from the occupation remains the central animating force. Although this is understandable, it remains the case that alternative narratives or workable pathways to liberation have eluded the Palestinian leadership.
- Related to all of these points, is the failure on the part of the Palestinians to build civil society. There is internal strife and dissatisfaction because basic governing structures don’t work well or exist at all. The world has poured money into Palestinian organization only to have little to show for it. True enough, that Palestinians have been successful at making their case on the world stage and garnering international sympathy. But this has all been at the cost of civil society and internal governing structure.
- Finally, I have come to the conclusion that political will and more attention by the United States is called for. The US must redirect some of its energy and resources toward the Palestinians and help work to develop their legitimacy in the context of their Israeli neighbors. Washington can directly support elements of civil society (schools, trade unions, community governance structures, medical and financial services) and contribute to the empowerment of Palestinians along with organizing them for civil political activity rather than “liberation.”
The strike against the Syrian al-Shayrat Air Base south of Homs is certainly controversial but generally supported around the world. The base was used as a launching pad in a chemical weapons attack that truly does cross a “redline.” As much success as Obama had as president – and he will ultimately be described as a successful president – he did fail to act against the Assad regime and of course was never to be taken seriously again with respect to Syria after his hollow threat about chemical weapons crossing redlines. And even though like much of the world I find Trump dangerous, unstable, lazy, and uninformed I have to give him credit for taking a moral and political stance that was difficult but necessary. Up until now, Assad had been confronted with little more than empty speeches condemning the use of chemical weapons.
One of the goals of foreign policy is to get others to recalculate their cost-benefit ratios. Assad’s calculations were much in his favor because his history told him that nobody was going to do much about his behavior. He used chemical weapons last week because he calculated he could get away with it. But now Assad has to recalculate his position. In an excellent policy report from the Washington Policy Institute, Michael Eisenstadt writes cogently about altering cost-benefit ratios and the variables that factor into Assad’s thinking. You can read it here. Here is one analysis along the way to a decision about whether or not to bomb Syrian airbases and what Assad is likely to do about it.
Historically Assad has shied away from military responses when he concludes that his opposition is aggressive and determined. The Israelis have on more than a couple of occasions struck Syrian targets because their intelligence told them that weapons were being transported to Hezbollah. And although Syria has at times returned fire most of the time they do nothing. And, of course, even though Obama threatened responses after crossing “redlines” the Syrians just ignored it and used chemical weapons anyway. They calculated that Obama would not respond and their actions would reap more benefits than costs. Eisenstadt concludes the following cost-benefit ratio and the decisions that go with them. These conclusions are based on historical occurrences as well as “logical” assumptions.
(1) Assad backs down when confronted with a strong and potentially threatening proponent. (2) If Assad is unsure of how an adversary counts his costs or benefits he will test the waters but then withdraw if things appear threatening. And (3) if Assad sees no major cost to his behavior he will proceed as he wishes. Of course there are other situational and strategic factors involved but the United States is in a position to use force to maximize the likelihood that the other side will recalculate cost-benefit ratios such that they realize predictable consequences. This is the only way ceasefires will be respected and some predictability can be inserted into the decision matrix that characterizes international brinksmanship exchanges.
You have to admit that if you were Daniel Silva or Tom Clancy trying to write another international thriller you could do no better than the opening chapter being devoted to the Russians hacking American political campaigns in order to influence elections and plant their own Manchurian candidate. This opening “staging” chapter could include tensions between the intelligence services and the new president complete with allegations and embarrassing verbal exchanges. To listen to the president elect and the heads of the security agencies trade public accusations and barbs along with charges of incompetence is unprecedented.
And what if rather than treating this as an enjoyable fictional experience we stopped for a moment and considered the implications for the current state of American institutions, political leadership, and security. Corey Robin has begun to make the argument that American institutions are becoming less and less legitimate and this is occurring against the background of political deterioration. Even at the risk of charges of alarmist exaggeration, I believe it’s possible to make the case, at least one worthy of discussion, that there has been a steady decline down a path littered with the remnants of more legitimate institutions and behavior reflective of that legitimacy.
The American democracy seems to be turning on itself and in the process weakening institutions and altering our sense of moral political consciousness. In other words, certain democratic values and forms of political communication have begun to decline. Robin cites as one early example the loss of trust in the government and military during the Vietnam War that resulted from lies and misleading information. This would extend to the crude manipulations about Iraq and the deceptions perpetrated on the American people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction, the denigration of an admired military leader (Colin Powell), a “stolen” election (Busch-Gore) decided in accordance with pure party lines by the Supreme Court, the rise of Trump, and a Congress so polarized and entrenched that it cares nothing about governing but plenty about treating the other as an enemy to be conquered rather than a worthy adversary to work with.
There are two trends in contemporary American society that are both causes and consequences of this decline. The first is the rise of American authoritarianism (see Amanda Taub’s work), and the second is the post-truth politics were there are no facts or evidence-driven conclusions that can’t be manipulated. As Nietzsche put it, “there are only interpretations.” And it is important to underscore that the rise of authoritarianism in America is not about strong controlling individuals taking over and leading by authority. No, it is more the rising tendency for people in the country to obey and accept authority, to prefer authoritarian relationships. They accept authority unquestionably and seek it out.
This preference for authority was one of the divides that separated Trump supporters from those who are horrified by him. And a post-truth mentality seems to be attaching itself and boring into the culture ready to deconstruct and disperse the “reality-based community.” These are the conditions for some difficult conversations and the impossibility of communicating. Then again, paradoxically, it is probably only the communication process that can re-challenge these trends.
Both the Israelis and the Palestinians have to get over their aversion to loss. This is difficult because research on cognitive processing and decision-making indicates that people fear loss more than they value gain. Both sides have tried to minimize loss rather than take the risks of possible gains. The two-state solution – whose death is premature and has been exaggerated – will require both sides to operate against their natural inclinations.
But the two-state solution is the only real answer. It’s the only way both groups maintain their identity and have the opportunity to cultivate their own history, culture, and literature. And it certainly is the only way Israel remains democratic and Jewish. There is no way Israel can be a reasonably ethical liberal state if it has to lord over a minority group that challenges the nature of the state and whose religion and national history is contrary to the state. Below is an abbreviated account of some basic assumptions and principles that will facilitate the establishment of two states. Again, for this to work both sides have to orient toward gain rather than loss. For more and related information see the Quartet report.
- The Israelis and the Palestinians must begin by mutually agreeing and understanding that peace and solutions to their problems cannot be achieved with force. They can only be achieved by consistent recognition of both sides and freedom from violence.
- Both sides should reaffirm the unacceptability of acquiring territory by force. This includes the settlements whose legal standing might be a matter of argument but clearly are a serious threat to any comprehensive peace.
- The matter of refugees must be settled and both sides will lose a little. Israel will provide compensation and readmit a small number of people, and the Palestinians will surely not flood the state of Israel with large numbers of descendants and families claiming property rights.
- Efforts at Palestinian state building must be recognized and supported by international organizations as well as Israel. Palestine must make progress on the matter of developing institutions (educational, cultural, state) that are stable and consistent with the constitution of the state.
- The two sides must solve the problem such that it is an “end of conflict” status. In other words, they need to satisfy the obligations and expectations of both sides and resolve any questions of recognition, political status, and legitimate demands. This includes a negotiated end of conflict including issues related to refugees, borders, and legal standing. This end of conflict status will be based on the following issues:
- All planks of a negotiated end of conflict are facilitative of the desire to establish democratic, independent, sovereign and prosperous states.
- Clear recognition of borders along the 1967 border guidelines with the acceptance of agreed-upon exchanges and swaps.
- Specified security arrangements.
- Rigorous control of terrorism.
- An agreement as to the status of Jerusalem which might include sharing Jerusalem as the capital of two states.
- Firm and fair agreements on outstanding issues related to water, electricity, and environmental concerns.
- Firm restraints on the incitement of violence.
For some period of time after negotiated agreements the two polities will engage in trust and confidence building designed to develop an atmosphere of cooperation. The two sides will work to achieve the full potential and possibilities of neighborly relations. This will include the development, for example, of trade and educational exchanges as well as systematic efforts to learn about the other culture.
Of course, many of these will be difficult to achieve and there will always be those who claim naïveté with respect to actually solving this prototypical intractable conflict. But if you have another way, show me.
The assumption that two groups are incommensurable, and locked in their culturally particular language, has some undesirable side effects such as cultural essentialism and parochialism. Moreover there is a tendency to focus on the past and the traditional which can lead increasingly to dualist dichotomies. The Israeli-Palestinian dualist narratives are classic examples of the consequences of moving toward incommensurability and differentiation. Neither side can escape the past and both are poor when it comes to establishing conditions for change. Because each side refuses to get beyond its own boundaries, and remains encapsulated in their particular cultural logic that is incommensurable with the other, they reproduce the exact conditions they are trying to avoid. Solving problems and moving toward some acceptable integrated consensus (becoming more commensurable) will only accrue with more generality rather than specificity.
Wang makes the argument that a cultural group confined by particularity is in fact in a position to achieve more universality through the workings of the particular. This is especially pertinent to my arguments because from this perspective the particular is not a matter of the opposite of universal but plays an active and vital role in constructing commensurability. The particulars, for example, of Palestinian and Israeli culture should be the stimuli for communication about more broadly shared commonalities. A simple clash of opinions and historical statements will never close up this divide. But a more organic approach, with greater interaction between paired concepts, including an open system mentality that continuously monitors the environment for information, can produce an understanding of history that is mutually constituted. As with the fled-expelled dichotomy, a new common ground as possible
The most basic challenge for incommensurability is to bridge differences and find ways to do it such that one paradigm can be translated into the language of another demonstrating that differences are not irreconcilable. It is important to underscore that commensurability is more concerned with similarity and equivalents rather than commonality. A particular culture might find commonalities with another culture quite difficult yet have enough similarities to facilitate communication. As Wang states, “no two human beings or cultures and societies are ‘the same’ at any moment, in any way.” This is true because all humans communicate and this communicative function re-conceptualizes their individuality into something more interdependent and other-oriented. Any constructivist perspective on communication, which challenges the Enlightenment notion of individual autonomy, by definition implies that attitudes, beliefs, and values are a consequence of interaction and thereby malleable enough to move from isolated incommensurate realities toward commonality.
A position that holds incommensurability as equivalent to incomparable or incommunicable is indefensible. It is certainly possible to immerse oneself in the language and culture of another and learn to translate that culture into something more broadly communicable. Ricoeur has made the argument that despite the challenges, confusions, and barriers to learning another culture and language it is possible to be multilingual and multicultural. It is possible, for example, for one day in the future Israelis and Palestinians to find new interpretive links and resonate with the culture of the other. No two cultures are completely different especially when each culture has been the recipient of deep hermeneutic interpretation that reveals hidden similarities and differences. Dialogue, when it is functioning properly, should move the two conflicting cultures toward improved historical background and cultural contexts that offer deeper clarification and understanding. Cultures present arguments differently and express worldviews on the basis of opaque cultural influences and traditions, but can still sometimes find commonalities. Everyday knowledge, shared experiences, and similar linguistic expressions are the tools for understanding incommensurability and then become the basis of new language worlds that unfold as commensurability is revealed.
The commensurability-incommensurability argument is an important theoretical and philosophical position because it speaks to a key conundrum in cultural conflict. The issue of each side in a cultural conflict having roots in its local soil but reaching out to connect to others has implications for research directions as well as managing difficult conflicts. This matter of roots in local soil and connections with broader networks is a fundamental characteristic of the type of political conflicts discussed here. Moreover, the theoretical power of the micro-macro link, which explores the reciprocal relationship between macro structural categories in society (e.g. race, gender, class etc.) and the micro interactions of individuals (real-time talk), remains ripe for research attention. If communication and dialogue are as effective as academicians and professionals would have us believe, then examination of these issues must continue until we reach a point of theoretical coherence.
One of the most pressing and distressing cultural and communication problems is how you talk to the “other.” Group and cultural polarization is no longer an interesting insight posed by an academic or intellectual. No, it is common knowledge and easy enough to see even for the most disengaged citizen. It is the problem of perceived incommensurability when the belief that two cultures – especially cultures in conflict – are irreconcilably different. These differences cause distortions in the communication process resulting from the cognitive and political consequences of intergroup contact and the absence of bridging discourse that closes or shrinks cultural gaps. These distortions are apparent in discourses and interactions between the two groups that sustain violence. Although this results in damages and injustices to both sides there are ways to mitigate effects and work to transform the conflict into morally acceptable democratic argument.
The term incommensurability was introduced to refer to scientific values that were so different that they lacked any common unit by which they could be measured. Aristotelian versus Newtonian mechanics is an example. But over time incommensurability became associated with other ideas including concepts related to the humanities and social sciences. Cultures have been termed incommensurable and cultural incommensurability has been associated with diversity and other social agendas. Strong diversity advocates cherish incommensurability as a sign of cultural uniqueness and claim that all group and cultural differences lack some common units by which they can be compared. So, the difference between Palestinians and Israelis, for example, is equivalent to the differences between Aristotelian and Newtonian mechanics. There is no bridging language.
Thomas Kuhn explained that incommensurability referred to “irreconcilable differences” because two or more paradigms involve different sets of problems, definitions, and standards. It is possible to “interpret” the two incommensurable paradigms in a language other than the paradigm, which is what conflict resolution specialists do, but this will always be limited.
Cultures and groups polarize because they engage in a process of increasing differentiation. They develop negative identities such that part of the definition of group or cultural membership involves the rejection of the other. This produces extremes: being Israeli is defined as not being Palestinian, or being a Republican is defined as not being a Democrat.
Increasing differentiation explains how the discourse of difficult conflicts can devolve into contradiction, paradox, and double binds. The natural consequences of differentiation is to gravitate around binaries including binaries of ethnicity (Arab-Jewish), gender (male-female) religion (sacred-secular), history (war of independence-nakba), cultural narratives (victimization-displacement), politics (Republican-Democrat), and so on. Even when groups engage in communicative contact the result can be communication that dissolves into debates, arguments, and blame. These then harden into fixed positions and the sort of interest-based thinking that is not able to deal with identity-based conflicts. The doubly bound messages of conflict groups continue to stimulate the process of differentiation; that is, these groups reify incommensurability through the differentiation described above which results in a type of deformed communication where individuals are trapped by the accusations of the other. Each side of the conflict interprets the other as being responsible for its own oppression and the act of denying such a claim is understood as simply providing additional evidence of the claim in the first place. Thus, you have the twisted logic of group differences.
Attempts to win arguments such as “who started it” or what historical event is responsible for the current situation are typically futile and mostly damage the possibilities for dialogue. These binaries and double binds are so exhausting that the communication resources of both sides are depleted and continuing conflict differences becomes the accepted reality.
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.