Tweeting ISIS Attacks: A Lesson in Not Learning a Lesson

After Friday’s horrific attacks on Paris, France, leaving 129 dead, hundreds wounded, a nation traumatized, and a world shocked, we are of course asking: What do we do now? But, of course, we’ve been here before. We overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan, and we invaded Iraq. Bush declared the Taliban were no more, and that major combat operations in Iraq had ended. Though bin Laden is dead, however, the aftermath is much darker.

We now face a jihadist state established across two countries, which appears—as of this week—to be capable of taking down a Russian airliner, bombing a Lebanese neighborhood, and staging a sophisticated assault in a major Western capital. Given how badly the war on terror went, one would think more people would have learned what not to do.

It’s scarier when people with influence maintain such bad ideas.

1. The glass is half-full

Even a few months ago, I’d have asked, how can someone so smart be otherwise so uninformed? Then Ben Carson. Most Muslims would probably be offended by Richard Dawkins’ suggestion that Islam—not jihadism, or even Islamism—is an ideology on par with Nazism or Stalinism, but I consider this progress: At least Dawkins thinks Islam is European, which is more than we can say for many hotheads and bigots out there, who will try their hardest to use this attack to cut back on immigration, asylum and multiculturalism.

That is incidentally the wrong response—if tens of thousands of Syrians find the door slammed shut in their faces, and have nowhere to go, no way to support their families, and no options for the future, who do you think will take them in?—and practically as tasteless as attempts by some American politicians to turn the attacks on Paris into an argument against gun control:

2. Whose side are we on?

The question here is: which civilizations? Not only does the ISIL attack on France follow attacks against Turkish (Muslim) and Lebanese (Muslim) targets, but the best fighting force on the ground, which has recently scored notable successes against ISIL, is Kurdish (and mostly Muslim). I’m sure Turkish and Lebanese victims would appreciate being told they are also the enemy, while Kurds would love to be informed that this is a war between Islam and the West. Since they are, you know, fighting alongside American special forces. America’s next President should keep in mind that transnational threats require international cooperation, and international cooperation requires respect.

The Republican response here reminds me too much of our age of “Freedom fries” and condescending attitudes—remember “old Europe” and “new Europe”? The overwhelming majority of Muslims condemn and reject terrorism, but many Muslims are too busy fighting ISIL to offer their denunciations of extremism. They’ll let putting their lives on the line speak for them. ISIL is already a significant threat: We don’t need to feed into their narrative. We want to defeat them, not help them recruit. If you think this is harmless hyperbole, in other words, I’d be chary.

When political leaders make irresponsible, sweeping statements about who we are fighting, we can fall for dangerous distractions. I’m sure a lot of Americans concluded Iraq was behind 9/11 because, hell, it’s all of them versus all of us. That mistake led us into an unnecessary war, one of whose outcomes was… ISIL. It’s frustrating enough that architects of that war continue to offer us advice on what to do next (usually war). Maybe their angle is: “Given that I played a critical role in creating the world’s most dangerous extremist group, I believe I have unique insights to offer.”

It’s much worse when a key supporter of what, on any measure, was a moral and foreign policy outrage, uses an unfolding terrorist attack to dismiss student protesters at Missouri and at Yale.

Stay classy, Ms. Miller.

3. The enemy of my enemy is also my enemy

One of the great challenges in combatting ISIL is that while their fighters are highly motivated, and ideologically unified, many of ISIL’s opponents are currently embroiled in conflicts with each other, even as they try to fight ISIL. Given ISIL’s strategy of exploiting social divisions in countries opposed to them, or actively involved in the war against them, this is worth noting, and worrying about. Hamas, for example, the governing power in the Gaza Strip, condemned the Paris and Beirut bombings, and connected the terrorism Parisians suffer to the terrorism they allege is practiced by Israel.

This might strike you as laughable, even offensive. But consider the gravity of the situation. Hamas is not ISIL, and those who confuse the two might one day rue the conflation.

My greater fear is that the longer the occupation grinds on, the more ISIL will try—and may succeed—in finding collaborators among the most disaffected Palestinians. (They have already tried to co-opt the cause). Hamas, governing a Gaza under siege from Israel and Egypt, is facing internal disaffection, some of which comes from even more radical Islamic groups, which are far more dangerous to Israel. But can Israel and Palestinians come to terms, or will the ongoing conflict be exploited by ISIL?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed solidarity with France, while making a similar claim on behalf of his people: Israelis know, he said, what the French are going through.

So, of course, do Lebanese, Syrians, Iraqis, and many others. Is this shared trauma enough to build a durable coalition? Or, as I fear, will the coalition founder because its component pieces are more concerned with their own particular enemies and opponents, giving ISIL a chance to secure its foothold and its state? That’s my great fear, that rivalry between Turks and Kurds, Americans and Russians, Saudis and Iranians, means it will be impossible to focus on ISIL, and the region will continue to be destabilized, because even allies and partners do not fully trust each other’s motives. It is only in those contexts that extremists can build their state. Where there’s no competing state that might be able to stop them.

Speaking of which, Assad told the French he too sympathizes because, of course, Syrians know what the French are going through too.

Why not?

4. Let’s just do crazy stuff

Yeah. The last two years. Let’s take thousands of people, deport them—to where, exactly?—and trust that these same people, many of whom risked life and limb to arrive in Europe against all odds, will then not become radicalized. After all, the overwhelming majority of these people are peaceful, innocent of no crime, and will have just been dumped by various Western governments in countries, many of which are at war.

Crises tell us a lot about people. Especially the kind of people who use a terrorist attack to indulge racist fantasies. As expected, Frum himself was born in Canada.

But there’s something darkly amusing about it when the perennial undercard candidate—formerly known as Piyush, who now goes by Bobby—decides to weigh in:

Bobby should be careful. Had South Asians been responsible for this particular incident, he might find David Frum would try to deport him.

Perhaps we can establish a U.S. government agency tasked with determining not only religion, but the genuineness of someone’s claim of Christianity. What could possibly go wrong?

5. Operation Immanuel Kant

Russia’s intervention in Syria astonished many parochial American foreign policy commentators. (Yes, I’m aware of the irony.) Many of us are of the opinion that we can act in violation of international law, because the rules that bind other, lesser peoples are merely “guidelines” for us. (The Jack Sparrow School of International Parley.) But, of course, what happens when people use our very same arguments against our interests?

So, for example, if we think it’s okay, like Max does, to drop thousands of troops into another country because “national security,” we should be aware that we have no ground to stand on when other countries (ahem Russia) we are not fond of do so against our interests.

6. Trial and terror

It isn’t all bad news. There’s a lot of people who have learned from our, and their, previous mistakes, and are happy to share. Peter Beinart won the internet for this remark in his recent Atlantic essay:

This is simply false. The Islamic State may hate tolerance, liberty, and women’s rights. But that’s not why its cadres attacked Paris.

A review of the organization’s history makes this point clear. The Islamic State began in 2004 as al-Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate, not because its then-leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, discovered that female motorists populate America’s highways, but because America had just invaded Iraq.

We can and must fight back against ISIL. We have a moral obligation, not to mention a national security obligation. But we must be careful in that response that we do not fall prey to ideas that have already failed before (and in recent memory), and that we do not allow others to freeload on this national and international security priority, by bringing their agendas along for the ride, and in the process distracting us from the task at hand. The war in Afghanistan was about al-Qaeda. The war in Iraq was not. The former effort suffered because the latter proceeded.

The French rejected the Iraq war, and have been attacked by an ISIL that emerged in great part due to that war. But, of course, the Iraqis had nothing to do with al-Qaeda, and were invaded too. Some ten years ago, Western forces ranged the length and breadth of a Middle Eastern country, and today forces coordinated from the territory of that country have launched attacks on Western territories. It’s very easy to turn this war into an endless seesaw, in which countless innocents become casualties. The only way forward is if our president pursues vigorously a policy of bringing world powers together to solve the Syrian civil war, to transition away from Assad, and to build a durable coalition to take on ISIL.

It cannot be done by assuming we are in a clash of civilizations, an endless and inevitable and therefore unavoidable conflict, or even by suspending our values because it sounds good.

At least we can be grateful that some people are armed with a serious strategy.