ISIL is a nuisance, not a global strategic threat

ISIL is the latest in a long list of trumped up global nuisances for the Americans, argues Tony Karon

Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) march in Raqqa, Syria. AP
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John Kerry appears to have lost some of his perspective on the problem of terrorism over the past decade. During his 2004 run for the White House against incumbent President George W Bush, Kerry spoke of the need for America “to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance … something that you continue to fight’’.

But, last week, as the Obama administration convened an international Summit on Violent Extremism, Mr Kerry wrote that “the rise of violent extremism represents the pre-eminent challenge of the young 21st century”.

The 2004 comment was a sensible rebuke to the hysteria whipped up in Washington in the wake of the September 11 attacks. In the intervening period, Osama bin Laden has appeared on cover of Time magazine nine times – that’s three more Time covers than Hitler got for starting a war that killed upwards of 60 million people. Al Qaeda is unlikely to have killed much more than 10,000. The eighth of those nine covers showed Bin Laden’s face covered with a large red X, preposterously repeating a device the magazine had used to mark Hitler’s death in 1945.

Today, it is ISIL that dominates the discourse of fear that Washington wants to reframe global priorities. It’s more than a little absurd to suggest that ISIL represents the “pre-eminent challenge” of the 21st century to the US, much less to the planet as a whole. Consider ISIL’s impact against that of climate change, poverty, disease, wars in Ukraine, Syria and across Africa and it emerges as, well, a nuisance. A nasty nuisance, which has killed thousands in the Middle East, but a nuisance nonetheless.

Nuisances have to be dealt with, of course, but the tragic lesson of George W Bush’s war on terror is that elevating a nasty nuisance to the status of a global strategic priority is a mistake. Of course, the Obama administration is not talking about a war on ISIL.

The US involvement in fighting ISIL is largely confined to airstrikes, and the talk of a “coalition” of upwards of 40 countries is fatuous. Most of those confronting ISIL on the ground remain driven by their own strategic agendas. There’s very little strategic interest binding together the governments of Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Syria, for example, all of whom are involved in fighting ISIL.

But there’s a conceptual continuity between the era of Mr Bush’s “war on terror” and Mr Obama’s countering violent extremism (CVE) campaign. The continuity lies in the idea that small groups of people can become a national security priority by the dissemination of video imagery depicting grotesque acts of violence.

It was the dramatic live feed and endless looping of September 11 videos that created the narrative in which Bin Laden, leader of a small band of desperadoes numbering fewer than 1,000 men, could be seen by Americans as a threat on a par with Hitler.

In his closing address to the CVE summit, Mr Obama highlighted “more than 238 years” of American resilience as it “surmounted challenges that might have broken a lesser nation”. These included the civil war, the Great Depression, the Second World War and the challenge of communism. Somehow, he segued from these epic challenges to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, September 11, the Boston Marathon bombing, various small-scale acts of racist violence in America, and the recent attacks in Ottawa, Sydney, Paris and Copenhagen. “I’m confident,” he said, “that, just as we have for more than two centuries, we will ultimately prevail.”

Prevail over what? There’s no strategic challenge here. It requires a singular lack of perspective to put the actions of the marginalised individuals who executed attacks in Ottawa, Sydney, Paris and Copenhagen on a par with such epoch-shaping events as the Depression, the Second World War II and the Cold War. But it’s worth remembering that ISIL burnt its way into the US public conversation via the videos of the beheading of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

Turning hideous criminal deeds into viral video clips has allowed ISIL to displace Bin Laden as an entity to fear. (When Ebola threatened to jump the Atlantic to US shores last year, CNN labelled the virus the ISIL of “biological agents”.)

The Foley and Sotloff videos created the pressure that prompted Mr Obama to launch air strikes against ISIL and deepen the focus on CVE.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush and his fellow contenders for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination have made clear that ISIL will be a central theme on the campaign trail. And many of them are blaming Mr Obama and potential Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton for the group’s rise. Mrs Clinton, for her part, says ISIL has flourished because Mr Obama failed to heed her advice to arm Syrian rebels. Americans go to the polls next year facing socio-economic challenges that were until recently on a par with those of the Great Depression era. And their candidates will be arguing about ISIL, a phenomenon that barely touches the lives of most Americans.

But there’s a nationalist current at work in much of US political discourse in which no challenger is too small to be treated as an existential threat. (Americans were really led to believe that Saddam Hussein could attack the US mainland!)

Don’t forget, John Kerry may have offered sensible perspective on terrorism in 2004, but he was mercilessly pilloried for it on the campaign trail – and he lost the election.

Tony Karon teaches in the graduate programme at the New School in New York