The West’s Ideological Vacuum

One point I tried to make in this post on George Orwell’s fighting in Spain is that the fight between Bashar al-Assad and ISIS is one that has become an ideological magnet. I was trying to argue that we’re offering little by way of positive ideology to combat ISIS, particularly among those most susceptible to its draw.

Two recent commentaries have made related points. This Jocelyne Cesari NYT op-ed on Europe’s need to more fully embrace Muslims notes the “collapse” of ideologies in Europe.

Third, the collapse of all major ideologies in Europe — nationalism, Communism, and liberalism — has left room for new radical options. For some young Europeans, adherence to radical Islam provides a viable alternative ideology, comparable to that of radical leftist groups in the 1970s.

And at the New Yorker, Steve Coll notes that ISIS is the kind of thing that arises when people feel they have no other avenue for security and justice.

The group’s lightning rise is a symptom, however, of deeper instability; a cause of that instability is failed international policy in Iraq and Syria. If the United States is returning to war in the region, one might wish for a more considered vision than Whack-a-Mole against jihadists.

The restoration of human rights in the region first requires a renewed search for a tolerable—and, where possible, tolerant—path to stability. ISIS feasts above all on the suffering of Syria, and that appears to be unending. The war is in its fourth year, with almost two hundred thousand dead and nine million displaced, inside the country and out. The caliphate now seated in Raqqa is the sort of dark fantasy that can spring to life when people feel they are bereft of other plausible sources of security and justice.

Though the very terms Coll discusses may betray part of the problem — and the neoliberal ideology Cesari doesn’t account for in her piece.

It is not yet clear that ISIS will endure as a menace. Fast-moving extremist conquerors sometimes have trouble holding their ground. ISIS has promised to govern as effectively as it intimidates, but its talent lies in extortion and ethnic cleansing, not in sanitation and job creation. It is vulnerable to revolt from within.

Conceiving of governance as “job creation” may undersell what a destabilized region is looking for — not to mention ignore what ISIS has done in Syrian areas they control.

The group also has a surprisingly sophisticated bureaucracy, which typically includes an Islamic court system and a rovingpolice force. In the Syrian town of Manbij, for example, ISIS officials cut off the hands of four robbers. In Raqqa, they forced shops to close for selling poor products in the suq (market) as well as regular supermarkets and kebab stands—a move that was likely the work of its Consumer Protection Authority office. ISIS has also whipped individuals for insulting their neighbors, confiscated and destroyed counterfeit medicine, and on multiple occasions summarily executed and crucified individuals for apostasy. Members have burned cartons of cigarettes and destroyed shrines andgraves, including the famous Uways al-Qarani shrine in Raqqa.

Beyond these judicial measures, ISIS also invests in public works. In April, for instance, it completeda new suq in al-Raqqa for locals to exchange goods. Additionally, the group runs an electricity office that monitors electricity-use levels, installs new power lines, and hosts workshops on how to repair old ones. The militants fix potholesbus people between the territories they control, rehabilitateblighted medians to make roads more aesthetically pleasing, and operate a post office and zakat (almsgiving) office (which the group claims has helped farmers with their harvests). Most importantly for Syrians and Iraqis downriver, ISIS has continued operating the Tishrin dam (renaming it al-Faruq) on the Euphrates River. Through all of these offices and departments, ISIS is able to offer a semblance of stability in unstable and marginalized areas, even if many locals do not like its ideological program.

I’m not saying this is the societal solution the Middle East seeks. But I am saying the US would be wise to understand that ISIS aspires to offer governance, not just brutal war, and it’s more likely than, say, AQAP to be able to pull it off.

Meanwhile, Henry Kissinger has an almost plaintive piece calling for a new world order (because the world order he was central in creating is showing signs of cracking) in the WSJ. He ends it with a reaffirmation of purported American exceptionalism, even while he suggests that we must temper our promise of “individual dignity and participatory governance” in places that need stability within a global order first.

A world order of states affirming individual dignity and participatory governance, and cooperating internationally in accordance with agreed-upon rules, can be our hope and should be our inspiration. But progress toward it will need to be sustained through a series of intermediary stages.


For the U.S., this will require thinking on two seemingly contradictory levels. The celebration of universal principles needs to be paired with recognition of the reality of other regions’ histories, cultures and views of their security. Even as the lessons of challenging decades are examined, the affirmation of America’s exceptional nature must be sustained. History offers no respite to countries that set aside their sense of identity in favor of a seemingly less arduous course. But nor does it assure success for the most elevated convictions in the absence of a comprehensive geopolitical strategy.

But earlier in Kissinger’s piece, he admits that globalization destabilizes political order (even while he overstates the number of winners in the current globalized system).

The clash between the international economy and the political institutions that ostensibly govern it also weakens the sense of common purpose necessary for world order. The economic system has become global, while the political structure of the world remains based on the nation-state. Economic globalization, in its essence, ignores national frontiers. Foreign policy affirms them, even as it seeks to reconcile conflicting national aims or ideals of world order.

This dynamic has produced decades of sustained economic growth punctuated by periodic financial crises of seemingly escalating intensity: in Latin America in the 1980s; in Asia in 1997; in Russia in 1998; in the U.S. in 2001 and again starting in 2007; in Europe after 2010. The winners have few reservations about the system. But the losers—such as those stuck in structural misdesigns, as has been the case with the European Union’s southern tier—seek their remedies by solutions that negate, or at least obstruct, the functioning of the global economic system.

The international order thus faces a paradox: Its prosperity is dependent on the success of globalization, but the process produces a political reaction that often works counter to its aspirations.

The rise of ISIS presents several challenges to the US, in my opinion. First, we (and Europe) need to offer something to compete with ISIS’ ideology. As loathsome as ISIS’ ideology it is, it does aspire to deliver on promises the West increasingly fails to deliver to all.

Part of that, though, requires acknowledging that we do have an ideology — neoliberalism — one that increasingly fails to offer the kind of stability and benefit for all that must offer a better alternative than ISIS (and even more importantly, has failed to provide real nation building in those countries we’ve destabilized in the Middle East).

ISIS aspires to fill potholes. That’s not even something the US can manage (at least not here in MI). That requires a commitment to building society that we’ve significantly lost of late.

We’ve been promising for decades that the “free market” will deliver justice everywhere. It seems not to be working. Maybe we need to offer more than that to ideologically combat the dangerous new forces out there?

14 replies
  1. bloopie2 says:

    Well, Mussolini made the trains run on time.

    Any anyhow, why do “we need to offer more than that to ideologically combat the dangerous new forces out there?” Why do “we” need to offer anything? Or by “we” do you mean, not the USA, but rather the rest of the world?

    Finally, a common phrase is “They are not ready for democracy”. Do you agree? If so, what does that mean for the next six weeks, six months, six years, sixty years?

  2. What Constitution? says:

    Wow. Maybe America will succeed in coming up with a geopolitical philosophy a little more complex than “you’re either with us or against us”. While that level of clarity of purpose doesn’t seem to have panned out, at least it’s nice that somebody came up with “don’t do stupid shit” on the road to engaging in considered thought before reflexively reverting to making more rubble bounce. But it’s hard to see how, or why, Henry Kissinger should be wheeled out for his advice at this point in human history.

  3. seedeevee says:

    “Running the Government” was the excuse to attempt to destroy the Taliban. It seems that our political leadership believes that it is easier to remove a standing government (Afghanistan/Egypt/Iraq/Syria) than to defend an unknowable American ideal.

  4. TarheelDem says:

    Here’s a puzzlement for you. @onekade tweeted that the source of the video of the beheading of Steven Sotloff came through SITES Intelligence Group, a Rita Katz headed organization one step from terrorism publicist Steve Emerson. @onekade finds that odd, and so do I.

    Any clues as to why ISIS might be shooting the dope straight into the neocon vein?

    • scribe says:

      Any clues as to why ISIS might be shooting the dope straight into the neocon vein?

      Short answer: the more the neocons force us to stomp them/drop bombs on them, the more unified they and their populace become.

      They can point at the external enemy – the US and its partners – as trying to kill all of the people in the area they govern. Every civilian dead in a bombing raid – and I’m sure there have been some – reinforces that message. Every successful high school sports coach has, at one time or another, done something analogous. He gives the team (in ISIS’ case, the populace) an external enemy who cannot be reasoned with (the coach; in ISIS’ case, the USG) and welds the team together against that external enemy. Additionally, the presence of an external enemy diverts the locals’ attention from the less successful or less savory aspects of ISIS’ rule, allowing them to consolidate power.

      Long answer: They inject the dope straight into the neocon’s vein because they are a creation of neocons and their friends in Saudi and Qatar, who want the US to continue to be tied up in Iraq-istan. The killing and bombing and droning pay big to the contractors and suppliers.

      Moreover, one cannot assume that the Saudi government is a united whole located in Riyadh or wherever. The factions within the royal family may well have decided that their only way to power is to move into a different country and take it over themselves, where they can then impose an even more stringent version of their ultra-conservative brand of Islam. One can look at bin Laden/AQ as a first attempt or a trial run by those folks, using Osama as a figurehead. Recall that where AQ was strong in Afghanistan, they and the Taliban provided extensive civil services of the type described in the main post. The main difference is that AQ and the Taliban were not self-sustaining; Afghanistan’s only real cash crop was opium. That, the West can do without and it suppresses the trade. In Iraq and Syria, particularly where ISIS is strong, there is oil. The West does not suppress the trade in oil. So, now, their program is and will remain self-sustaining.

      There, we see the great strategic errors of Bush/Cheney and, for that matter, every administration since 1973. Rather than undertake to rid ourselves of dependency on oil on the grounds our national security would be continually at risk because someone could turn a valve, we engaged in trying to co-opt one faction or another, whistling past the graveyard in the hope that no other faction would figure out a way to get their hands on the valve wheel. And, at every turn, developing alternative energy sources was allowed to give us some green shoots, then support was ruthlessly cut off as soon as the technology was advanced enough to be patentable and therefore purchaseable at the bankruptcy auction.

      What we got was a series of wars – peacekeeping forces in Sinai, Iran Hostages, Rapid Deployment Force, Iraq-Iran 1980-88, Kuwait 1990, Desert Shield/Storm 1990-91, no-fly zones in the south and aid to the Kurds in the north, World Trade Center 1993, Desert Fox 1998, missiles to Afghanistan and Somalia 1998 (trying to hit bin Laden, the figurehead), regime in Iraq as change as Job #1 come 2001, World Trade Center/Pentagon/D.C. (landed in Pa.) in 2001, Afghanistan 2001-date, Gitmo, Iraq 2003-11, periodic whomps on Somalia, Libya 2009-date and Syria 2010-date – with neither end nor objective in sight. And literal trillions pissed away to no effect.

      What the government won’t tell you is that these wars are lost and were lost before they started. We cannot win so long as we are dependent on foreign sources for oil. Say what you might about fracking, tar sands and the Dakota/Montana oil rush but if those had not been there, we would certainly be in a far worse place than we are now. And, since we are again (if only for a minute) a net exporter of energy, a bunch of Saudis and Qataris get together with some survivors of our torture and interrogation practices and tell them – “here’s a couple million (or billion, from that planeload of cash Deadeye Dick and Co. shipped into the desert and left there) bucks. Run wild. Allah wills it. Crucify and behead some infidels, too. Just do it on video.”

      And that is the dope-laced mother’s milk neocons live for.

      • TarheelDem says:

        Yep. I got all that broad context stuff. And all of the Saudi cutout stuff. And I know that the Saudis and the Israelis got some sort of a deal going for Saudi silence. But it is striking that ISIS slips terrorist porn directly to a not terribly well-disguised Zionist strategic consulting firm with a used-to-be mainstreamed publicity front man.

        Sorta says, yep we’re all sadistic bastards and in it for the cash. But count on CNN to turn that pathetic display into 24/7 “duct-tape your window, head for the basement, hold on to your heads” terror.

        Almost like ISIS is swinging as wildly as Mitt Romney was October 2012. And they’ve got to find new American hostages to have the same effect on CNN next time. And governed their conquered territory too.

  5. Fabrizio says:

    Unlikely the U.S. will come up with a competing ideology other than that which you get through the barrel of a gun. Since World War II, the U.S. and its allies in the region have demolished all secular and progressive movements. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, originally promoted as an alternative to the Communists, etc., now get trampled, leaving the ISIS and Co. the only alternative to their donors, the addled kleptocracy of the Wahabista Saudi Arabia. Sunnistan is a done deal. And if you noticed the NYT today, MI is not the only locale where the pot holes can’t get repaired.

  6. scribe says:

    Y’know, EW. This new format you’ve had us on for a while is a piece of crap. I have to hit “enter” three or so times to get a reasonable-looking paragraph break in my comments, and the damn thing still neither allows me to edit nor provides push-buttons so I can bold, italicize, blockquote and all the rest. I have to code in html to have anything other than run-on text that looks like something editors trash.

    Enough already. If we’re gonna party like it’s 2003, at least run the prices at the likker store (and the gas station and the ammo counter) back to what they were then, too.

  7. Toadlicking says:

    Nobody needs any Western ideology. The blindingly obvious alternative to IS dogma is already on offer from states making up more than four fifths of the world’s population. It worked like a charm on serious crimes in Africa and Asia. It will work on IS crimes too. US ideology has nothing to add because their sole concern is to head off this alternative, which threatens US criminal officials too.
    The real purpose of Kissinger’s PR plant was to do the US statist shuffle: yearn wistfully for rules and norms while preserving impunity (especially his own) with induced chaos and reactive state violence. His telltale Schmeikel is his attempt to set up a tension between stability and dignity (which is freedom from torture in law). So “the world order he was central in creating is showing signs of cracking” is more like, the world order he was central in flouting has not gone away as he hoped:
    Kissinger tacks on a little trendy chin-scratching over blatant market failures, but that’s just deep-thoughts camoflage for his primary ass-covering mission. This is the guy who put Pinochet in. You think he gives a crap?

  8. orionATL says:

    the u.s. has been bled dry by the phenomenal cost of two entirely unnecessary wars promoted and (very clumsily) executed by neocon american “leaders”. the two wars were so incompetently executed (heh, heh) by our military that they can categorically be called colossal failures.

    now the neocons who cried out for, provoked, and executed the iraq and afghan wars want the u.s. to engage in more war – the surge forever, lads! forward! forever the surge.

    for what friggin’ purpose? for what obvious gain?

    isis is a paper tiger. isis is not an american threat. it is a european threat, and not much of that except where energy is concerned.

    let the isis try to establish themselves against air bombardment, local animosity, and iraqi/iranian/kurdish/syria/jordanian military, poorly trained though they be.

    and rember this – nothing could bode better for getting going on limiting climate change than oil shortages.

    what the u.s. government did with regard to conservation and alternative enrergy sources uring the oil embargos of the ’70’s was remarkable.

    let’s get on with it. blow up the derricks and pipelines and terminals.

  9. bloopie2 says:

    No, it’s not what I want. But we really have nothing to offer them. I honestly believe we will see them fighting and killing each other for dozens of years to come, or at least until the oil runs out. Then it will just be massacres. Anyone got a good idea of what we can offer them that will overcome a millennium of hatred? Sure there is a huge majority of ‘good/nice’ people. But throughout history they always lose out to the haters and tyrants with money and guns. And today is qualitatively different from fifty years ago – any group can get weapons and go to town on its enemy. Maybe we’ll end up with more nasty dictators like Saddam and Bashar, at least ‘keeping the peace’.

    Sorry to be so bleak. Maybe it’s because I watched Lord of War last night.

Comments are closed.