Another Kennan Sweepstakes Entry

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On May 2013, President Obama asserted the country must “define the nature and scope of this struggle [against terrorism], or else it will define us.” In that same speech, Obama also stated “the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11.” Obama spoke those words over thirty months ago, but has yet to define exactly what the threat is now or the strategy to combat it, despite the incidence of several major terrorist attacks. Worse, in the aftermath of the November 13th tragedy in Paris, Obama seems incapable of credibly discussing the attack’s perpetrators, the Islamic State. Cruelly, just one day before the Paris attacks, Obama stated “our goal has been first to contain [the Islamic State], and we have contained them.” [Emphasis added] The statement prompted immediate condemnation, but several observers deemed it a generally fair observation because Obama was referring to the group’s conquest of territory. Alternatively, other observers noted ISIS has broken out of its territorial base and has begun operating globally. In the words of American scholar Joshua Landis, Obama used "your grandfather’s notion of containment." The doctrine of containment famously guided generations of American decision-makers during the Cold War, but the collapse of communism and the onset of unipolarity also meant its closure. In its passing, a so-called a “Kennan sweepstakes” commenced, whereupon many attempted, inconclusively, to craft a successor foreign policy doctrine equal to the one authored by American diplomat George F. Kennan. Containment, among other things, imparts the necessity of acquiring allies and encircling the adversary. Unfortunately, leading from behind has been ineffectual and a long war is unsustainable. If the Islamic State cannot be contained, then perhaps the West should insulate itself.

First Things First: Forgo the Westphalia Test

The challenge of identifying a coherent doctrine has been compounded by the the domestic component (i.e. immigration) and the non-state nature of the threat. As post-Paris reporting indicates, “the terrorist ringleader got into EU as ‘refugee’” and the “response to the Islamic State hinges on whether to treat it as a state.”

Whether to treat it as a state?

The November 13 terrorist attack employed different tactics than the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks, but they are essentially the same in that individuals intent on waging war on foreign soil breached the minimal security protocols governing access to the target country.

At its core, the decision to treat the Islamic State as a terrorist network or a state entails a specific application of military force -- short, targeted counterterrorist strikes or long, comprehensive conventional force ground operations. In the former, great care is taken to avoid civilian casualties in the event of a strike; in the latter, substantial effort is placed on the support of the local population during the subsequent occupation.

On this basis, the November 13 terrorist attack are far different from the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks in that decision-makers and the public have the intervening fourteen years of experience to evaluate whether either approach is sufficient.

In retrospect, neither have been.

Counterterrorism operations have succeeded in sidelining Al Qaeda, but would be terrorists have simply switched their enthusiasm to the Islamic State.

Conventional ground and counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq overthrew noxious regimes, but cost trillions of dollars and thousands of lives for little strategic gain.

It’s the Legitimacy Stupid

Foregoing the focus on statehood and recasting the United States, France, and the Islamic State as generic communities could potentially simplify the matter.

Framing the United States and France as such acknowledges they are simply polities that possess robust state institutions, exercise sovereign authority over the use of violence and the integrity of its borders, and have chosen to allows its inhabitants to elect its leadership. In contrast, the Islamic State is attempting to establish equivalent state institutions and attempting to exercise sovereign authority over the use of violence and the integrity of its borders. (Democratic elections are unlikely...)

The Islamic State’s attempt has been unsuccessful in that it is contending with some inhabitants who continue to wage war against it while others have opted to flee.

The Islamic State’s failure to capture the allegiance of some Syrians is the point of a little noticed theory as to the group’s motivation in attacking Paris.

In British journalist Adam Taylor’s estimation, the Islamic State wants the West to equate the refugees with the terrorists.

Taylor astutely notes all suspects in the Paris attacks appear to have been European citizens and, more importantly, the large numbers of Western citizens traveled to Syria to fight “[suggests] that the problem is not so much those coming from over there but those who are already here”. [Emphasis added] Furthermore, not all of the Western jihadists have familial links to the region and vast number of European Muslims have repeatedly condemned the actions of the Islamic State.

Lastly, and most importantly, “if Muslim refugees come to Europe and are welcomed, it deeply undercuts the Islamic State's legitimacy.”

During the Cold War, Communist polities had the same problem. In response, communist polities simply closed the exits and closely surveilled the population. Moreover, after closing the exits, the scale of the refugee outflow was not great enough to prompt the communist leadership to use violence against them while they were in the Western polities. The communist leaders simply denounced them and then ignored them.

Concomitantly, Western polities accommodated the outflow of dissenters precisely because it delegitimized the Communist polities’ bid for the universal application of its ideology. Western leaders routinely argued the refugees to flee communism proved the ideology was illegitimate.  Furthermore, Western polities could accommodate refugees from communism because the size of the outflow was relatively small, at least in comparison to the current migration from Syria, and the refugees were either culturally or ideologically compatible with the West, or both.

Conversely, Islamic polities do not have the capacity for the same solution - they cannot cut off the exits or surveil the population. (Unlike communist polities, the Islamic State is not yet a police state.)

But as Taylor points out, the scale of outflow is great enough to undermine their bid for legitimacy.

Accordingly, their solution is to strike the receiving polities in order to provoke suspicions between the host polity, which will be somewhat apprehensive about welcoming individuals with very different cultural and ideological outlooks, and the refugees, who will instinctively group with like individuals to survive.

If the difference between Communist polities and Islamic polities rests primarily on the scope and scale of the outgoing flow and the readiness of the Islamic polity to violently aggravate the cultural and ideological incompatibility between the West and the refugees (and containment is not a viable option), then Western polities must be prepared to slow or halt the incoming flow.

The Most Worthwhile Aspects of Containment and Isolation

The Cold War was replete with grim barbed wire-laden physical barriers and standing vigils along a wall. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates once commented, “one Cold War was quite enough.” Moreover, connectivity is the byword of the modern globalized word, and as concisely observed by American strategist Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett, “disconnectivity defines danger.”

Accordingly, neither containment nor isolation are attractive options.

In brief, a doctrine of insulation would be premised on the most worthwhile aspects of containment and isolation, namely the emphasis on bolstering the polity’s moral and political cohesion and applying a “counter-force” where necessary, while concretely minimizing the connections that can be potentially hazardous, such as immigration.

As Kennan had originally posited, counter-force need not necessarily always be military force. Counter-force against the Islamic State will invariably require a Western polity to undertake counterterrorist strikes, but insulation as a defense would focus on increasing the domestic population’s resiliency, not “winning the hearts and minds” of the Islamic polity’s population. The trillions expended counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq would have been better spent improving domestic infrastructure, both its quality and recoverability.

Moreover, the implicit counterinsurgency requirement for a counter-narrative to Islamic extremism ironically highlights a distinct vulnerability within Western polities.

Western polities have embraced multiculturalism, a liberal thesis that espouses tolerance for diversity in all forms, but has the unintended consequence of legitimizing inherently illiberal ideologies like Islamic extremism.

Worse, proponents of multiculturalism are uncompromisingly dogmatic and have retarded political discourse in Western polities, complicating any bid to craft a counter-narrative.

(The comparison of opposition to Muslim immigration to opposition to Jewish emigration in the 1930s is a cruel example of multicultural proponents’ duplicitous logic. Acknowledged, xenophobia during an economic depression played a part, but Muslim refugees are of such a scale that terrorists can embed themselves unnoticed, have historically resisted assimilation in their host countries, and are coming from a country categorized as a terrorist state since 1979. Zionist terrorists were few in the 1930s; the only Zionist terrorists today are those denounced by the same multiculturalists who are cynically using the Jews’ plight then to avoid confronting Islamic extremism today.)

Prior to the Paris attacks, multiculturalism’s most pernicious effects were evident in the readiness to nurture increasingly Balkanized electorates and to curtail free speech, a liberty central to Western democracy.

Multiculturalism only hinders a Western polity’s ability to sustain the aforementioned moral and political cohesion required to confront Islamic extremism. Immigration strengthens a polity, but as American businessman James Charles Bennett has pithily suggested: "democracy, immigration, multiculturalism... pick any two". Otherwise, the democratic character of Western polities, the counter-force fundamentally integral to combating totalitarian Islamic extremism, will be eviscerated.

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In closing, the doctrine of insulation entails enhancing a polity’s resilience and recoverability, establishing enforceable limits on the forms of connectivity that enables Islamic extremism to do harm, and closing the chapter on multiculturalism.

Even if individuals were not fleeting Islamic State en masse and the matter of legitimacy was irrelevant to its leadership, embracing insulation would help Western polities cope with terrorism.

More pointedly, terrorism is not an existential threat; the lack of civilizational resilience and confidence is.

In Canadian commentator Mark Steyn’s speech to the Danish Parliament on the tenth anniversary of the Mohammed cartoons, he quoted George Jonas, an emigre from communist Hungary, “Terrorism's great achievement isn't hijacking jetliners, but hijacking the debate. Successful terrorism persuades the terror-stricken that he's conscience-stricken.”

To paraphrase Kennan, “the issue of relations [with an Islamic polity] is in essence a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations. To avoid destruction, the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.”

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