I am no expert on ISIS and I won’t pretend to be. I don’t know what their true capabilities are, whether they are a function of U.S. troops invading Iraq or a function of U.S. troops leaving Iraq, or whether they would exist if we had armed less extreme Syrian opposition groups at the outset of the Syrian civil war. I do know, however, that President Obama’s statement last night that we will “degrade and ultimately defeat” ISIS can only partially be true. The U.S. can certainly degrade ISIS’s capabilities based on the military plan Obama laid out, and perhaps it can even defeat the group itself by some metric of victory. But ISIS is not a prime mover; it is a symptom. At its core, ISIS is an ideology, and even if the group comprised of jihadi fighters is defeated, it will simply be reincarnated with a different name because ideologies – with very rare exception – do not die on the battlefield. They die when their utility is proven worthless or when they lose out to a superior idea. Unfortunately for the U.S., airstrikes and logistical support for Iraqi and Kurdish troops is not going to translate into a defeat for the ideology that is motivating ISIS.
One of my newest pet peeves is referring to ISIS as nihilistic. ISIS is actually the very opposite of nihilistic; it does not believe that life has no meaning or purpose, but in fact has a very concrete belief in what the purpose and meaning of life might be. Its wanton disregard for human life is not the same thing as nihilism, and it absolutely believes in something. The fact that it believes in its purpose and mission so vehemently is why any military victory over it will be hollow. Political ideologies offer a criticism of existing society contrasted with a vision of a “good” society and propose the means by which attainment of a “good” society will be achieved. Just because ISIS’s vision of a “good” society does not resemble anything we would recognize as good does not make it nihilistic. Ideologies are ideal types that involve some programatic element, which in ISIS’s case is establishing a caliphate over a large section of the Middle East, so while it is a bloodthirsty and brutal movement, nihilistic it is not. It is rather highly ideologically motivated, to a point that harkens back to an age when political and religious ideologies were far more paramount in global politics.
The reason ideology is so dangerous is because it can be overwhelming and impossible to stamp out. Ideology is a powerful force, and those steeped in an ideology can come to exude a level of commitment that transcends other interests. First order values and beliefs cause an ideology’s followers to act in order for those beliefs to be realized, and a military defeat does not render those values and beliefs invalid in the eyes of the ideology’s adherents. The guardians and enforcers of an ideology, who have built a political order upon an ideological foundation, should not be expected to simply let their ideology, which they have fought to impose and which has guided their decisions, lapse just because they lose to a superior fighting force. Ideology exerts such a powerful influence because it imbues a regime’s actions with spiritual or existential authority in addition to secular authority, and while this is true of secular ideologies, it is all the more true of religious ideologies such as that espoused by ISIS. Leaders and citizens make themselves over in the image of the ideology, creating no space for dissent from ideological norms. The process is designed to penetrate individual consciousness and alter perception so that a situation where the ideology does not reign supreme is unimaginable. If ISIS is beaten by some combination of the U.S. Air Force and the Iraqi army, it doesn’t alter this fundamental dynamic of belief in ideological supremacy. The heirs to ISIS will not concede ideological defeat along with military defeat, which is what makes the fight against radical jihadi groups so difficult.
Furthermore, ISIS’s ideology is a revolutionary one seeking to overturn the status quo and to constantly expand, which makes it particularly susceptible to living on beyond the elimination of its primary advocate. Much like Voldemort’s life force after he attempts to kill Harry Potter as a baby, ISIS’s ideology will not die just because its host body is decimated. It will lurk around until another group seizes upon it and resurrects it, and much like ISIS seems to be even worse than al-Qaida, whatever replaces ISIS is likely to be more radical still. The problem with Obama’s speech yesterday was that it set an expectation that cannot be fulfilled. Yes, ISIS itself may be driven from the scene, but the overall problem is not one that is going to go away following airstrikes or even ground forces.
The stubborn nature of ideological survival is not unique to ISIS, religious ideology, or jihadism. If you want to see the power of ideology in a different, less violent context, look at what is happening in Scotland, where the simple ideas of nationalism and independence have a good chance of subsuming what is in Scotland’s economic and security interests. There seems to be little question that Scotland’s economy will be better off as part of the larger economy of the United Kingdom, and certainly it will be less able to weather financial shocks should it become independent. I also cannot envision a scenario in which Scotland’s national security is made safer by removing itself from the protection of the second largest army in the EU and a nuclear power. Yet, ideas are powerful stuff, and the notion of Scottish independence exerts a hold on many people that falls outside the bounds of economic rationality.
Now, none of this is to suggest in any way that the U.S. is engaged in a clash of civilizations, or that the U.S. cannot be safe until Islamism – whatever that might constitute – is defeated. It is rather a way of pointing out that our expectations need to be recalibrated, and that beating ISIS into submission is not going to be the end of the problem. Groups like ISIS are going to keep emerging until those most susceptible to buying into the idea of jihadism are won over by a more compelling idea. I don’t know what the U.S. can do, if anything, to hasten that process along, but airstrikes aren’t going to be enough.