ISIS, Hobbes, and Inconvenient Reality

by Andrew Stuttaford

One of the more dimwitted responses to the Paris atrocities was Obama’s claim that they were an assault “on the universal values we share . . . ,” a remark that could only be made by a man unwilling or unable to face up to reality. Universal? Not so much.

The seventeenth-century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, a man not immune to the eccentricities of his time, but at his core a realist’s realist if ever there was one, would not have been impressed by the lofty inanities spewed out by the sheltered academic now resident in the White House.

Writing in the New Statesman, a modern British philosopher, John Gray, contemplates the aftermath of the Paris attacks drawing on Hobbes as he does so. It’s a very long read, but one that’s well worth your time, but these are some key extracts:

By creating failed states, the West brought into being the zones of anarchy in which Isis (also known as Islamic State) has thrived. It will be objected that the states that were destroyed were brutal dictatorships. But Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a secular despotism and so, too, is Assad’s Syria. In working to overthrow these regimes, the West has released the forces of theocracy and come close to eradicating secular government in the Middle East. Worse, by persisting in its efforts to topple Assad, the West risks producing a catastrophe greater than any that has yet occurred. If Assad were violently overthrown, the Syrian army would likely disintegrate and the state of Syria cease to exist. The country would become an anarchical killing field in which dozens of jihadist groups compete for power. Communities that had depended on Assad’s regime for their survival, such as the Alawites, Druze and Christians, would confront a threat of genocide as real as that which has faced the Yazidi in Iraq. The result would be enlarged flows of desperate people into Europe. By intensifying the war, Russia’s involvement in Syria is likely also to swell these flows, though not by as much. In the longer term, Russian intervention opens up the possibility of some kind of political settlement in which Assad can be induced to give up power.

The West continues to reject co-operation with Russia on the grounds that Vladimir Putin and his client Assad are evil tyrants. From a Hobbesian standpoint, this is irrelevant. The salient question can only be: Which is the greater evil?

Quite.

Blathering on about a “moderate Syrian opposition,” which no longer exists in any effective sense (if it ever did) is, for the most part, an unwillingness to recognize that amidst this horror, being able to choose the lesser evil will, if we are so lucky, be about as good as it ever gets. 

Gray then turns his attention to some signs that the nations of Europe are turning away from the pathological altruism which reached a new pinnacle of nuttiness with the “indispensable” (The Economist) Angela Merkel’s decision to reduce what was left of Germany’s borders to something close to nothingness.

To many liberals — not least Barack Obama, who has condemned any such reaction as hysterical — European leaders seem to be succumbing to xenophobia when they should be defending openness and common humanity. But it is worth considering the situation from a Hobbesian point of view. Controlling the flows of people cannot neutralise Isis militants who are already here. Some will have entered Europe years ago, or been born in a European country and then travelled to war zones where they were trained in terrorist skills. Even so, uncontrolled immigration on the scale that has been reached in the past year cannot avoid posing security risks in conditions that ­approximate those of war. If Isis militants form only a tenth of 1 per cent of the million or so migrants who have entered Europe to date, a thousand or more new risks have been created. When it is recalled that the Isis militants who have returned from Syria to Britain are believed to number in the hundreds, the danger is clear enough. A major terrorist threat can be created by very few people.

The weakness of the EU in this regard is a direct result of the freedom of movement that has been one of its defining features. As a borderless zone, it can control the movement of people only at its perimeters. But when the frontiers of France are, in effect, in Greece (through which the suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks is reported to have travelled when returning from Syria), tracking travellers is practically impossible. Rather than being an overbearing super-state, as many Eurosceptics have claimed, the EU is a pseudo-state, an institution that claims many of the prerogatives of statehood but cannot meet the primary and overriding need for safety that states exist to serve.

I’d rather see the EU as a parasite, a vampire state, if you like, sucking the life out of the nation-states on which it feeds, more powerful than Gray credits it, not least in its ability to destroy. And its enforcers are not ready to retreat from the barely policed borders of the Schengen agreement without a fight. To the eurofundamentalists, Schengen still, even now, comes before security.

And on the strange claim that ISIS is “nihilist”:

 [F]ar from believing in nothing, Isis militants are possessed by faith. Though some reports suggest that the militants may have been fuelled by euphoria-inducing drugs, their attacks are not random acts of terror. They are moves in a methodical strategy of savagery that serves an apocalyptic myth. Isis is an explicitly eschatological movement, infused with fantasies of cataclysmic end-time battles and a universal caliphate. It is not without significance that the group has made few, if any, concrete demands.

Many of those who condemn Isis as nihilistic go on in the same breath to describe it as “medieval” — a curious conjunction. Certainly, Isis has links with Islamic apocalyptic traditions and with Wahhabism, the 18th-century Islamic fundamentalist movement that has been financed and exported worldwide by sources in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Nonetheless, the idea that Isis is no more than a reversion to medieval values is misguided. Since it implies that the group is an atavistic force that will fade away in the normal course of historical development, this is actually a consoling thought. It is also an illusion.

An illusion in which Obama still believes. 

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