National Security & Defense

To Avoid Letting the Terrorists Win, Make Them Lose

If ISIS really does want a fight, it may still be right to give them one.

CNN’s Sally Kohn has today been kind enough to provide us all with a perfectly distilled example of what, post-Paris, has become a popular progressive talking point. “Y’all realize,” Kohn wrote on Twitter this morning, that “ISIS wants to provoke a war, right? If we go to war, we’re doing exactly what the terrorists want.”

Assurances such as Kohn’s have been forthcoming since before the blood dried. In Saturday’s Independent, Sunny Mundal suggested that the West will only “win if we don’t get provoked into the response they want from us.” And what do “they want”? First, for us to “to attack them on their soil: in Iraq and Syria,” thereby creating a “backlash that would would play directly into their hands”; second, to “create division and exploit tension in our modern multi-racial societies,” and thus to cause “western Muslims to feel that they can only truly be at home at the Isis Caliphate.” If we react by going after them, Mundal predicted, we will only “create countless new recruits.” In yesterday’s Huffington Post, Nick Robins-Early made a similar argument, submitting that if Western nations respond to the abomination in Paris by slowing down the influx of refugees — or even by talking favorably about “Western civilization” — they will be playing directly “into the hands of extremists.”

All in all, this is a peculiar way of looking at this question, not least because it presumes that ISIS’s calculations must inevitably be correct. It is certainly true that one of the outfit’s central aims is to shock the West to such a remarkable degree that its people begin to generalize about Islam, and, thereby, to alienate and radicalize the moderate Muslims who live among them. It is true, too, that ISIS and its ilk hope to set up a broader fight with the world’s liberal democracies, and, ultimately, to parlay that fight into the establishment of an expansionary global caliphate. But for us to acknowledge these risks is not necessarily to place them above all else. For as long as men have fought one another, there have always been downsides to the use of both military and government force. As such, the question before us today is not “Are there any drawbacks?” but “How do those drawbacks stack up in context?”

What I am not prepared to do is take as a matter of unchallenged faith that the nasty little buggers who just wiped out scores of free people get to call the shots.

As is often the case with foreign affairs, I am not entirely sure what the best answer is here, and in consequence am happy to hear a wide range of opinions from those who know better. What I am not prepared to do, however, is to accept without challenge the suggestion that the nasty little buggers who just wiped out scores of free people should get to call the shots going forward. Upon closer investigation, it might well turn out that there are more efficient ways of eradicating ISIS than taking them on head-first. Likewise, we may discover that restricting the flow of refugees to the United States does little more than annoy the very people whom we need on our side. But for us to arrive at either of those conclusions, the arguments in their favor will have to be presented from the ground up. Merely asserting that a particular reaction is “what ISIS wants” will not cut it. Sometimes in life, we have to accept that a third party wants a fight and that there is no other choice but to give it to them — yes, even if that fight is likely to be messy and costly, and to have a series of potential downsides. Determining whether this is one of those times will take more than idle sloganeering.

#share#Which is to say that while it is admirable for Sally Kohn and her fellow travelers to worry about the potential consequences of an American-led war against ISIS, by casting their objections in such absolute terms, they are demonstrating not refinement but fealty. If we are agreed that ISIS has to be destroyed — and pretty much everybody is, including those who are currently sounding the fire bells — then we are agreed that some degree of risk is inevitable. Why? Well, because there is simply no way for us to eradicate the group without giving it at least some of what it so desperately seeks. As has been the case since the dawn of the human era, there are those among us who err toward the hawks and those who prefer the doves, and our conception of what constitutes justice is keenly fractured and hotly disputed. But we’re not really disagreeing as to whether we should take some risk in order to enhance our security; we’re beginning the long and unlovely process by which we haggle over the details.

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