Unless you are have been a hermit for the last two years or so, you will be aware that an organisation with titles varying around the words ‘Islamic State’ appears to have arisen in the Middle East and has apparently conquered significant portions of Syria and Iraq. This organisation, or franchises of it, seems to be responsible for acts of terrorism across the world. Something bad is going on. But exactly what is not clear.
Is this an uprising, a revolution, an insurgency or a civil war? None of the news agencies are making this clear. It is actually a war of aggression and is being conducted between minor powers, but is increasingly targeting Western democracies. Apart from the implied desire to establish a ‘Caliphate’, Islamic State’s aims and policies are also obscure. That they follow a policy of exterminating their enemies is as graphic a fashion as possible is clear. News agencies’ talk of hostages being taken are plain wrong. Anyone taken by Islamic State is a Dead Man Walking. Nobody survives capture by Islamic State if they are foreign to the area or to its beliefs.
Islamic State’s policy of murder and persecution also makes it difficult to envisage how the conflict will end, especially if they prevail to carve out a new nation. Middle Eastern states, like every other modern country, need experts to manage and control their infrastructure and to keep their economies functioning. It is currently impossible to reconcile this requirement with a leadership that terrorises its people for dogmatic reasons. Anyone with the desired knowledge to keep a modern state afloat has no positive incentive to remain in Islamic State-controlled territory. And, unlike the Soviets, Islamic State does not have the security apparatus to imprison its most able subjects within its borders. Islamic State makes no secret about its opposition to the United Nations. It is unlikely they will have diplomatic relations with any other country outside of their region.
The rise of Islamic State also needs explaining. This seems to be a well-led military organisation that has apparently emerged from nowhere and is now taking on and beating established states in the region. The reason for this may be simple.
The global political settlement reached in 1945 saw the establishment of the United Nations. At its core was the simple concept that wars of aggression designed to crush a country were forbidden between nation states. This concept was supervised by a weak coalition of the countries that had effectively conquered the world in that year and were now the most powerful. The permanent members of the UN Security Council, while disagreeing with each other on political and economic matters, have not gone to war with each other since. The world has been spared a great-power conflict for a record-breaking seventy years. There have been regional wars, but these have either been civil wars, proxy wars between the superpowers or relatively trivial border conflicts. Islamic State does not break the mould in this respect as it appears backed by at least one foreign power.
The most blatant example of aggressive war since 1945, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, was swiftly crushed. The only other acts of international aggression have been by permanent members of the Security Council and under the post-1945 settlement they get a free pass to do this in return for not going to war with each other. This neatly explains how the USA and UK were able to occupy Iraq in 2003 and how the USSR and its successor, Russia, could do the same to several countries on its borders, as well as China occupying Tibet. Iraq’s aggression against Iran in 1980 seems to be an exception to this but has to be viewed in the context that post-revolutionary Iran seemed to have set its face against the world at the time, alienating the Security Council and as such, had its UN guarantees effectively withdrawn.
However outlawing aggressive war does not mean it goes away. Aggressive war cannot be signed away at the stroke of a pen. What actually happened was that nation states alone were prohibited from attacking their neighbours wantonly. The loophole is that a group that is not an established nation state is effectively exempt from UN action. If war between states is outlawed then non-state organisations will take over. Statesmen who cannot make war are bypassed, with the role taken on to some demagogue and his group of followers. Such a group is immune to sanctions and embargoes, is not subject to international agreements and simply has no benefits from cross-border ties whose withdrawal could cause social and economic harm. They place no value on human life and will use murder as economic and social policy. Instead of supplying a military force with funds raised from taxation, such a group would appropriate goods as war booty. Wars between states are actually wars between populations of those states. Since the states as they stand are banned from waging a war of aggression, elements of the population have taken matters into their own hands. The war is an ugly manifestation of people power. But it can also be a way for a nation state to wage aggressive war with a neighbour with apparently clean hands.
Given that countries are forbidden to wage aggressive war, they can still sponsor insurgent groups to do their bidding as a proxy army. Thus Iran has been waging aggressive war against Israel for years without a single Iranian soldier losing his life in the front line. Islamic State appears to have backing in a similar way. It also does not help that there is a decades-old deadlock in the UN over the definition of terrorism. Some countries seem to want other countries’ activities to be portrayed as terroristic. Since terrorism cannot be officially defined, the UN is powerless to act against it in a concerted fashion by setting up a UNESCO or UNICEF-like organisation.
It is also now possible to wage an aggressive mobile war effectively with modern command and control structures thanks to the revolution in mobile communications technology for consumers. Forces with light artillery, rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank booby-traps and small arms are able to take on heavily armed and armoured opponents and prevail, especially in an urban setting. Such a force does not seem to need air superiority at all to win battles. As always, it is boots on the ground that wins wars.
The Western democracies, possessors of the most sophisticated and deadly boots on the ground, value human life so highly that they cannot bear their soldiers dying for their country in any overseas conflict. All the West’s opponents seem to have to do is to string out such a conflict with a drip-feed of fatalities of soldiers to coalesce popular opposition and damage morale at home. Wars waged by Western Powers have to be short and decisive and cannot be allowed to degenerate into never-ending police actions against insurgents.
Given this Achilles heel, it is not too surprising that opponents of the West take full advantage and will cede territory riddled with francs-tireurs willing to give up their lives as part of a policy of attrition in what is described as asymmetrical warfare. Fighting such wars takes time and civilian casualties are inevitable as is their suffering being broadcast nightly to Western living-rooms.
The liberal press in the West, who automatically oppose any use of armed force in every circumstance, are ready to whip up opposition to any such war as part of their political agenda to discredit their political enemies regardless of the actual facts. It is difficult to conceive today that there was mass opposition to the liberation of Kuwait, including passionate speeches by Oscar-winning actors who really should have known better. The atrocities of the insurgents are also blamed on the West by the liberal media. Such orchestrated demoralisation is always justified in the name of free speech, however distorted that speech actually is. Patriotism is routinely derided. It is ironic therefore that Islamic State violently oppose freedom of speech and routinely murder people who dare to exercise it. It is further ironic that people exercise freedom of speech in the West to actually oppose Western intervention against an organisation that would kill them, given the chance.
Islamic State is prevailing because its biggest enemies cannot bear to lose a single life to defeat it. This can only defer and increase the blood price that will have to be paid for doing so later on. It was the will of a people misguided by popular media and craven politicians that prevented early rearmament in the UK in the 1930s and thus prevented a more assertive foreign policy as Germany repudiated agreements and treaties. Such a mistake was avoided when there was similar vocal and liberal media opposition to standing up an increasingly aggressive USSR in the 1980s. The difference in outcome is clear. In the former case there was a devastating European war that escalated to engulf the world. In the latter, the USSR collapsed with relatively little bloodshed on both sides. International agreements and assertive foreign policy were the key to the peaceful ending of the Cold War combined as they were by a strong forward defence stance by the West. These are now lacking the current situation in the Middle East. History tells us that this is a sure path to disaster. More people in the West will die. The killings have already started on our streets.
The gradual collapse of the Concert of Europe in the late 19th Century lead to an arms race and First World War which destroyed Europe’s influence over global affairs and impoverished a continent. The swifter collapse of the League of Nations also led to a global war that ended with the first use of nuclear weapons. It may not appear so right now, but the UN is facing its greatest challenge and does not seem up to the task. When the US and USSR opposed each other, they were at least both members. The current crisis in the Middle East does not have that luxury. An aggressive international war is being fought, taking advantage of Western squeamishness and a loophole that allows non-nation-states free reign when international action would have constrained a country that openly and directly behaved in a similar fashion. At least three countries are on the verge of collapse as a consequence to be replaced by an illegal authority that openly declares war on the UN as well as the West and its hard won values of humanity and freedom. The UN is weaker than at any time in its history. The Security Council is even more divided than it usually is due to the Ukraine crisis. The UN is being ignored now by an aggressive non-governmental power and as such the prestige of the UN will be compromised. It now may be on the sad road to irrelevance as it predecessor was in the 1930s.