Stephen M. Walt: Learning to Live with the Islamic State

July 28, 2015

As difficult it is to accept, there may be no loosening of the grip ISIS currently holds over its territory, at least not any time soon. Our guest, Stephen M. Walt, begins to come to terms with this unpleasant situation in a new article for Foreign Policy magazine, “What Should We Do if the Islamic State Wins?” His answer is not an inspiring one, but one based on the facts as he sees them: We will have to live with it.

On Point of Inquiry this week, Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a Fellow of the Academy of Arts and Sciences, explores with host Josh Zepps the historical precedence for successful revolutionary movements and their near-intractability once they’ve claimed power. According to Walt, once established, these revolutionary regimes will either continue to act as dangerous rogues who are isolated and contained by neighboring countries, or eventually moderate themselves to the point where even the U.S. may eventually be able to make formal connections and begin to do business.

The Islamic State’s potential to become a major power (or rather its lack of potential), the unreliability of personal accounts from inside ISIS, and American moral hubris all weigh into this fascinating discussion on Point of Inquiry.

This is point of inquiry for Tuesday, July 28, 2015. 

I’m Josh Zepps, host of Huff Post Live, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry. The U.S. Defense Secretary, Ash Carter, recently visited Iraq on a surprise visit, in part to discuss how the country is dealing or not with the Islamic State ISIS. It’s a huge question. How on earth do we respond to the barbaric theocratic, revolutionary pseudo state that seems to be being established before our very eyes in the ruins of Syria and Iraq? Stephen M. Walt is a professor of international affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and is one of America’s preeminent foreign policy and defense thinkers and writers. He serves on the editorial board of Foreign Policy magazine and several other influential publications, and he’s a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. A recent article of his in foreign policy is entitled What Should We Do If the Islamic State Wins? His answer? Live with it. Stephen Walt, thanks for being on point of inquiry. It’s nice to be with you. What would it mean for ISIS to win? 

Well, for ISIS to win is a pretty minimal statement. It doesn’t mean that ISIS begins to expand across the Middle East, becomes a superpower or anything like that by winning. It simply means that it manages to survive and resist various efforts to, as the Obama administration puts it, degrade and destroy it. 

I think we have to at least entertain the possibility that they will be able to retain control in more or less the area that they’ve now carved out and that they could be around for quite some time. If that’s the case, then the outside world is going to have to decide if they really do manage to create a sustainable territorial state. And at what point do we begin to try and do business with them? 

What what’s the answer to that question? Because I think most people probably reeling thinking, well, you never do business with with crazy religious, fundamentalist, barbaric folks like that. 

Well, it would be it would be nice to think so. And of course, I’d like to see them collapse quickly as well. And I think most people certainly around that region, but elsewhere in the world would like that, too. But the fact is that sometimes, you know, movements that begin with wild revolutionary objectives and that rely upon brutal acts of violence to advance their agenda, nonetheless managed to gain control in a country and and survive. If you go back and look at, say, the French Revolution and the reign of terror conducted by the Jacobins, this was regarded as absolutely barbaric behavior at the time. Alarmed countries all around Europe. But eventually, of course, you know, the governments there did do business. There was a war, of course, that lasted 20 years or so. But it’s not like France ultimately went out of business. Similarly, the Bolshevik Revolution was regarded as anathema in 1917 after World War One. Many countries around Europe were deeply worried that Bolshevism was going to spread. And but by the late 1920s, most countries had recognized the Soviet government and the United States ultimately recognized them in 1934. I think we’re a long way from recognizing ISIS today. But I do think if they managed to retain power and I would say also begin to do what most revolutionaries do, which is moderate their objectives and behavior over time, then other countries are going to face the choice of at what point do they start establishing some contacts with them? 

Is there not a difference in in the case of the Bolsheviks and the French Revolution in that these were civil wars that were contained within the border of a preexisting state that weren’t trying to generate a new state out of whole cloth? I mean, they were generating a new ideology, but they were still structures of power that had been established in Moscow and in Paris that they were able to sort of subsume. It’s not likely that ISIS is going to take Damascus or Baghdad anytime soon. 

That’s absolutely right. But, you know, revolutions come to power in a variety of different ways. Sometimes it’s a revolutionary movement that in a sense foments the revolutionary revolution pretty much on its own. The Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers in Iran, when the shah of Iran government collapsed, is might be a good example of that. In other cases, however, revolutions come to power in a manner more similar to what ISIS. This happened following a defeat in war, following the collapse of the old regime. That’s closer to the Bolshevik model, where it’s the mutiny of the original Russian army, the collapse of the czar. Its government creates an opportunity for them eventually to seize power from the original provisional government that took over from the czar. You can also point to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, which took advantage of American involvement in Indo-China, took advantage of the war that had expanded into Cambodia and were able to seize power. And in some respects, they’re a very good analogy to what ISIS is like because the Khmer Rouge were just as brutal, had what we would regard as, you know, equally extreme radical ideas and certainly cause some degree of trouble for countries in the region. But we’re fortunately too weak to spread their model anywhere else or ultimately survive. 

You mentioned earlier that what usually happens to the violent revolutionary movements is that they moderate themselves over time. The Khmer Rouge is an interesting example because they really didn’t. Right. I mean, they remained as batshit crazy throughout the entirety of their rule as they had when they came to power and announced years era. Do you have a sense of the extent to which ISIS is likely to be able to moderate itself? 

No, I don’t. And I don’t think anybody knows. I’m not sure ISIS as leaders have any idea there as well. The Khmer Rouge are actually in. For example, and may be an encouraging analogy, because, as you say, they never really moderated their conduct. And eventually, of course, were thrown out of power by their neighbors. The communist government in Vietnam. Right. So you have this interesting situation where two avowedly communist regimes end up at war with each other, the much stronger one. 

In this case, Vietnam, ultimately tossing Pol Pot and his followers out. Something that I think everyone was grateful for, if not immediately shortly thereafter. So the Khmer Rouge never really moderated and of course, didn’t survive. If you look at the other cases that I mentioned, whether it’s, you know, the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist Party and your mouse, the dung. 

And I would add the revolutionary government in Iran, all of them gradually began to act in a more pragmatic way. They didn’t abandon their ultimate ideological aims. The Soviet Union remained committed to world revolution, certainly at the rhetorical level, but also in terms of some of its practices, sort of right up into the 1980s. But they also were willing to cut pragmatic deals with other countries, including with the horrid capitalist imperialists that they claim to oppose. And I think that’s been true of other revolutionary states as well. I don’t know if ISIS will do that. I think the the good news is if they don’t moderate their behavior, then they will remain anathema to others. They will be prone to quarrel with other extremist movements, and they’re not likely to cause only a modest degree of trouble. 

Let’s just pursue that Khmer Rouge analogy one step further, because I think it’s interesting if if Vietnam was finally the reason why the Khmer Rouge collapsed. What is the analog for Vietnam in the Middle East? Is it a resurgent Assad regime in Damascus? Is it Iran? 

I think it’s going to be end up being some combination of other countries. And one of the complicating factors for dealing with ISIS today is, in a sense, almost all the countries that are concerned about ISIS are also concerned about a lot of other things. They don’t like ISIS very much, but they’re not really convinced that it’s a grave danger. 

So the Turks, for example, don’t like ISIS at all, but they also don’t like the Assad regime and they’re not willing to say compromise with Assad because Assad is fighting ISIS. Similarly, Saudi Arabia clearly views ISIS as a real threat. Certainly a challenge to Saudi legitimacy in certain respects. But the Saudis are equally concerned about Iranian influence and the possibility of the Shia resurgence taking place and for that matter. 

The United States doesn’t like ISIS at all, but we also don’t like Assad and we don’t want to see Iran gain any additional influence in Iraq. So in a sense, because all of the various opponents of ISIS have mixed motives and some conflicting interests, you don’t see quite as firm a unified coalition to try and deal with it. 

So there’s a lot of talk in the West and a lot of breathless column inches being written about what does ISIS want? What is this thing? We can’t even understand the ideology. Why are they appealing to to young Muslims in Europe and elsewhere to come and join them? It might be worth. Do you have a sense of the factions within ISIS if their irony and teasing out some of the different ones? 

I mean, I’m thinking specifically about disenfranchized Sunnis who after the fall of Saddam Hussein felt like they they have no country and that they’re being ruled over by Shiite thugs. They probably have different goals as members of ISIS than the most revolutionary theocratic leaders do it. 

What we’ve what’s interesting about ISIS is it’s an unusual marriage of this rather extreme Salafist ideology, a really quite extreme, austere version of, you know, seventh century Islam, married up with the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s old Baathist police, state organization. Most revolutionary organizations or movements as they get started. Don’t have a lot of administrative capacity, don’t have the kind of bureaucratic order that ISIS has been able to put together. 

And they were able to do that because they essentially aligned themselves with a bunch of old Baathists who knew how to run a police state and knew how to coerce local populations and things like that, and in a sense, knew how to take names when necessary. 

It’s hard to believe that those groups aren’t going to have some divided and divided goals over time. But I don’t we know very much about what the fault lines inside ISIS really are and who would win out in the event of some kind of schism within. In terms of why it’s so appealing elsewhere. I mean, we have to both bear in mind that it does have some appeal for some relatively small fraction of Muslims in other parts of the world. But the vast majority of the sort of billion or so Muslims in the world, I think, have no desire to live in an ISIS like state and are not going to provide it with much support. It does resonate or its message does resonate with some marginalized Muslims in various parts of the world. It certainly has taken advantage of the widespread opposition to what they regard as deep foreign interference and Western hostility to Islam. And they’ve taken advantage of some failed states. You know, the chaotic situation in Libya as well to cause trouble by launching various sorts of violent attacks. But that’s a far cry from being able to take over other governments or have their message suddenly be adopted by millions of people around the world. 

So how do you how do you reconcile any humanitarian obligation that we might have with the realpolitik of it all? There was a piece in the BBC recently which was a firsthand account of a gay Iraqi who had fled, who’s currently in Lebanon. 

And he was he was threatened with death. His friends were killed. ISIS ISIS basically takes over your social media accounts and looks in your phone. And if there’s anything that they can deduce as to your sexuality, if you are gay, they take you to the top of the nearest building and they throw you off. And so it’s a big spectacle and this has quite a lot of support. I mean, I might even say, according to the BBC, among people who are not ISIS supporters but who are virulently homophobic Islamists nonetheless, when you see that going on. Is it conceivable that we would ever normalize relations with such a state? And do we have no duty to try to help? 

I think we have certainly concerns along most of those moral and humanitarian fronts. But first point to raises is even when a serious racketeering crimes are being committed, and there’s no question that that’s happening in this case. You also have to ask the question of what can you do about it? And are you likely to make things better or worse? And I think, you know, one of the things that should make outsiders somewhat more humble about this is the track record of the last 20 years or so where at times with the best of intentions, the United States and its allies have tried to do some pretty ambitious projects of social engineering in countries that we didn’t understand very well, ranging from Afghanistan to Pakistan to Iraq. And now, you know, conceivably elsewhere, I would might throw limpia into the mix there. And the results have been pretty disappointing, if not outright disastrous. So we’ve got to be somewhat humble about our own capacity to shape social change rapidly in these places. That those efforts in the past are one of the reasons why we have ISIS today. 

The second point I’d make is, you know, we have to be wary. And I say this somewhat guarded we have. To be wary about the testimony that we’re likely to get from anyone fleeing a movement like ISIS, they come outside, they undoubtedly want to report the crimes they’ve witnessed. And a lot of what they’re going to say is true. 

But remember that exiles from most revolutions also are trying to persuade the outside world to come to their aid, help get rid of the revolutionary movement, allow them to move back to their countries, which means they’re not always going to give us the most accurate account of what’s happening or the most accurate account of how easy it’s going to be to solve the problem. They would like us to believe that horrible crimes are taking place and they probably are. But they would also like us to believe that it would be really easy to stop those crimes and fix the problem. That’s usually not the case in trying to overthrow revolutionary movements is often harder than people think and often leads to unintended consequences that they didn’t imagine when they started. 

And I guess it can also play into the narrative that the revolutionary movement is trying to promote, which is that it’s under siege from from outside. Right. I mean, if part as you were saying, if part of the reason why Western Muslims are going to join ISIS is because of this this aggrieved sense that the West is at war with Islam, then going to war with ISIS may not be the best tactic. 

That’s exactly right in the sense that the more that the United States is seen as taking the lead in this campaign, the more it plays into precisely this sort of ISIS propaganda that helps them win supporters. It also has this other problem that it appears to support the idea that other Arab or Islamic states that are also opposed to ISIS are really just heretical, hypocritical tools of the evil West. All right. So if we’re worried that ISIS, his message might spread in places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt or elsewhere, for the United States to be taking the lead in organizing a vast anti ISIS coalition runs the risk of essentially undercutting the legitimacy of our various partners there. 

Well, that’s one of the reasons I think that, you know, our role should be as far in the background as possible. This is primarily a problem for local regimes to local populations. They ultimately are going to have to be the solution here. There’s going to have to be a reum position of order. And that’s not something the United States can provide. And the more visible our role is and the more OUTFRONT we are, the more it may backfire and actually strengthen ISIS position. 

So if our military role should be as much in the background as possible. What about our intellectual and ideological role? Because there’s a lot of there’s a lot of confusion, I think, among liberals, like myself included, about exactly how to address the problems at the fringes of Islam without playing into right wing bigotry or sounding Islamophobic, but also without glossing over the fact that there is a some kind of religious appeal. And again, I take completely your point that there are a billion Muslims in the world who want nothing to do with ISIS, but there aren’t necessarily a billion Muslims in the world who don’t share a certain level of religious driven homophobia or or misogyny. How do we have a conversation around that? And should we have a conversation around that? Or should we just shut up and let them work it out? 

I think we can have a conversation about it, but it ought to be a conversation that, as I suggested before, has a certain amount of humility to it. There has, I think, been a tendency, particularly since the end of the Cold War for the United States and some of its allies, but mostly the United States to be in a sort of evangelical preaching mode, telling the rest of the world that we have the magic formula for running countries. You ought to be a liberal democracy like us. You got to have markets like us. You ought to have rule of law like us. You ought to organize your whole society like us. And if you don’t do that, you’re basically behind the times illegitimate and immoral and are destined to fail. And oh, by the way, we will push you to move in that direction. 

And in a few cases, we’ll push you really hard and might even use our military to overthrow your government and try to impose one that we like more. Now, as I said before, this hasn’t worked very well over the last 20 years, but we still tend to have a rather hubristic approach towards the rest of the world. I think that what we ought to recognize is that progressive political change, the sort we might like to see in many parts of the world, and especially the Middle East, is not going to come overnight. Democracy and human rights and the rule of law did not get created in the West in a decade. It was a project that took centuries to do and was also a quite contentious and sometimes violent one. And we shouldn’t expect the Middle East to work out all of its problems in the next year or two. That’s going to be a project that they have to do for themselves, one that we can encourage rather gently. It seems to me, and with an appropriate degree of humility. And one final thing. I think if you want the Middle East or other parts of the world to move in a sort of more liberal direction, we want to get our own military out of there and stop spending as much time beating up on these countries as we have been. We’ve been doing that, I think sometimes with good intentions. But the message that we’re sending is not that the United States is a benevolent country that is just seeking the best for these societies. The message we’re sending is that we’ve got a really powerful right arm and we’re not afraid to use it in the form of sometimes large armies, but also drones and special forces and a variety of other tools of interference. So in a sense, if you want to discredit the ISIS narrative and encourage the small shoots of liberal thinking that do exist in those societies, we should maybe stop trying to tell them what to do quite so often and certainly stop using our military in that part of the world as often as we have been over the past 20 years. 

So I take that and agree that the sort of hectoring hypocrisy that we associate with like Bush’s second inaugural address, for example, about spreading freedom all over the world, but ignoring our ties to Saudi Arabia in all kinds of other regimes, that that that a equally nasty is is one to avoid. 

Is there then a sort of aspirational way? A yes, we can. Way of. Of holding up the torch for a secular humanism and liberalism. That doesn’t seem like we’re bossing people around. But that also isn’t quite so hypocritical when it comes to our selective condemnation of certain of certain types of bigots. I mean, here domestic there was an interesting there was a funny article in I don’t know if you know, Klick Hall, which is The Onion’s satire website of of sort of online click bait news stories. But they recently had an article entitled Shocking. This bakery in Saudi Arabia refuses to make cakes for gay weddings. And it’s all about how there’s you know, it’s hard to believe that something like this is still happening in 2015, that there’s this bakery in Riyadh, in Saudi Arabia that that is choosing not to serve gay customers. And it’s like it’s a satire about how we get incredibly upset when something happens here in the United States that is completely routine elsewhere in the world. Is there a misallocation of concern there? 

Well, I think we all know that when we get up on our own moral high horse, this is true for us as individuals that the more more we get up in and start declaring ourselves to be virtuous and everyone else to be riddled with vice the more vulgar bowl we are to charges of hypocrisy and of course, the United States, because we do like to preach or we do tend to think of ourselves as exceptional and better than everybody else, you know, and because we’re as big and as influential as we are in the world, you know, we are an easy target for those looking to identify hypocrisy. But I also don’t think the United States needs to apologize for the values that we aspire to. We certainly want to preserve them here at home. And we’d actually like to both preserve them and be more consistent with them in how we operate here at home. And spending a bit more time trying to perfect our own system of government and our own society, I think would definitely be in order. You know, ultimately what I think will help spread a more progressive agenda around the world. A more tolerant one and a more open one is for countries like the United States to be exemplars of genuinely successful societies. The more prosperous we are, the more we are clearly a state that, you know, embodies social justice, where it really is, one where there is enormous opportunity, where people with different backgrounds and different beliefs can live together in relative harmony. The closer we get to those ideals and those, I think the ideals that most Americans are strongly committed to, the more the rest of the world will look at that and many people will find that attractive and appealing. And as I said, you know, this process is not one that happens overnight. And I think if Americans take the long view and, you know, work to create a more perfect union here before trying to spread it everywhere else in the world, it’s actually more likely to be successful. And one more thing. It also means Americans are likely to lead happier and more prosperous, less. Lives here at home. 

Supposing ISIS manages to become a state in the way that you’re talking about, they consolidate the boundaries. Iraq and Syria no longer exist. There’s some kind of regime led from Damascus and some kind of regime led from Baghdad. But then there’s this this other thing and maybe an independent Kurdistan or something. Who knows if that if that begins to take shape but is not internationally recognized. What does it look like for us to contain it? Does it mean that we go around to our allies in the region and to our enemies and have a big roundtable discussion about exactly what we’re willing to tolerate and not? I mean, how does this state come into being? 

Yeah, my my guess is, of course, we would have those conversations and I would hope that the United States would would emphasize that this was not a problem that was going to take the lead in trying to solve a few things to bear in mind. One is know if ISIS were to consolidated self in the area it now controls, it’s going to be a very weak state. My calculations are that their GNP would be somewhere between five and eight billion dollars a year, which puts it on a par with countries like Eritrea and Guyana. This is not a great power. It’s not a great power in the making. It has no capacity to become a great power because most of the area it controls is empty. Desert doesn’t actually have a lot of oil, doesn’t have advanced industries, etc. It doesn’t have a particularly large population. So we’re not talking about an emerging, even medium power, and therefore we’re not talking about a country that’s going to be able to conquer its neighbors in any particular way. In that sense, it’ll be relatively easy to contain militarily. And I think some combination of the neighboring states won’t have much trouble doing that more broadly or more strategically. You know, Americans ought to also remember that we have no real strategic interest in trying to control the Middle East. We don’t want a bunch of hostile powers controlling it. We don’t want a single hostile power to control its energy resources. But it’s not a vital interest of the United States to be able to determine who is governing in Fallujah, who’s governing in Damascus, who’s governing. Even even in Baghdad. And ultimately, we also don’t know how to manipulate the politics in that region to get a bunch of rulers that we all like and that will do what we want. So I would argue the United States should, for the most part, keep its fingerprints off the area and recognize it may take 10 or 20 years for a new set of borders to get drawn or the old borders to get reestablished and reimposed. We can perhaps steer that process a little bit, but probably not very much. And we probably shouldn’t try. 

Stephen, before we go, one of the reasons why many of our listeners will know your name is for for a famous article that turned into a book called The Israel Lobby that you wrote with John Mearsheimer. That’s how I how you first came to my attention. 

Can you just briefly summarize the thesis of the argument there was that American policy towards Israel and more broadly in the Middle East was heavily influenced by a loose coalition of organizations, which we termed the Israel lobby, a term you have not unlike, say, the gun lobby or the big pharma or the big oil lobby, things like that. And that this interest group used all of the familiar tools in the American democratic system, from campaign contributions to engaging in public debate to lobbying congressmen and ad attacking opponents in various ways to try and steer American policy to be one of unconditional support for Israel, where the United States backed Israel no matter what it did. And we argued that this was not, you know, some kind of conspiracy or cabal or anything like that. It was basically just good old fashioned interest group politics. But in this case, it was leading the United States to adopt policies that were not good for the United States, but also unintentionally harmful to Israel itself, and that the United States should not have a special relationship with Israel. It should have a normal relationship and treated more or less the same way it treats other democracies supporting it when it did things we liked and not supporting it when he didn’t. And this so this argument, which I thought was pretty straightforward and actually well understood by almost everybody in Washington, nonetheless proved to be somewhat controversial because it was one of those things you weren’t really supposed to say out loud. 

Yeah, somewhat controversial is an understatement. I thought it was. I thought it was great. And it made me wonder why. I mean, obviously, I’m not an American, so I didn’t grow up in in in this community. But as a Jew, most of the people who most of the Jews who I know, Progressive’s the liberals that terribly conflicted about Israel’s settlements. They’re conflicted about Israel. They conflicted about Netanyahu. I wonder why you think that the extreme reactionary pro Israel voice is louder than the majority of American Jews who apparently, apparently 75 percent of us vote Democrat, and, B, whether or not anything has changed in the intervening seven or eight years since you wrote that piece. 

Well, we see in lots of interest groups the people who are the most fervent, the most extreme and the most fanatical are willing to work 24/7. And lots of other people often, you know, it’s one issue among many that they care about. And I think that basically explains the situation within the American Jewish community. There is a small number of people increasingly, I think, conservative, increasingly hard line that really care about this issue and have a particular rather pro Likud orientation. And they’re the ones who’ve been the most active, whereas many other American Jews either are not as engaged by the issues or while they are generally supportive of Israel, they don’t support the policies of its government and certainly don’t support the occupation. And so one of the points we made all along was that the organizations that tended to speak on behalf of this community like a PAC and others were not, in fact, representative of many of the views of that community. That’s not particularly unusual. The NRA doesn’t, in fact, represent the views of the average American or even the average American gun owner. So this is a pretty familiar story in terms of what has changed since we wrote the article and book. I think it’s become a much more open discussion of this topic. I think we helped kick the door open to a more candid and honest debate on that particular issue. I also think that whereas it was initially a kind of controversial argument when it first came out, in some senses, I think it’s almost the conventional wisdom now. And you see other writers picking up where we left off. You see journalists now in the debate on the Iran nuclear deal being very clear about who the opposition is and where its support is coming from and where the money is coming from and just how this is playing itself out. Finally, I think the Obama administration’s inability to make any progress on a peace settlement, the deteriorating relationship with the Netanyahu government has all just made it increasingly clear that the interests of Israel, the interests of the United States, although they overlap to some degree, are not identical and that both countries would be better off with a more normal relationship, as opposed to one where people have to pretend there’s no daylight. Because that’s what the lobby wants them to do. 

The piece is entitled What Should We Do If the Islamic State Wins? It’s in Foreign Policy magazine. Stephen Walt, thanks so much for being on point of inquiry. Great to talk to you. Nice talking with you, too. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.