Stephen M. Walt
Professor of International Relations at Harvard University
When a shocking event like the Paris attacks occurs, we know how the world will respond. There will be dismay, an outpouring of solidarity and sympathy, defiant speeches by politicians, and a media frenzy. Unfortunately, these familiar reactions give the perpetrators some of what they want: attention for their cause and the possibility their targets will do something that unwittingly helps advance the perpetrators’ radical aims.
What is most needed in such moments is not anger, outrage, or finger-pointing, but calm resolution, cool heads, and careful thought. What happened in Paris is an untold tragedy for the victims and deeply offensive to all we hold dear, but we must respond with our heads and not just our hearts. Here are five lessons to bear in mind as we reassess the dangers and search for an effective response.
No. 1: Keep the threat in perspective.
The sudden and violent deaths of some 130 innocent people in a peaceful city invariably grips our attention. But an event like this cannot shake the foundations of society unless we let it. The deaths in Paris last Friday, Nov. 13, are tragic, but these and similar incidents pale in comparison with the carnage and inhumanity Europe suffered from either 1914 to 1918 or 1939 to 1945. For all its current troubles, Europe today is richer, freer, safer, more open, more equal, and more stable than it has been since any other time in its history, and those achievements must not be surrendered. If France or its neighbors turn their backs on what has been built in Europe over the past 60 years, it will be a victory the attackers would welcome but most emphatically do not deserve.
Let us also remember that other cities and societies have experienced similar events yet are thriving today. New York, Oslo, London, Boston, Madrid, Paris, Ankara, and several other cities have faced costly terrorist attacks in recent years, yet one visits them today and finds communities that have rebuilt and recovered and are doing just fine. As we mourn the dead, we should take comfort in knowing that terrorism is a weapon of the weak and thus can have only a limited material impact on its targets. The City of Light will be here and thriving long after those who ordered these attacks are gone and mostly forgotten.
No. 2: Accept that 100 percent security is not possible.
As one would expect, a number of countries have responded to the attacks by closing borders and implementing other short-term measures. Efforts to improve intelligence will surely be undertaken as well. These steps make sense as a way of reassuring a worried public and helping to limit further terrorist strikes.
But there is no way to defend society against every extremist who is willing to kill others and die in the process. As I’ve argued at length before, every modern society contains an unlimited number of soft targets and we cannot guard all of them. Even strong authoritarian states such as Russia and China have experienced large-scale terrorist violence, which tells you that stricter police-state methods wouldn’t eliminate the problem. Regrettably, events such as the Paris attacks will remain a recurring feature of 21st-century life. But to repeat: They are not an existential threat.
No. 3: Defeating extremism requires understanding its origins.
We cannot hope to reduce the danger from this sort of violent extremism if we do not understand and acknowledge its origins. Contrary to the writings of contemporary Islamophobes, jihadi violence is not intrinsic to Islam. The Quran explicitly forbids attacks on innocent noncombatants, and the vast majority of devout Muslims around the world utterly reject such actions. To blame these attacks on “Islam” is like blaming Christianity for the killings committed by Anders Breivik in Oslo or holding Judaism responsible for Baruch Goldstein’s murderous rampage in Hebron.
Rather, jihadi terrorism is a political movement based on a minority’s narrow and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. To some extent, the emergence of groups such as the Islamic State or the original al Qaeda is symptomatic of the broader legitimacy and governance crisis in the Arab and Islamic world. It is also, however, an unfortunate but understandable response to decades (or even centuries) of Western interference in the Middle East, and especially to the policies that have taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in the region.
To acknowledge this fact in no way justifies what happened in Paris, and I am most certainly not defending, excusing, or rationalizing what the attackers did last Friday or what other terrorists have done before. At the same time, to pretend that American and European actions have nothing whatsoever to do with this problem is to bury one’s head in the sand and ignore the obvious. To note just one example of the West’s own role in creating this problem: Had the United States refrained from invading Iraq back in 2003, there almost certainly would be no Islamic State today.
We have to face facts squarely: Decades of misguided U.S. and European policies have left many people in the Arab and Islamic world deeply angry at and resentful toward the West. Those policies include the West’s cozy coddling of various Arab dictators, its blind support for Israel’s brutal policies toward the Palestinians, and its own willingness to wage air campaigns, employ sanctions, or invade Middle Eastern countries whenever it thinks doing so suits its short-term interest. Consider how we would react if some foreign power had been doing similar things to us – and not just once but over many years. Unsurprisingly, among those many angry people are a few – fortunately, only a few – who decide to try to pay back the West for what they regard as illegitimate and murderous interference. Their response is morally despicable and will solve nothing, but it should not be all that difficult to fathom.
There is also something new about what is going on. Great powers have long taken advantage of weaker societies, but today, the weak are sometimes able to hit back at the great power’s homeland. Britain, France, Belgium, and other countries used to treat their colonial subjects in brutal and sometimes murderous ways, but the colonized peoples had no way to attack their colonial masters back in the imperial heartland. Today, groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State can do just that, no matter how many precautions we take. That is the new reality we are now struggling to absorb.
No. 4. The Islamic State has a strategy. Don’t fall for it.
The Islamic State and other terrorist groups are motivated by their own combination of anger, ideology, and ambition, but their actions are not a symptom of purposeless rage. As I’ve argued elsewhere, as have other experts, the Islamic State uses violence in a highly strategic fashion. Along with the recent bombings in Ankara and Beirut, and the attack on the Russian airliner filled with tourists – tragedies believed to be linked to the Islamic State – the Paris assault appears to be the Islamic State’s response to its recent territorial losses and the slowly growing coalition against it, which includes France. Its leaders are trying to show anti- Islamic State countries that there is a price for trying to take it down.
The Islamic State also has a long-term strategic objective. It seeks to consolidate territorial control in Syria and Iraq and then expand its so-called “caliphate” throughout the Muslim world and beyond. To do that, its ideologues want to sharpen the conflict between Muslims and others and force people in the middle (i.e., the “gray zone”) to choose sides. To do this, the Islamic State hopes to provoke responses that will reinforce its narrative of irreconcilable religious conflict and attract even more sympathizers to its bloodstained banner. If the Islamic State can get France and other countries to crack down on their Muslim citizens and also get the West to reoccupy large swaths of the Middle East, then its false narrative about the West’s deep and intrinsic antipathy to Islam will gain more credence, as will its carefully cultivated image as the staunchest defender of Islam today.
Our challenge is to defeat that strategy, and step one is not to fall into the obvious trap the Islamic State has set. If we buy into its vision of relentless cultural, religious, and civilizational conflict, we could easily act in ways that make its vision a reality. Given how weak the Islamic State is today, the last thing we should do is encourage anyone to see it as heroic or farsighted.
No. 5: Keep calm and carry on.
The obvious temptation in the wake of such an attack is to mobilize an all-out effort to destroy the Islamic State. The argument goes like this: If the Islamic State has indeed shifted from focusing exclusively on local operations and is now actively organizing attacks in Europe and elsewhere, then all bets are off and any and all measures are warranted. Specifically, let’s round up a “coalition of the willing” and send a new expeditionary force to both Iraq and Syria and aim to kill as many jihadis as possible in the hope of destroying the Islamic State once and for all.
An all-out campaign of this sort would surely weaken the Islamic State, deny it the freedom to plan more attacks, and thus diminish it as a direct threat to the West. But it would not solve the problem in the end and could easily make it worse. If the United States, France, and its allies launch yet another hastily planned crusade into the Middle East, the Islamic State’s broader message will appear to be vindicated and more people will see these terrorists as heroic martyrs standing up to the eternally hostile forces of the West. Furthermore, the invading forces will not find these areas any easier to govern or pacify than they were when the United States had more the 150,000 troops on the ground. Even if the Islamic State itself was utterly destroyed, its ideas would remain potent and some of its cadres would scatter to any number of places in the region. The Islamic State might be gone, but new terrorist groups would surely spring up in this turbulent and troubled region.
The only long-term remedy to this danger – and remember the solution will never be total – is the restoration of more legitimate and effective state institutions in these regions. But as we have now seen repeatedly, creating the necessary institutions is not something an invading army can do, especially not one as tainted by history as the forces of the West. It can be done only by the people who live in these areas, and not by us. And that is why the main effort to deal with the Islamic State must be carried out by local actors, with the United States (and France) remaining as far in the background as possible. If our post-9/11 track record is any indication, however, we’ll probably do the exact opposite.