August 25, 2016


Demystifying the Islamic State (Andrew Liepman and Colin P. Clarke, August 2016, Rand)

Of the three concentric circles that comprise the Islamic State group, the war is going better than expected against the two innermost circles--the first is the caliphate itself, the core of the Islamic State's organization. In the next outermost circle, the outlying areas of Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen, things are going reasonably well, as Islamic State affiliates in those countries are being slowly but steadily attenuated. Perhaps the most concerning is that last concentric circle, the amorphous and disconnected outer ring of lone wolves and small groups of jihadists inspired by Islamic State propaganda and ideology.

To counter the threat the Islamic State group poses to the Middle East and the West more broadly, it is crucial to understand what the terrorist organization is and what it is not, where it is truly dangerous and where its power and reach have limits. Attributing all jihadist violence to a ruthless gang headquartered in Raqqa, brilliantly planning attacks and managing their caliphate while pulling the strings near and far, exaggerates the power of the Islamic State group and plays into their propaganda and recruiting efforts.

First, the Islamic State is the caliphate, a defined territory stretching across parts of Iraq and Syria with its capital in Raqqa. The caliphate is more than just territory, however, as it remains a major attraction for foreign fighters traveling to the region to join the organization and differentiates the Islamic State group from its chief ideological competitor, al-Qaida. The caliphate is both the Islamic State group's greatest strength--it is what drew tens of thousands of volunteers--and its greatest vulnerability, as the dramatic battlefield defeats of late clearly show.

Second, the Islamic State group is a collection of provinces, affiliates, franchise groups or wilayats, not all of which are created equal. The Islamic State has claimed relationships with satellite groups in Libya, the Sinai Peninsula and Afghanistan, and has garnered bayat, or allegiance, from organizations or splinter groups of these organizations previously independent or formerly aligned with al-Qaida, including Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabab in Somalia and others throughout the Muslim world. This haphazard collective of ne'er-do-wells should not be seen as more than it is. Some groups are, indeed, dangerous and enduring, but most--like the caliphate itself--are likely not.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the Islamic State is an ideology. What it represents is the embodiment of Salafi jihadism and all of its undercurrents--anti-American, anti-Jewish and, of course, anti-Shia. This ideology motivates individuals and groups around the world to conduct attacks in the Islamic State's name, as happened in San Bernardino, Orlando and elsewhere. This third manifestation of the Islamic State group is the most insidious, unpredictable and difficult to eliminate.

Now, for what the Islamic State is not: It is not an existential threat on the order of the challenge the United States faced during the Cold War. It is not a nuclear-armed nation-state like the Soviet Union, nor is it a near-peer adversary, trained and equipped for conventional military operations like China, Iran or North Korea.

It's hardly fair to blame the UR for how easily he won his phase of the WoT.

Think the world is on fire? Obama's national security adviser says things are better than ever. (Zack Beauchamp, August 18, 2016, Vox)

The basic starting point, according to Rice, is that the world is better than it ever has been -- and it's getting better still:

We are in an era where, as the president has often said, if you didn't know who you were going to be, or whether you were going to be male or female; white, black, Asian, Native American, Latino, [or] something else; if you didn't know if you were going to be straight or gay -- if you didn't know anything about who you were going to be and you had to pick a time in which to be born...

You would pick this time. Because the odds of success for any individual are much higher in the aggregate than they've ever been.

Rice's support for this theory was a series of rattled-off metrics.

"More people are free of poverty than ever before, conflict between states is less than ever before, technology is providing extraordinary opportunities for advancement, and health and agriculture and well-being," Rice says. "Compare the era we're living in today to the losses we suffered in World War II or even in the Vietnam War, or compare the economic challenges we face now to the Great Depression."

Rice is right on the evidence. The number of people living at $1.25 per day or less declined by roughly 1.1 billion people between 1990 and 2015. The number of war deaths per 100,000 people worldwide has increased in the past three years, owing largely to the war in Syria, but is still far lower than it was even 20 years ago. Average global life expectancy worldwide was 48 in 1950; it was 71.4 in 2015.

Obama and his advisers see these improvements as the product of a network of global institutions and dominant ideas -- things like the global free trade regime, the United Nations, America's alliance networks in Europe and East Asia, and the like. They believe this basic international order has worked to make the world a much better place than it's ever been.

Because Team Obama sees the world's basic institutions through this very positive lens, they're focused on protecting them. The most important foreign policy task, for Team Obama, is to make sure the world keeps getting better.

That means, first and foremost, protecting the current system from things that threaten it.

"We can renew the international system that has enabled so much progress, or we can allow ourselves to be pulled back by an undertow of instability," Obama said in a 2014 address to the United Nations. "We can shape the course of this century, as our predecessors shaped the post-World War II age."

Think about the Obama administration's stated priorities over the years: the pivot to Asia, the push for global climate change agreements, the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Each was designed to address something that could at least theoretically threaten important parts of the system: a conflict-ridden relationship with China, catastrophic climate change, a nuclear Iran.

In those cases, the Obama administration was willing to take risks and spearhead ambitious new policy initiatives, because the tail risk of inaction was extremely high.

The administration is less willing to act, by contrast, when it comes to immediate crises -- significant problems that nonetheless don't pose systemic threats. The Obama administration has been very wary of getting pulled into a major involvement in Syria, for example, or a large-scale troop deployment to fight ISIS.

Posted by at August 25, 2016 4:31 PM