Whatever one calls the terrorists who are trying to carve out their version of an Islamic Caliphate which reaches from Syria through Iraq – The Syrian/Iraqi State or the Islamic State of the Levant – the claim to nationhood does not stand the test of what it means to be a nation-state.
Recently my colleague at Pacific, Jim Moore talked about on how ISIS/ISL increasingly acts like a nation-state by occupying land, collecting taxes, providing services to those it occupies and by having a monopoly of the tools of violence in those parts of Syria and Iraq it occupies.
If these were the sole criteria of nation-state status, ISIS/ISL might have such a legitimate claim. But it doesn’t have a claim of the “legitimate monopoly of the tools of violence” because it lacks what the modern state must have, “sovereignty.”
Sovereignty implies the active or tacit consent of those who on whose behalf one claims to govern. A nation based on barbarism – beheadings, ethnic cleansing and violence doesn’t meet the criteria of being a sovereign state despite the claims of a perverted version of Islamic ideology.
A modern state must meet some minimal sense of the “consent of the governed” whatever its ideology or governmental system. And consent is not to be gained at the barrel of a gun or guillotine. Sovereignty is a moral claim that recognizes some elemental form of citizenship.
So while ISIS/ISL has some of the attributes of a nation-state, lacking sovereignty it’s claims of nationhood are problematic at best. The Mafia, the Mexican Drug Cartel can make the same claims as ISIS/ISL but nobody seriously thinks of these organizations as nation-states.
Rather like ISIS/ISL they are sub-national groups that rely not on any moral claim to govern but on theft and violence.
If the modern state is reduced to such a minimalist definition then any claims by oppositional forces to a higher moral purpose would be rejected and the state become no more than a group of bandits looting, pillaging and raping their way through the countryside.
Thomas Hobbes described such a pre-state as “the state of nature where the "war of all against all” exists. Certainly, many modern states, including the USA not just Iraq, could be described as being at times in a state of nature if one focuses on organized crime or cities that erupt in violence.
But the US and even Iraq have “constitutions” and elected governments however flawed. Our political system for all of its turbulence functions well by its noteworthy capacity to engage in the peaceful change of power from election to election at all levels of governance.
Iraq has the outlines of such a system but like many fledgling governments, democratic or non-democratic – the transition to power is only marginally peaceful in its early history as was the case of the US from 1789 to the Civil War, a fact we often forget!
So-called “realists” would argue the concept of sovereignty is an outdated idea. They would argue there is no such thing as the moral authority to govern based on the concept of consent – all power comes from violence in one form or the other.
In effect that's the implicit claim of ISIS/ISL.
Such commentators fail to recognize the fact/value dichotomy. Yes, many governments begin in violence but unless some form of constitutional government based on consent is consummated – the Hobbesean war of all against all will perpetuate itself.
This is what we see in ISIS/ISL but also in many nascent nation-states in Central Africa where European colonialism carved up regions with no inherent historical affinity pitting clan or tribe against each other – the Central African Republic and Somalia are the worst cases along with a violence torn Iraq.
So the USA, European and Middle East alliance must crush ISIS/ISL like a June bug while also getting Iraqi parties to form a government that is legitimate in the eyes of the people of Iraq. This requires “politics” not guns and diplomacy not boots on the ground, except local boots!
The European scholar of war Clausewitz was is error when he claimed, “war is politics by other means.” War or civil war may precede “politics” but it is not one and the same. Politics requires the arts of compromise and the peaceful transition to power.
Look at modern Russia and China – they were born out of violent civil wars but even though their claims to “democracy” are bogus, they have managed to change the composition of their respective "politburos" without cracking up since the end of WW II.
Politics, be it democratic or non-democratic, is messy and often not pretty to the bystander. But it is better than the alternative and the more a hold the peaceful transition to power has on the elites and the public – the more likely democratic governance will emerge.
This is clearly what the Obama administration has in mind – though its critics on the Left and Right seem tone deaf to the goal of moving from violence to peaceful change. ISIS/ISL is an obstacle and must be dealt with by their chosen tools of engagement.
Some claim you can’t root out terrorists via a military strategy. How did we prevail over the Third Reich, Fascist Italy and the Empire of Japan in WW II?
As JFK said in his 1961 inaugural address: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” But it takes two to tango and ISIS/ISL doesn’t appear to be ready to go to the negotiating table. They have substituted ideology for politics.
If we stand by the people of the Middle East will reap the whirlwind! Hopefully a combination of hard and soft power will stop ISIS/ISL in its bloody tracks. In the meantime the leaders of Iraq must get serious about democratic governance!
The US can do only so much. But thinking diplomacy is the only key is naïve. With ISIS/ISL’s non-negotiating demands they offer no middle ground in large part because as terrorists they measure consent by the barrel of a gun or a beheading knife.
The US will have to multi-task given the challenge - try to stop ISIS/ISIL, get local boots on the ground, focus on diplomacy among unlikely allies - Syria, Iran and Turkey and keep the pressure on Iraq to embrace the arts of politics not religious/ethnic separatism.
So far there is little evidence that the US air campaign is working since the Iraqi army isn't contesting ISIS/ISL and local nations - Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Turkey are not willing to get their troops on the ground. Remember Cambodia under Pol Pot?
Long term the key is economic development of the "Savant" from Iraq to Palestine! This is best described as the art of "muddling through" as we did in the post-WW II era. But first the "killing fields" have to end!