The Odds Against
Max Fisher tweeted, "people who think Christian sectarian militias are the solution to Iraq’s problems could stand to read a history of the Lebanese civil war." I did, and the history of the Lebanese civil war reports that the Christian communities survived. That's probably not what Fisher meant with the phrase "solution to Iraq's problems" but survival is no mean feat. Militias aren't usually formed to do good or noble things. They largely exist to maximize the chances that their members will wake to see tomorrow.
Most people in the West are accustomed to the idea that survival is a given, that the continuation of our civilization is a given and the sole remaining problems are ones of refinement. Francis Fukuyama even spoke of the End of History, but in fact extinction is the normal fate of a species. "Ninety-nine percent of all species that ever lived on the planet are estimated to be extinct". Cultures within a species are even shorter lived. Egyptian hieroglyphics, Mayan script and classical Latin -- once the tongues of mighty empires of the human species -- are now all dead languages. Who knows but NBC might even stop broadcasting someday. Look what happened to Newsweek.
Survival may look easy, but ask yourself if you've seen any Roman Legions lately? If Christians -- or anyone -- don't fight to survive in the Middle East the likely result is no more of them. One of the virtues of the Cold War was it made people sit up and realize that survival was by no means assured. In those days presidents and premiers were serious and careful when they talked about nuclear weapons. For 13 days in 1962 it actually seemed like there might not be a human species if things took the wrong turn.
Since the Wall fell we've hardly given it a thought. You might think our only remaining problems are where to buy a selfie-stick. But the press today is full of the man-bites-dog story that Christians in Iraq are forming militias to fight ISIS. It has the same novelty value as accounts of extremist Buddhist monks in Burma. People in their twenties probably think there is something unnatural about having to fight for one's existence, like living in a world before computers. But except for the short and rapidly dwindling period of the Pax Americana, staying alive was a perfectly normal occupation.
What's old is new again. Lately we get a new snuff film for each day of the week from a bunch of masked guys we don't even want to name. The subliminal message of each Islamist atrocity, whether it is burning people alive in cages or beheading them by the beach; the essential content of attacking schoolchildren in Peshawar or flying airliners into buildings in New York City; the inner punch line of "lone wolf" gunmen showing up at newspaper offices, cafes or synagogues is that the Great Father in Washington can't protect you. It's every man for himself.
That's the most subversive message in the world. The Emperor has no clothes. The edicts of Brussels can be ignored. Gasp. Say this and Chris Matthews may think you're an ignoramus. Yet each ISIS atrocity is designed to de-legitimize the current international order and spread the rumor that the emperor is dead, or at least, out to lunch. Ironically, each militia that forms to fill the power vacuum broadcasts the same message. For both declare in their respective way that the writ of the West has come to an end; that the only security left is that provided by your own hand. Each time the Great Father refuses to restore order; each time he is reduced to crafting a hashtag in impotence or farming out the effort to a proxy power, he reaffirms the message of the men in the mask: the emperor is afraid of us.
James Fallows actually argues in the Atlantic that it's now impossible to fight ISIS, though with any luck, America might render it harmless. The West is beaten, unless it does things it find reprehensible. He casts it as a failure that began with the Bush administration, but it's hard to see how it is not also a failure of the Obama administration. "I have come to the conclusion that there is no military solution to this issue that can be generated by the US. But I believe there is a political solution." And that solution is essentially to complete the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire.
We have to give the Sunnis reason to reject ISIS. That would entail having the US come out against the Sykes-Picot borders, supporting a break up of Iraq into Kurdish, Shia and Sunni countries, incorporating most of Syria, while simultaneously and carefully decimating ISIS leadership. I simply cannot understand why it is in the strategic interest of the US to maintain current Middle Eastern borders, which are unsustainable. I see our current approach as guaranteed to fail.
Fallow's formula would incidentally make Israel a normal country, for what is Israel but an Ottoman minority which got their homeland ahead of the others? Since Fallows now proposes a homeland for each, once the Kurds, Shia and and various Sunni factions get their own borders, how can the Jews -- or any community -- not have theirs?
It might be a solution, but Fallows would be altogether too sanguine to imagine it will be a peaceful one. But maybe the president has already pressed the self-destruct button accidentally. The consistent inaction of the West has put paid to the dream of a new international order at least for the moment. Despite president Obama's avowed determination to impose "rule based norms" on the world he has in fact convincingly demonstrated that such norms will be well and truly disregarded. Forces like ISIS have successfuly re-introduced natural selection into the stream of history. The rise of militias is driven by the realization that the "international system" is a paper tiger, and that whoever refuses to fight for survival is doomed. So fight it is, and Christian militias and Buddhist militants take their place in the jungle from which 99% of all species never emerge.
From the Russian reset to the Arab Spring the Obama administration has had the uncanny ability to drive in reverse. And while it may not have realized it was presiding over the liquidation of the old "rule based norms" at first -- by and by they will get it. At least the old craziness will start to come to an end. That is something to be thankful for.
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