The Reign of Terror, Year XX

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Paul Berman writes in The Tablet.

The global jihad, Sunni variant, got under way in August 1996 in the juridical or pseudo-juridical form of the “Ladenese epistle,” otherwise known as the “Declaration of War Against Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” by Osama Bin Laden, as clarified and expanded by the subsequent “Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders”—which means that, with the 20th anniversary bearing down upon us, we are entitled to ask: How is it going, the jihad? All too well, thank you. Back in 1996 the wider world had never heard of Bin Laden.

But look at the jihad now—at the sundry Islamist insurgencies around the world, each of them marked by local peculiarities, and all of them emitting the same medieval fragrance of paranoia, millenarianism, and superstition. The jihad in Afghanistan: evidently undefeatable, regardless of NATO, the world’s most powerful military alliance. In various provinces of Pakistan: thriving, despite the CIA’s drones, the world’s most sophisticated weapon. In the Caucasus: clinging to life, regardless of Vladimir Putin, the world’s most powerful dictator. In Yemen: a stubborn base for al-Qaida, regardless of still more American drones. And thence to the Gaza Strip (where jihad presides), the Sinai Peninsula, Libya (where the jihad is contending for power), Mali and the Sahel, Somalia, and onward to amazing successes in northern Nigeria and beyond—a geographical sprawl indicating levels of energy astronomically beyond what anyone would have imagined 20 years ago.

Or look in Shiite directions, where the news is dismaying from still another standpoint. The Shiite jihad is older than its Sunni rival and not so long ago seemed to be showing its years. By 2009, the Islamic Republic of Iran appeared to have entered the decrepitude, at age 30, that we expect of all revolutionary governments: public splits within the leadership, masses of liberal-minded protesters in the streets, a “color revolution” on everyone’s mind. Such were the hopes. But decrepitude turned out to be a passing phase. The Islamic Republic found its second wind, which has proved to be hegemonically more expansive than anything achieved during the first wind, as shown in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen (where the Islamic Republic’s allies have overthrown one of the last lingering democratic successes of the Arab Spring, not that anyone cares about the Arab Spring anymore), and Bahrain, apart even from the centrifuges and uranium. And so, the cause of Islamist revolution has demonstrated an ability not just to spread geographically, but to shrug off the weight of time.

The catastrophes in Syria have dashed a different kind of hope, or, rather, three hopes—the hope in 2011 that Syria’s liberal revolutionaries would enjoy a straightforward success; the hope in 2013 that, with an American and Western European intervention, the liberals would still come away with some kind of success, if not quite as beautiful a one; and finally a hope that is too ugly to describe. But I will describe. It was the whispered hope that, by killing each other en masse, the sundry terrifying factions in the Syrian war would leave each other depleted and defanged, which would allow the rest of the world to sigh in relief, even if it was too bad for the Syrians. Only, nothing of the sort has occurred. These are factions that batten on their own sufferings. The more the Syrian Baath party slaughters Syrians, the more secure seems to be its ability to survive.

The warriors of Hezbollah: stronger than ever, gearing up for future wars. Al-Qaida’s Al Nusra Front, on the anti-government side: military triumphs of its own. As for al-Qaida’s splinter group the Islamic State, it has entered the annals of military history. Resentful young men of 19th-century Europe used to draw inspiration from Napoleon’s rise from humble origins to world conquest, and their counterparts in 21st-century Europe draw a ghastlier but similar inspiration from the Islamic State: a story awaiting its Stendhal. Still another triumph for the jihad: Every Jewish institution in large parts of the world is now under armed guard. Even the guards need guards.

I remember the atmosphere a dozen years ago or more, when a handful of writers, myself among them, had the temerity to suggest that we were in for a protracted conflict not unlike the Cold War—a worldwide contest lasting decades, containing medium-sized hot wars and underground tiny wars, enlisting the participation of many millions, a power struggle that was also destined to be a struggle of principle and of ideas: ultimately a contest between liberal democracy and its enemies (though no one needs to be reminded that, in the case of the Cold War, darker motives and uglinesses sometimes canceled the larger logic in whole continents at a time). This evaluation was taken to be, by our critics, melodramatic and self-serving. The reprimand was severe. To be honest, you can hear the reprimand being made even now. But I notice that, as the years go by, the people making the reprimand have begun to sound a little sheepish.

 

II.

And the counter-jihad—how has this been going? I mean the counter-jihad in the one field that we entirely control, which is the field of our own political and military strategic thinking. The counter-jihad in this particular field has been going badly, thank you. The various theoreticians have advanced their doctrines, and each new doctrine has proved to be faulty and has given way to a newer one, which has fared poorly until, like a man tripping down the stairs, the entire enterprise of concocting theories about the war has gone crashing downward in a helter-skelter of disorientation and broken bones. The history of those confusions and contusions is the history of the war, viewed from a certain angle—a four-part history, plus a prehistory.

The prehistory consists of everything that antedated the Ladenese epistle. Conventional opinion in the Western countries and in Israel in those long-ago times regarded the sundry jihads already under way as village idiosyncrasies or anthropological quirks. And conventional opinion tended to picture the larger Islamist cause as a movement that had already passed its peak—a popular theme among the most distinguished Western scholars of modern Islam, c. 1992. On the basis of those evaluations, one government after another figured that Islamist organizations could be manipulated in crafty ways by shrewd diplomats—e.g., the Americans in Afghanistan in the 1980s, who hoped to deploy the jihad cost-free against the Soviet Union; or the Americans in regard to the Iran-Iraq War of that same decade, with the hope of deploying the jihad against the Baath, and vice versa; or the Israelis in regard to Hamas, who hoped to deploy the pieties of an Islamic revival against the radicalism of the Palestinian nationalists. None of those manipulations turned out well.

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