Tuesday, November 17, 2015

What You Should Be Reading After Paris

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris, those with the least intelligent things to say seem to be shouting the loudest. Some are trying to get attention in the still overcrowded field of those running for the Republican presidential nomination. Others have airtime to fill and ratings to worry about. Then there are those who are simply way too inclined to express their deepest fears on social media. The mix is toxic and, in a democracy, it threatens to affect policy in some truly harmful ways.

Let us suppose you would prefer some reasoned analysis over feverish diatribes. Let us suppose further that you value knowledge as much as a high decibel level. What (and whom) should you be reading? Here are a few suggestions:

Will McCants is the author of the recently published book The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (St. Martin's, 2015) and a fellow of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. His brief essay for FP ("How the Islamic State Declared War on the World") is a good starting point for understanding what ISIS is. McCants makes the important point that ISIS is not just a terrorist organization. It is a state--and a state-sponsor of terrorism (much as North Korea is a state and a transnational criminal organization, an insight I owe to this excellent monograph). For McCants' view on the warrant for ISIS-style violence in Islam, see this brief piece on the Washington Post's "Acts of Faith" blog.

Robert Pape, professor of international relations at the University of Chicago and co-author (with James K. Feldman) of Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It, suggests that ISIS attacked Paris because of the role France has played in a successful military campaign against the Islamic State. "The group," Pape writes, "is lashing out against the states that are now posing crippling blows to its dreams of a caliphate in the Middle East." Pape's Boston Globe op-ed is titled "Why Paris? The Answer Can Be Found in Syria and Iraq."

Andrew J. Bacevich, professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and author of the forthcoming book America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, is more pessimistic about what the U.S. or France can do to defeat Islamic extremism. In this Boston Globe op-ed--"A War the West Cannot Win"--Bacevich argues for a defensive posture that leaves those in the Middle East to sort out their political and religious differences without external involvement. 

Stephen M. Walt, Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University, takes the rhetoric about the response to the Paris attacks down several notches in an essay--"Don't Give ISIS What It Wants"--for FP. Walt argues that ISIS has a long-term strategy and that the first priority of the U.S. should be "not to fall into the obvious trap the Islamic State has set." That was my point in yesterday's post.

Daniel Drezner, professor of international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, also urges everyone to "take a deep breath" before acting in the wake of the Paris attacks. His comments on the Washington Post's "PostEverything" blog--"Formulating a Policy Response in Anger Is Probably Not the Best Way to Defeat the Islamic State"--remind us that, among other things, "the Islamic State is not winning in the Middle East."

Olivier Roy, professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, and author of Globalized Islam and Holy Ignorance, offers a helpful overview of the many conflicting state interests in the Middle East in this op-ed for the New York Times titled "The Attacks in Paris Reveal the Strategic Limits of ISIS." One cannot read this piece and come away believing there are simple solutions to the conflict in Syria or the broader problems of the Middle East.

In offering this reading list, I am not endorsing all of the views expressed by these individuals. In fact, one couldn't coherently endorse everything each one says for the simple reason that there are some clear differences of opinion among them. I am suggesting, however, that these brief essays--none will take more than about five minutes to read--are better informed and more carefully reasoned than most of what you will get from the twenty-four hour news networks, the vast wastelands of the Internet just on the other side of click bait, or your Facebook friend Earl who has strong opinions about everything.