Thoughts and Questions re France & ISIS

Friday, November 20, 2015

Re the events of the past week, I have some points and questions--both rhetorical & genuine.

1) Jeb Bush and others have commented on how ISIS is waging war on "western civilization and freedom." Meanwhile, one of the closest allies of the United States in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, has already beheaded dozens of its own citizens this year for crimes including adultery, 'sorcery,' and drug possession. A recent guest opinion piece in the New York Times describes Saudi Arabia as the "white Daesh."

It seems like the main reason why the US and other countries are against ISIS is not necessarily because of the group's brutality, but rather because they are revolutionary. If that is indeed the case, why should we assume that conflict with ISIS is going to be any more permanent than it has been with any other revolutionary movement (such as in post-1979 Iran) that eventually becomes part of the established order of things?   

 2) The government of France is blaming ISIS for Friday's attacks, but it's important to remember that the people carrying out the attacks--so far as we know--were all citizens of France and Belgium. So, if France is "at war" with the people who carried out this attack, why is the focus of this war the Middle East, as opposed to France itself?

Maybe France's problems have as much to do with France as the Middle East
3) While it seems unbecoming to say this so soon after last week's attacks, it needs to be remembered that the problems that France and other European countries now encounter with respect to integrating populations from their former colonial empires is directly a result of...their colonial empires. 

Maybe instead of viewing the 11/13 attacks as a completely random incident, we should be seeing them as a not-very-surprising consequence of France's history in the Middle East. A consequence that decisions made in Paris have helped to bring about. 

This is another way that 11/13 resembles 9/11. 

4)  It seems to me that French people would probably be better off using the attacks as a chance to develop better dialogue with its own immigrant populations. Doing so, however, will likely require a lot of people to change their way of thinking about France and what it means to be French.   

Hoping that people in France use this act of terrorism as an opportunity to look inward, rather than just attack outwardly, is not meant to diminish the awful way in which at least 130 people were cold-bloodedly murdered in Paris--a city where I have many personal memories dating back to childhood 

The street in the 15th where my parents and I lived in 1983

5) France first bombed ISIS positions over a year ago. In August of this year it was estimated that coalition airstrikes against ISIS had killed over 450 civilians over the previous year. Why should it be considered surprising that ISIS would respond by trying to export this violence to Europe? Indeed, what kind of force wouldn't respond, if at all possible, to such attacks?

6) Russia and France--two of the countries most active in trying to slow the US march toward war against Iraq in 2003--now seem to be responding in precisely the same belligerent, unfocused manner with which Americans reacted after 9/11. By viewing current circumstances in terms of 'war' in the Middle East, the leaders of these two countries are doing, I think, precisely what the attackers hoped they would do. 

7) France is also limiting civil liberties, as was also done in the US after 9/11. (In Russia, they've got that part taken care of already). 


8) French President François Hollande's recent call for US-Russian cooperation in fighting ISIS is a sign of how ISIS is helping to remove Ukraine as a pressing concern from the minds of many people. Just like the fighting in Eastern Ukraine helped us all forget about Russia's annexation of the Crimea

9) I am often critical of the Obama administration's policies in the Middle East--especially regarding US support for regime change in Libya and Syria. Nevertheless, I prefer to have a president who is deliberative and thoughtful about making responses to events like this. Chest-pounding and simple-minded rhetoric didn't help the United States after 9/11, and it won't help France and Russia today. I like the fact that Obama tries to refrain from using warlike or war-mongering language, particularly at times like this.

10) I think the best way to limit future terrorist acts like the one that occurred last Friday would be to end the war in Syria. That, of course, is easier said than done. But maybe one step in this direction would be for the Obama administration to end its support for regime change in Damascus

But what if bringing peace to Syria would mean negotiating with ISIS? That is something, I think, that has zero chance of happening, at least in the foreseeable future. But who would have thought, 14 years ago, that US and NATO allies like Turkey would be supporting al-Nusra, a group that is generally linked to al-Qaeda? And Iran, the baddest outlaw country in the world in the early 1980s, has now become a defender of the status quo--at least in Syria. So who knows what might happen?

ISIS, I think, will in the long run either burn out or they will similarly become more interested in their self-preservation than in exporting revolution. The biggest mistake that France, Russia and the US could make would be to double-down on their seeming fixation with transforming ISIS into something bigger than it should be by 'going to war' with them.  

11) Instead of using last Friday's attacks as an excuse to bomb the crap out of still more sites in the Middle East, I think it would be best to focus on bringing peace to Syria and Iraq. In the case of Syria, I think that means working with Assad, rather than actively working to bring about his downfall. 

12) And what about bombing ISIS? Is this bringing about the desired consequences? The US has been bombing ISIS for over a year now. Is there any evidence that doing so has really advanced American interests in the region? 

13) And what, by the way, are American interests in this fight? This is a question I've been asking for while now...

14) Less than 24 hours after the Paris attacks, an opinion piece on the  editorial pages of the New York Times advocated getting involved in a ground war in the Middle East. Right now, Americans have no stomach for that. However, if a big attack were to occur within the United States, this calculus could change quickly

Also see: 


Nothing to Celebrate 

Responding post-Charlie

10 Questions Regarding Syria


160 libraries can't be wrong! Get yours to order a copy of Turks Across Empires--now only $35.

More links, commentary and photographs available,
as usual, at the Borderlands Lounge.  


  1. I think this article will interest you, Jim.

    1. Thanks, Gordo. That is a nice piece. I've put it up in the Lounge.