Not Learning Lessons Past: the West’s Response to IS



In an earlier posting Ukraine, United Kingdom, Ireland, Scotland, I noted that the first lesson of conflict learned by Robert McNamara was “understand your adversary”. If we have honourable objectives, our first and most important weapon is empathy.

In the Vietnam War, McNamara came to realise – when the others around him would not – that the Americans’ Vietnamese opponents were fighting for independence from colonial rule (seeing the US as a substitute colonial power). The Americans on the other had assumed that their Vietnamese opponents were Soviet puppets, fighting for the ideology of communism; fighting as the advance foot soldiers of an evil Soviet (or Sino-Soviet) empire. The Americans failed because they did not understand what their opponents were fighting for. Let’s apply our ‘learnings’ to the Islamic State (IS).



The Islamic State is seen by the west as no more than an evil terrorist organisation. Certainly they are terrorists, and they are evil in that they are willing to use the most ruthless of means to achieve their ends. But they are more than an evil terrorist organisation. And indeed their ends may be very worthy, unlike their means. The least we in the west can do is to appreciate what they are fighting for.

The lack of empathy works both ways of course. To the IS, their western opponents are just another group of anti-Islamic ‘Crusaders’. The IS has time on its side; in their worldview the Crusades have been going on – hot or cold – for 900 years or so. Eventually each group of Crusaders has been seen off. The West, which does not reflect too much on its complex history, simply doesn’t get this perspective. Crusaders were in the Middle Ages, weren’t they?

It’s also a clash of the Wilsonian worldview; a view of the world made up of a lattice of sovereign nation states, with some nations more equal than others and one more equal than all others. Historian Nicholas Boyle calls this idealised worldview the “Religion of America” (see my post 2014 and 1914 for some discussion of Boyle’s views). Islam on the other hand is more than a religion. It is a supra-national brotherhood; albeit a fraternity with sectarian divisions and without as much ability as Christendom to evolve over time.

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The key to this issue is the direct clash between the system of territorial nation states, and the pan‑nationalism exhibited by all religions, and by Islam more than most.

Two easily accessible points of contact with this concept of Islamic supra-nationalism are: the BBC radio documentary Caliphate – Searching for the Islamic State“, broadcast on Radio New Zealand Nights on 21 August 2014; and the television documentary series The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors. In the time of Islam there have been three substantial caliphates, The Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad, the Moorish Caliphate of Cordoba, and the Ottoman ‘Empire’ based on Istanbul. People of different ethnicities, and indeed of different faiths, all had their opportunities to survive and prosper within these broad-based political structures. Although these were all polities of relative tolerance and modernity, they did suffer from their inability to evolve.



We in the west should learn more about Islamic history, and about the political structures associated with Islam. Thus western leaders can learn to foster Muslim aspirations while completely rejecting the violent aspirators (such as IS). The IS recruits by demonstrating to ordinary Muslims the violent crusading activities of the west. We oblige them. What we can do instead is to encourage peaceful means to the achievement of a 21st century caliphate, centred most likely in the Gulf States. We like Emirates (Team NZ’s sponsor) and Al Jazeera. They can be central to our vision of an alternative, progressive Caliphate. When the Crusader argument becomes untenable, the IS starves of support.



  1. Also how about;
    • class consciousness crosses borders too, hence workers solidarity and internationalism.
    • Religion of all stripes is an impediment to human progress generally imo
    relentlessly anti woman and indoctrinating the young before they have developed an independent world view
    • Situations largely caused by US imperialism and global capital are unlikely to be solved by US imperialism and global capital however much popular support their may be from time to time for military intervention such as the “attack on Iraq”.
    • US Arab allies such as the Saudis are terrified of supporting say the Palestinians or other regional peoples struggles for fear of what they might unleash in their own territories.

    • Sorry, Saudi Arabia’s particular form of radical, fundamentalist Wahabbi/Salafiism will never endorse Palestine.
      Saudi Arabia is more than a U.S. ally, it is, along with Israel and Egypt, U.S. proxies in the Middle East.

      They are Israel’s ally and, as such, will never endorse Palestine.
      Neither does Egypt, who are financed not to, by both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. This is why the cross-border checkpoint at Raffa, under Egyptian control, is kept tightly closed. This is why the Egyptian navy works in coordination with the Israeli navy, to apprehend any aid shipments heading to Palestine.

  2. Empathy requires understanding. Less than that and it’s mere sympathy: something which has potential for extreme damage.
    Research is necessary for understanding, and a required step before the first draft.

    Reading the Koran wouldn’t be a bad idea. It won’t rob you of objectivity and convert you into a slavering fundamentalist. As an added bonus, you will be in a position to know what you’re talking about, be in a position to add something positive to the mix, and be part of a cure rather that an addition to the problem.

    The Koran states that: ‘I may come and go as I please, without hindrance, for thirty days, and then leave in peace’.

    If I entered into ISIL territory, would that be the case?

    The Koran states that: ‘All people of the book must be respected’.
    Small note of clarification. ‘The book’ is the Bible, Old testament, Koran, any of the central tenets of the Abrahamic writings.

    If I entered into ISIL territory, would that be the case?

    If somebody does not follow the path of Islam as laid down in the Koran, s/he is not a Muslim. Pure and simple.

    The ISIL/ISIS/IS or whichever latest fashion in rebranding the U.S. chooses to allocate to them, are not Muslim. They carry the trappings of Islam, but as the international spectrum of Imams worldwide, both Shia and Sunni, have stated: they are not Muslim.

    Even Al Qaeda have apparently disowned them.

    The answer?
    As usual lies much closer to home than most are usually prepared to admit.
    When people experience sociological rejection, they look for acceptance elsewhere. If the ISIL didn’t have access to such a rich international recruitment pool, they wouldn’t be capable of existence.

    Why don’t you just say hello to a Muslim neighbour today?

    • Unfortunately they are regarded as Muslim’s by themselves and by other Muslims. Sure other Muslims may agree they are brutal and barbaric but they generally won’t denounce them as not being Muslim.

  3. This really illustrates that those who don’t learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them doesn’t it. Especially when the justification being used to push the West into this conflict is not the ongoing violence in the area, nor the abuse of women and children by IS.

    Instead the provocation that is being pushed by a compliant media are a series of ‘beheading’ videos, which don’t actually show any beheadings (see NZ Herald 26/09/14 FBI Director: We’ve identified ‘Jihadi John’, ( which states, “The beheadings are not shown in the videos.”

    From this we have the Australian Police launching an 800 person operation which results in only 15 detained and 1 arrest for possession of an ornamental sword and a few conversations of teenage bravado expressing their rage against the machine. Whether they would have actually carried out the attack on a Sydney bystander they are accused of conspiring to do, if they would have managed to actually achieve it, and how even if they did it would be nothing a charge of premeditated murder couldn’t have covered seems to have escaped the main stream media.

    That coincidentally the Australian government is pushing through legislative changes to tighten their control of the populace’s travel and lessen their right to privacy at exactly the same time seems to have been overlooked by most or given a quiet byline by most publications.

    I guess when you have an economy that relies on a permanent war footing like America’s does, and you need the assistance of your allies to sustain it, you’ll trot out any biased press releases to support your cause.

  4. thanks Keith for your informative post.
    The IS might make more sense as a geographic construct than the artificial Sykes-Picot carve up.

  5. This is a naive and sheltered world view.

    The West simply cannot stand by and let ISIS massacre innocent women and children, anymore than the allies couldn’t stand by and let the Nazi’s continue to conquer other states.

    This brand of Islam is every bit as evil as Nazism and we know from history that a strategy of appeasement will not work when faced with fanatics.

    • What a naive and sheltered world view.

      I don’t blame you much though, not in this media environment.

      As one (admittedly not very good) example: The Basque Country’s ETA eventually collapsed following the end fascism and then greater devolution.

    • Sansa,
      Obviously two wrongs never make a right, but shouldn’t you also be concerned over the U.S. Arab allies in the fight against ISIL? Some of them carry out public beheadings, oppress sectors of their populations, or have little regard for human rights, particularly women’s rights. The U.S. ignores all these abuses as it’s not in their interest to point them out; not if they wish to keep receiving oil, selling arms,having air bases, and their ninth fleet based in Bahrain. It is in their interest to keep the war machine rolling for corporate profits and, perhaps more importantly, to keep us all scared of terrorist threats so they can continue to remove our freedoms in the name of protecting us.

      • ALL of it is reprehensible and disgusting beyond what a free woman can understand.
        You can’t just leave them to it though, sorry. As a woman and an atheist one at that, I see radical Islam as my mortal enemy, and I know some of you don’t like that but seriously, can you imagine that I could feel any other way about it.

          • I’m sorry but I don’t recall it being just women that may have “caused” this radicalization.
            Oh and Iran is a pretty nasty place to be a women as well, and Saudi Arabia.
            I have zip time for any of it, the sooner religion is binned and the human race uses its intelligence instead of superstition we might see some progress

            • I didn’t say women “caused” the radicalisation, I said they have every right to be offended by it. It’s the actions of Western governments that turned some Moslims against us.

  6. Here is a visualisation

    And the rest of the maps in the series. Well worth a read if you want to understand West Asia, which we persist in calling the Middle-east.

    I’m a bit surprised you can be so clear-eye about stuff like this and yet so short-sighted when it comes to economics. Just another case of cognitive dissonance I suppose, like religious scientists.

  7. oops…are ISIL not part of the general ‘strategy of tension’ allowing USAM/NATO/Israel/Saud pretext to attack ASSAD while pretending to bomb ISIL, who last week were allies against the evil ASSAD?

    Provocation being the template. ‘The west’ always needs to present itself in ‘response’ (R2P) ‘reactive’ instead of covert ‘pro-active’. ie:The ‘good-guys’.

    • Worthy? I do not understand the comment Raegun. If it is in response to mine, it has no connection. Those murdering in the manner described are psychopath misogynist of the worst order. There is no justification for the egregious acts of violence exampled. Ever ! My comment refers you to the many reports of these mercenary butchers being a Provocateur army. Built, aided and abetted by the very background forces we are now to ra-ra into action as ‘western’ coalition good guys – aiming to facilitate NATO R2P attack on ASSAD – we shall see- but also determined to provoke war with Russia as USAID coup in Ukraine proves. The psychopathy and malevolence of those ‘arranging’ the ‘ISIL’ butchers loose on the people of Syria/Iraq/Levant and Ukraine, and perception managing us to think ‘Muslim terrorist’ when infact these are ‘mercenary terrorist’, are the monsters I want in the dock.
      You also linked back to this same page?

  8. Not sure about this solution, there’s far too much recent history of sectarian violence (not only Sunni/Shia, but anti-Kurd sentiment too) for a Caliphate to deal with. I agree a progressive state is probably the way to go, but there will be extremists who disagree. A pluralist liberal State committed to protecting every citizen’s right to practice their own religion, even to the point of executing perpetrators of sectarian violence, might provide some stability. But for such a state to claim sovereignty it would not only have to provide security but also restore and maintain infrastructure. It’s hard to see how this will be paid for without nationalising oil reserves, which the West will not allow.

  9. What’s evolved in the form of fighters for IS, is due solely to the actions of war criminals George W Bush and Tony BLiar, destabilizing Iraq, through their BS PR campaign of seeking out WMD, which never did exist!

    That’s the scum we should be pointing fingers at! The pair of them should be facing trial for war crimes at The Hague!

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