Defeating the Islamic State: Toward a Foreign Policy of Reason

The West is at war. It is not a new war, nor has it always been fought with weapons. It is, principally, an ideological war between the secular, liberal Enlightenment of the West and the theocratic, Dark Age philosophy that still dominates much of the Middle East and North Africa (“the MENA”). This conflict has undergone several periods of escalation and declension, depending upon the philosophical state within the various countries of the MENA. Occasionally, these periods of escalation have erupted into actual war. At least in the United States, the earliest example of “actual war” dates back to President Thomas Jefferson and the First Barbary War when the Barbary States in North Africa (nominal provinces of the Ottoman Caliphate) seized American ships and demanded tribute to be paid to the Islamist rulers. President Jefferson responded with force.

Following the 1979 Revolution in Iran, the intensity and frequency of the “actual wars” reached a fever pitch and have failed to relent.  The ensuing battles are far too familiar: Beirut on October 23, 1983; the USS Cole in Aden on October 12, 2000; New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001; Madrid on March 11, 2004; London on July 7, 2005; Fort Hood on November 5, 2009; Chattanooga on July 16, 2015; Beirut on November 12, 2015; Paris and St. Denis on November 13, 2015; Garissa on November 14, 2015. These attacks were leveled against different Western countries by numerous, often unrelated organizations and were in some cases separated by several years. Nonetheless, any rational leader willing to recognize the pattern that is manifest before us will recognize this as a concerted, purposeful effort by self-cast holy warriors—decentralized in their structure, but united in basic ideological tenets—against Western peoples, cultures, and institutions in a manner that can only described as war. The time for calling them “criminals” has long passed. They are Islamic totalitarians, they are our enemies, and they must be defeated.

Knowing The Enemy

Let me begin first by dispelling a common objection that it is somehow “wrong” to call our present enemies “Islamic totalitarians” because they do not represent “true Islam.” Whether the ideology of the Islamic totalitarians is “true Islam” presents a question principally of theology rather than philosophy—of faith rather than reason. As religion is not simply a matter of religious texts but is also a matter of their interpretation, what constitutes a “true” version of a religion is a matter of faith for its adherents (hence the multiplicity of sects across all religions).

Certainly, it is of philosophical interest (though beyond the scope of this essay) whether the texts tend to corroborate a particular theology—whether, in interpreting the texts rationally, in totality and not selectively, one theology is more textually adherent than another. That question can be resolved rationally. And commentators should pursue that question, debate it, and say, “Whatever the religion of Islam may be, as practiced by its adherents, here is what the religious texts of Islam say.” Those commentators may critique the texts accordingly, and the religions themselves by extension. Even if what is “true” for the believer is not what is textually supported, the believer is not immune from the critiques of the scholar. No matter whether a particular theology adheres closely to the text, the text itself has implications, and so does treating the letter of the text as wholly and unassailably true. Those questions deserve full examination and vigorous debate. Yet ultimately, as important as these philosophical inquiries are (and they are important, particularly since the war in which we are involved is principally ideological), what is “true Islam” for its adherents will be a question of faith and may be entirely different than the question of what is textual.

That is not a question of government interest. Because the government’s sole function is protecting individual rights, it must also fully comprehend threats to individual rights so that the threats may be defeated. This requires studying the underlying ideology of those who pose a threat, but it does not require resolving a matter of pure faith—i.e., whether that ideology is the “true” one according to a faith-based theology. Indeed, it would be inappropriate to do so. Our government is a secular one. It is not an arbiter of theological disputes.

Regardless of whether many Muslims consider the ideology driving such militants to be “true Islam,” it does not alter the fact that the militants believe with equal force that their ideology is “true Islam,” or that it is Islam as practiced within much of the MENA. It does not change the fact that Caliph Ibrahim,  the leader of the Islamic State who possesses a doctorate in Islamic theology from the Islamic University in Baghdad, believes that he is practicing “true Islam.” It does not change the fact that the Islamic State roots itself in passages of Islamic text that demand jihad against non-Muslim countries.

And such facts cannot be overlooked or glossed over. In order to defeat an enemy, the enemy must be understood—their military tactics, certainly, but even more importantly their motivations, objectives, and philosophies.  This cannot be accomplished by obscuring the source of their core beliefs. If they are to be opposed, by both Western governments and by Muslims, we must be willing to acknowledge that they are not “extremists” in some abstract sense. “Extreme” is only a measure of degree, but a degree of what? That is the relevant question, and the answer is that it is a degree of a religious, militant, political, totalitarian—one might say, literalist—application of Islamic doctrine. It is an interpretation that we do not attribute to the many Muslims who oppose it, but it is an interpretation that must be acknowledged and studied so that we may defeat it. Doing so requires calling the ideology by name: Islamism, or Islamic totalitarianism.

With that frame of reference, we can see that our enemies believe themselves to be holy warriors, ordained and protected by God to institute strict religious law and to kill apostates and infidels. Death does not deter them, for they believe they are to receive paradise for their actions. So they are perfectly willing to go on suicide missions, in Paris and elsewhere, knowing that they will die but nevertheless executing their “holy mission” against people they perceive as heathens: sports spectators, café and restaurant patrons, and concert goers—anyone engaged in positive, life-affirming recreation that contradicts their ascetic, seventh century ideal. (I will pause to note that, for those interested, The Atlantic has compiled a fuller list of reasons for which Islamic totalitarians will kill supposed infidels.)

The military importance of such attacks is limited to demoralizing their victims in hopes of forestalling current military action against the Islamic totalitarians, providing a safe space in which the Islamists can grow, expand, and prepare for future attacks. But whatever the military value of such attacks, their ultimate purpose continues to be the spread of Islamic totalitarianism beyond the MENA and into the West.

Foreign Policy Failures—Neoconservatism and Power Vacuums

Though we cannot permit the Islamic totalitarians any safe space in which to plan more attacks against the West, unfortunately the policy of many in the West has been the opposite for over a decade. In particular, the combination of neoconservative foreign policy by the United States and multiculturalist moral uncertainty by Western leaders such as David Cameron, Barack Obama, and John Kerry have allowed for the unchallenged rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Within the first two years after the US under George W. Bush overthrew Saddam Hussein, Islamists began filling the void that the dictator once held. We removed a dictator who was more prone to making idle threats than following through on them and replaced him with Islamist terror groups who jockeyed against one another to make a name for themselves by shedding American and European blood. The government we left behind proved too weak to prevent those groups from rising after our withdrawal.

In Syria, the result was the same. The neoconservatives screamed for boots on the ground at the earlier stages of the war to fight the relatively secular dictator Assad, and President Obama (whose foreign policy has only continued and expanded the Bush Administration’s policies) tended to acquiesce—drawing an arbitrary “line” for Assad regarding his use of chemical weapons in his civil war. Failing to achieve the support they needed for a full-scale war against Assad, they made the situation much worse—providing weapons, training, airstrikes, and assistance to a hodgepodge of rebels of whom we knew little. Under President Obama, we decided to back “moderate” rebels, who essentially do not and did not exist, at least not in any significant numbers.

The result: Assad, destabilized, no longer controlled his country. However brutal he may have been, the neoconservatives and Obama (as well as then-Secretary of State Clinton) supported policies that contributed to a power vacuum that, again, was filled by Islamic totalitarians—including, but not limited to, al-Nusra, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State. The power vacuum spilled over into Iraq, still unable to protect its citizenry. And now the Islamists are staging attacks directly against the West. As is always the case, the neoconservatives and their left-wing counterparts put a misguided notion about the well-being of the Syrian people and of “spreading democracy” above our own security. They sought to “free” the Syrian people from Assad, and all they have done is free a cleric to establish a totalitarian state with territorial holdings in former Syria and Iraq, to recruit Islamist militants to his cause, and stage attacks against the West. They have opened the floodgates to a dictatorship more brutal than—if not as strong as—that in Iran.

Moving forward, Americans should take particular note of who supported the policies that led to the rise of the Islamic State, as we will soon decide who is best capable to defeat them as President of the United States. We should not trust our future to politicians who place our own security below “humanitarian” altruism. That tragedy and horrors exist in this world is unquestionable. They always have. Nonetheless, the eradication of all dictatorships from the face of the Earth is not the moral purpose of the state. The moral purpose of a government is to protect the rights of its own people against criminals and foreign aggressors.  Ultimately, the reality of our fight is no more related to the interests of the Syrian or Iraqi people any more than World War II was about the interests of the German or Japanese people. It was about the total annihilation of military threats to the rights of American citizenry. Anything less than a total commitment to eliminating Islamic totalitarianism will keep American and European lives at perpetual risk.

Preventing a Double FailureIt’s Time to Act

At the same time, Americans should not conclude that we should do nothing now simply because it was wrong for us to have at all participated in the Syrian civil war at its outset. We cannot become mired in a foreign policy of counterfactuals. To say that “if the neoconservatives had simply stayed out of Syria, then the Islamic State would not have so easily grown,” though relatively sound analysis, ultimately bears no relation to the question of what we should do now that the Islamic State has arisen.

Followers of this publication will note that it has spent the past two years opposing the policies that facilitated the rise of the Islamic State. We criticized the decision to arm the rebels;[1] Obama’s desire to increase our involvement in Syria;[2] our altruistic foreign policy generally;[3] and our ineffective strategy of placing symbolic victory over substantive ones.[4] But this criticism should not be misinterpreted to suggest our opposition to self-interested action in Syria. Self-interested action had simply not been proposed, and in the early stages, the self-interested action was nothing.

But now, nearly two and a half years since the U.S.’s intervention in Syria, inaction has ceased to be the self-interested option. Those responsible for the massacre of innocent people in Paris—as well as attacks earlier this week that killed 120 in Beirut and the supposed massacre of 200 children in Syria in August 2014 (video of which was only released this past week)—have expressed in no uncertain terms their desire to commit similar acts against Americans. If they managed to reach Paris, then they can reach Washington, D.C. Few threats in the history of this centuries-long war have been more credible or more worthy of military response.

Historical and Contemporary Military Strategy for Defeating Death Cults

The question remains: how do we respond? While inaction is no longer an option, that certainly does not mean that any and all action is rational and pursuant to our self-interests. Indeed, action for action’s sake (the neoconservative creed) could lead to the deaths of far more Americans than the Islamic State has thus far killed by placing them into a war without a clear objective, without all the tools necessary to pursue it, and without the a coherent strategy to achieve it. We owe more to our soldiers and those of our allies than that.

To answer that, we must return to what we know about our enemy. How does one defeat ideologues that do not fear death? While killing one’s enemy is certainly the chief means of victory in war, that alone is not sufficient—unless one manages to somehow kill every last member of the enemy’s force, which one should be prepared to do if necessary.

But that is not how we have dealt with similar ideologues in the past. The closest analogue for the modern Islamic totalitarians is the Japanese in World War II, guided by an equally religious, racist, militaristic, and expansionist ideology. Even after defeat was considered inevitable, the Japanese military leadership refused to relent. They prepared suicidal defenses of the Japanese home islands, planning to use thousands of kamikazes in the event of an Allied invasion. The plan was not to win, but to eliminate the Allies’ will to fight. The Allies’ Potsdam Declaration, listing their demands for Japanese surrender, was rejected. Though the Japanese cabinet was secretly considering peace and negotiating with the Soviets to achieve it, they had not yet been reduced to abject surrender. They still felt they could hold out for better terms—terms to which they had no entitlement, and to which the Allies were right not to accede.

The war only ended when their ideology was shattered—when the hope of maintaining the Emperor as the supreme leader of Japan had lost all possibility of success. This ideology began to crumble when President Truman announced the first use of an atomic bomb in warfare, stating, “We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city. We shall destroy their docks, their factories, and their communications. Let there be no mistake; we shall completely destroy Japan’s power to make war.”

Truman’s declaration was fulfilled. The United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Soviets invaded Japanese Manchuria and cut down what had been elite groups of soldiers. Even after that, the Japanese still insisted that there be no terms of surrender that “prejudice the prerogatives” of the Emperor (meaning, essentially, that he would stay in power). The Allies rejected this term outright, reaffirming that the Japanese government would be placed under the command of the Allied forces and, in time, would transition into a modern liberal democracy. Many today look at such an episode in history and claim that it is evidence of the power of democratization in achieving peace. These critics miss the point. The essence of Japanese transformation was not democracy; it was the defeat itself. Only once its ideology had been rendered demonstrably unachievable and its cause was lost could Japan reform.

Defeating Islamic totalitarians requires similar earth-shattering events. Though the true believers, like the last unrelenting soldiers in Japan, will fight to the death, many will not. Once it has been made perfectly clear that their deaths will be in vain, that suicidal attacks will not advance the cause, and that their mission—supposedly divinely sanctioned and unassailable—will never be achieved, many will give up. Even the promise of paradise will cease to be particularly attractive if their deaths will do nothing to advance their theocratic ideals amongst the living. At the very least, they will be unable to recruit zealots to a dying cause.

What would this require? Killing the caliph, for one. The absolute obliteration of their ability to “make war,” even a guerilla war, for another—starving the militants of arms, energy, and even necessities. And fundamentally altering the institutions of the region now ruled by their ideology, first through military rule and then through a free, secular state.

On the Rules of Engagement

Moreover, we should do all this without unnecessarily restrictive rules of engagement. If we are to be at war, then let us wage war. It is fundamentally stupid—and there are few words more fitting to the circumstance—to tie the hands of free nations with respect to their defense against an enemy that recognizes no limit but the religious law they profess. They burn a Jordanian pilot alive in a cage, and yet we should refrain from using incendiary bombs? They summarily kill hundreds of Parisian civilians, and we should engage in a balancing test regarding civilian casualties every time we conduct a drone strike? They hide in hospitals and mosques, and we should refrain from going after them?

War is about annihilating those who seek to annihilate you. It is not a game of chess where there are rules by which both sides abide.  Were our war against Islamic totalitarians analogized to a game of chess, it would be one in which the Islamists treat each of their pieces as a queen while the West refuses to even use its queen. We have made war less bloody, less dangerous, and less deadly through advances in technology and sheer superiority in military force. We should not, however, forfeit our objective because from time to time it may require collateral damage and death that we would like to avoid.

When the possibility of such collateral damage and death presents itself, we must choose between different sets of otherwise unnecessary damage and deaths—either those of our enemies or of our troops. The choice ought to be clear, as it is the one that will most swiftly end the war and the one that will eliminate its root cause. Civilians, to the extent they can, should attempt to leave and become refugees—which, for my purposes here, is a legal term of art meaning those who have left their home for well-founded fear of persecution and whose situation has been certified and approved by the receiving country, not the uncoordinated, unchecked mass of people moving across European borders without regard for the receiving nation’s legitimate interest in separating bona fide refugees from potential threats. (At the same time, in light of the revelation that one of the attackers may have managed to enter Europe using the refugee process in some form, receiving nations should seriously question their own ability to make the distinction. If that ability is found lacking, then they should not gamble with the lives of their citizens in the name of humanitarian altruism.) Those who cannot or will not leave will, unfortunately, be subject to whatever acts of war into which they may become inadvertently involved. Though tragic, the tragedy will only end with the war—not before.

An International Effort

To achieve this goal, our allies must be willing to grow the size of their militaries. The United States cannot subsidize the defenses of its allies indefinitely, nor should it. The threat we face is shared by the entire free world, and the entire free world must be ready to participate in all that is necessary to see its end. Not only is this just, but it is also beneficial. Should the economic might of the entire European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization be put towards military defense, the relative military disadvantage of the Islamic totalitarians will only become more stark.

Lastly, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that defeating the Islamic State will alone defeat Islamic totalitarianism. So long as the ideology is given room to breathe, it will reemerge. Suffocating it will also mean eliminating its state sponsors—all of them. I do not mean state sponsors of the Islamic State, which are none, but of Islamic totalitarianism generally, in all its forms across all sects. If it cannot be done diplomatically by pressuring the state to secularize, then force may be necessary.

The war has gone on for long enough. I do not expect the Islamic State to be the last group of Islamic totalitarians that the West will face, though I wish it were. But whatever our response to the state sponsors of Islamic totalitarianism in general, at the very least our mission with respect to the Islamic State is clear. They have conducted attacks against the West, and succeeded in so doing. They seek to expand, and so they will if not checked. They worship death, and so let us give it to them.


[1] See generally Slade Mendenhall, Arming Syria: The Bigger Picture, The Mendenhall (June 18, 2013),; Brian M. Underwood, Sending weapons to Syria: a grave mistake, The Red & Black (June 21, 2013, 7:00am),

[2] See generally Brian M. Underwood, US interests lacking: Involvement in Syria conflict unnecessary, unwise, The Red & Black (Sept. 4, 2013, 11:00am),

[3] See The Mendenhall, 2014, Pt. II, The Mendenhall ¶¶ 4—5 (January 2, 2015), (“[The rise of the Islamic State] is a tragic result of the US’s lack of commitment to defeating its enemies before attempting to rehabilitate them and reconstruct their homes.”).

[4] See generally Slade Mendenhall, A War of Symbols, The Mendenhall (May 27, 2015),

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