To thwart ISIS, first consider history

Story highlights

  • Jay Parini: After Paris attack, U.S. must consider history before acting, to get to peace without creating further instabilities
  • He says path to current terror not helped by our foreign policy blunders in past. Now it's time to build coalitions to end, not feed, ISIS chaos

Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont and is the author of "Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)In the wake of the sad, grotesque attacks on innocents in Paris this past weekend, it's important for American policymakers -- and Americans generally -- to think hard about an appropriate response. It's easy to make a mistake in these circumstances, one that will add kerosene to a fire that threatens everyone who cares deeply about the future of liberal democracy.

Jay Parini
Many people (including Donald Trump) would agree with what Bernie Sanders said in last week's presidential debate, that "the invasion of Iraq led to the massive levels of instability. It was one of the worst foreign policy blunders in the history of the United States."
We need now to behave in ways that will enhance the possibilities of peace, and will not create further instabilities.
    It helps to look at history -- not to find equivalencies but understanding, taking the long view that recognizes appropriate contexts. We make bad decisions about foreign policy -- and war -- when we fail to take into account the historical setting, which is, well, almost everything.
    For example, we lost 50,000 American soldiers in Vietnam because our policy-makers failed to look at the wider historical context, ignoring the traditional animosity between China and Vietnam -- a conflict in which it was highly unlikely that the "domino effect" would ever be relevant. It wasn't, and we created mayhem in the region.
    Pushed to the limit, we simply withdrew in 1975, with our tail between our legs. And where is Vietnam today? The U.S. is currently the largest single importer of Vietnamese goods and Vietnamese are the eighth-largest student group studying in the States. Of course, it took almost four decades for that kind of healing to occur.
    Which is a good thing to keep in mind. Healing can happen.
    In the Middle East, we must always be aware of our long history of ill-considered interventions. For instance, we helped to overthrow Mohammad Mossadegh, a democratically elected Prime Minister in Iran, in 1953, putting our weight behind the dictatorial Shah, who ruled with an iron fist until he was overthrown by the 1979 Islamic Revolution. We must try to keep this history in mind when considering our difficulties with Iran: they have long memories, even if we don't.
    Then there is our avid support for the extremist House of Saud, in Saudi Arabia; this alliance goes back to 1933, and was largely about oil, then as now. The rise of extreme forms of Islam is closely tied to our Saudi alliances. Indeed, Osama bin Laden was himself a member of an elite Saudi family, and his movement centered on outrage over the American military presence in the land of Mecca.
    In thinking about the rise of jihadists, it's important to recall our support for the violent mujahadeen during the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989). This support helped to secure forms of Islam that, in due course, led to the rise of fundamentalist Islam throughout the Middle East.
    The path to 9/11 was firmly paved by these, and many other, miscalculations.
    It certainly didn't help anything to invade Iraq in 2003, thus removing Saddam -- a secular Muslim. When we destroyed his Baathist army, we unwittingly prepared the ground for the rise of ISIS fighters, who are the children of Saddam grown wild, maddened by a kind of existential despair.
    So now what?
    There are only three things to keep in mind: coalition, coalition and coalition.
    With ISIS, we now face a global war of sorts, and yet — as with al Qaeda — there are many offshoots (such as the people who attacked Paris) — ad hoc sympathizers, in effect, who are willing to destroy even themselves to promote a narrow, violent strain of Islam.
    Americans and their allies can't simply bomb ISIS positions in Syria or northern Iraq and assume this will somehow take care of the problem. It won't.
    ISIS and its affiliates want the old "clash of civilization" argument to hold, the idea that a fault line exists, and that it's somehow cultural. But this implies that we're actually divided along these lines, and this is nonsense.
    We're not at war with Islam. Most Muslims are peaceful, living in Indonesia and other Asian countries. (Only 20% of Muslims are, in fact, Arabic.)
    ISIS isn't even a "culture," as President Francois Hollande of France has wisely noted: "We're not engaged in a war of civilization, because these assassins do not represent any."
    It's important that we refuse the simplistic and dangerous "clash of civilizations" argument, which feeds into a narrative that ISIS leaders will adore. We have to remind ourselves that the vast majority of Muslims everywhere are, indeed, peaceful. We must enlist their help, as it's in their best interests to combat extremist forms of their religion.
    And we must never take unilateral action but consistently work with our democratic allies around the world and with the U.N., aware that we're all in this together, while always keeping the history of our relations with the Islamic world in full intellectual and emotional view.
    This is an argument we can win, as life under ISIS is miserably basic and relies on the cycle of violence to sustain itself. It will never triumph over rational, thoughtful people who band together in the face of radical nihilism to establish a genuine and sustainable alternative that, for all its flaws, nevertheless works: liberal democracy.