No, it’s not ‘World War 3’

Updated 9:03 AM EST, Tue November 17, 2015

Story highlights

Tim Stanley: Some saying Paris attacks part of "third world war," but this is not apt: ISIS doesn't represent nation states

Caution, he says. The complexity of Islamic state politics can't be resolved just by arms. And much of world already arrayed against ISIS

World must not play to ISIS' 'clash of civilizations' ideology or use Paris attack to demonize Muslims and refugees, he says

Editor’s Note: Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. He is the author of the new book “Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) —  

Obama has called the Islamic State the “face of evil” but he’s now under pressure from those who say he’s not doing enough to beat it. Some insist that an attack on France was an attack on NATO and that it’s time to go to war.

Pope Francis suggests the West already is at war – a kind of “third world war.” If the Pope is right then doesn’t that demand a tougher response? Isn’t the time for caution over?

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

But only a fool would confuse caution for weakness. On the contrary, to defeat the enemy we have to fully understand who the enemy is, what they want and what kind of conflict we’re involved in here. There are good reasons to proceed cautiously.

To clear something up: We are effectively at war with ISIS right now. A U.S.-led coalition has been bombing targets in Syria and Iraq for over a year, and in recent months Russia has been doing the same. How well it’s worked is disputed: Obama has rhetorically shifted his objectives from crushing Isis to containing it.

Nevertheless, late last week there were signs of success. The Kurds took Sinjar, a strategically significant area in northern Iraq. Mohammed Emwazi, a vicious killer and propagandist, was likely killed in a drone strike.

Paris has obviously eclipsed the news of these breakthroughs.

Who or what are we fighting? ISIS is different from al Qaeda, the group behind 9/11. The latter operated as an alliance of cells spread across the world; ISIS, by contrast, seeks to create a geographic space within which to build a caliphate. This shift in strategy perhaps explains why ISIS has been even more successful than al Qaeda at hitting so many different foreign targets with so many different methods – from Sinai to Beirut to Paris.

ISIS’ caliphate offers a haven for tens of thousands of foreign jihadists: They come, they train and then many return home to create havoc. The caliphate also provides money and the moral encouragement of having an earthly “paradise” to fight for. In his groundbreaking essay on the motivations behind ISIS, Graeme Wood describes an ISIS recruiter calling it “a vehicle for salvation.”

Its fighters are obsessed with recreating Islam in its earliest form (or as they interpret it to have been, because the early caliphate was far kinder) and believe that most other Muslims have fallen from the standard – one that includes the uses of crucifixion and slavery. Whereas al Qaeda limited itself to comparatively rational political objectives, like expelling Westerners from the Arab peninsula, ISIS wants to bring on the apocalypse. It is not nihilist. It is deeply — if distortedly – religious and we need to learn to take its brand of religion seriously.

The good news is that ISIS is isolated. Applying the phrase “world war” here is unhelpful because it conjures images of rival, equally sized nation states engaged in total war. But while ISIS’ reach is global, it does not command sizable support beyond its shifting boundaries. Meanwhile, the alliance against it is one of the largest and most diverse in history, including America, Britain, France, Russia and Iran.