The New Domino

ISIS and the New History

Liam Fox, the former UK Secretary for Defence, is a dangerous man. Within his inchoate Tory babble lies an authoritarian message, one fuming with a distorting kind of madness. Like every authoritarian message, an enemy hewn from a quarry of decent reserves is required. The state is on guard, and her majesty’s government must be both aware and wary.

The latest, fashioned monster Fox has in mind is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a creature so specific to a particular political and religious context he should hardly be surprised. His ignorance, however, is the mask of gratitude. He is particularly grateful for ISIS for one vital reason – it enables him to make a message of profound servility, directing British reserves and determination into pro-American waters. Fight them there otherwise we shall be fighting them at home.

The Obama administration is already expecting British compliance when confronting such threats as those posed by ISIS, but Fox is determined to not merely go a bridge further, but gild it. With that gild, comes the promise of a good splash of blood. “There are those who say if we don’t get involved, if we hunker down then we will be fine. There will be no backlash. That is utterly, utterly wrong because the jihadists don’t hate us because of what we do. They hate us because of who we are. We can’t change that” (Huffington Post, June 22).

Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police’s assistant commissioner, warned via BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend that, “we will be living with the consequences of Syria – from a terrorist point of view, let alone the world, geopolitical consequences – for many, many, many years to come.”

Across the pond, a colourful complement of US politicians are insisting on re-invasion and occupation of a country they invaded and occupied with calamitous results. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) is one such character. In Face The Nation, Rubio claimed that, “They are an extremely radical group with increasing capabilities, and a very clear design. They want to establish an Islamic caliphate in sections of both Syria and Iraq, and other places. Potentially, Jordan is next at some point. And then they want to launch attacks in the exterior, external operations, including targeting our homeland.”

Such views follow the coaching manual of domino theory practitioners, the idea that an abstraction, a force, a design, somehow has the legs to push and carry on from one state to another. It never occurs to such practitioners that agency is a misunderstood issue in history, often vague, and often, within its own reach, limited. There are no wise heads in the making of history, but there are many woolly headed ones.

Vital to such views is a kindergarten school understanding of such processes. Rubio, again, sees ISIS as another al-Qaeda, a creature recreated for the historical moment. It does not occur to him that ISIS’s existence owes as much to US-led invasions as it does to any “clear design” on their part. “Well, if you look at what happened before 9/11, the reason why al-Qaeda was able to carry out the 9/11 attacks is because they had a safe operating space in Afghanistan that the Taliban had given them.” Rubio does not see history, but ideology.

This is not so much accepted sense as fundamentalist nonsense. ISIS is performing a historical spring clean. It has even captured and reportedly executed the judge, Raouf Abdul Rahman, who sentenced Saddam Hussein to death. It is working closely with Saddam loyalists in a bid to capture Baghdad. In that sense, historical forces scant understood in Washington are reasserting their claims.

The message from a senior Baathist official, which surprisingly appears on an otherwise incoherent Fox news site, is a historical lesson about what went wrong in Iraq once foreign soldiers found themselves stumbling after fictitious weapons of mass destruction and the ever wily Saddam. The doors to pandemonium were being opened. “[We are] unified by the same goal, which is getting rid of this sectarian government, ending this corrupt army and negotiating to form a Sunni Region.”

The cleansing of the new Iraqi state of its Baathist presence has given a good deal of cause for grief. Estranged from the political and social structure, post-Saddam Baathists have made alliances with groups with one common interest: the removal of the current Iraqi regime. This does not mean that they will not turn on ISIS in the future. The region is replete with strategic alliances and tactical agreements, the scratched back and the bitten hand. The bloody chessboard will have to be sorted out then.

The other gift ISIS provides those like Fox is one for the autocrats in the legislature. Liberties will be given a good prune; rights a good round of weeding. The surveillance state lies to the right of the democratic state, protecting a set of values that are called forth at a given moment. Fox urges its nourishment.

Liberal democracy, for conservatives such as Fox, is a terrible garden of woe, with the gardener as gate keeper warding off the terrors of vermin, and the treacherous elements of climate. Behind beauty is a terrible ugliness that sustains it. Fox’s gardener is getting pensive.

Messes are there to be made, and it is imperative that, in being unmade, bigger problems will arise. US and UK authorities condemn ISIS and its operations in Iraq, but provide backing, directly or indirectly, to its affiliates in Syria against the Assad regime. As Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky) explained in his discussion on CNN’s State of the Union, “We have been allied with ISIS in Syria.”

A duster often displaces dusts, rather than removes it. This is the rule of corrections when it comes to interventions in the Middle East. It is not one that has made an impression yet on the history makers, who insist that cleaning and correcting are fundamentally their tasks and theirs alone. Such attitudes will end badly, as they always do. Unfortunately for us, it won’t be Fox being the penitent one.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: Read other articles by Binoy.