Failing to Confront Islamic Totalitarianism: An Interview with Elan Journo

Elan Journo is Director of Policy Research at the Ayn Rand Institute, author of Winning the Unwinnable War: America’s Self-Crippled Response to Islamic Totalitarianism and co-author with Onkar Ghate of the book discussed here: Failing to Confront Islamic Totalitarianism: From George W. Bush to Barack Obama and Beyond. Journo and Ghate’s book was the subject of a recent controversy at UCLA where students and administrators sought to have it banned on the grounds that the title was “inflammatory.”

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As soon as I opened your book, I immediately noticed that ARI has been writing about America’s crippled response to Islamic totalitarianism since 2001. As a country, have we really been pursuing an ineffectual foreign policy for fifteen years? At its root, what has been wrong with our foreign policy?

American foreign policy has been a disaster. Immediately following 9/11, the U.S. could easily have ended the jihadist menace, but instead our troops—who are the best trained, best equipped warriors in the world—end up mired in what our leaders openly admit are unwinnable wars. It’s been fifteen-plus years since the attacks of September 11, and this enemy remains undefeated. Moreover, it’s a marker of the confusion and evasiveness of U.S. foreign policy that the nature of the enemy is still a subject of debate.

It’s not just Al Qaeda, or ISIS, or scattered factions. We face an ideological movement. The enemy is defined, not primarily by their use of terrorist means, but by their ideological ends. They fight to create a society wherein every last detail of the individual’s life is dominated by Islamic religious law or sharia—a cause inspired and funded by patrons such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and above all, Iran. In our book, we call this political-ideological movement Islamic totalitarianism.

In our culture, however, we’re at a point where many people don’t understand why the response to 9/11 was ineffectual, nor that there’s a definable enemy, nor what can be done to defend ourselves. Some now doubt that we can ever end the jihadist threat. Many people lay the blame for this debacle on the military, which is a monstrous injustice. Taken together, you can see why people might feel demoralized.

In our book, we explain what went wrong and what to do about it. The fundamental problem, we argue, lies with the philosophic ideas shaping—and undercutting—American foreign policy. In particular, irrational ideas about morality have led to a destructive foreign policy. This a bipartisan, longstanding problem. That kind of explanation may surprise people, but the fact is, moral ideas play a crucial and rarely appreciated role in policymaking. Our culture’s conventional ideas about morality have subverted our ability to understand the nature of the enemy we face, to define our self-interest, and to defend ourselves. Despite being militarily and economically the most powerful nation on earth, the United States lacks a coherent foreign policy, let alone a conception of our self-interest. What we show in the book, in fact, are the many ways in which American foreign policy has been self-sacrificial.

A very poignant example of the lack of a self-interested foreign policy is the way in which our government controls soldiers in the field through what you call “battlefield ethics” and the laws of war. Can you briefly explain why it’s wrong to issue a blanket prohibition against something like bombing non-military buildings?

My co-author Onkar Ghate has a piece early in the book on the issue of civilians in war, and we deal with the issue of morality on the battlefield in a number of pieces (in my prior book, Winning the Unwinnable War, the topic receives considerable attention, too). The basic issue here is that a proper government should protect the lives and freedom of its own citizens. The only moral justification for war is self-defense, and if the government has taken the momentous step of going to war, it must enable the military to defeat the enemy threatening our lives. That perspective sets a moral framework for what soldiers should and should not do on the battlefield. Contrary to what many people think they know about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, in reality, our soldiers were subject to the rules of engagement (the battlefield ethics, in effect) that systematically prevented them from using all necessary force to win, to crush whatever threats we faced—and even to protect themselves. You can find lots of news reports, for example, noting how—in line with Washington’s battlefield ethics—American forces were ordered not to bomb key targets such as power plants, and to avoid firing into mosques (where insurgents hid) lest they offend the sensibilities of locals.

This has many destructive results. It contradicts our government’s proper function. In effect such rules of warfare subordinate the lives of our own troops to the lives of enemy fighters—along with civilians in the war zones. It’s morally wrong for our government to put Americans in harm’s way, but prevent them from advancing the notional mission and protecting their own lives. There’s a great deal more to say—including the debilitating effects of such rules on the morale of our own fighters, even as it hands the enemy a huge advantage. I encourage your readers to explore the book for more.

Shifting gears a little bit, your book suggests that one of the major failings of U.S. foreign policy has been the attempt to introduce democracy to conquered countries like Iraq. Why isn’t democracy the solution?

George W. Bush called his policy the “forward strategy of freedom.” A more accurate name is the democracy crusade. And, as my colleagues and I predicted from the outset, it was a debacle. But I challenge the premise of the question: why think “democracy” is the solution? Facing an enemy seeking to harm us, the government’s primary task is to eliminate that threat. That’s what would protect our lives and freedom. That’s what should have been our government’s goal. That’s the solution. Our task is not to make the Middle East, or any other part of the world, peaceful, unoppressed, and prosperous. So, as we argue at length in Failing to Confront Islamic Totalitarianism and in Winning the Unwinnable War, the basic purpose of Bush’s democracy crusade was irrational and contrary to our self-interest.

To ask what went wrong with the democracy crusade is to ask a loaded question. The only thing that the American spread of democracy in the Middle East could achieve was to strengthen and empower the region’s ascendant ideological movement, the Islamist cause, which we should be fighting to defeat. And indeed, Bush’s policy encouraged that enemy.

“Democracy” is a much-abused and misunderstood idea, and that sowed confusion about what Bush’s policy sought to do. We untangle those confusions in the book and explain why the spread of “democracy” was contrary to American interests. One of Bush’s premises was the fantastical idea that everyone, everywhere yearns for freedom. That idea is false, however; just look at the appeal of Islamic totalitarianism. And the fact that it is so easily refuted offers you a clue to how Bush’s policy was grounded in self-delusion, not reason.

The U.S. and other western nations are very friendly with nations like Saudi Arabia, which you call “The Other Islamic State.” If democracy is not the solution in the region, what’s wrong with working with countries like Saudi Arabia if doing so serves one of our wider goals such as stability in the region?

This question is a great illustration of a false alternative firmly embedded in how people think about foreign policy—a false alternative that highlights the uniqueness of an Objectivist approach. The question comes down to: Either we uphold some kind of idealistic policy — for example, the democracy crusade — that’s in fact selfless and destructive, or else we throw aside moral principles and ideals and instead pursue what’s seen to be in our self-interest and thus “practical.” And because such “interests” are divorced from moral judgment, some people wonder, why not deal with such monstrous regimes as Saudi Arabia? What this boils down to is: be moral or be practical. Ayn Rand rejected that view: it was a false choice, albeit one that people find unavoidable given the moral views they hold. This moral/practical dichotomy crops up everywhere, not only in foreign policy.

This false alternative stems from a (wrong) view of what it means to follow moral principles: the default view is that morality is equated with selfless service to others, which is contrasted with the conventional view of what it means to be concerned with one’s own interests. The latter is seen as base, even amoral, but “practical.” Ayn Rand comes to morality with a fundamentally different framework. She advocated a morality of rational egoism, and in her view to define and pursue one’s self-interest requires thought and the guidance of objective moral principles. On her premises, there’s no moral/practical dichotomy either in ethics or in foreign policy.

To unpack your question further, let’s take each element in turn. What should our policy be toward Saudi Arabia? The starting point for that is to judge the Saudi regime by an objective moral standard: is it a free society? are its actions friendly toward us? In fact, the Saudi regime is an oppressive monarchy distinguished by its imposition of Islamic religious law. Moreover, Saudi wealth has fueled the proselytizing for the Islamic totalitarian movement, for decades. It is a scandal that the U.S. treats that regime as an ally. There’s much more to say about it, but that should be enough to indicate that a truly self-interested approach would be far different. We touch on this in the book, and I look at another regime, Pakistan, that has also been undeservedly treated as an ally, and what a principled approach looks like.

Let me say a brief word about the issue of regional “stability,” which you raised in the question. “Stability” is a slippery term, and it’s difficult to think of a period of “stability” in the Middle East. Quite the contrary: that region has been ravaged by coups, revolutions, civil wars, inter-state wars, guerilla insurgencies — for decades, and long before the U.S. was a major factor in the area. In my view, our interest is not primarily regional stability but protecting the freedom of Americans. Our chief concern should be fending off, and when necessary retaliating against, hostile forces emanating from that region.

As you note, the oppressive nature of the Saudi regime is often ignored by our foreign policy makers, but lots of college students are part of the movement to divest from Israel because of alleged human rights violations. Given that, is it appropriate for the U.S. to continue to support Israel in the ways that we do?

My upcoming book on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict answers that question in detail. But the short answer is: No, we shouldn’t continue down the current path because U.S. policy toward Israel is a train wreck—a mess of conflicting motives, aims, and short-range goals. The net result is harming our interests because our policy fails to evaluate the moral standing of the adversaries in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict properly. A conventional view today is that the U.S. is strongly supportive of Israel. In certain narrow ways, Washington has been supportive, but it has also done a lot to subvert Israel. A true picture of U.S. policy would have to include the fact that American policy has empowered our enemies in the region. What’s needed is a principled backing of Israel, for its virtue as a free society facing a common foe, the Islamist movement. My view of the conflict, and America’s stake in it, is indicated in a talk I gave a couple of years ago, which I encourage your readers to watch on YouTube.

The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which you mentioned, has captured the imagination of many students. But I regard that movement as negating justice, rather than upholding it. The leaders of the BDS movement single out Israel, which is basically a free country, for alleged wrongs, but there’s no comparable outrage at actual, well-documented, incontestable violations of individual rights by the Middle East’s various theocracies and dictatorships. That should set off an alarm in your mind, if you care about justice and freedom. In our conversation today we don’t have time to dig into the wrongs Israel has been accused of, and to form a view of the conflict and the moral standing of the adversaries, you would have to look into those accusations; I examine the major issues in my upcoming book. If your readers are interested in the BDS issue, I did a podcast with an expert on the subject, Dr. Asaf Romirowsky.

Do you see a direct link between The West’s failure to confront Islamic totalitarianism abroad and the increasing threats to free speech and safety at home?

Absolutely. These two issues are entwined. The failure to defeat this enemy has been compounded by our repeated appeasement of its assaults on the freedom of speech. Had we defeated the Islamic totalitarian movement years ago, had we shown its ideal to be a lost cause, it’s hard to imagine any of its foot-soldiers daring to carry out a massacre such as we saw at French magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015. And this pattern goes way back. Two significant episodes in that pattern were the 1979 hostage-taking of American diplomats in Iran, and the 1989 Iranian bounty put on the head of the British author Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. For years we at ARI have been at the frontlines in the battle over freedom of speech, and my colleague Steve Simpson sums up our view of the dynamic in his superb book, Defending Free Speech. He discusses that issue in the book’s Introduction, which you can read online for free.

You’ve documented how deeply entrenched the problems are and the size of the threat, but you don’t see any of our current political parties as offering appropriate solutions. What can people who are interested in a solution do?

The problems with American foreign policy stem from the influence of irrational philosophic ideas, and it will take considerable work to change direction. But it’s doable. The starting point is to understand the situation. So I encourage people to educate themselves. Read, understand the key issues, and speak up—when and where you judge best. My hope is that Failing to Confront Islamic Totalitarianism and Winning the Unwinnable War can help people make sense of American foreign policy since 9/11, and thereby empower them to be more effective advocates for their own ideas.

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