Since the Paris attacks on Nov. 13, there has been much debate concerning their motivation and what the Western response should be. To get clarity on these issues, The Undercurrent’s Eric Rosenberg took the time to talk to the Ayn Rand Institute’s foreign policy expert, Elan Journo. Journo has done extensive research on the Middle East and the Islamic movement, and authored the book, Winning the Unwinnable War: America’s Self-Crippled Response to Islamic Totalitarianism.
The Undercurrent: Why did these terrorist attacks happen in Paris?
Elan Journo: One perspective is that there is a war going on against the West—in particular, Western countries [like] the U.K., Spain, and the U.S.—waged by the Islamic totalitarian movement. The war has been a progress of attacks happening in different places at different times by different groups in this movement. It has been going on for decades, and 9/11 was one major incident in it. What motivates this war is [the Islamic totalitarians’] religious belief that their view of Islam has to dominate. It has to be imposed wherever they can. These attacks are inflicted on us precisely because we do not obey their totalitarian vision. We refuse to do it. The fact that we do not obey them is proof to them that we are immoral and deserve to be put down the way you would put down a rabid dog. That’s the widest possible perspective on this with all the groups involved—ISIS, Al-Qaeda, HAMAS, Hezbollah, and many others. The common goal that they share, and through similar tactics, is to bring a vision of dominating people under Allah’s law as they see it.
Part of the reason that they hate the West (a question about which people have wondered since 9/11) is not because of the foreign policy of Western countries in the Middle East. [The reason they hate us] is not because of poverty in those parts of the world. It’s not even because many people in that part of the world live under dictatorial governments. Those are all bad things, but they do not explain the movement, nor do they account for what the movement actually stands for. This is a movement that sees itself as bringing the Muslim world back to a state of dominance, which is what it used to have when it had a worldwide empire. Their account of the current crisis in the world is that Islam should be on top and it isn’t. And the reason it isn’t is that we are lacking in piety. The solution, as many of them will tell you, is to become more pious—to become completely devoted to the religion.
What the Islamic totalitarian movement seeks to do is to champion that cause and take up arms in advancing it. They do it by force or attack through acts of war on various scales to, in their view, advance the Truth, so the world is restored to a just and moral outcome. To them, that means the dominance of Islam and the return of their glory here on earth. They view this as what their religion requires. That’s the widest perspective.
The narrower, more immediate answer to why they attacked Paris is that [they are continuing what they have been doing]. There were a number of attacks and attempted attacks this summer. There was an attempt to attack a high-speed train that was thwarted. There were a series of attempts that the French police thwarted through intelligence. Even before that, going back to January, there was the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris—again, by [the Islamic totalitarian movement]. They came after that publication because they regarded it as blasphemous for having published caricatures of Muhammad. Those attacks all led up to now. You can trace lots of these attacks to present day, when you connect the dots. This is what I mean by a campaign, a low-level war, waged by a movement in different parts of the world. It doesn’t look like World War II, but it is nevertheless a war that they have declared upon us, that we really don’t conceptualize properly as a war.
TU: Why has Paris been a primary target?
Journo: Some of the reasons for their selection of targets has to do with where they think they can have the greatest harm. If you imagine yourself in the position of someone that needs to commit such atrocities, one of the factors to consider would be opportunity. It’s easier to get into Europe. Or, if you are already in Europe, it’s a much easier target to go by Belgium or Paris. The U.S. is much harder to reach. Those are only some of the practical considerations, though. Part of it is that there is a desire to strike at symbols. If you remember 9/11, they targeted the World Trade Center, basically Wall Street. They targeted the Pentagon. They targeted the Capitol and did not succeed in hitting it. Those are all basic organs of America’s prosperity and strength—its military, its financial center, its government.
So, why would they attack Paris? Paris is one of the major centers of Western culture within Europe. It is a city full of historical landmarks. The ideology of this terrorist movement regards the West as beneath contempt, immoral—a source of toxic ideas, toxic behavior, and toxic customs. So it’s not so surprising at all, based on their views, that they would target something that symbolizes Western culture. France is precisely that. It would be surprising if [Islamic totalitarians] went after something that didn’t obviously represent the culture that they hate.
TU: Could the Paris attacks have been prevented?
Journo: Yes and no. One of the most important things that isn’t understood and isn’t talked about is that [terrorists] are constantly trying to carry out such attacks, so we live in a climate of fear that these attacks will happen. We live in a highly security-conscious society because of it. Think of all the checkpoints at airports. In that respect, there is the constant looming threat of attacks like this and they’re hard to stop, though often we are successful in doing so.
The reason we live in this climate (and this is what people don’t understand) is because we had an opportunity to destroy the Islamic totalitarian movement and we didn’t. If you zoom out, you’ll see we had an opportunity years ago, right after 9/11. It would have been a prime opportunity to go after this movement in a comprehensive and decisive way. Basically, destroy the movement and demonstrate that its cause is hopeless. I am talking about a military response against the regimes responsible for this movement—Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, even Pakistan—the major factions and all their infrastructures, and the major groups that they sponsor or help facilitate or fund, including all the above that I have mentioned, Al-Qaeda, and other offshoots.
Had we successfully destroyed that movement, which was doable, the whole idea that we would live in a society where who knows where the next attack will come from—Paris, Madrid, Berlin, New York—is unthinkable. We would have taken the wind out of the sails of these people and shown them that taking up arms against us is futile. That would have discouraged the bulk of these groups. Any others that remained would have been marginalized. They would find it very hard to locate all the network resources that they would need to carry out an attack. Those would dry up. The whole notion of fighting under the banner of Allah and destroying the infidel, that whole grandiose religious fantasy that they follow, would go away. Having shown that the goal of this cause was hopeless, no one would want to join it. No one wants to support a hopeless cause. But we didn’t do that. We didn’t decisively defeat that movement. That’s been the main source of the catastrophic tragedy of the last 16 years.
As a result of having had and forfeited the opportunity to destroy this movement by pursuing policies based on false moral ideals, we have crippled our ability to use the military force that we have. Many of the things we’ve done and didn’t do have allowed the Islamic movement to grow stronger and created a sense of immunity that motivates them to be much bolder in their attacks. They are honing in on targets like France that it’s astonishing that people would ever dare to attack, because the French are incredibly powerful. They could crush ISIS tomorrow. We could crush them tomorrow. The fact that they dare to carry out such attacks shows you that they have learned from experience that the Western response to the Islamic movement is weak and incoherent. This is fundamentally a foreign policy issue, not a military failure. When you have that massive of a failure in foreign policy—the moral failure of not having the self-esteem and confidence to go after the enemy and assert yourself—you’ve created a climate where there isn’t a Western capital that isn’t liable to get attacked.
So, could these attacks be prevented? In the big picture sense, yes. We could have taken out these enemies years ago and created a world that is much safer, where rights are protected, where our freedom is much more secure to the point where we don’t dwell on whether some group is going to send someone to blow him or herself up in a nightclub or sports stadium. We could have defeated them the same way we defeated the Japanese in WWII. [The Japanese] were fanatical as a movement. The imperial regime in Japan had people willing to die for that cause. Having really defeated that cause showed that it was hopeless to continue fighting for it. Nobody today thinks that one of the menaces looming over us is imperialist Japan, because we succeeded in that war. Having failed to do that here, and having compounded the problem in the last decade through a number of irrational policies, preventing attacks like those in Paris is difficult. We have a very motivated enemy with lots of loopholes and opportunities that they can exploit through security networks. It is very difficult to prevent these murderous terrorist attacks when people will literally die to carry them out.
TU: Should the U.S. use military force as a response to these attacks?
Journo: Yes, and it should have been used long ago. [Islamic totalitarians] have carried out attacks and killed Americans. That warrants us defeating them. But, if we go after them the way we did in Iraq with our soldiers’ hands tied behind their backs, it will become another unwinnable war for us in the way that Iraq and Afghanistan both were. We should be doing something, but the way our political ideas dominate our culture, the moral ideas people accept, I don’t see us doing it in a way that would really be effective.
Those ideals would cause our military to conduct itself in the same self-crippling way that it did in Iraq. People can get over their unwillingness to use military force, if the atrocity is great enough. What will be difficult to overcome (and what we need to overcome to go in the right direction) are the entrenched moral ideals that shape our foreign policy: namely, the idea that we don’t have a moral right to go in and defend ourselves, and the idea that we don’t have the right to defeat enemies with whatever force we can, as quickly as possible, with the least risk to our soldiers.
TU: Why is the U.S. choosing not to respond to the attacks in Paris with full force?
Journo: The fundamental answer is that the political mindset is deeply colored by certain moral ideas, conventional moral ideals that people hold in their everyday lives: that we should put others first, that we shouldn’t assert ourselves, that we shouldn’t defend ourselves, that we have to be concerned with the welfare of the Iraqis and bring them democracy, that we have to open up their schools, that we have to open up printing presses and help lift them out of poverty. Those are not military goals. People might want to do that on their own account. They might want to join the Peace Corps. Those are things you might want to do, but that is not the function of the military. The military exists to protect us from foreign threats. Iraq and Afghanistan were selfless wars [in that respect]. That’s the thrust of my book, [Winning the Unwinnable War]. As a result of that, you get Islamics becoming even more confident, because they think, “While we aren’t very strong, we are pious and piety is a source of strength. The Americans are so strong, yet we have managed to fight them off. We’re still here. Afghanistan is the longest war in American history.” Now we have a paradoxical situation where the world’s strongest country—materially, economically, militarily—is stuck in a quagmire that could have easily been avoided had we destroyed the movement that is waging war against us. That is a moral failure on our part—conducting our military in line with conventional moral ideals that are self-destructive.
The Undercurrent is happy to offer interviewees a platform for their ideas. Their responses do not necessarily represent the views of the publication at large.
Images courtesy of the Ayn Rand Institute and Pixabay.