(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)
By Jack Shafer
Aug 26 At an Aug. 21 Pentagon press conference, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel claimed that the Islamic State "is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They're beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded."
Perhaps sensing that his comparison hadn't reached sufficiently hyperbolic velocity to escape earth orbit, Hagel immediately amended himself.
"Oh, this is beyond anything that we've seen. So we must prepare for everything," he said [emphasis added], thereby vaulting the brutal Islamic State over the Iranians, the North Koreans, the Russians, the Chinese, and all other entrants into the Number 1 slot in our ever-churning power-ranking of international enemies.
Hagel wasn't so much fear-mongering as he was fear-tending. War is the health of the state, as Randolph Bourne observed a century ago. When at war - or about to go to war - the state craves greater acquiescence from its citizens and greater powers, and granted that acquiescence and those new powers it grows ever larger. Every now and again a foe like the USSR appears, one with 12,000 nuclear warheads ready for delivery, which makes the job of fear-tending simple. At other times, as was the case last week at the Pentagon, it takes a supreme act of rhetoric to instill exploitable fear in the public. The textbook example of this came several months after the 9/11 attacks, when President George W. Bush's 2002 State of the Union address amalgamated Iran, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and North Korea, and "their terrorist allies" into a unified "axis of evil."
When Hagel poured his "beyond and everything" summation last week, he did so into an emotional cauldron. Less than two days before, the Islamic State had released its execution video of journalist James Foley, terrorizing the people who wouldn't watch it and mortifying those who did. In that environment, the secretary of defense could have said U.S. intelligence had determined that the Islamic State was kidnapping orphans and loading them on a streetcar-to-hell it had built in its spare time, and the American public would have believed him. I might have believed him!
I'm not accusing Hagel of consciously hyping the Islamic State threat for nefarious political purposes. His response was standard for national security officials who have been caught napping during a crisis - and without a doubt the eruption of the Islamic State constitutes a crisis. Hagel and President Barack Obama, who less than a year ago called the Islamic State the "jayvee," weren't prepared for the Islamic State's breakout, so it stands to reason that they might want to stoke a panic.
When the press isn't panicked about the Islamic State, it's confused, as is the case at the Financial Times. Its Aug. 25 piece, "Opaque structure adds to the challenge of defeating Isis" (registration required) portrays the group as extra menacing because it is decentralized, unlike the centralized Al Qaeda. Authority is "dispersed" inside the Islamic State, Washington think-tanker Anthony Cordesman tells the FT, and this has allowed its members to take their own wild initiatives. If the Islamic State were as centralized as the old Soviet Union, the press would fear-monger the flip-side. They'd be talking non-stop about the existential threat posed by the organization's monolithic face.
Brookings Institution scholar F. Gregory Gause III assesses the Islamic State without panic in a Aug. 25 piece, nullifying Hagel's scary "beyond and everything" pronouncement. He describes the Islamic State as the beneficiary of the "new Middle East cold war." As existing state authorities in the region have lost control of their borders, proved unable to provide services (and protection) to their populations, and failed forge a common political identity, the Islamic State has risen.
But this rise does not necessarily make Islamic State strong and fearful as much as it showcases the relative weaknesses of the Syrian and Iraq governments. For all its ferocity, the Islamic State has acquired no regional or great power ally, Gause continues, no open patrons. It depends almost exclusively on banditry and protection rackets for its survival. The group's great skill so far has been in uniting almost the entire world against it, making potential allies of nations that can't stand each other, such as the United States and Iran. This knack for uniting countries that have "parallel, if not identical interests," Gause predicts, will probably do the Islamic State in.
Enemies exist, of course. But boogeymen don't. Anyone who tells you otherwise is just trying to sell you something. (Jack Shafer)