Fighting ISIS and World War IV

Friday 16/10/2015
A migrant woman sleeping at the port of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos

Are we facing another world war? Is this what some, such as John Hopkins University Professor Eliot A. Cohen, are calling the fourth world war — with the Cold War, which resulted in the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall, being viewed as World War III?

I am, of course, talking about the War on Terror, as coined by former US president George W. Bush. Although that war had been launched against al-Qaeda, which has been replaced by the Islamic State (ISIS) as the leader of global terrorism.

Cohen, in an article published not long after 9/11 in Commentary magazine — popular among American neo-cons — called on US officials to abandon the “War on Terror” in favour of the World War IV scenario. He said that world wars, as opposed to wars on terror, contained an inherent narrative of the “free world” versus various totalitarian ideologies. In the past, this was Nazism, Fascism, Stalinism and the like, while today the enemy would be takfirism.

But there is another important test: World War II succeeded in containing the extreme right-wing, defeating Nazism and fascism while, at the same time, incorporating more moderate forms of this ideology within the democratic framework (such as the Front National in France and the National Alliance in Italy, among others). Extreme left-wing parties were similarly contained, with a more moderate form of socialism taking root (such as the Socialist Party in France and the Italian Communist Party, among others).

Does this suggest that World War IV would, according to the same doctrine being espoused by the neo-conservatives and even some within the White House, seek to contain extremism by accepting a more moderate form of political Islam within a demo­cratic framework?

The Americans are pragmatists. They think that what worked in the past will work again in the future. So, it is not surprising to see signs that the United States might be trying to tame al-Qaeda to combat the new enemy, ISIS.

Since Cohen put forward the World War IV idea, Commentary has been inundated with reports and studies supporting the view and decrying Bush’s War on Terror. Former CIA director James Woolsey famously used this terminology on a number of occasions.

In the ongoing war in Syria, which may be part of this World War IV, everything has been mixed up, resulting in overlap­ping and even contradictory goals. We must also acknowledge that there is nothing wrong with international intervention in principle. In fact, this could be a moral imperative in certain circumstances, such as during the Rwandan genocide in 1994 or the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. But in all of these cases, the interna­tional partners were clear on who the enemy was.

In the war that is being fought in Syria, that is simply not the case.

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces are focusing on fighting the Free Syrian Army and after that al-Nusra Front, only then turning their attention to ISIS. Russia is pursuing precisely the same policy, only with more sophisti­cated arms.

The so-called moderate Syrian opposition is more concerned about fighting Assad than ISIS. While Turkey is more concerned with fighting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) than ISIS. As for the Arabs, they have been largely absent, overwhelmed by the unfolding situation.

When the allies fought World War II, everyone — from the Americans to the Soviets — agreed that Nazism was the number one enemy. While during the Cold War — or shall we say World War III? — everyone agreed that the Soviet Union was the major enemy. But today, during World War IV, things are less certain. The dilemma is that everybody agrees that we need to fight ISIS but nobody is making this their priority. So long as this is the case, ISIS will endure and expand.

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