On the inevitability of war between the West and the Islamic State

On the inevitability of war between the West and the Islamic State

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John Maynard Keynes did not want World War 2 to happen. In fact, he made clear in his The Economic Consequences of the Peace that the Treaty of Versailles was a Carthaginian peace that brutally crushed Germany, and set the stage for future antipathy and confrontation. And as it turned out, Hitler's rise to power was fuelled as much by German antipathy to the terms of Versailles and the economic situation Germany was put into by Versailles as anything else.

The huge reparations meant Germany's economy could not get back on its feet, and contributed to both hyperinflation of 1923 caused by the French seizing the German productive base in the Ruhr following stoppages in reparation payments, and remained a serious budgetary burden and opportunity cost during the austerity, mass unemployment and hunger of the early 1930s.

But just because Versailles' terms were unfair — and the treaty a poisoned chalice that would have almost inevitably brought to power either a communist or a nationalist committed to overturning the legitimate grievance of Versailles — it didn't make Hitler any less of a menace to the world. Hitler may have arisen to combat a real injustice at Versailles, but his aggressive territorial expansionism, his genocidal racism, and his vision of a thousand-year totalitarian Reich made confrontation and war between Hitler and the democratic West just as inevitable as the failure of Versailles.

I get the same sense about the Islamic State today. It is hard to deny that the Arab world has faced a cumulative two centuries of large-scale Western injustices. These range from Britain and France's imperial carving-up of the middle east into arbitrary and unwanted nation states like Iraq and Syria, to the West's support for unpopular and brutal Arab regimes today in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt and in past times also in Iraq and Syria, to the calamitous Iraq invasion of 2003 estimated to have resulted in upwards of a million deaths, to the West's tacit support for the ongoing Israeli rule over the West Bank and the carnage in Gaza.

But that the Arabs have a catalogue of legitimate grievances against the West matters little. The genocidal and militant Salafist ideology embodied in the Islamic State is just as conflict-prone as the genocidal and militant Nazi ideology of the 1920s and 1930s. The Islamic State offers a choice between submission to their brand of Islam, or death. Minorities such as Christians and Yazidis face the choice of exile, forced conversion or slaughter. And if that alone does not make confrontation between the West and the Isamic State inevitable, the Islamic State's ambition of a global caliphate does. They are absolutely explicit about this: their spokesmen talk of "raising the flag of jihad in the White House", and of "conquering Rome".

The Islamic State wish to use terrorism in the manner of 9/11 to accomplish these goals. Following the attacks of 9/11, war against al-Qaeda was inevitable. The American public mood made it so. According to Gallup, 89 percent of Americans favored military action against al-Qaeda in the wake of 9/11. In a democracy, if 89 percent of the people want something, they generally get it. If the Islamic State's goal is to perpetrate more such attacks, eventually they will enrage the American (or, perhaps, European) public in such a way that war — and large-scale war, not just a few air strikes — is inevitable. While Westerners fret over civil liberties and public deficits today, all that would go out of the window in the case of a new 9/11.

Of course, had we not opened Pandora's box by invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein we might never be here. The Islamic State is the power that has filled the power vacuum left from the Ba'athists' overthrow, and the waning of Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime in a civil war that many Western powers supported the anti-Assad forces, some of whom have now joined into the Islamic State. But the same could be said of Versailles and Hitler. That Western policies are at least partly culpable for creating this mess does not necessarily mean that the prudent thing to do is to do nothing and hope it goes away. The Islamic State now controls a territory larger than Jordan. They believe they have God on their side. The beleagured Iraqi, Syrian and Kurdish governments even with American air support can barely hold their own territory, let alone recapture the huge swathes of land taken by the Islamic State. 

It is ironic that much of the Western world is suffering from an economic depression and widespread slack capacity just like in the depressionary decade prior to World War 2. While America has escaped an economic slump of the magnitude of the Great Depression, the eurozone in particular as well as Britain have had worse slumps. 

Keynes believed that for all its horrors, World War 2 might teach the virtues of using fiscal policy to achieve full employment. And governments successfully pursued full employment strategies for thirty high-growth years after Keynes' death, but that came to an end with the oil shocks and so-called stagflation of the 1970s. 

But in an economy averse to notions of fiscal stimulus, we clearly see that the private market can stay in a bad equilibrium for a very long time. That means that if policymakers cannot agree on peaceful fiscal stimuli — infrastructure, education, research, tax cuts, space exploration, security and aid for countries like Iraq and Syria etc — then a war may be the only stimulus the economy gets. If we do not get peaceful Keynesianism then sooner or later we get weaponized Keynesianism.

Of course, a war against the Islamic State today would not juice the economy on the scale of World War 2. It would barely do so on the scale of the war in Afghanistan. But war against Hitler in 1933 would not have juiced the economy on the scale of World War 2, either, because Germany had not yet rearmed. And like with the rise of the Nazis, a war-fatigued West seeks desperately to avert a new wide-scale war, giving the Islamic State an opportunity to consolidate their territory and plan attacks against the West.

Now, I am not banging a drum for war. War always signifies a failure. As an opponent of the Iraq war, the rise of radical forces to replace the Ba'athists was one of the very things that I was most concerned about. 

But such is geopolitics, and such is life. It seems that once again it may be coming time to learn those lessons of full employment.


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