By Geoff Moore
In the House of Commons on December 2nd, British MPs debated the question of expanding airstrikes into Syria against ISIS. Conservatives and others who support the Prime Minister’s plan have presented airstrikes as a moral duty and a security imperative, especially following the attacks in Paris in November. This coincides with President Obama’s plan to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. The terrorist group is frequently referred to in Britain and America as a “death cult,” and evil, barbarian savages. But what do these colorful adjectives have to do with airstrikes? If governments are debating whether or not to wage war, then it should matter how we describe those we plan to bomb. Who are they? What are their objectives? Why is it essential to fight?
The problem with the debate on airstrikes is that it is grounded in the short-sighted emotional reflex to choose the easy solution: bombing from drones. The wider inability of the West to take decisive action is due to the complexity of the Syrian conflict and the multiplicity of actors involved. After Paris, Americans and Europeans felt compelled to act, but they just don’t know where, who, or what to bomb. It is fairly clear at this point in the Syrian conflict that airstrikes are no solution. While the US has carried out thousands of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, ISIS remains in place, and has expanded. Indeed, the strikes are counterproductive. They may destroy ISIS facilities, weapons, and essential trade and transportation routes, but they will undoubtedly kill civilians alongside ISIS fighters.
The most likely immediate outcome of a Western bombing campaign (setting aside the problem of crossing paths with Russian planes) will be a dispersal of their fighters to other parts of Syria and the Middle East, especially Libya. We know that ISIS has other territories to which its people can relocate. In this hypothetical, ISIS would not be destroyed, just removed. So, in the context of airstrikes in Syria, what is meant by “degrade” and “destroy”? These terms have not been adequately defined, just like the disparaging terms used so frequently to describe ISIS. Words such as barbarian and evil undermine the truth about ISIS’s sophistication and the fact that the group consists of human beings, not monsters. While we can feel sickened by their actions, dehumanizing the group does nobody any favors. Yet, it is this kind of language which justifies the objective of destroying the group. But have the supporters of airstrikes considered where this will lead in 5, 10, or 20 years, let alone the short-term?
The language we use to describe ISIS matters, and so does the language we use to talk about strategies against the group. What does the destruction of ISIS actually look like? Are we willing to accept a strategic victory in which ISIS is not eliminated from the face of the Earth, but merely forced to flee Syria? Do we plan to coordinate mass arrests of ISIS fighters and extradite thousands to The Hague? Or do we rather hold more genocidal ambitions to truly erase the existence of the group by killing all of its members? Who is more savage in that scenario? It is hard to believe that the ideology which fuels the recruitment of ISIS would go away with such a brutal and morally repugnant operation. Most likely, the ideology would gain traction as the West bowed to the ISIS narrative that their war is a justified ideological and religious one against the West.
On the subject of word choice, Richard Jackson has written that “[f]ear, exaggerated threats and hyperbolic rhetoric are not conducive to the thoughtful examination of evidence, the consideration of alternative arguments and the weighing up of different policy options. Instead, they are more likely to result in hasty overreaction, ill-considered and counter-productive actions, and even self-fulfilling prophesies such as the original attack on Iraq in 2003.” It is frightening that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been called a “terrorist sympathizer” for his position against airstrikes, showing that it is politically dangerous to counter the dominant narrative of good vs. evil.
Michael J. Boyle of the New York Times also addressed the problematic use of words in 2014, after James Foley was beheaded. He lists several instances of American and British leaders describing ISIS, such as when “President Obama described ISIS as a “cancer” spreading across the Middle East that had “no place in the 21st century.” Secretary of State John Kerry condemned ISIS as the face of a “savage” and “valueless evil,” while Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, called the group “barbaric.” Boyle goes on to explain that
“condemning the black-clad, masked militants as purely “evil” is seductive, for it conveys a moral clarity and separates ourselves and our tactics from the enemy and theirs.
But if the “war on terror” has taught us anything, it is that such moralistic language can blind its users to consequences. Describing a group as “inexplicable” and “nihilistic,” as Mr. Kerry did, tends to obscure the group’s strategic aims and preclude further analysis. Resorting to ritualized rhetoric can be a very costly mistake if it leads one to misunderstand an enemy and to take actions that inadvertently help its cause.”
It should be clear that the problem of word choice is by no means pedantic. Oversimplifying ISIS by using hollow words is meant to evoke fear, but it is short-sighted and highly counterproductive. When airstrikes in Syria are justified on a moral basis which promotes the good vs. evil narrative, western leaders should consider the fact that this is not a strategy at all. George Monbiot was particularly accurate when he wrote that “those who are most enthusiastic about waging war are the least able to describe what they are talking about, without resort to metaphor and euphemism.”