The Response to ISIS

Perhaps rigor mortis is better, not merely rigidity in principle and/or practice, but rigidity of the whole entity setting in after death (in this case, rather, DECLINE as a vital civilization). ISIS, the specific subclass of terrorism on the current agenda (even seeming to displace Russia and China) as threatening America, Democracy, and the Free World, has been raised to the status of the universal anti-Christ, malevolence incarnate, and fueling America’s comeback to unilateral world dominance, a position from which it had been falling through the changing structure of international power. ISIS is like a life raft America reaches for in the multipolar world circumventing its customary position of unilateral political-economic-military dominance. In that light, it serves the function that communism did (and perhaps emotively still does) a half-century ago: the Hated Object to rationalize, legitimate, prosecute a course of global intervention, eradication of which is essential to national identity and survival.

America is Edisonian: we invent things, but not necessarily what Thomas Alva had in mind. We invent that which will accomplish three goals, preferably simultaneously: Unify the nation (especially in the face of real or imagined class division); activate a huge military establishment (which translates into periodic if not continuous war and intervention); succor a capitalistic system (which might otherwise be at increasing risk of structural breakdown) prone, by its chicanery and misallocation of priorities, to an endemic condition of underconsumption exacerbated by a shriveling social safety net). Normality is a curse, unless, as now happens, the normality of war. Instead, constant jolts of fear keep the State and Capitalism going—but more, keep them growing closer, each reinforcing, and creating the need for, unity, mutual protection, ever-expanding aggressiveness.

Welcome aboard, ISIS; if you didn’t exist, we’d be forced to invent you. Here, let the reasoning of Jean-Paul Sartre be our guide. I wrote an article in Agricultural History a half-century ago, “Fear of Man: Populism, Authoritarianism, and the Historian,” which strangely resonates with the present moment, testifying precisely to the ideological rigorism of today, called then by the term, “consensus,” a societal phenomenon whose purpose was to deny social protest past and current in favor of a grand celebration of Exceptionalism. Populism was in a sense our ISIS, as Cold War hysteria and historians’ opportunism to get on the bandwagon, in the 1950s-60s, magnified fears, induced conformity, and bludgeoned dissent. A shabby record in a still shabbier times.

Sartre’s “Portrait of the Anti-Semite” uncovers the psychodynamics of authoritarianism, specifically, the fashioning of a scapegoat to hide one’s own (and here, society’s own) hidden fears and tenacious clinging to the status quo. For Sartre, the anti-Semite hates everything but the Jew: “He is a man who is afraid. Not of the Jews of course, but of himself, of his conscience, his freedom, of his instincts, of his responsibilities, of solitude, of change, of society and the world; of everything except the Jews.” My own, 1965: “This too captures the significance of our own attack on the Populist movement as an escape from ourselves and the challenges of our age.” In our discussion, remember ISIS as a possible functional equivalent, summoning the same psychodynamics in response to challenge, as Populism had been many years ago.

In a preceding passage I wrote: “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the critics of Populism and the society which finds the charges [anti-Semitism, xenophobia, premodernism] so congenial to its temperament exhibit the very traits of authoritarianism they impute to others…. Thus, Populism becomes for the historian and the larger society what the Jew is for the anti-Semite. Both historian and anti-Semite require a scapegoat, and the character of that scapegoat is incidental. For each hates not Populists or Jews but himself. Each cannot affirm man, each has little faith in human potentiality or confidence in man’s ability to shape the future and rationally control society, each cannot confront the possibilities of self-fulfillment in humanity—and frightened by these thoughts, each turns blindly to dependence on the homogeneous folk or the static past. In the final analysis, the denigration of Populism signifies the fear of man.”

ISIS is our scapegoat, as, under the capacious tent of counterterrorism and defense of the homeland, other groups have preceded and no doubt will follow it. ISIS keeps the hairpin trigger of militarism and echoing patriotism on steady alert–surveillance, war, intervention, increasingly blind submission to the framework of power, in sum, ruling-groups’ idealization of what America is and must continue to be, as the natural fruit of an American society giving tacit admission to its own failure by its strident expression of hegemonic declaration and ideological rigidity. Again Sartre, in what I said “reaches to the innermost recesses of the authoritarian mind”—on reflection 49 years later appears to me the uncanny exactitude of anticipatory vision which best delineates America today: “Anti-Semitism, in a word, is fear of man’s fate. The anti-Semite is the man who wants to be a pitiless stone, furious torrent, devastating lightning: in short, everything but a man.”

That, I submit, is the American mentalset, a nation craving, as Sartre says elsewhere, the durability of stone: a face of hardness to the world, fearful of introspection, of ever stopping to inspect the record of shock-and-awe intervention, paramilitary-sourced regime change, never-ceasing weapons development, stockpiling, and modernization of existing stock, and, twin of this psychological closed system, hubris and the boastful claims of divinely-ordered superiority. ISIS must be accorded spontaneous creation to cover America’s tracks as to the fundamental takeover of the Middle East, which included the invasion of Iraq leading ultimately to ISIS’s formation and growth; hence as its parent in having responsibility for the ensuing turmoil. But it also must be accorded world-shaking proportions to justify the continued permanent state of emergency, bombing Syria and turning ISIS itself (now that Ukraine is losing its luster) into the front-line ranks of the Wider Threat, these being the latest manifestation of US power. A not-so-subtle linkage has been created with Russia and China, as well as the argument laid for ISIS’s own ultimate threat of encroachment on American soil.


Recently, Peter Baker and Eric Schmitt in a New York Times article, “Many Missteps in Assessment of ISIS Threat,” (Sept. 29), point out the recriminations flying back and forth between the White House and the intelligence community over when the existence, actions, and territorial ambitions of ISIS became the focus of attention. They do not, however, examine the causation, long- or short-term, for its formation. That is important, because simply taking ISIS as what today is termed an existential threat erases the US role in and complicity for its coming into being and, to a large extent, the shaping of its objectives, thus setting the stage for American bombing engagements and the possible pretext for enlarging war plans, as already evident by attacks within Syria. Inadvertently, Baker-Schmitt, as to why the tardy response to ISIS, suggest the wider stretch toward US global hegemony: “But the reports [2013 classified documents on a threat and also the “deteriorating readiness” of Iraqi troops], they [senior military and intelligence officers] said, generated little attention in a White House consumed with multiple brush fires and reluctant to be drawn back into Iraq.” Said one senior intelligence official: “’Some of us were pushing the reporting, but the White House just didn’t pay attention to it. They were preoccupied with other crises. This just wasn’t a big priority.’”

Now it is. And the Obama administration goes on the propaganda offensive within government itself, so as not to receive blame. Obama, in a broadcast interview, “pointing to the agencies without mentioning any misjudgments of his own… left intelligence officials bristling about being made into scapegoats and critics complaining that he was trying to avoid responsibility.” His press secretary, also inadvertently, made clear Obama prized his connection to the intelligence community. Obama is “commander in chief and he’s the one who takes responsibility,” followed by the caveat, “and the president continues to have the highest degree of confidence in our intelligence community to continue to provide that advice.” That’s a telling sign, not of weakness or vacillation, but of closeness and agreement, whenever POTUS is not up to the (military) mark. Blame turned instead on Maliki for antagonizing Sunnis. More blame—too many targets, a dispersal of energies: According to another official, “’The Syria policy people are so focused on taking down Assad, they were blind to this [ISIS] problem.’”

It seems the work of imperialism never ends, America already up to its neck in deposing Assad. But the capture of Falluja and Ramadi got Obama’s attention. How, one might ask, does Obama get away with flagrant violation of international law? One reason, applied to the domestic scene (and a still compliant set of friends and allies), but hardly bought into by Putin and Li, is the mythology of peacemaker and world statesman which The Times, as here, contributes its part: “Even so [the threat assessment of the Defense Intelligence Agency to Congress on Feb. 11 on ISIS territorial gains], Mr. Obama was determined not to let the United States be dragged back into a war that he had opposed from the start and that he had promised during his first campaign for the White House to end.” Doubtful, to say the least, except for election purposes. Yet, six years out, Baker-Schmitt embellishment of the record continues. Aides said that Obama “was convinced the United States was too quick to pull the military lever whenever it confronted a foreign crisis. He would not repeat what he considered the mistake of his predecessor President George W. Bush.” The bombings in Iraq and Syria are therefore a nonevent.

MY New York Times Comment on the Baker-Schmitt article, Sept. 30, follows:

First, it is enjoyable to see the Executive and the intelligence community at each other’s throat, an in-fighting to cover over the obsession of each with unwarranted intervention. Absent the Iraq invasion, or, with Obama, its continuation, would there even have been ISIS?

The US creates mayhem and the rise of extremism because of its own hell-bent quest for global hegemony, a status it once held, but with the rise of Russia and China as world-players, and thus, the de-centered international power system, it [US] acts with renewed desperation to remain on top.

If the intelligence boys could not see 9/11, how expect them to see ISIS–a bunch of ignorant boastful defense “experts” who’d do better at Goldman Sachs. And Obama, playing geopolitical strategist, is laughable–a con man who pulled himself up the ladder of political opportunism.

The lesson: STOP intervening where the US presence, founded exclusively on self-interest, is not wanted. We finance and arm the Taliban against Russia, and look what happens. Ditto, practically every opposition group, our plans exploding in our face.

Currently, the US is the primary aggressor nation in the world, even more activated under Democratic than Republican auspices. And the future doesn’t look bright: Mrs. Clinton makes Margaret Thatcher look like Mother Theresa, a war vulture of the first water. After ISIS, be assured that more ISISs await in the wings, products of US irresponsible world behavior.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at