It's Paul Krugman vs. Noam Chomsky: This is the history we need to understand Paris, ISIS

Krugman mocks idea that US imperialism's at root of all evil. But scars of our meddling are key to the Middle East

Published November 18, 2015 12:00AM (EST)

  (Reuters/Brendan McDermid/AP/Nader Daoud)
(Reuters/Brendan McDermid/AP/Nader Daoud)

Two remarks a few days apart lead straight to the question posed in this space after last Friday’s tragic events in Paris. Why? Why does the Islamic State wage war? Why does this war now reach into a Western capital? The question is why, the argument being we will get nowhere in resolving a crisis that can no longer be described as the Middle East’s alone until we ask it and attempt answers.

“If you have a handful of people who don’t mind dying, they can kill a lot of people,” President Obama asserted after a Group of 20 summit in Turkey Monday. “That’s one of the challenges of terrorism…. It is the ideology they carry with them and their willingness to die.” The White House transcript of the president’s presser is here.

Interesting in itself. Already we start to answer the “why” question. There is an ideology at work. What is the ideology, then? It arises from exactly what?

The president’s remark is even more provoking of thought when considered next to something Dexter Filkins said on Charlie Rose Friday evening, just as news of the Paris catastrophe was coming in. (Our Charles grows slothful: The program was taped and he should have spiked it. The video recording is here.)

Filkins, once of the Times, now of the New Yorker and throughout corresponding from the Middle East, spoke without reference to the Islamic State’s assault on the French capital, which came over a little bizarrely. Rose had asked him to explain why Iraq remained a shattered polity since the Bush II invasion in 2003 and why it does not effectively resist the Islamic State’s onslaughts.

“Who wants to die for Iraq?” Filkins asked by way of making his point, which was that nobody wants to die for Iraq. Maybe Filkins would agree that there is half an argument for quotation marks at this point: Are we talking about “Iraq,” an idea of a nation more than a nation?

So far, this: Those in the Islamic State will die for their ideology, which is nothing if not of their own making. But few of the 33 million people known as Iraqis seem willing to die for either “Iraq” or Iraq, which the British declared a mandate in 1921, after the French gave up claims to northern provinces awarded in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, signed in secret five years earlier.

Buried not too far below the surface there is a question of identity, isn’t there? I would not want to explain the crisis now emanating from the Middle East by way of a single word, but if I were forced to choose one, this would be it. Among many other things, it is about identity. And we can usefully leave behind the question of who is willing or unwilling to die for what. It is much more productive to think about what the Islamic State’s combatants, or those of any other extremist group, or ordinary, peaceable Iraqis or Syrians want to live for.

It is astonishing to discover how resistant so many of us are to this line of inquiry. More than one reader of last Sunday’s column accuses me of being an Islamic State sympathizer for urging that we consider causality, putting what is undeniably an emergency in an historical context. The grossly pernicious Richard Perle’s “decontextualization” argument, outlined in the column, proves durable and extravagantly destructive—a serious impediment in our quest for a resolution.

The task is to de-decontextualize, if you like wads instead of words. It is not enough to say those turning Syria and parts of Iraq into killing fields are extremists or terrorists or any other term we use to cancel all further consideration of them. It does not matter who is doing what anywhere: Stick figures walk around only in cartoons. There is no such thing as a human being of fewer than three dimensions. Name someone who has no aspirations, however twisted these may be.

In his Monday column in the New York Times, Paul Krugman wrote something very far beneath him. “There are indeed some people determined to believe that Western imperialism is the root of all evil,” he asserted, “and all would be well if we stopped meddling.” I am surprised to see Krugman indulge in this kind of flaccid logic. You can read the column here.

Let me straighten out a few things, given Krugman’s argument is also prevalent. I do not know anyone who “believes” Western imperialism to be “the root of all evil” in the way of a 17th century Puritan preacher. That phrase is straw-man trickery. I know plenty of people who think the scars of Western colonialism, including America’s neo-variety, are key to understanding the Islamic State crisis. They think this because they have resort to history, wherein the Western powers’ responsibility over a long period of time is perfectly plain. To finish the thought, all would be a truckload better if we stopped meddling—this one can stand by without qualification.


The question of West’s responsibility in the Middle East’s unraveling is complex—and, for reasons I cannot honestly fathom, controversial. On the very face of it, the Islamic State arose in consequence of the 2003 invasion and the precipitously stupid decision to disband the Iraqi army. Still more immediately, the CIA has cultivated at least some of the terror groups now active in Syria. Who can say how many or which ones? It is not even clear the agency knows the ACs from the DCs in the putrid stew of anti-Damascus militias now on the boil.

Nothing too complicated there. To stay with Krugman’s term, we have been watching real-time meddling, all day every day, for a dozen years in the case of Iraq.

Further back in history, we might start with the prolonged period of decline the Islamic world entered upon beginning in the 16th or 17th century, depending on how one counts. There were many reasons for this—political and economic, primarily—but, crunching down a lot of history, Western intrusion cannot (yet) be cast as a primary cause. What persists from this period, at least among some, is a nostalgia for the greatness of golden age of the caliphates (thought to have begun in the 8th century) and all their scientific, intellectual and cultural achievements.

A condition of decline saw Islamic-majority nations into the 19th and 20th centuries, and here the part played by the European powers becomes more obvious. It was during the 19th century that the West’s modern-day meddling commenced in earnest, chiefly in pursuit of resources. In the century just ended, this came to retarding the political and social impulses to modernize that grew ever more evident throughout the developing world. To most of the world, I should add, to modernize does not equate with Westernizing.

To make the point clear, despotic monarchies may have been historical realities across the Middle East, but the West’s fondness for them—still much with us, of course—was decisive as the last century unrolled and the postwar “independence era” came and went. Exhausted after World War II, Britain and France had passed the ball to the U.S. by the mid-1950s, and Washington has run with it ever since.

This is not a scholar’s account. With complete humility I stand open to the most sweeping correction. But the above serves by way of a broad outline, it seems to me. My point is that we must, must, must begin thinking historically if we are to come to grips with the twin questions of causality and responsibility in modern Middle Eastern history. Only then will we recognize what it is we must do as the history we make grows ever grimmer.

Root of all evil? Who ever said so? Can we keep the conversation serious, please? An accomplice in the past, a perpetrator later on? Who could possibly argue otherwise, providing there is a history book in the house?

I wrote above that I fail to understand why the question of responsibility is controversial. I take it back: This is why. Facing one’s part in others’ deprivation, repression, violence and all the rest is an errand requiring humility, resolve, commitment, and an enlarged vision. We Americans score poorly on all counts these days. But summoning all four—if it helps to think of it this way—is a matter of self-interest now.

We seem to be getting there, if an inch at a time. Two signs of this since the Friday attacks in Paris.

First and most important, Washington seems to be opening itself at last to the idea of a united front against the Islamic State that the Russians have proposed since it emerged as a force capable of taking territory—and many lives—last year. The press picture of Obama meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 session Monday tells you all you need to know about the changing political and diplomatic environment.

Secretary of State Kerry has since reiterated this turn toward a kind of tactical détente. Already there is apparent coordination among U.S., French and Russian aircraft flying intensified sorties over Islamic State positions. French President François Hollande it to confer with Putin next week. Washington’s focus on ISIS, rather than the Assad government in Damascus appears to be—we will have to see—less ambiguous than it was 24 hours before the Paris tragedy.

Excellent straight the across the board. Painful to ask, but why did it take Paris to get this done?

The same applies to the second sign of better thinking.

You must have noticed the efflorescence of peace signs here, there and everywhere since the Paris events. Fine: Who can object to this totem of the countercultural past? Painful to ask, but where were the peace signs before Paris?

Way back in the counterculture era, which followed shortly after the last Ice Age, Philip Slater, a noted M.I.T. sociologist, postulated what he called the Toilet Assumption. The metaphor is unfortunate, but Slater’s point remains germane. In “The Pursuit of Loneliness,” a much-read book when it came out in 1970, he explained his coinage as “the notion that unwanted matter, unwanted difficulties, unwanted complexities and obstacles will disappear if they are removed from our immediate field of vision.”

“When these discarded problems rise to the surface again… we react as if a sewer had backed up,” Slater continued (insisting on his ill-chosen imagery). “We are shocked, disgusted and angered, and immediately call for the emergency plumber (the special commission, the crash program) to ensure that the problem is once again removed from our consciousness.”

So it goes, as Vonnegut famously said. Our minds are focused, finally. For now—but not for long—we can forget the fact that everything suddenly confronting us stirred us so much less before it came home and we could see it.

Let us not be satisfied, meantime, with all the measures now being announced—France’s extended state of emergency, Hollande’s proposal to amend the constitution to accommodate the fight against terror, the mobilized police and army, the intensified surveillance and bombing campaigns. These are reactions—sheer function. They are not responses. Our leaders do not have one yet. To shape one and then get it done requires that we understand what we respond to.

Down with Richard Perle, in other words.


At the University of Connecticut last Saturday, a Muslim student woke in the morning to find a very nasty epithet stuck on his dorm room door. By Monday, when I heard a radio report on the incident, the student body had erupted more or less en masse in protest, demanding the administration take action against this kind of disgrace.

Finally we are getting past one variety of stupidity, I thought.

But I thought wrong. Half of America’s governors now want to bar Syrian refugees from entry, the anti-immigration right is newly animated, and Jeb Bush wants to discriminate between Christian and Muslim immigrants. In Europe, the beast of atavistic xenophobia stirs anew.

This is where the Richard Perle ethos gets us. Over time it leaves us ignorant such that we grasp less and less of the world around us. We do not know how to behave properly. Perle has always seemed to me a person of primitive, probably racist instincts. He encourages the worst, similarly, in us.

The essential point to grasp about the Islamic State and Islam, it seems to me, is that the relationship is instrumental, not religious. Islam is a means to an end, in other words. The leadership does not appear to consist of believers in any ordinary sense so much as it intends to appeal to believers. We already know, as a matter of confirmation, that there is a fulsome cohort of officers from Saddam Hussein’s disbanded army command among the Islamic State’s leadership.

If this is so, why would it be so?

Across the Middle East, the mosque is often the most organized institution available to villagers and those who, though dwelling in cities, brought the village with them when they joined the great urban drift one finds all over the developing world. Its functions are social and often political as well as religious. Again, I offer no scholarly study, but this seems to offer at least one part of an explanation as to why ISIS, al-Qaeda, al-Nusra and the numerous other militias and movements now active across the Middle East and West Asia count Islam and the mosque among their principle organizing tools.

This brings us back to the question of identity, and warped medieval interpretations of the Quran appear to be essential to extremist movements in this respect. It is as if they have gone as far back in history as necessary such that they can say, “This is who we were before the Westerner came, before our cultures were corrupted, before manifestations of material superiority imparted to us a consciousness of poverty, backwardness and inferiority, before our resources were stolen, before lines on maps that make no sense to us disrupted our societies.”

Does this not help explain the obsession with recreating a caliphate? Or the explicit determination to erase the Sykes-Picot line, drawn across sand a century ago next year to divide Syria and Iraq between French and British spheres respectively? Or the incessant focus on the former colonial powers and the heir to their claim to prerogative, the U.S.?

Does it not suggest something of what we must do now—or stop doing—as a response that gets us beyond reaction?

Critics of Christianity usually have to be reminded of the difference between the temporal church and the teachings. The former is a story of corruption, misjudgment, cruelty for long periods and human error extending over many centuries. This cannot logically have anything to do with one’s judgment of the latter as we have them. It seems to me non-Muslims owe Muslims a variant of this distinction—writ very large in the case of the extremist versions of the faith that now proliferate.

One essential feature of Islam is that it continues to inform daily life—conduct in public space, let us say—in a way that was familiar to Westerners long ago but is no longer. To me this suggests that relationships between religion and the state are bound not to conform to Western expectations. This is as it should be, and we must bear in mind that these relationships have to be structured to suit each given society: They are not the same from one society to another. Indonesia and Malaysia, for instance, are Muslim-majority nations, and there is tension between the mosque and the state, but they are closer to secular than most Middle Eastern countries—in some cases greatly so.

Ultimately Middle Eastern societies must be left to find their own ways, each one by itself. It is not an original thought. The West’s task, speaking very broadly, is to stop doing a lot of what it has been doing and start doing things it has neglected. In the latter category this means an emphatically disinterested effort—a long campaign, the kind that would be a feature of our time the way colonization was—dedicated to repairing the political, social, economic and cultural damage inflicted in the past.

Among ourselves, something else: the habit of history, a revision of the very language we use to speak of others, a filling in of many silences.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is

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