Yes, I’ll Say It: Marie Harf Had a Point

The State Department spox phrased it badly (“root causes”), but there’s something to consider here; if we don’t, the war will be endless.

I see that Marie Harf of the State Department has taken a tremendous pounding for going on Hardball the other night and saying the following:

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Are we killing enough of them?

HARF: We’re killing a lot of them and we’re going to keep killing more of them. So are the Egyptians, so are the Jordanians. They’re in this fight with us. But we cannot win this war by killing them. We cannot kill our way out of this war. We need in the medium to longer term to go after the root causes that leads people to join these groups, whether it’s lack of opportunity for jobs, whether…

MATTHEWS: We’re not going to be able to stop that in our lifetime or fifty lifetimes. There’s always going to be poor people. There’s always going to be poor Muslims, and as long as there are poor Muslims, the trumpet’s blowing and they’ll join. We can’t stop that, can we?

HARF: We can work with countries around the world to help improve their governance. We can help them build their economies so they can have job opportunities for these people…

Well. That’s a big fat hanging curveball over plate Breitbart, no doubt about that. She even gave the right the gift of using the phrase “root causes,” which I as a columnist stopped typing in the 1990s.

Now I don’t know Harf from Adam, or I guess Eve, except that as it happens I was on Hardball myself Monday night and we shook hands as I walked on the set and she off. I can attest to the solidity of her handshake, but like I say I don’t know her. Around the metaphorical Washington water cooler, one is not overwhelmed by a surfeit of odes to her towering competence. So my interest isn’t in defending her. But my interest is in taking a quickly made TV point and trying to convert it into something for you to chew on rather than to dismiss, because there is indeed something here, and if we ignore it, we misunderstand extremism’s lure, and from there we make all kinds of mistakes about how to fight this ISIS war.

Red State went after Harf thus (the link to this is above): “This is dumb on so many levels that one hardly knows where to start. First and foremost, Harf simply does not understand what she is fighting. The impetus behind ISIS is not poverty. It is a religious movement that rejects modernity.”

That is undoubtedly true at the level of leadership (yes, it is a religious movement, however perverted). And it’s surely true for many recruits. But this is the key point: We make a huge error if we think that everyone running off to join the Islamic State is a savage who despises America and wants to kill us all. This is simply not true, not remotely true, and if you think this, you haven’t thought this through beyond the “let’s blow ’em all to kingdom come” point.

The question is this: Why do these young people join ISIS? Some join to kill infidels, sure. No doubt about it. But a lot don’t. A lot join because it’s something to do with their lives. Red State is probably right that it’s not in the main a question of material poverty. But it is, jarring as it sounds to the Western ear, a question of spiritual poverty.

We are well familiar in America and the West generally with the concept of disaffected youths. In our cultures, we know what they do: They smoke dope, snort crystal meth, hold up liquor stores; they fuck up their lives without really doing all that much direct harm to others. They disdain our institutions because the institutions seem to them corrupt, dishonest, resolutely rigged against their like (which they usually are). Some join gangs, which is probably our nearest equivalent.

Well, the Arab-Muslim countries, and the broader Muslim umma across the world, have disaffected youths, too. And a lot of their disaffected youths go join extremist groups. In societies with desiccated civic institutions, these groups are often the only game in town. Here’s Lee Smith, who is of course a conservative, writing on the question in the Tablet. In asking why they join up, he answers:

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Because, for all the awesome social services and consumer goods it can offer, Europe has become incapable of endowing the lives of its citizens, Muslim or not, with meaning. A generation of young European Muslims are giving up their relatively easy lives in Malmö, Marseilles, and Manchester for the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, because Europe is devoid of values worth living—or dying—for. They are leaving for the same reason that Europe’s Jews are moving to Israel: Strength and a sense of purpose can be found elsewhere, whether it’s ISIS, Vladimir Putin, Ali Khameni, or the IDF.

I don't exactly share Smith's grim view of European values, but I think his analysis of Muslim youth is correct. It means they’re alienated, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re violent. Remember, ISIS doesn’t need only killers. It’s a state in parts of Iraq and Syria. It needs bureaucrats, accountants, social media editors, IT staffers, cooks and mechanics for the army. The same is true of Hezbollah in the south of Lebanon. If you’re a disaffected young person there, chances are decent you’re going to join or at least support “the resistance” in some form or another. Hezbollah doesn’t have only soldiers—it has the equivalent of precinct captains, and people who deliver meals on wheels to senior citizens, and much more. And Hezbollah, and ISIS, pay very well by the standards of the region, which is another lure.

So, yes: There is a legitimate argument to be made that if these particular people—the alienated but not inherently violence-prone youths—had other appealing options in life, they might explore them. Creating those options is not in the first instance the responsibility of the United States. It’s the responsibility of the regimes. But in cases where such people are running off to ISIS’s embrace from Western countries, then yes, we ought to be trying to think of more effective and creative ways to acculturate them.

Tripling the number of bombing sorties we fly into Raqqa and Mosul isn’t going to address the above at all. Harf was absolutely right on one point, when she said “we cannot kill our way out of this war.” It’s foolish to think so. The conservative Free Beacon wrote:

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf suggested that “we cannot kill our way to victory” against ISIS on MSNBC last night. This flies in the face of literally the entirety of human history, through which, time and again, we have seen people killing other people lead to victory in armed combat.

That’s true, generally speaking, but it doesn’t apply here. Carthage had a finite supply of Carthaginians (although Rome needed 120 years to win that one, so maybe that’s not the most encouraging example). Germany had a finite supply of Germans. But the Islamic State is a worldwide, borderless movement that has a veritably infinite supply of recruits. We can kill 50 of them a day, and 70 will go sign up. How do we deal with that?

War is one way. It will lead to more war—and I mean a real war, with a draft, and with a quasi-wartime economy, not a war that we can dump on the 2 or 3 percent of the population that constitutes our volunteer service and their family members and then go worry about hailing an Uber car to our restaurant reservation. Maybe that’s unavoidable with ISIS someday. But if it’s avoidable, it will be so only if we come to terms with the reality that extremism’s appeal to a lot of young people isn’t chiefly about violence. And though Harf represented this position quite inadequately on Hardball Monday, if you ask me whether she or her critics are the bigger obstacle in our getting this right, I know which side gets my vote.