David R. Henderson  

Noah Smith on the Islamic Civil War

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Xenophobia and Canada... In defense of rational expecta...

Noah Smith has a beautifully numerate discussion of wars being fought by radical Muslims. He does it in the context of analyzing Trump advisor Steve Bannon, and that analysis is not bad.

But what really struck me was his response to this claim of Bannon:

[I]t's a very unpleasant topic, but we are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism. And this war is, I think, metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it...
. . .

I believe you should take a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam...If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places... It bequeathed to use [sic] the great institution that is the church of the West.

Smith then reports on the numbers on deaths from some Islamic groups fighting others. H writes:

Let's look at the main wars currently being fought by radical Islamic forces. These are:

Syrian Civil War (~470,000 dead)
2nd Iraqi Civil War (~56,000 dead)
Boko Haram Insurgency (~28,000 dead)
War in Afghanistan (126,000 dead)
Somali Civil War (~500,000 dead)
War in Northwest Pakistan (~60,000 dead)
Libyan Civil War (~14,000 dead)
Yemeni Civil War (~11,000 dead)
Sinai Insurgency (~4,500 dead)


Smith adds:
This is a lot of dead people - maybe about 2 million in all, counting all the smaller conflicts I didn't list. But almost all of these dead people are Muslims - either radical Islamists, or their moderate Muslim opponents. Compare these death tolls to the radical Islamist terror attacks in the West. 9/11 killed about 3,000. The ISIS attack in Paris killed 130. The death tolls in the West from radical Islam have been three orders of magnitude smaller than the deaths in the Muslim world.

Three orders of magnitude is an almost inconceivable difference in size. What it means is that only a tiny, tiny part of the wars of radical Islam is bleeding over into the West. What we're seeing is not a clash of civilizations, it's a global Islamic civil war. The enemy isn't at the gates of Vienna - it's at the gates of Mosul, Raqqa, and Kabul.

And radical Islam is losing the global Islamic civil war. In Syria and Iraq, ISIS is losing. In Nigeria, Boko Haram is losing. In all of these wars except for possibly Afghanistan, radical Islamic forces have been defeated by moderate Islamic forces.

Sometimes that's because of Western aid to the moderates. But much of it is just because a medievalist regime holds very, very little appeal for the average Muslim in any country. Practically no one wants to live under the sadist, totalitarian control of groups like ISIS. These groups are fierce, but their manpower is small and their popular support is not very large anywhere.


How tragic it would be if Steve Bannon's innumeracy helped cause the U.S. government to embroil itself in the Middle East even more than Bush and Obama did.


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CATEGORIES: Foreign Policy




COMMENTS (17 to date)
R Ricard Schweitzer writes:

There is more:

Whether or not "radical," the continuation of Islamic ideology (and its internal conflicts) is a major contributing force to the movements of peoples FROM where that ideology has a significant cultural and social imprint (particularly in the shaping of individual motivations)into other milieu of incompatible cultures - resulting in varying degrees and kinds of conflicts.

This creates a situation where the "pressures" created are of greater impact than the violence encountered. Coming, as they do, whilst the former forces of social cohesion are diminishing in effects in the areas being intruded, these movements become "hostile" invasions, particularly in the extreme expressions of ideologies and those for physical power and control.

MikeDC writes:

I'm trying to understand where Bannon is innumerate and Smith's numerate analysis has some sort of meaning. Could you connect the dots for me?

I mean, both can be correct. It can be true that the Islamists have largely targeted and fought other Muslims, and the overwhelming number of victims of the war have been Muslims. And it can also be true that the Islamist side of this war poses some real dangers to us. It'd be sort of strange to say we shouldn't worry about it at all until they show up and kill several thousand people to make the math appreciable.

It's just not a quantitative argument in the first place. To put it another way, even if it were an entirely "Islamic World" problem, Western countries should still be working hard to oppose the folks who basically seem to have a cartoonishly evil ideology.

Jeffrey S. writes:

MikeDC,

Good comment.

I'd go further. Look at Bannon's own quote from Smith: "I think they kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places."

Henderson goes on to say he's worried about Trump getting involved in the Middle-East but that quote suggests Bannon sees the problem as one of separation. Keep the West apart from the Muslim world (and yes, that means keeping Muslims out of Western countries.)

That is a very different kind of policy than getting embroiled in Middle-East wars.

Roger McKinney writes:

The Taliban in Afghanistan are not much different from ISIS and neither is Saudi Arabia for the matter. The best approach would be to treat it as a police and intelligence problem. People like ISIS have always been around and always will be.

David R. Henderson writes:

@MikeDC,
I mean, both can be correct. It can be true that the Islamists have largely targeted and fought other Muslims, and the overwhelming number of victims of the war have been Muslims. And it can also be true that the Islamist side of this war poses some real dangers to us. It'd be sort of strange to say we shouldn't worry about it at all until they show up and kill several thousand people to make the math appreciable.
It’s true that both can be correct, but I don’t think both are correct. I think that the main danger to us is blowback and the best way to avoid that is to stay out of their affairs.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Jeffrey S.,
That is a very different kind of policy than getting embroiled in Middle-East wars.
Yes, it is. But I’m assuming he agrees with Trump.

Thomas writes:

There sometimes comes a point at which it makes sense to become embroiled in a distant war. Take World War II, for example. FDR's economic policies were disastrous for the U.S. -- of that there's never been any doubt in my mind. But I give FDR credit for his ability to see that if Germany and Japan gained dominance over Europe and the Pacific, the U.S. would eventually be squeezed into submission, economically and militarily. My point is that not all "embroilments" are necessarily bad.

Which brings me to the Middle East. If the U.S. allows Iran to develop nuclear weapons -- which seems to be certain given Obama's supine attitude toward Iran -- disaster will follow. Iran will be able to control the region through nuclear blackmail, and given its reserves of oil and the willingness of its leaders to accept economic isolation, it (meaning its leaders) will be able to disrupt life in the West because of its ability to shut off the supply of oil to the West.

To paraphrase Andy Granatelli, the U.S. can stop Iran now, before it has done what Obama is allowing it to do, or the U.S. can stop it later, after it has done great economic damage, which the U.S. won't escape inasmuch as the market for oil is unitary. Nor will the U.S. escape human damage if the U.S. doesn't act until after Iran becomes capable of attacking the U.S.

It doesn't matter who did what to cause Iran's leaders to view the U.S. as "the great Satan." (Sunk costs are sunk.) There's no longer an option to butt out of Iran's affairs. Given the fanatical enmity of Iran's leaders toward the U.S. (which isn't dispelled by superficial cordiality), it's beyond belief that Iran isn't steadily striving to acquire the ability to strike the U.S. with weapons of mass destruction -- nuclear missiles, perhaps delivered from off-shore vessels instead of by ICBMs; "suitcase" bombs; coordinated strikes on the power grid, oil-production facilities, and water supplies; and much more that the U.S. intelligence apparatus should but may not anticipate, and which the U.S. government's leaders may in any event fail to prepare for.

I may be wrong about all of this, but it's the kind of thinking that should be done -- even by economists -- instead of latching onto Noah Smith's superficial numeracy.

MikeDC writes:
I think that the main danger to us is blowback and the best way to avoid that is to stay out of their affairs.

Right... but this seems to be a fair interpretation of what this Bannon guy is saying. He could be lying through his teeth, but I don't think Smith's argument is hear nor their on it.

Here's the kicker though. Tell me if I'm wrong, but I don't think anyone, yourself included, really wants to "stay out of their affairs".

A broad interpretation of "staying out of their affairs" would also include things like "don't let them into our country" and "don't trade with them".

Would you be willing to give up those things you favor in order to stop the other interventions you oppose?

David R. Henderson writes:

@MikeDC,
Here's the kicker though. Tell me if I'm wrong, but I don't think anyone, yourself included, really wants to "stay out of their affairs".

A broad interpretation of "staying out of their affairs" would also include things like "don't let them into our country" and "don't trade with them”.

Yes. I think you’re wrong. Not preventing people from coming into the United States is not “getting into their affairs.” I took it that readers would understand that I was saying, “Don’t invade them, don’t bomb them, don’t attack them.”

pyroseed13 writes:

Noah Smith makes some interesting points here, but he also misses an important point that strengthens the case for noninterventionism. It is true that nearly all of these conflicts are fought among Muslims, but Smith draws too broad a conclusion by assuming that all of the Muslims that oppose these extremist groups are necessarily "moderate." Many are not, and herein lies the problem with the case for interventionism in this region: Sometimes all sides are bad, and we gain nothing by arming one side at the expense of the other. It also a fool's errand to think that we can somehow encourage these people to think differently (see Shadi Hamid on this). Overall, I agree with Smith: Islamists are a greater to people in those regions than they are to the U.S.

It also looks like the 911 attack was part of a civil war inside Western Civilization. All the means used by the Ladenites came from Western Civilization. The box cutters came from hardware stores. The planes came from Boeing. The oil for the jet fuel might have come from the Persian Gulf, but it was found by Western geologists, extracted by Western drilling rigs, and defended by the American soldiers Osama was so upset about. If this had anything to do with Israel vs. Palestine, the rhetoric needed for that conflict came from nationalism. If they didn't use nationalism---if they stuck to portraying it as a religious war---they would be unable to portray it as poor weak Palestine vs. powerful Israel, but would have to explain why Muslims could not take care of Palestinian refugees on their own. The economic theory behind Ladenism is that Western Civilization has been stealing cheap oil from OPEC. Even that theory came from the West. In the 1970s, many people believed that overpopulation and the increase in entropy meant ever rising oil prices. I'm sure the young Osama was looking forward to this. When oil prices tanked, Osama refused to believe the theory was wrong but that Some Conspiracy was fooling around. (A possibly relevant quote: "Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back."---John Maynard Keynes)

RPLong writes:

There's an old grift called "the rainbow ruse," in which a con man will tell you two opposite things about yourself in order to sound insightful. For exmaple, he might say, "You can be a spontaneous person, but you appreciate the value of well-laid plans." On its own, this kind of statement is vapid, meaningless, but in the right context it can be deployed to garner the trust and favor of the audience.

Think about Bannon's words in light of this concept. He begins by stating that "we" are at war with "jihadist Islam." N.B. - at war. He then makes a case for immigration controls and the strengthening of Western (read: non-Muslim) cultural identity, with a nod to military non-intervention.

Okay, which is it? We are at war, or we are non-interventionists? As you can see from the commentators above, some people interpret it one way and others interpret it another way. Politicians often count on this kind of reaction, knowing that ambiguous statements can be interpreted favorably or unfavorably; we will try to see what we want to see in it.

To the extent that politicians always do this, there is no story here. But to the extent that fostering this kind of ambiguity when war and destruction are at stake, it is incredibly irresponsible and may have terrible consequences.

Smith's post, by contrast, and Henderson's, unambiguously make the case against war. That's why I agree with with them here.

MikeDC writes:

OK, would you flesh that out a bit? Why do you think accepting large numbers of people involved in a murderous religious dispute into our polity is "staying out of their affairs"?

First, you didn't touch on trade, which seems like a pretty enormous omission.

Second, I can see a lot of ways in which not preventing entry is "getting into their affairs". Was that true when the US took in the Shah of Iran? How about the several thousand Muslims living in Western countries that went off to fight for ISIS? Or the ones who just provide planning, funding, and logistical support?

To put it differently, perhaps you and I see the vast majority of Muslims seeking to settle the Western nations as refugees from the "Islamic Civil War" Smith proposes. But do they see it that way? Do their enemies? We talk a lot about "exporting conflict", but it seems that here, and in Belgium, France, and the UK, we're also importing conflict.

If one takes seriously Smith's notion that it's a religious war, rather than one over borders or nations, then importing people is very different than in other sorts of wars. If it's a civil war over a country, leaving the country and settling in a new one generally renders the question moot. But if it's a war about belief, then the beliefs of the people is a very relevant question.

Seth writes:

Things to consider.

1. It's possible that what you think of as not getting in their affairs does not agree with what they see as that. So, your view of non-intervention may not stem blowback.

2. Comparing numbers of dead seems like faulty comparison. Seems like there's a quote about the danger of smart people is their ability to rationalize great evil?

Why not compare to deaths from unprovoked attacks on US soil in decade(s) prior? By that comparison, 9/11 exceeds that by an order of magnitude, two if you remove the act of a domestic terrorist in 1995.

Mark Friedman writes:

What set of facts would falsify the "blowback" theory? The attempted Muslim conquest of Western Europe in the 8th C.? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Tours. The 16th C. Siege of Vienna by the Ottomans? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Vienna. The Barbary Wars? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Barbary_War. Let us know what facts would suffice, then we'll see if we can muster them up.

Anon39 writes:

Professor,

I've long enjoyed your insights in economics, and I share your noninterventionist views.

But blowback theory is so wrong that I must leave a comment on this blog, for the first time in 8? years of reading.

Intervention is wrong on practical and utilitarian grounds. But please do not jump on the blowback bandwagon. This might be an area in which you are not well versed, as compared to economics.

Said Qutb is the father of Islamism, please feel free to read his brilliant treatise: Living in the Shade of the Quran. Or his essays on living in the United States as a graduate student. (Some might not be translated)

Hilariously, and tragically enough, the father of Islamism had his Road to Damascus moment while climbing Mount
Tamalpais.

If you want to comment on political Islam, the best thing to do is research. This to me sounds like an English major talking about labor exploitation and the minimum wage. Nails on a chalkboard.

Respectfully,

Anon39

Plucky writes:

I have one big problem I have about Smith's bottom line, "Practically no one wants to live under the sadist, totalitarian control of groups like ISIS"

The problem with statements like that is that they are true but not necessarily relevant. The overwhelming number of Germans living under the DDR did not want to live under it, but a wall and piano wire solved that problem for the regime. The overwhelming majority of Cubans had no interest in living under Castro, but only the exceptionally brave were willing to take the risk of fleeing. Repressive regimes do not need the goodwill of the populace to survive, only the willingness to kill those who would resist and cow the remainder. Revolutions and civil wars are not elections in which you need a plurality to win. They are military conflicts in which the people holding the guns and the ground call the shots. The unpopularity of ISIS is relevant only to the extent it is sufficient to support a violent, military resistance to it.

To what extent, or even if, the US should be party to that conflict is an argument worth having. But it should be done under the assumption that violent, revolutionary, repressive organizations don't magically wither away because they are unpopular. They go away because the people who do not wish to live under their barbarity are willing and able to kill the people who would impose it.

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