It is a time of ruthless beheadings – and ill-conceived responses. Many Western commentators seem confident that the atrocious behaviour of the Islamic State is certain to build, legitimize and strengthen the anti-IS coalition, while weakening the authority of the IS itself. Such thinking, though, reeks of Western bias. What is reasonable or viable or even rational to us may not be, indeed is likely not, how the IS sees it; and, I'm afraid, not how many others in the world will see it, particularly throughout much of the Muslim ummah.
We got it wrong in Iraq, then again in Afghanistan, then in Egypt, then in Libya, and since the outset in Syria. Our values are not their values, nor are they universal (which is why Stephen Harper's and John Baird's trumpeting of a "values-based foreign policy" is ignorant and pretentious). However much we might wish it were so, there are effectively no universally agreed essential values, and we have had little success, anywhere in the world, forcing people to trade their values for ours. Despite our collective spending of trillions of dollars fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan to win over hearts and minds, many – perhaps most – Afghans do not want to see girls in school; have little interest in what we call democracy; believe our harping about corruption is extravagantly hypocritical; and would rather grow poppies than carrots.
Even the Canadian-authored Universal Declaration of Human Rights – of which we are so justifiably proud – is, in fact, not universally accepted. It was written in the late 1940s, when the infant United Nations was composed of a quarter of today's membership.
The bulk of humanity was underrepresented. Present at the creation of the UN in 1945 and, three years later, when the Declaration was adopted, were few countries from what today we know as the Third World. China was but Taiwan, and the only African countries were Ethiopia, Egypt, Liberia and a very different South Africa. The colonial powers (Christian white guys all) believed they were the world. To an extent, we still do, tenaciously oblivious to the pervasive impact of our arrogance.
The IS, however, is well aware that we are perceived in such a light. They know the propaganda value of poking sticks into American eyes, or knives into Western throats. They understand the extent to which we in the West are casualty-shy, and that the effectiveness of our actions is crippled by collective attention deficit disorder. They know full well that ill-informed and poorly executed Western forays into "Muslim lands" have been disastrous for us – and they are anxious to lure us into further folly. They are confident that by so doing they will dramatically increase their recruiting base, their authority, and the scope and impact of their movement; and they simply do not give a damn about the numbers they will lose in the process. Truly, in their eyes, such losses are a blessing.
We Canadians are appalled by those grisly beheadings, outraged that anyone would – could – do such things to anybody, let alone to us. More personally, I am all too aware that what happened to journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002, to James Foley, Steven Sotloff and aid worker David Haines over the past month, and just last week to French tourist Hervé Gourdel, would almost certainly have happened to my colleague Louis Guay and me had our 2008 kidnapping in Mali happened today.
The Western reaction to these recent atrocities reveals yet more of our selective and self-absorbed world view. Our somewhat-allies in the "Syrian opposition" (by no means restricted to the bloodthirsty zealots of the al-Nusra Front), whom we are now so urgently arming, have – just like Bashar al-Assad's murderous legions – been methodically torturing and slaughtering men, women and children, beheading and otherwise dismembering tens of thousands over the past three years. (All of this, of course, is exactly as Abu Musab al-Zarkawi was doing in Iraq; as the groups Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah were doing in faraway Mindanao; and as Boko Haram has been butchering – over 3,000, just this year – across the north of Nigeria, Africa's largest economy and most populous state).
Yet now, suddenly, full of righteous indignation and disgust, we've thrown together another abstract, not very cohesive, not very committed coalition in response to the death of four innocent Westerners at the hands of ever-more extreme versions of al-Qaeda. We have, in other words, responded in precisely the way they counted on us to do.
Our coalition's mission will inevitably creep. And our incapacitating allergy to boots-on-the-ground and our refusal to accept that it is impossible to control great swaths of territory from the air (just look at Libya today) will mean – as in Afghanistan and Iraq – that we will bomb ever more; that predators will hunt more widely and more indiscriminately; and that we will kill and maim many, many more innocent civilians than the caliphate could behead in its wildest dreams.
Everyone will know, however, that way up there in the sky and well behind those front lines, we have little skin in the game. As is our wont, though, we will exhort our supposedly better-trained, disparate and temporary Middle Eastern allies to acts of bravery in a struggle few of them will hold as their own – and, again, we will be disappointed. We will, for a while, degrade the Islamic State's military effectiveness on the ground in northern Syria and Iraq, as its authority and operations continue to blossom throughout too much of the world. Then – soon, by any realistic timetable – we will leave, and our actions and motives will be reviled for a great deal longer.
In sum, and however much I regret so concluding, we will fail in our arm's-length attempts to safely confront and effectively limit the predations of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State because we do not have the will – the necessary stuff – to prevail.
We appear to have lost the capacity to play the long game. We seem incapable of making the case, even to ourselves, that if these guys really represent a threat to our way of life, then it behooves us to do the nasty necessary to eradicate that threat. We, neither the elected nor the electorate, neither in Canada nor more broadly in the West, appear willing to commit to going the distance, to doing what needs to be done to defeat such an essentially hostile ideology.
This indecisiveness and lack of self-confidence are exacerbated by the stark fact that, while we assuredly broke it in 2003, with implications far beyond Iraq, we know we can't own it, and just as assuredly don't know how to fix it. That genie is well out of the bottle. Any long-term solution must come from within the Muslim community – particularly, of course, the Arab world. All our efforts to date have made matters worse, deepened the hatred toward the West, and broadened the suspicion of our motives. The best thing we can and should do is get the hell out of there.
But … were we to depart precipitately, we would be leaving in our wake a dangerous geostrategic mess and a humanitarian catastrophe: dangerous to the people of the Islamic world and Israel – and, yes, very dangerous to us, here at home. We in the West have awakened and fed the beast, and before we abandon that tumultuous region and its long-suffering people, we ought at least to attempt to "reset" the situation to the status quo ante, to its pre-2003 condition. We ought, that is, to so damage al-Qaeda and its fissiparous clones, such as the IS, that those who would be left to manage the ensuing muddle might have a fighting chance of being able to do so.
Were we, though, to seriously seek to excise the jihadi malignancy – to stop those who are so clearly bent on destroying the underpinnings of our civilization – we would have to engage far more thoroughly than we seem willing to do. We would have to convince our so-called friends in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States to stop – really stop – financing jihadi preaching and terror networks throughout the world. At home, we would need to make very clear that we will not abide jihadi teaching, jihadi recruiting, or the dissemination of jihadi propaganda.
Should we seriously seek to damage the barbarous IS, we would have to prepare for and then commit to a long and ugly war against an implacable enemy who is genuinely anxious to die in battle with us. In addition, we would have to abandon the inane restrictions we have so hurriedly and complacently put in place (arbitrary time frames, no-boots-on-the-ground), and accept that it will take some up-close and personal combat to get the job done and that there will be casualties, among them a full share of innocents.
Finally, and however improbably in today's politically correct context, we would have to "maintain the aim" – the removal of an existential threat to our way of life through the crippling degradation of al-Qaeda and its clones – and make it abundantly clear that until that mission were truly accomplished, such a struggle would not be about those nice, distracting things politicians would much rather talk about when they talk about such engagements: development, jobs, democracy, corruption, individual rights, gender equality, faith.
We would also have to accept that, to achieve such an objective, it would take vast budgets and clear-eyed focus over the long haul to convince Muslims in the West and throughout the world that such an engagement had nothing to do with jihadi allegations about crusades; indeed, little to do with religion of any stripe, but rather that global jihad was simply inimical to a peaceful world. Once such a mission were truly accomplished, then and only then could we turn our attention to reconstruction and development.
Short of all this, it's not worth attempting, and we should walk away, right now: A flaccid attempt, such as that upon which we now seem to be embarked, will undoubtedly make matters worse.
Robert R. Fowler is a Senior Fellow at the University of Ottawa's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and the author of A Season in Hell: My 130 Days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda. He has served as a foreign-policy adviser to three Canadian prime ministers, as personal representative to Africa for three others, and as deputy minister of national defence, and was Canada's longest-serving ambassador to the United Nations.