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Counterinsurgency in the Modern Age: An Interview with Bruce Hoffman

Boko Haram Acryl Painting, courtesy Debora Bogaerts/flickr

This interview transcript was originally published by the Harvard International Review on 19 February 2016.

Looking at other terrorist groups that we have seen, what makes the command structure of ISIS different from Al-Qaeda or others?

I do not think that it is that different. I think that because in several iterations it is a variant of Al-Qaeda to begin with, it has a very similar structure as Al-Qaeda. It has the same sort of melding of theological justification with operational command, finance, outreach, media. I think the problem that we are finding with this decade as opposed to the previous one is that the learning curve of terrorist groups has shrunk, and in that sense, Baghdadi [of ISIS] has been able to put together an operational structure that perhaps has existed with other groups. So, as facile and unsophisticated as governance by ISIS over the territory it controls may be, it is still governing them even though it has had no preparation. These people are not trained bureaucrats, with the exception of some former Saddamists, but Baghdadi has learned from the mistakes of previous terrorist groups, which has made the group more formidable.

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Neither Remaining nor Expanding: The Islamic State’s Global Expansion Struggles

MILK Militants laying prone, courtesy Keith Kristoffer Bacongco/WikimediaCommons

This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 23 February 2016.

Judging from the Islamic State’s propaganda, it would appear the group is rapidly overtaking the Muslim world. The Islamic State has declared wilayats (provinces) in ten countries spanning from Nigeria to the Caucasus region. It has executed high-profile attacks in several otherwise stable countries, including Tunisia, Turkey, Kuwait, France, and the United States. The group has championed its victories and downplayed its defeats at every turn, portraying itself as a military behemoth destined to restore the caliphate to its former glory. In short, the Islamic State would like the world — and especially prospective recruits — to believe it is “remaining and expanding” (baqiya wa tatamaddad), a slogan that defines the group’s propaganda.

Yet in reality, between state security forces and rival jihadist groups, the Islamic State has encountered one serious obstacle after another as it has tried to expand its presence beyond Syria and Iraq. Several of its nascent affiliates met decisive defeat. In some places, the Islamic State has been its own worst enemy, as personality clashes and disagreements over strategy created deep cleavages.

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Morgenthau’s Utilitarian Version of Realism

‘I want magic no realism’ on the street, courtesy Barnaby_S/flickr

This article was originally published by E-International Relations (E-IR) on 20 February 2016.

According to Max Weber, realism ‘recognizes the subjugation of morality’ to the ‘demands of [a] human nature’ in which the ‘insatiable lust for power’ is paramount (Weber in Smith 1982:1). This claim has led many—especially among liberal theorists—to label it as an amoral and bellicose doctrine (Molloy 2009:107). Yet while ‘inconsistency among realist theories’ (Smith 1982:12) may lend truth to claims of amorality and bellicosity among other strands of realism, this essay specifically examines the morality outlined in the realist works of Hans Morgenthau. It will argue that Morgenthau’s realist doctrine is neither amoral nor bellicose because it is informed by a set of utilitarian ethics that ‘rationally direct the irrationalities’ of human nature and aim to prevent major conflict (Niebuhr in Whitman 2011). The essay will begin by defining realist morality according to Morgenthau, focusing on ‘the evil of politics,’ the ‘moral precept of prudence,’ and ‘utilitarian ethics’ (1985:8). Though few critics dispute the presence of morals in Morgenthau’s realism, the essay will follow by addressing perceived flaws in his moral argument, as well as briefly examining the different moral assumptions made other strands of realist thought. The essay will conclude by restating the morals of ‘political ethics’ according to classical realism and end with a question concerning the significance of realist ethics to Weber’s ‘moral problem’ in International Relations (Smith 1982:28).

Hans Morgenthau is one of the most influential realist theorists of all time, and his arguments are fundamentally based in a ‘stern, utilitarian morality’ (Kaufman 2006:25); Morgenthau’s classical realism forms the basis for the argument put forth in this essay. According to critic Robert Kaufman, Morgenthau’s realism was developed as a ‘pessimistic critique of liberal utopianism,’ wary of the idealism of the inter-war years and intent on preventing another World War (2006:24). As such, Morgenthau puts forth a theory in which international relations are assumed to be at the mercy of human nature, self-interest, and an insatiable lust for power (1945:2). These factors, according to Morgenthau, are evidence that politics ‘falls within the domain of evil’ and thus, political ethics must be ‘the ethics of doing evil’ (1945:17). However, what seems a bleak and amoral outlook on world politics is redeemed by a moralist caveat: Though ‘the evil of politics is inescapable,’ by weighing the consequences of potential political action the ‘moral strategy of politics’ can be reduced to a choice among the least of all evils’ (Molloy 2009:99). Thus, despite his focus on power and successful political action, Morgenthau’s realism displays an inherent morality. Morgenthau’s realism is fundamentally concerned with mitigating the effects of a savage human nature on world order (1945:6).

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