Once again the Obama administration is revising its programs to counter and defeat the self-styled Islamic State, particularly on the battlefield of ideas. With no apparent decline in supporters flocking to the movement nor any shortage of unhinged murderers inspired by it, State Department officials announced that they were creating a new “Global Engagement Center” to combat the Islamic State online. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama met with social media-savvy representatives from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to convince them to join the effort.
This is simply the latest episode of a series now deep into reruns: The United States fiddles with the way it deals with the Islamic State and other transnational extremist movements, rearranging organizations and changing things at the margins, then calls it a “new strategy.” Like past adjustments, this one is inadequate and unlikely to have any major effect.
The problem is that policymakers and policy experts are not thinking big enough. Failing to place today’s transnational extremism in its broader historical context, they cannot grasp—much less address—the psychological appeal of ideological barbarity and violence. Yet doing so is the only path to an effective response. History offers clues but they must be mined. Put simply, today’s transnational extremism is the dark side of globalization; the Islamic State is simply the most barbaric component of a wider and deeper current of transnational extremism. It is not the sum total of the darkness, and defeating it, while necessary, will not resolve the problem. The ultimate task is bigger: To prevent new mutations of the Islamic State from arising once the group is eradicated, policymakers and policy experts must think deeply about the social and psychological disruptions that globalization has caused.