photo from ISIS video

The Obama administration has adopted a Great Society approach to combating ISIS, adamantly turning a blind eye to the power of radical Islam and innocently believing that social programs, including job creation, will win out over jihad.

If you want to know just how detached from reality the administration’s view is, Graeme Wood’s essay “What ISIS Really Wants” in the liberal leaning Atlantic, will bring you a chilling dose of reality. In a Wall Street Journal column headlined “An Administration Adrift on Denial,” Peggy Noonan hails Wood’s essay this way:

Great essays tell big truths. A deeply reported piece in next month’s Atlantic magazine does precisely that, and in a way devastating to the Obama administration’s thinking on ISIS.

“What ISIS Really Wants,” by contributing editor Graeme Wood, is going to change the debate.

I am inclined to agree that this is a great essay and hope that it will indeed change the debate. The U.S. cannot formulate effective policy with regard to ISIS unless we know and acknowledge who they are and what they want. The Obama administration's assumption that people join ISIS because they are out of work or poor couldn't be further from the truth in most instances. 

Wood has done a prodigious research job, talking to ISIS supporters and academics all over the world. The first thing we have to recognize about ISIS is what the administration refuses to admit: ISIS is based in Islam.  Wood writes:

We are misled …by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature.

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Wood goes on:

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.

President Obama isn’t the first person to prefer to avoid seeing ISIS’s deep roots in an ancient and extreme form of Islam:

In the past, Westerners who accused Muslims of blindly following ancient scriptures came to deserved grief from academics—notably the late Edward Said—who pointed out that calling Muslims “ancient” was usually just another way to denigrate them. Look instead, these scholars urged, to the conditions in which these ideologies arose—the bad governance, the shifting social mores, the humiliation of living in lands valued only for their oil.

Without acknowledgment of these factors, no explanation of the rise of the Islamic State could be complete. But focusing on them to the exclusion of ideology reflects another kind of Western bias: that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul. When a masked executioner says Allahu akbar while beheading an apostate, sometimes he’s doing so for religious reasons.

According to Wood, the caliphate proclaimed by ISIS is essentially different from Osama Bin Laden’s movement: a caliphate requires territory. Bin Laden believed in a caliphate but in a distant future, after he was dead, and thus his movement didn’t require territory. It could hide in the mountains and thrive as an underground Islamic movement. ISIS, by contrast, has proclaimed itself a caliphate and therefore must have territory to be believable. Thus preventing ISIS from expanding and choking it where it is will help the West and our allies in the Middle East defeat it. .

Wood’s essay, however, is not a policy piece. It is primarily a way to understand ISIS and what it wants.

Let us hope that somebody in the Obama administration is reading it and taking notes.