A member loyal to the ISIL waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa
A member loyal to ISIS waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa, Syria, on June 29, 2014 Reuters

ISIS and American Idealism: Is History Going Our Way?

Oct 23, 2014

Future historians, I suspect, will look at the United States’ current effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS while simultaneously insisting that President Assad of Syria must step down with some puzzlement. Foreign intervention in civil wars is nothing new. France and Sweden intervened in the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants in Germany in the early 17th century, France intervened in the American Revolution, and the United States has intervened in civil wars in Korea, Vietnam and the former Yugoslavia. But while in those previous cases, the intervening power took one side of the conflict, in this case, the United States now opposes both parties. How have we ended up in this position? The answer, I would suggest, goes back at least until the early 1990s, when the collapse of Communism convinced certain intellectuals and the US foreign policy establishment that history was inexorably moving our way.

A new era in world politics began in 1989, with the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union. In that year a political scientist named Francis Fukuyama, then serving as deputy director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, wrote a sensational article, “The End of History?,” in the conservative journal The National Interest. Communism was about to collapse, and Fukuyama argued tentatively that the world was entering a new era. “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history,” he wrote, “but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Within two years Soviet Communism and the Soviet Union itself were dead, and many thought Fukuyama had been proven right. He elaborated his ideas in a scholarly work, The End of History and the Last Man, which appeared in 1992.

Fukuyama had worked with prominent neoconservatives, and neconservatives in the Bush Administration wrote his fundamental idea into their 2002 National Security Strategy, a blueprint for US domination of the world based upon democratic principles. “The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism,” it began, “ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise. In the twenty-first century, only nations that share a commitment to protecting basic human rights and guaranteeing political and economic freedom will be able to unleash the potential of their people and assure their future prosperity.” Like the Marxists over whom they believed they had triumphed, this view saw history moving in a definite direction, and those on the “right” side believed that they had a right, if not a duty, to push history in the right direction. President Bush repeatedly declared that the Middle East was ready for democracy, and decided to create one by overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq. (Fukuyama, interestingly, declared in 2006 that the Bush Administration and neoconservatism had gone astray.) That did not lead, however, to democracy, but rather to a terrible religious civil war in Iraq, featuring the ethnic cleansing of about four million Iraqis under the noses of 150,000 American troops. The United States finally withdrew from Iraq after seven years of war, and the Shi’ite led Iraqi government has now lost authority over both the Kurdish and Sunni parts of the country, with ISIS moving into the Sunni areas.

What went wrong? In 1993, Samuel Huntington had put forward an alternative view of the future in another widely read book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. To begin with, Huntington—who, ironically, had been a graduate-school professor of Francis Fukuyama’s at Harvard—denied that the western way of life now dominated the globe. How the future would develop, he argued, remained a very open question. Though Huntington painted with a very broad brush, his vision looks more accurate now than Fukuyama’s. The Muslim world is both enormous and diverse, and nothing suggests that Muslims from south Asia through much of Africa are about to embark upon a war with the West. However, most of the major contending factions among the Muslims of the Middle East—the groups that realistically stand to come to power in contested regions like Iraq and Syria—reject, to varying degrees, fundamental principles of western civilization, including religious tolerance and the separation of church and state. Yet both various pundits and the leadership of the Obama Administration, including the President himself, remain convinced that the Middle East has a destiny to follow the western model, and that American intervention in their civil wars can encourage them to do so. The Obama Administration reacted to the Arab spring based upon the assumption that the fall of authoritarian regimes was both inevitable and surely beneficial to the peoples involved. At first that seemed to be true in Tunisia, but the Administration has in effect backtracked on it by accepting the military coup in Egypt, and in Libya and Syria this plan has not worked out at all. Just this week, the New York Times reports that the new freedom in Tunisia has allowed ISIS to recruit numerous fighters there.

Speaking to the United Nations on Sept. 24, President Obama insisted that ISIS must not, and cannot, prevail, because of the evil that it has done. He also called upon the Middle East to reject religious war and called for “a new compact among the civilized peoples of this world” to work against violent ideology. These are inspiring words to American ears, but they are finding almost no echo among the competing factions of the Middle East. For a complex variety of political, religious and cultural reasons, ISIS has commanded more dedicated support than any other Sunni faction in Syria or Iraq. Nor is there any evidence that two of their principal opponents—the Assad regime in Syria and the Shi’ite led government in Baghdad—share the President’s views on democracy and religious toleration either. The Obama Administration has been reduced to trying to stand up a “third force” of more friendly, reliable Sunni insurgents in Syria—a strategy the President rejected a year ago after a CIA paper explained to him that it was most unlikely to work.

Nearly 80 years ago, writing in the midst of another great world crisis, an American historian, Charles A. Beard, noted a distressing fact: that history shows no correlation between the justice of a cause and the willingness of men to die for it. This has not changed. We cannot rely upon impersonal forces of history to create a better world. Instead, the current U.S. attempt to impose a vision not supported supported by any major political group in the region is likely to create more chaos, in which extremism can thrive. We and the peoples of the Middle East both need peace in that region, but that peace must be based upon realities. If we decide ISIS is indeed the most important threat, we shall have to recruit allies from among the actual contending factions, rather than try to build our own from scratch. And, while encouraging cease-fires and the peaceful settlement of ongoing conflicts, we might try to set a better example for the peoples of the world by making democracy work better here at home.

David Kaiser, a historian, has taught at Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, Williams College, and the Naval War College. He is the author of seven books, including, most recently, No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War. He lives in Watertown, Mass.

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