Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel sounded the tocsin last week about ISIS, saying "they are beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of ... military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded. This is beyond anything we've seen."
He also described them as “an imminent threat to every interest that we have.”
The threat, however, is not unprecedented. Western Civilization has faced this before. Its failure to quickly kill it led to the suffering and death of tens of millions, although freedom ultimately prevailed.
ISIS today looks like the 1919 version of the Bolsheviks. Will ISIS elevate itself, as the Communists did, to being the foremost enemy of freedom anywhere?
From the wreckage of the Russian Empire, the Bolsheviks rose as the loudest, most disciplined, most organized, and most violent of the political groups aspiring to power. First they seized control of an assembly of leftists, then drove away a government committed to building a democratic republic.
Bolsheviks then seized St. Petersburg (then called Petrograd) and Moscow, preparing to defend them against all comers. To protect their revolution, they built an army and the CHEKA.
The very word CHEKA still terrifies the Russian people. Lenin, according to Christopher Andrew and Vasily Mitrokhin’s The Sword and the Shield, instructed his new secret police that “It is necessary secretly - and urgently - to prepare the terror.”
Part of that terror arrived in Tsaritsyn, directed by Joseph Stalin. In 1918 he ordered executions and torture to pry grain away from the peasants who had farmed it. With ghoulish enthusiasm, admirer Henri Barbusse wrote, “Not a day goes by without executions by shooting in the local Cheka HQ.” Stalin biographer Edvard Radzinsky described how “trucks kept their engines running at night, to drown out the noise of shots and the screams.”
Hagel described ISIS as “well funded.” So were the Bolsheviks. They held the riches of the old Russian Empire. Even after Lenin’s plans and war destroyed the economy, he relied on Western Communists in free market clothing, such as Julius and Armand Hammer. The Hammers used their industries, personal wealth, and connections to deliver money and supplies. One report noted “Hammer’s success in getting grain and machines through (an American embargo) was unprecedented.”
ISIS relies on oil sold to unscrupulous buyers, the generosity of true believers, and ransoms paid for the release of kidnapping victims.
Bolsheviks got their opening from disorganization among their Russian opponents and war weariness in the West. The “white armies” could not focus on driving the Bolsheviks from power. Some concentrated on restoring land to the aristocracy, some looked to build a republic, others wanted to rescue and restore the Czar. Max Boot, in Savage Wars of Peace, added “the Reds had better and more unified leadership, more materiel and men, and greater willingness to brutalize the population into acquiescence than the Whites did.”
ISIS loosely mimics the Bolshevik Red Army commander Leon Trotsky’s ability to use a centralized location to strike out at opponents who are unwilling or unable to coordinate.
Many in the West understood what Bolshevism meant. Winston Churchill in 1919 admonished his colleagues, saying “of all the tyrannies in history, the Bolshevist tyranny is the worst, the most destructive, and the most degrading.”
Churchill’s fears over the Bolsheviks have parallels today. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey said “this is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end of days strategic vision which will have to be defeated.”
Dempsey, however, misses a key point. The strategic vision of ISIS, like the Bolsheviks before them, is powerfully political. Unlike Al Qaeda, they envision a vast temporal empire extending deep into three continents.
The future World War II prime minister was ignored and the limited intervention by the World War I allies failed. War weary nations did not support the mission. Each nation, Britain, France, the US, and Japan, had different reasons for sending troops against the Bolsheviks. Coordination could have broken the terrorists’ fragile hold on an unsupportive people.
None came. Boot says that conflict divided the Allies. For example, Americans could not stomach the “snobbish self-assurance and patronizing air of English soldiers.” None of the Allies sent forces in strength. Much of the time, the Red Army comfortably outnumbered, even if they rarely outfought, US and other allied forces. White armies capitulated quickly after the Allies withdrew.
The cost had also escalated. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George complained to US Ambassador John W. Davis that they had spent “in the last ten months about 100,000,000 pounds sterling in Russia and had very little to show for it.”
Similarly, don’t count on sustained US leadership against ISIS in the short term. Obama aide Ben Rhodes said “We haven’t made a decision to take additional action at this time, but we truly don’t rule out additional action . . . should it become warranted.” The administration has even refused to attack ISIS in any meaningful way from the air.
ISIS beat the Bolshevik Communists to one tactic. It took years for the Soviets to reach out to disaffected young men and women in the West. They targeted radical young university students from good families. From Britain, they cultivated five spies who rose to the highest echelons of the diplomatic and intelligence services.
The most infamous and effective, Kim Philby, had access to both British and US intelligence. Philby betrayed uncounted agents from both countries to his masters, saying later “I do not know what happened to the parties concerned. But I can make an informed guess.”
Despite recurrent efforts to minimize or memory hole the issue, the US government was also penetrated at the highest levels. Diplomat Alger Hiss had the confidence of President Harry Truman. Harry Dexter White helped to direct the post World War II economic reconstruction. These men were only two of many agents, many outed by the courageous testimony of Soviet spy turned Time editor Whittaker Chambers.
Chambers, who late in life was as committed to the GOP as he was in early adulthood to Communism, recognized truths about the Soviets and their Marxist creed. “The ingredients,” he wrote, “in Marxism’s emotional force are 1) pity, 2) hate, 3) desire for power.” He quoted Marx himself, who wrote of his plans in 1848 that “it was in reality nothing but a plan of war against democracy.”
Creating an “emotional force” plays a key role in recruiting those who feel alienated from general society. Social media ensures that recruiters have more access than ever when targeting vulnerable individuals. ISIS, and Al Qaeda before it, attracted alienated and angry young men from the US, Britain, and elsewhere to become apostles of death.
One of the main differences is that Communists readily sacrificed others, but rarely themselves. When ISIS consolidates its hold on the Middle East (and it will, since those few willing to stop them lack the ability) it will engage the West. It will not adapt age old games of state intelligence and propaganda as the Communists did. Like the anarchists, whose terrorism predated the Bolsheviks by a generation, they will likely target more symbols of Western leadership and power.
But the similarity to the evolution of the Bolsheviks is even more frightening. Once in place, the Bolsheviks gained control over one of the world’s great empires. They used the resources of a great nation, exploited a terrified people, and inspired like minded revolutions around the world. Stalin killed over 30 million. Mao killed even more. All in the name of the Communist creed.
This month, ISIS executed 700 members of one Syrian tribe alone, mostly children.
“There can be no genuine stability in any system,” as containment strategy architect George Kennan wrote, “which is based on the evil and weakness in mans nature.,” and the Communists and ISIS shares this in common. A government, however, that “attempts to live by man’s degradation, feeding like a vulture on his anxieties, his capacity for hatred . . . and his vulnerability to psychological manipulation” can survive and appear to thrive if the world offers no better hope for a better human existence.
Containment is a less costly option. But it means abandoning Muslim and Christian minorities to “convert or die.” It means allowing the complete terrorizing of populations.
And ISIS, like the Nazis, might fight to break containment anyway.
Like Communists, ISIS targets those not conforming to their narrow ideology. Lenin and Stalin annihilated the slightly more moderate Socialist Revolutionaries, as well as the religious, successful peasant farmers, and even loyal Communists who could not keep up with occasional changes in official positions. ISIS has already marched down this bloody path in its own sphere.
After 80 years, the United States and its allies exhausted and defeated Communism. Defeating them cost more than Lloyd-George’s 100 million pounds sterling. In the worst case scenario this century’s most destructive political ideology will own a rich base of operations similar to that enjoyed by the Nazis in Germany or Communists in Russia and China.
If ISIS succeeds in terrifying the Middle East into submission, how long, how much treasure, and how many lives will it take to sweep them into the dustbin of history?