Dr. Johnson is this year’s esteemed Binns lecturer. He was invited by Dr. Gary Armstrong, professor of political science. When Dr. Armstrong was a graduate student, his mentor, William O’Brien, had mentioned him to Dr. Johnson, hoping the two would meet. Though the two did not end up meeting before O’Brien’s passing, Dr. Johnson recalled the experience and ultimately accepted Dr. Armstrong’s invitation.
I sat down with Dr. Johnson, and I asked him about his views on the Iraq War, Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” and President Obama’s strategy for ISIS. The transcript of our conversation is provided below.
JW: How has your stance on the Iraq War changed over time? This can be either scholarly or privately.
JTJ: Well, I don’t think anyone that has any sense looking back on it thinks that it came out well. I think that, as I was saying yesterday, I think that what just war thinking is about is guiding moral decisions looking forward. “What shall I do?” in this case. It’s an interesting exercise but really kind of
a secondary thing to use it to look back. But certainly anyone who takes moral decision-making seriously knows that we should learn from what works and what doesn’t work. I think that the United States government was willfully inept in planning for what to do after the overthrow of Sadaam and his regime. I think we failed dismally there. And I think that despite all of the money and lives and all of the effort that was put into reconstructing Iraq, there was really way too little understanding of the implications of all those decades of tyrannical rule on the Iraqi people. The understanding of Iraqi religion, the religious divisions and the ethnic divisions in the country, was virtually nonexistent in government circles. And so we didn’t really have a feeling for the Sunni-Shi’a rivalry and how the Kurds fit into all of this, and there was just this kind of thinking that if we only provide a level playing field everyone’s going to be a Democrat and it just didn’t work that way.
JW: Wouldn’t that just be incredibly foolish of the government to think like that? Even just between countries the Sunni-Shi’a rivalry is so intense.
JTJ: Well, one might say that. I think that it’s a part of a bigger picture. You know, the U.S. military, especially with the professional officers, has been really proactive in trying to study and learn about cultural differences in hotspots, areas in which the military are likely to be involved. And this is for good strategic and tactical reasons. But we just don’t have that in the training of foreign service officers. None of the major schools that prepare people for foreign service careers have paid much
attention to the role of religion, for example, in cultures, especially in the Middle East, where the implications of the different understandings of Islam are extremely important. The one exception of that was harbored during the time Sam[uel] Huntington was alive, but even there, Sam[uel] Huntington was just one man in a very large faculty, and the overwhelming thrust of the Kennedy School [John F. Kennedy School of Government] was in the direction of political realism. So I think that the unpreparedness was partly a result of that. But I also think it was because the ethos of the US military is “we don’t do social work, we don’t do rebuilding, we are not involved in political restructuring” and so that really belongs to somebody else. Ultimately that belongs to the Iraqis themselves. So the conscious decision not to be involved in this fits with this overall conception of what the role of the US military should be.
JW: Do you think now, then, what we need to do since the Iraq War has been such a noticeable failure, is to come out and say that we’ve failed so that we are able to establish a different starting point?
JTJ: Well, I don’t think there’s any likelihood that there’s going to be a confession of failure, even though the Obama policy towards Iraq is very different from the Bush administration. I just don’t see
that happening because it would probably be regarded as setting a very bad precedent for future presidencies. But certainly the policy has changed, so the question that I think matters now is “what ought to be the policy in the present?” and when they wonder whether the unwillingness of the Obama administration to reverse its own decision to withdraw from Iraq isn’t still playing to a larger role. That is, maybe more should have been done to keep more American presence in Iraq instead of simply withdrawing. Although, that was very hard to do given the attitude of the Maliki government. In any case, perhaps more does need to be done than is being done right now as a way of trying to, once again, aid the Iraqis to shape a more constructive engagement with one another, to make the society a more functioning place, but also to be able to deal the threat of ISIS and war effectively.
JW: So then my next question is, do you think we made a mistake in how we went about rebuilding Iraq? We did it in a very hands-off approach contrasted to the very involved approach we took with Germany and Japan.
JTJ: I don’t think there was much of a plan early on. There were competing desires and the one that eventually won out was the desire to give the Iraqis more political freedom to form their own government, to determine its own parameters and constitute its membership. So that what the U.S. did — first of all, the U.S. was unwilling to back particular people because they saw this interfering with this goal of passing it to the Iraqis, but then when they finally began to do it, it was frankly too late at this point; the various indigenous factors were far stronger than what could be coped with by any reasonable amount of American involvement. So, I just think that the whole business was not well thought through prior to the invasion, and it continued to not be thought through or handled well, essentially to the end. Although the ultimate reason that the U.S. withdrew its forces was the unwillingness of the Maliki government to sign a status of forces agreement that the U.S. could live with.
JW: Earlier, when talking about the situation in Iraq, you mentioned Samuel Huntington. So, do you think the world is really in this “clash of civilizations” set out in his book? Or is it bigger, smaller, completely different?
JTJ: First I think you have to go back to the reaction that Huntington’s original Foreign Affairs article created among his peers. The realists were absolutely aghast at the idea that a senior, respected
person would suggest that these cultural factors would really matter. So they were opposed to the idea of a clash of civilizations frankly because there is no place in realist thinking for such a thing. Then there was another kind of reaction, particularly by people on the left, and the way they read him was saying that there was going to be a clash of civilizations and their argument was that “well, this doesn’t happen because there are transcendent values that overreach civilizational differences and we are working towards eradicating all of that and moving above and beyond all of that.” So there were those two lines of criticism of Huntington’s original article and they continued after he made in into a book. But those of us on the side of historical and particularly religious study had a very different view of this, and Huntington himself thought that the religious heritage of the different civilizations was a major part of their worldview, their make-up and so it mattered. And even though this was not a view that most of his colleagues were prepared to honor, there were those of us that thought that this was quite relevant and should be paid attention to by the policymakers as well as the scholars and academics.
Now Huntington did have some people around him in the Kennedy School, he had graduate students that followed ideas that he was putting ideas out there. For instance, [Francis] Fukuyama [author of “The End of History and the Last Man“] was one of his major graduate students. And there were some younger faculty also, but the way the study of foreign affairs and government has developed in the elite university is just very different from what he was talking about generally.
JW: I’m trying to grasp how you framed that. Would you think that religious differences constitute sufficient reason to go to war?
JTJ: No, no, I don’t at all. But the Islamic State does. One of the things that is quite fundamental about the way one thinks about politics in the West as opposed to how one comes at it from the framework of Islam, is that from the latter framework, religion and politics are inseparable. The West is Christian from that perspective. So being Christian is part of the problem: “The West is treating us Muslims badly, so the Christians are teaching us Muslims badly.” And people on the side of the West are sort of just rolling their eyes at this saying, “No, no, religion is important, but it belongs to the sphere of private belief. It doesn’t work that way.”
An anecdote: years ago I was asked to become a part of a group that was trying to initiate a dialogue (this was not long after the 9/11 attacks) between American intellectuals and Muslim intellectuals. And we had a meeting. First meeting was on Malta and the group came to be called the
Malta Forum, although we never went back to Malta to meet after that. And I was asked, as a sort of initiating this mutual learning about each other, to talk about the idea of just war and its historical development and its implications for contemporary warfare. When I finished, the Muslims just sort of jumped on me for advocating holy war! This is how they heard it. And these were secular Muslims. Most of them had been trained in French universities, some in English universities, but they thought about it through, well, the ones that had been trained in French universities, thought about it terms of the French division of church and state what the French call “laïcité.” And they were fully committed to that. Many of them were also intellectually leftist, and that gave them another reason to be committed to it. But the fact that they were Muslims also, meant that anybody talked about having a role for religious values and making political values that you were making the same type of argument that the jihadists were making. And they said that to me. So many words. It was very hard to get past that.
So what it is really is that I think the Obama administration is being particularly tone deaf to the function of religion in al-Qaeda and now ISIS. This is something that is in our system to think this way, and we don’t know how to distinguish a conception of religion having an intimate relationship with politics from the activities of Islamic radicals. Of course, if there’s a clash of civilizations from their side, it’s not just them versus the West, what is called in the classic Islamic language called the territory of war, but it’s also them against the majority of Muslims in the world who don’t buy into this particular conception of Islam. So there’s this sort of internal clash of civilizations in the Islamic civilization over this as well. And I don’t think our policy elites are at all intellectually prepared to deal with this.
JW: My final topic, and you touched upon this somewhat briefly: How do you feel about the Obama administration’s strategy, or perhaps lack thereof, for dealing with ISIS and other fundamentalist Islamic movements?
JTJ: I do think that the Obama administration needs to find a better way of talking about the problem of Islamic radicalism as itself a problem. And not shying away from talking about that, due to a fear, that it will be labeled anti-Islamic. The truth is, I would argue, that the ideological message of ISIS is ultimately going to be defeated by reactions from other Muslims. And so there has to be a way of saying that the ISIS ideology is bad, even though based in Islam, while at the same time embracing or at least seconding the efforts of other kinds of Muslims in the world. But there’s not really much a sense of how this would happen or even a sense of urgency within the administration.
Example: The other day, the “New York Times” published a piece noting the little office in the Pentagon that had been responsible for the effort to respond to propaganda, media, and recruiting efforts by organizations such as ISIS. This is a tiny office. Its annual budget is less than the cost of one Predator [$4.03 million dollars in 2010]. One Predator drone. So here it is, it’s been plugging along doing what it can do. So this article was about how the administration had decided to inject new life into this, and they were going to appoint a new director and going to charge this director with initiating better coordination among the American government agencies and foreign government agencies that were engaged in the same kind of things. And I read that and thought, “Oh boy, they are really putting the frosting on this.” But what it really boils down to is that they’re still not increasing the budget of this outfit; they’re reiterating what its initial charge was, which was to be a center of coordination; but, they are neglecting to note that this – I know from how universities work, when you tell somebody who is asking for resources “Well, what you need to do is coordinate better with this, this, and this” – this department asked for a resource to be better covered within the discipline, and they’re told instead that they have to better coordinate with philosophy, sociology and economics. Well, philosophy, sociology and economics have their own missions, and they have their own disciplinary ways of viewing this. So coordinating with them is still going to leave you with a big hole in your discipline. And that’s exactly the kind of thing that I saw in this article: an unwillingness to move beyond a kind of doing the minimum that you can do to think that you’re doing something.
JW: Well those are all the questions I have brought and I think we’re out of time. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy day to speak with me.