The prime directive of virtually all governments is to defend and expand their power. This holds true whether that government is authoritarian or democratic, whether its intentions are malevolent or benign, whether the head of state is King Tiglath-Pileser or President Obama. Of course, an Assyrian king and an American President face different problems when it comes to defending their government’s power. If you have absolute power and are ruling as an agent of divine forces, you need only keep an eye on the priesthood and your family members, whereas a modern autocrat must mind the army, bureaucracy and the people. Naturally, the democratically elected ruler has more constraints and a limited tenure, but there appears nevertheless to be a common inclination that your government should exercise as much power as possible, even if that government may pass into the hands of the opposition. And certainly the unelected bureaucracy that underpins the government and its agencies wishes to retain as much authority as it can.
The premier mechanism for expanding a government’s power is dealing with threats, domestic or foreign, real or imagined. War has traditionally been a way, at least for authoritarian regimes, to deal with domestic discontent and unite the population behind the government in a burst of nationalism, though one must of course win the war, as the Argentinian generals discovered. Exterminating Chechens is popular with Russians, so Putin has engaged in wars in Chechnya to improve his standing; now it is the Ukraine. On the other hand, wars, even the limited ones that have characterized the post-WW II world, are very expensive, though guaranteed money-makers for sundry corporations.
Wars typically produce emergency powers, which then tend to remain even when the threat is gone. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, enacted in 1964, gave the President the power to wage war without a Congressional declaration of such, and though it was limited by the War Powers Act of 1973, the fact is that fifty years later the US President still essentially has the power to send troops around the planet and bomb countries against whom we have not declared war.
Domestic threats are excellent, since they are more immediate and more easily engender the fear that governments can take advantage of. The classic example has been the burning of the German Reichstag in 1933 by a Dutch communist, which act provided Hitler with the excuse to assume dictatorial powers. This has now been supplemented by the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, which resulted in the constitutionally questionable Patriot Act and dramatically increased powers of surveillance and policing. Note that President Obama, a liberal, has not surrendered those powers, despite their seemingly being against his general political philosophy.
The greatest example of the usefulness of domestic threats to the government is found in the USSR under Stalin. The constant threat of spies, counter-revolutionaries and “wreckers” allowed the General Secretary to rid himself of anyone he desired and develop the largest security apparatus the world has seen. The young Soviet government did of course fight a civil war and suffer foreign intervention, but one might question why a decade and more later the most totalitarian state on the planet was still suffering wave after wave of treasonous plots and sabotage. Could virtually all the Old Bolsheviks be traitors? How could it be that in the thirties the vast majority of the military hierarchy were conspiring against the regime and working for foreign powers? Why were ardent Stalinists being arrested?
The often farcical Stalinist Terror is a wonderful demonstration of how people will believe what they want. Many intellectuals of course saw through things like the Show Trials, but it is amazing how many intelligent people believed it was a mistake when they were arrested and sent off to the gulag: “If only Comrade Stalin knew…” Building socialism was not child’s play, and fulfilling the dream required harsh methods inasmuch as it spurred such destructive responses from the reactionary elements, who despite being imprisoned and executed by the millions apparently still constituted a huge percentage of the population. And Stalin was able to play this game until he died of old age in 1953.
Communism was a great resource for non-communist governments. Communists were not only a foreign threat, justifying all sorts of military expenditures and silly conflicts, but they were a magnificent fifth column, providing an excellent domestic threat, useful for pumping up governmental power. There was also a wonderful kind of vagueness about this threat, allowing anyone with leftist leanings to be identified as a “communist” and thus someone inclined to overthrow the state, perhaps even as an agent of the Evil Communist Empire. We now know that some American clients would alert Washington to an imaginary “communist threat” in their countries in order to squeeze military and financial aid from the gullible Yankees. And communist Cuba with its aid to anti-government movements in Latin America provided the US with the perfect excuse to claim every popular uprising against an authoritarian state (usually supported by the US) was communist inspired.
Well, the communists are pretty much gone now (and czarist Russia has reemerged, this time with nuclear weapons), so what is a government interested in putting paranoia to work to do? Enter terrorism. As far as the purposes of the government are concerned, “communism” and “terrorism” are virtually synonymous; one could take a government document on communism and substitute the word terrorism and it would still make sense. But terrorism is even better! Exactly what constitutes terrorism is even more vaguely defined than communism, and while the base definition involves killing or conspiring to kill innocents for ideological reasons, that can cover a mighty lot of people, from ISIS to a mental case – and of course freedom fighters who are not necessarily targeting innocents.
While primarily Muslims, terrorists can be anyone and can be anywhere, the perfect threat for any security apparatus. The intelligence services are especially delighted, now having an excuse to spy on virtually everyone (including that hotbed of terrorism, the US Congress). No longer are the spooks limited to governments and groups, but can now claim justification for monitoring everyone on the planet, including American citizens.
And now there is ISIS, the Rolls Royce of terrorism. They kill anyone who is not with them, they kill women and children, they make women sex slaves and they do it all with great enthusiasm. They are well organized, they have heavy weapons (thank you, Uncle Sam) and they actually control territory and constitute something of a state. Far more than any other group they are the face of Evil, crucifying and beheading people, forcing victims to dig their own graves and doing it all on camera. Instead of tedious filmed ideological diatribes they produce snappy, if often gruesome videos, and are attracting gullible and/or sociopathic recruits from Europe and America. It just does not get any better than this when it comes to providing a government with potent material for establishing fear.
Being situated in Syria and Iraq of course makes it difficult for them to be construed as a direct threat to American shores, but they are terrorists and have obligingly made it clear they will attack the United States, which automatically makes them a threat to “national security.” The fact that guns and drunk driving kill far more Americans than any terrorist could dream of does not seem to bother anyone when it comes to the issue of national security, which may be why we constantly hear of the possibility that they may acquire a nuclear weapon. I expect the scientists and research labs of the Islamic State are working diligently to produce such a weapon. Odd that our friends, the eighth century monarchies in the Gulf, do not seem as worried as we do about this threat, despite having these barbarians (that may be an insult to the average barbarian) right next door. On the other hand, that they are finally using some of their expensive weaponry and bombing fellow Sunnis might indicate a bit of concern for their oppressive little kingdoms.
If the regional powers (excepting Israel of course) could get together and launch a serious war against this ISIS scum, the Islamic State would be doomed. Turkey alone could roll over them, but Erdoğan is playing his own short-sighted game and will not even allow his supposed NATO allies use of his airfields. Perhaps ISIS will be stupid enough to attack Israel.