The Islamic State: Obama doth protest too much

The Islamic State: Obama doth protest too much

Monday, February 16, 2015

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"The so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)," writes US President Barack Obama in his letter to Congress of February 11, "poses a threat to the people and stability of Iraq, Syria, and the broader Middle East, and to US national security". Therefore, Obama requests that Congress pass an "Authorisation for the Use of Military Force (AUMF)" supporting his prior military measures in Syria and Iraq and giving him carte blanche to continue and escalate those measures for three more years.

Obama's AUMF proposal raises several questions within the context of state action. For example, why does he only now request Congress's permission to do what he's already doing, while claiming he doesn't need that permission? Why doesn't he go the whole hog and request a declaration of war -- the only instrument of congressional approval which passes constitutional muster -- instead of an unconstitutional "authorisation"?

But, unlike some previous AUMF situations, this one brings a more important question to the forefront: Why won't Obama admit that the Islamic State is, in fact, a state? That question looms implicitly in previous AUMF requests versus "rogue" or "failed" states (like Saddam's regime in Iraq and the Taliban government in Afghanistan) and "non-state actors" like al-Qaeda. With respect to the Islamic State, Obama has put the question front and centre.

In a previous presidential message, Obama claimed that the Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state. Both claims are risible, and for the same reasons.

The Islamic State is clearly Islamic. It bases its claims to religious authority on Muslim doctrines drawn from the Quran and from particular hadiths (Islamic prophetic traditions). Disputes concerning the validity of its interpretations are sectarian, of a piece with arguments between Christian denominations over the appropriate method of baptism and so forth.

The Islamic State is also clearly a state as, from among many definitions of the word, Hans-Hermann Hoppe's should suffice here: "[A] compulsory territorial monopolist of protection and jurisdiction equipped with the power to tax without unanimous consent." The Islamic State stakes that monopolistic claim over large portions of Iraq and Syria. The people living there are taxed to support it and forced, violently as necessary, to accept its laws and its authority.

Why doesn't Obama want to admit that the Islamic State is a state? Because it openly rejects the Westphalian system, the model derived from 1648's Peace of Westphalia. In the Westphalian system, a state claims sovereignty over defined territory, respects the similar sovereignty of other states, and is held equal to all other states in international law. Because the Islamic State claims the whole world as its territory, denies the sovereignty of other states and holds its claims superior to any prior international law, Obama asserts that it is not a state.

But the United States fails that definition on the same grounds. For 70 years now the US has done what it wants, where it wants around the world; denying at will the sovereignty of other states and rejecting any adverse applications of international law to its own actions. Other states -- notably the late Soviet Union -- have done likewise as they were able.

World War II was the Westphalian system's death knell; the time since has been an extended wake. Obama refuses to recognise this because he doesn't want to go down in history as the eulogist at its funeral, by admitting the moral equivalency of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's regime with his own.

The Westphalian system lies dead in history's dustbin. Humanity's next task is to sweep its successor states in after it.

Thomas L Knapp is senior news analyst at the Center for a Stateless Society (

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