Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, February 17, 2015
They Said It:
The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.
Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.
Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic, March 2015.
ISLAMISM AND THE WAR OF IDEAS.
Last fall, in the Claremont Review of Books, our old friend, the inimitable Angelo Codevilla, detailed more than a century of American diplomatic and foreign policy failure, a century of neglect of the “proper principles” of statecraft and the regrettable consequences thereof. Nearly the entirety of the 20th century – and beyond – Codevilla argues, was characterized by American policy missteps and mistakes, all derived from the universally accepted notion that “America’s peace would result from international order, and that securing such an order must be our foreign policy’s main task.”
Among others, Codevilla blames the administration of Franklin Roosevelt for many of the last century’s most serious and far-reaching policy miscalculations, noting FDR’s predilection for Communists and Communist sympathizers and their irrational, ideology-inspired fantasies about the Soviet Union. Specifically, he writes:
Beginning in 1933, Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats dreamt of a grand alliance with the Soviet Union for world progress. No dream has proved more fateful to modern America. As the distinguished historian Robert Conquest has noted, the conjunction of dreaming and ruling is deadly. Ignoring Communism’s ruthless, hostile character, Roosevelt’s brains trust reduced America’s aims in World War II to persuading Stalin to share their dream. This ended up misleading a substantial portion of his followers into blaming their fellow Americans for the Cold War, and divided us along lines that endure to our day, sowing evermore discord.
Regular readers may recognize that this has also been one of our recurring themes over the last couple of years. Roosevelt’s administration was chock full of Communists, many of whom were on the Soviet payrolls. FDR saw himself as a noble socialist champion who would, in partnership with Stalin, rule the post-war world triumphantly and righteously. Yalta was no mistake. It was, rather, a conscious undertaking on the part of Roosevelt and his advisers to divvy up the world, turning over control of the east to Stalin and retaining control of the west for Uncle Joe’s altruistic American partners. As the historian Amos Perlmutter put it in his classic In Making the World Safe for Democracy, A Century of Wilsonianism and Its Totalitarian Challengers:
[Roosevelt’s] vision for a postwar world was neo-Wilsonian, totally at odds with reality. He would help create a new international order, presided over in an equal partnership by the two emerging superpowers, the United States and the USSR, and buttressed by the newly created world organization, the United Nations.
FDR’s wartime diplomacy, geared to his vision of the postwar world, was fueled by what could almost be called a desperate desire to fulfill the dream that the Soviets would be America’s postwar partner. This required an amazing ignorance, a willingness to ignore past and present facts, and a complete misunderstanding of the Soviet system and of Stalin. FDR was right that the United States and the Soviet Union would be the postwar superpowers, but he was absolutely and disastrously wrong about the nature of their future relationship. According to George Kennan, “The Russian involvement in this struggle is not the result of any concern for the principles underlying the Allied cause . . .”
The world he envisioned and so desperately wanted to create never materialized and, more important, never had a chance of materializing because it rested on a false premise, buttressed by willful ignorance. FDR did not have a glimmer that the pursuit of his vision, and the concessions he made to it, would result, not in a partnership with Stalin and the USSR, but rather in its opposite, in the onset of the Cold War that would last almost half a century. The Yalta Conference, according to Kennan, “was the last of the summit meetings still outwardly dominated, at least on the American side, by the cultivation of this essentially fictitious and misleading scenario.”
Even after Roosevelt died and even after it became clear to his successor, Harry Truman, that the Soviets could not be trusted, that they had spies throughout the American government, and that they were intent on dominating the world alone, the American Left nevertheless pursued a foreign policy of socialist accommodation, if not encouragement. As we have noted in these pages more times than we can count, the American Left, both before World War II and especially in its immediate aftermath, favored the sacrifice of American sovereignty in the pursuit of socialistic global government, which would, allegedly, promote peace and economic cooperation and foster long-term stability and economic progress.
The entire post-War period – from the establishment of the United Nations, the World Bank, and International Monetary Fund to Truman’s speech on the Greek crisis and the formulation of the policy of containment; from the war in Korea to the Marshall Plan – was an exercise in American global activism and, moreover, activism directed by Left as part of a project attempts to nurture and encourage world government, under beneficent American leadership. By necessity, Truman became an anti-Communist, but he was never an anti-socialist. Indeed, he and those around him fought their wars against Communism as earnest leftists, looking to rid the world merely of the Soviet-Sino socialist aberration.
Over the course of the next three decades and next six presidencies, the American foreign policy establishment grew comfortable in its assumptions about Communism, about the Communists’ intentions, and especially about Communism’s origins. To them, Soviet Communism was nothing more than another form of government, merely another expression of the will of the people to create a better life for themselves. It was a dangerously mistaken expression, to be sure, but a mere expression nonetheless. By the mid-1970s, the foreign-policy establishment had concluded that the Communists were, more or less, just like us. And they fashioned American policy around that notion. As the eminent Richard Pipes, Russian historian extraordinaire and the head of the CIA’s legendary “Team B” put it in an article for Commentary magazine:
Team B’s report…charged that in estimating Soviet strategic objectives the CIA had consistently engaged in “mirror-imaging,” including insertions of un-proven assumptions about Soviet behavior, as well as surreptitious “net assessments.” The products of such faulty methodology had served to buttress the apparent belief of the Agency’s analysts that the Soviet Union, like the United States, accepted the Mutual Assured Destruction doctrine and built its strategic arsenal for strictly defensive (retaliatory) purposes. Without actually proving the point with reference to U.S. capabilities (which they were enjoined from doing), CIA analysts had conveyed the impression that the Soviet strategic build-up presented no threat to U.S. security.
The political implications of such an assessment happened to favor détente and to place the main burden for its success on the United States, to the extent that Soviet deviations from MAD were ascribed to Russian paranoia that America alone could assuage. Although the Agency’s analysts had a great deal of both “hard” (technical) and “soft” (verbal) evidence to demonstrate if not necessarily the validity then at least the feasibility of another interpretation, they chose to ignore it. Their approach indicated neither knowledge of Russia and Communism nor concern with these subjects: they treated the Soviet threat as if it derived from inanimate objects, not from the people who stood behind them.
Just months after his inauguration, Jimmy Carter famously/infamously addressed the graduating class at Norte Dame and proudly declared that “We are now free of that inordinate fear of Communism….” Soviet and Chinese Communism, you see, was nothing to be dreaded, nothing to be reviled. Rather, the arms “race” to defend the American people from their non-enemy was the real evil. It was, in Carter’s words, “not only dangerous, [but] morally deplorable.” Therefore the effort to end that race would have to be “fair to both sides, to produce reciprocal stability, parity, and security.”
Now, we mention all of this today not simply because we like history, but because we think that the leaders of the free world – and the leaders of the United States in particular – are following in their predecessors’ footsteps, making the same terrible mistakes again.
This past weekend, in a piece about Sweden, rape, and the exponential increase in sexual assaults since that country opened its borders to mass immigration from predominantly Muslim lands, the author, essayist, and publisher Roger Kimball noted that “George Orwell once observed that the only way to challenge totalitarianism was by having the courage to call things by their real names.” In the West, we presently do not have that courage and the results are devastating, to say the least. Islamists slaughter Jews in a kosher supermarket in Paris, and Barack Obama calls the victims “random” “folks.” Islamists slaughter Christian Copts in Libya, and Barack Obama refers to the murder of “Egyptian citizens.” Islamists slaughter men, women, and children throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe; they sell women and children into slavery; they rape and pillage; they burn their prisoners alive. And Barack Obama refuses to call them by their “real names.” Indeed, he goes out of his way to call them something else entirely, to absolve the cause of their moral hideousness from any blame.
It is worth noting in this context, we think, that the Cold War was not won until Ronald Reagan was elected president and insisted on victory. It is fashionable on the Left today to dismiss Reagan’s efforts to defeat the Soviets, to leave “Marxism and Leninism on the ashbin of history.” He was lucky, they say. He benefitted from the pure historical coincidence of having been in office as Marxist economics brought the whole business to a crashing halt. Reagan was hardly alone in spotting Marxism’s economic troubles, they insist. Others, notably Daniel Patrick Moynihan recognized what Reagan recognized, yet they claim no credit for any special insight.
All of this is pure historical revisionism The smart set – which included everyone from the foreign policy establishment to the mainstream media to official Washington and indeed most of the rest of the West as well – assumed that the Soviets were both indomitable and, moreover, not worth the trouble anyway. Reagan felt differently, of course, and he said so. Reagan spoke communism’s real name. He called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” and warned that to pretend otherwise was to be complicit it that evil, to “remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”
Naturally, Reagan was not alone in this endeavor to call evil by its name. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher joined him and declared it her proud and essential mission to “banish from our land the dark divisive clouds of Marxist socialism.” More to the point, Reagan and Thatcher were fortified and sustained in their efforts by the moral voice of a generation, a man who had suffered under both the Nazis and the Soviets and who had witnessed and experienced the horrors of repression and economic socialism. That man, now Pope Saint John Paul II, put it this way:
[T]he fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature. Socialism considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socioeconomic mechanism. Socialism, likewise, maintains that the good of the individual can be realized without reference to his free choice, to the unique and exclusive responsibility which he exercises in the face of good or evil. Man is thus reduced to a series of social relationships, and the concept of the person as the autonomous subject of moral decision disappears, the very subject whose decisions build the social order. From this mistaken conception of the person there arise both a distortion of law, which defines the sphere of the exercise of freedom, and an opposition to private property. A person who is deprived of something he can call “his own” and of the possibility of earning a living through his own initiative comes to depend on the social machine and on those who control it. This makes it much more difficult for him to recognize his dignity as a person and hinders progress toward the building up of an authentic human community.
In contrast, from the Christian vision of the human person there necessarily follows a correct picture of society. According to “Rerum Novarum” and the whole social doctrine of the church, the social nature of man is not completely fulfi lled in the state, but is realized in various intermediary groups. Beginning with the family and including economic, social, political and culture groups which stem from human nature itself and have their own autonomy, always with a view to the common good. This is what I have called the “subjectivity” of society which, together with the subjectivity of the individual, was canceled out by “real socialism.”
Reagan and Thatcher were dismissed as hacks, politicians who fought the Left simply because they were on the Right. They were, according to their critics, partisan ideologues, no different in character than the ideologues in the Politburo. Opposite sides of the same coin and all that….
The Pope, by contrast, wasn’t quite as easy to reject out of hand. What he said mattered, beyond ideology. More to the point, his criticism of communism was based on knowledge, on wisdom, on truth. Pope John Paul II gave encouragement to the oppressed. He spoke truth to power – in a way that today’s “rebels” only wish they could. Most importantly, he confirmed the evil of Communism, speaking not just with the voice of a non-partisan, but with the voice of experience as well.
Reagan, Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II combined to do what no one had been able or willing to do in the four decades prior, to call communism “evil,” to speak of this evil openly, and to offer a counter to this evil. In short, these three won the “war of ideas,” the first and most important idea being that statist collectivism – i.e. communism – is evil.
This is not, we should point out, the first time that we have compared the Cold War and the War on Terror. Almost exactly a decade ago (and several times since), we have argued that radical Islam is, in many ways, comparable to the millenarian movements that have been a constant in Western civilization almost since the death of Christ, but especially over the last 700 years. Among those millenarian movements, of course, were the secularized or quasi-religious versions that dominated geopolitics in 20th century, Nazism and Communism. Like Communism and Nazism, Islamism promises an earthly paradise (in this case, to be followed quickly by a heavenly paradise) and appeals, therefore, to the dispossessed, the disenfranchised, and the insecure. Also like Communism in particular, Islamism appeals not just to the evildoers “over there,” but to the marginalized and displaced at home as well.
A decade ago, in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Francis Fukuyama, best known as the author of The End of History, identified the similarity between Islamism and Communism and thus also identified the threat posed by those in the West who were disconnected from the societal mainstream and removed from traditional sources of social moderation. He put it this way:
Contemporary Europeans downplay national identity in favor of an open, tolerant, “post-national” Europeanness. But the Dutch, Germans, French and others all retain a strong sense of their national identity, and, to differing degrees, it is one that is not accessible to people coming from Turkey, Morocco or Pakistan. Integration is further inhibited by the fact that rigid European labor laws have made low-skill jobs hard to find for recent immigrants or their children. A significant proportion of immigrants are on welfare, meaning that they do not have the dignity of contributing through their labor to the surrounding society. They and their children understand themselves as outsiders.…
[T]he challenge that Islamism represents is not a strange and unfamiliar one. Rapid transition to modernity has long spawned radicalization; we have seen the exact same forms of alienation among those young people who in earlier generations became anarchists, Bolsheviks, fascists or members of the Bader-Meinhof gang. The ideology changes but the underlying psychology does not.
Today, ten years removed from those comments, we would beg to differ with Fukuyama on a few points, mostly his insistence that Europeans “retain a strong of their national identity.” We’d also note that in many cases – Communism, Islamism, etc. – economic dislocation is not necessarily a prerequisite for radicalization. Indeed, the cultural nihilism than often haunts “trustfund” generations – which is to say upper-class cohorts that inherited rather than earned their wealth – can be every bit as motivating and radicalizing as poverty and true economic disarticulation.
Beyond these minor quibbles, though, Fukuyama’s basic premise still makes a decent amount of sense. This is all stuff we’ve seen before. We saw it most recently throughout Cold War. In a civilization unmoored from tradition, displaced and seemingly disenfranchised by the relentless march of time, radical utopian ideologies take hold and appeal to certain populations. And unless those populations are convinced by military might, economic strength, and good old-fashioned reason to abandon their destructive and self-destructive behaviors, they will continue to cause problems.
The good news, given all of this, is that the so-called war on terror can indeed be won. In order to do so, of course, Western leaders are going to have to win the war of ideas, which will begin with the idea of calling the enemy by its name.
The bad news is that there is no chance whatsoever that the current “leader of the free world,” will ever have the courage or the intellectual honesty to do what is necessary to win this war of ideas, largely because he will never, ever, under any circumstance, name the enemy. Barack Obama can bring himself neither to admit the nature of the enemy nor to acknowledge its goals.
The following exchange from White House press secretary Josh Earnest’s press conference last week gives just a taste of the challenge facing Western civilization under Barack Obama’s “leadership.” In an interview earlier in the week, Obama had lamented the fact that the West obsesses about terrorism, which he finds kind of foolish, since the terrorists are, just “a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.” CNN’s Jim Acosta challenged this notion of “randomness.” To wit:
JIM ACOSTA: Just to be clear though, that shooting at that deli in Paris was not random, correct? Did the president misspeak there?
JOSH EARNEST: Jim, I believe the point the president was trying to make was that these individuals were not specifically targeted. They were random people that happened to randomly be in the deli and were shot…
JON KARL: This was an attack in a kosher deli. Does the president have any doubt those terrorists attacked that deli because there would be Jews in that deli?
EARNEST: Jon, it is clear from the terrorists, from some of the writings they put out afterwards, what their motivation was. The adverb that the president chose was used to indicate that the individuals who were killed in that terrible tragic incident were killed, not because of who they were, but because of where they randomly happened to be.
KARL: They weren’t killed because they were in a Jewish deli, though? A kosher deli?
EARNEST: These individuals were not targeted by name. This is the point.
KARL: Not by name but religion, were they not?
EARNEST: Well, Jon, there were people other than just Jews who were in that deli.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is utterly insane. The Obama administration cannot even admit that the Islamists in France targeted Jews. To do so would be to admit that the terrorists are motivated by evil. And that would challenge the entire Obama worldview. In Obama’s case, not only can the enemy not be named, but neither can its victims, given the inescapable connection between the two and the former’s notorious and irrational hatred for the latter.
In our historical parallel, Barack Obama plays two parts here. On the one hand, he is Harry Truman, committing himself to war against the enemy, but not committing himself – or the country – to winning this war.
Last week, Obama asked Congress to grant him wide-ranging authorization for the use of force against the Islamic State. According to the White House, the President is committed to targeting and destroying the Islamic State and its allies wherever they may be. At the same time, though, Obama’s request for authorization promises specifically not to fight the war against ISIS too ferociously. The President’s request explicitly forbids “enduring offensive ground operations,” which means that Obama has committed himself to fighting, but with one hand tied behind his back.
On the other hand, Obama is also FDR, which is to say that he is in complete and utter denial about the enemy and its goals. Obama believes, against all reason, that the Mad Mullahs in Iran are genuine and earnest negotiating partners. He believes that between them, he and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei can bring peace to the Middle East. He will, of course, be disappointed. And when the Mullahs have, like Stalin, achieved nuclear status, the entire world will be in mortal danger because of Obama’s self-aggrandizing delusions.
So where does this leave us? What will happen in this contemporary iteration of the West’s “twilight struggle” against an implacable but ill-defined enemy?
Well, in the near term, the Islamists will continue to do what they want, when they want, and to whom they want. That is to say that Barack Obama will do the absolute least that he can do, the bare minimum given the magnitude of the threat and the public’s reaction to it. If the Islamists turn their attention to the American people’s security, the country’s economy, or its trade relations, then Obama will have to be more assertive than he might otherwise like. An attack on the American homeland would obviously force him to react in a more forceful and aggressive way than would the continued murder of foreign nationals.
But even if the Islamists do something that compels a serious and assertive presidential response, it’s hard to imagine how the current president – not to mention the entire current generation of Western leaders – will have either the desire or the ability to deal with the problem of Islamic radicalization at its core. To do so would be to violate all the tenets of the moral code to which the present generation of leaders subscribes. To “judge” the Islamists for their evil deeds or, worse yet, even to suggest that any culture needs to change its ways, lest it be singled out for retribution, is practically unthinkable in the contemporary political milieu. And while Obama is the current spineless and mindless American leader, please note that we do not think that this limitation applies just to him or to Hillary Clinton or even just to Democrats. It is true of the Republicans as well. No Republican with any realistic chance of being elected can or will do what must be done to win the war of ideas with Islamism. There is, in short, no Reagan on the horizon, no American politician who seems willing to engage the war of ideas, much less to win it.
In the meantime, even if anyone in the West figures out a way to deal with the Islamic State and its fledgling caliphate, two other significant problems will still need addressing.
First, there is the question of what to do with, to, or for the Muslim populations in Europe. We suspect that a solution to the problem of home-grown Islamist terrorism will require a reassertion of European cultural confidence. But such a reassertion will be neither easy nor especially pretty. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI made the revitalization of European social and religious culture a priority of his papacy. Unfortunately, in so doing, he bit off more than he – or anyone – could chew. We suspect that only the Islamists can force the Europeans to reassert themselves, either through slow, tortuous slaughter – death by a thousand cuts, if you will – or by way of a mass attack. In either case, both the act and its aftermath will undoubtedly be ugly.
The second unanswered question is that which addresses the burgeoning conflict between Iran and Israel. The Iranians appear to have the world by the tail at present. They are on their way to possessing nuclear weapons. They have the support of the Russians in this endeavor. They are slowly but surely expanding their influence beyond Persia and into the Arab world. And perhaps most important, they appear to have reached an understanding with the American president by which he will do nothing to hinder their advances.
The only catch from the Iranian perspective is the pesky Benyamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu and Israel are the wild card in the Middle East right now, which is why Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on March 5th will be both fascinating and immeasurably important. We’re not exactly sure what he will say to Congress, but we suspect that it will be dramatic and stern. As we have been saying in these pages for at least 20 years now, Israel will not allow its citizens to be murdered without doing everything in its power to punish their murderers. And since the Iranians will likely soon have a bomb of its own, this means that the prospect of Israeli nuclear retaliation is very real. We think it quite possible that Netanyahu will use his speech to Congress to make this point perfectly clear. “Never again” is more than a slogan for the Israelis. And since two successive American presidents did nothing to prevent Iran from acquiring a bomb, it will be up to Netanyahu to convince the Congress that it must do whatever is necessary to prevent the Iranians from using it, lest they precipitate a truly horrific set of events.
In the near term, we expect very little in the world to change. The Islamic State will go on killing innocents. The Iranians will continue building their bomb. The Israelis will live their lives as best they can with the threat of a second Holocaust looming over them. European Islamists will murder as many people as they can, when they can. And the West’s leaders will hide from this reality and insist that the biggest problem in the world is the pressing need to raise taxes on the rich.
The 2016 election will, of course, give the American people the opportunity to address some of these broader issues, but we doubt very much whether they will receive much of a satisfactory response, even if they muster the will to broach the matter.
And so we will wait. We will wait for the Islamists to overplay their hand. Or we’ll wait for the Iranians to get their bomb. Or we’ll wait for…who knows what…. Don’t expect the West to be assertive in dealing with the questions of Islamism, though. That would require a strength the Western political classes just don’t have – or at least can’t generate under current conditions.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.