Defeating radical Islamism is the greatest challenge of our time.
We need a grand strategy for winning the long war, not a series of small attempts to play whack-a-mole with each subgroup as it makes the cable news and forces Washington to pay attention to it.
The radical Islamists are open and clear about what they want and why they want it. Their goals are incompatible with the survival of our civilization. The more time it takes to develop a grand strategy, the worse trouble we will be in. With each passing year, there will be more radical Islamists, and they will be more sophisticated and have more resources. They have a strategy.
For at least 36 years, we have not. Since the conflict began with the illegal takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, our elites have desperately sought to avoid confronting the depth, intensity, and seriousness of our enemies.
The State Department under both Republicans and Democrats has pursued strategies of appeasement, “communication,” and “mutual understanding.” The Defense Department has decayed to a point where political correctness leads it to categorize the massacre at Fort Hood of 13 American soldiers by a Muslim terrorist as “workplace violence.”
The mantra is very clear. You can’t tell the truth about the people who want to kill us because that would alienate a lot of Muslims who don’t want to kill us. So we can’t design an honest strategy to win the war because an honest strategy would lead us to lose.
This fuzzy thinking is the immediate problem we have to confront. The first step toward winning the war is to win the argument that it is a war. The recent onslaught of terror attacks and the horrifying rise of ISIS have made this argument possible for the first time in nearly a decade.
Beating Islamism Requires Clear Thinking and Language
The next step is to think clearly about who our enemies are and what our own goals are in the war. This is the essence of strategic military thinking, as Sun Tzu captured 2,500 years ago. “It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss,” he wrote. “If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.”
The current administration is staggeringly unfit for this intellectual task. If you have watched the president or his spokespersons attempt to explain what is happening in the Middle East recently, you have witnessed their almost pathological inability to use specific words to refer to our enemies. Consider the president’s remarks at last week’s summit on “violent extremism.”
We are here today because of a very specific challenge — and that’s countering violent extremism, something that is not just a matter of military affairs. By ‘violent extremism,’ we don’t just mean the terrorists who are killing innocent people. We also mean the ideologies, the infrastructure of extremists –the propagandists, the recruiters, the funders who radicalize and recruit or incite people to violence. We all know there is no one profile of a violent extremist or terrorist, so there’s no way to predict who will become radicalized. Around the world, and here in the United States, inexcusable acts of violence have been committed against people of different faiths, by people of different faiths — which is, of course, a betrayal of all our faiths. It’s not unique to one group, or to one geography, or one period of time.
This is an entire presidential paragraph explaining his refusal to use words that could refer to anything in particular. It is exactly the lack of precision George Orwell described as the chief characteristic of political writing. “The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it,” Orwell wrote of the language of politics, “or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not…As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.”
The lack of precise language betrays a deeper inability to think. As Rep. Tulsi Gabard (a Democrat and a veteran) explained the connection between Orwell and Sun Tzu, “This is not just about words. It’s really about having a real, true understanding of who our enemy is…Military 101: If you are at war—which we are—you have to know who your enemy is to defeat them.”
What History Teaches About Intellectual Paralysis
At the end of World War II, we came very close to the kind of intellectual-psychological paralysis we see in our leaders today. The Communists had used the anti-Hitler alliance to infiltrate a surprising number of government posts. Today we know this because enough historical records have been released to prove that people like Alger Hiss were in fact Soviet agents (and there were several hundred like him by 1944). But at the time, our national elite was bitterly opposed to believing it was possible.
To realize just how high-up this intellectual paralysis went, consider how close we came to having a blatantly pro-Soviet president of the United States. That’s what would have happened if Franklin Roosevelt had kept Vice President Henry Wallace on the ticket in 1944. (Wallace was in fact the overwhelming favorite of the delegates at the Democratic convention, who accepted Harry Truman only under enormous pressure from the president and his team.)
Wallace had an astonishingly naive understanding of Stalin and the Soviet system. He famously was fooled by visits to Potemkin villages in Russia. He surrounded himself with Communist agents of influence and fellow travelers. It is very possible that if FDR had kept Wallace, there would never have been a Cold War because Wallace would not have thought to fight it.
Today we are in a situation analogous to a Wallace administration—both in terms of the ideological nature of our enemies and our elite’s refusal to fight them. The way our elites today talk about ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Shabab, the Taliban, etc. as separate problems is like having a president in the Cold War who didn’t recognize that our enemies were united by communism, as today they are bound together by a common hatred for the West and a common love for Islam in its seventh- and eighth-century form.
In the non-alternative history of the Cold War, we were finally able to confront the Soviet Union based on a remarkable memo that accurately and precisely defined the threat. In February 1946, the American charge d’affaires in Moscow, George Kennan, sent an 8,000-word analysis of the Soviet Union that became known as “the long telegram.” Kennan asserted that the Soviet Union was incapable of coexistence unless it was contained by force. He described how the very nature of the dictatorship required it to start conflicts and seek to expand. The analysis hit the Truman administration like a bombshell and forced immediate steps toward stopping Soviet expansion.
Yes, Islamists Do Mean What They Say
So far, we have had no “long telegram” explaining the global nature of radical Islamism and its unlimited ambition to create a worldwide totalitarian religious state in which everyone submits to Islam. Instead, we have had elites behaving like Henry Wallace and desperately seeking to avoid confronting how irreconcilable radical Islamism and Western modernity are.
In the absence of such an initial analysis capturing reality, it is very hard to imagine how we get to an equivalent of the second great document of the Cold War: National Security Council memo 68, issued on April 15, 1950. Based largely on the premises Kennan had articulated in the Long Telegram, NSC-68 established the strategy for fighting the Soviet Union.
Our long conflict with radical Islamists will last 50 years or more. Until we develop a clear description of the enemy and a strategy to defeat them, we will continue to lose ground around the world.
We should begin that description by looking to our enemies’ own words. Consider the case of Hamas. Hamas is very clear that its grievance is the existence of Jews. It wants every Jew to leave Israel or be killed. A Hamas imam in Gaza said in a sermon last year, “Our doctrine in fighting you [the Jews] is that we will totally exterminate you. We will not leave a single one of you alive, because you are alien usurpers of the land and eternal mercenaries.” The Hamas Charter says “Israel will rise and will remain erect until Islam eliminates it as it had eliminated its predecessors.”
What does “eliminate” mean? More from the charter:
…[T]he Hamas has been looking forward to implement Allah’s promise whatever time it might take. The prophet, prayer and peace be upon him, said: The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him!
Western elites keep trying to translate passages like that into something that fits their own worldviews. They can’t imagine that Hamas’s leadership intellectually lives in the seventh and eighth centuries. They can’t believe radical Islamists mean precisely what they are saying.
They need to start believing it. You can take the same analysis to virtually every radical Islamist group. They are immersed in the violence of the seventh and eighth century and they seek to replicate it with beheadings, burnings, and suicide killers.
As dangerous as our external opponents with their violent jihad are, the penetration of our system by people intellectually and culturally unprepared to defend America is nearly as perilous.
No one should be in doubt. We are drifting thoughtlessly into a crisis of Western civilization and there are no guarantees we will win.