Existential Threats

[The following is slightly adapted from a comment written for a Facebook post, based on this article about President Obama’s December 6, 2015 speech, which for some reason Facebook would not allow me to post. Possibly because, at nearly 3,500 words, it’s too long. What can I say? I felt inspired. The comment that inspired me basically expressed doubt that Obama has put as much thought into “ISIS and the implications of radical Islam” as the article’s author thinks. I have adjusted some formatting and added some links.]

You may be right about Obama not thinking through the full implications of radical Islam, but the exact same can be said for people on the right who posit radical Islam as a threat to “Western civilization” (a fluid and undefined term if ever there was one) on a par with German fascism or Soviet communism. Lest this seem like a tu quoque argument, I’ll even concede that Obama might underestimate the short-term threat posed by radical Islamism, but only because I believe the proponents of the radical-Islamism-as-mortal-threat viewpoint drastically overstate its dangers—furthermore, by arguing for such an aggressive stance against it, they paradoxically serve its aims.

There is no way to present this argument without engaging in rhetoric that is likely to cause many people with a rightward bent to take almost immediate offense. If the American left has made any serious errors in recent years, it has been an unwillingness to risk this offended reaction. I think we are past the point of caring about that to any meaningful degree. We have allowed certain misconceptions to go essentially unchallenged for too long.

The concept of “political correctness” is portrayed by many on the right as an effort by the left to treat certain subjects as “off-limits,” for the sole purpose of protecting the feelings or sensitivities of the weak. I would argue that “political correctness,” when used productively, is about aggressively shutting down rhetoric that, in addition to being factually wrong, serves only to marginalize large swaths of society. Yes, some people go too far with “PC culture,” but that doesn’t invalidate the concept. Furthermore, any effort to use specific examples of overreach as an argument against the entire concept is an argument made out of desperation to change the subject. My point here is that we do have a toxic form of “political correctness” in the U.S., but it is one that exists to protect the beliefs and opinions of some people on the right, who shroud certain prejudices in a near-religious cloak, demanding tolerance from the left that they would never give in return. (Again, if your temptation is to immediately respond with examples of this thing or that thing that people on the left do, I will conclude that you are conceding my point about right-wing PC.)

Now, moving on the the difference in viewpoints between Obama and, to use but one example, George W. Bush, let’s begin with the notion that we are currently at war with “radical Islam,” but that Obama is too afraid to say so out of fear of offending people. That is possible, and there is perhaps some truth to it. But there’s another side to that. We are at war, in a sense, with radical Islamism, but we seem to disagree on what that term actually means. More importantly, many people on the left simply do not trust people on the right to know the difference between “radical Islam” as an ideology at odds with Western values, and Muslims as a whole. Even the left is far from immune from the ease of viewing giant groups of unfamiliar people as the potential “enemy.” The right is just much, much worse about it at this moment in history. A point that bears repeating as many times as necessary until it hopefully sinks in is that radical Islamism—especially as represented by the leaders of ISIS, Daesh, or whatever they’re calling themselves this week—wants this conflict between “Muslims” and “the West.” They are using our own prejudice and tendency towards bigotry against us, so why are we doing so much to help them along that path?

There are major historical issues that few people seem to understand, or even want to understand, about radical Islamism. It’s too much to go into in anything other than its own book, and I don’t claim to be any sort of expert whatsoever, but I will just make note of a few details here about radical Islamism:
– Islam is the second-most-widespread religion in the world after Christianity, and some estimates say it is faster-growing—that might just be because of birth rates in certain countries.
– Radical Islamism is generally focused on the Middle East region: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, etc. It has also had a major and well-known impact in countries like Afghanistan and Nigeria, as well as Somalia and its direct neighbors (e.g. Kenya).
– The country with the largest Muslim population in the world (~ 200 million) is Indonesia. Terrorists bombed a nightclub in Bali frequented by Westerners in 2002, but by and large Indonesia has escaped the most visible and noticeable of radical Islamic terrorism, and where it hasn’t, the issue has generally been independence from the Indonesian government in Jakarta. Radical Islamist terrorism in India, which has almost as large of a Muslim population as Pakistan (read the history of British India if you don’t know why that’s interesting), seems to have more to do with the conflict between India and Pakistan than anything involving the West. Other countries with large Muslim populations include Malaysia, the Philippines, the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, and the western regions of China. Radical Islamism most likely exists in some or all of those regions, but its reach rarely, if ever, seems to extend beyond its own region.

What differentiates the Middle East region from South and East Asia? No one much likes to talk about it, and it’s far from a complete explanation, but one glaringly important factor is this: Us, by which I mean the U.S. and other Western powers.
– Afghanistan has been a pawn in Western power plays going back at least to the “Great Game” between the British and Russian Empires of the 19th century. The British Empire—a/k/a the largest empire the world has ever known—never could bring Afghanistan fully under its control. The Soviet Union—a/k/a the nation with second-largest contiguous land area in history, after the Mongol Empire—couldn’t do it, either. Even the Mongols—who made it all the way from an area of Asia that goes completely unnoticed today to the fringes of medieval Europe—had difficulty in that area. The list goes on (I could mention Alexander the Great…)
– The Iranian Revolution of 1979, which has led to the closest thing to a “Cold War” we have in the 21st century, was in many ways the direct result of the 1953 coup that deposed prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed the Shah. This occurred not long after Mosaddegh announced policies that threatened the interests of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, a predecessor to BP. The Shah’s rule was less than respectful of civil liberties and civil rights, and many Iranians still haven’t forgotten that.
– The Middle East has been a pawn in the West’s various schemes for generations. The conflict between Israel and the rest of the Middle East is probably too complex for any one person to understand fully, but it’s only one piece of a giant puzzle. The House of Saud has supported Wahabbism for more than 200 years, essentially to promote its own power, and we have supported the House of Saud. The stated motivation of al Qaeda throughout the 1990s and 2000s was the U.S.’s continued presence in Saudi Arabia after the 1991 Gulf War. In response to al Qaeda terrorism, we invaded and occupied Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11, and we all know how that turned out. (I skipped over U.S. support of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, and our seeming about-face in 1990 when Saddam Hussein decided to keep going, somewhat-plausibly believing the U.S. still supported him.)

In other words, the strains of radical Islamism that affect the U.S. the most seem to arise in the parts of the world where we have done some of the most meddling.

Does this mean that radical Islamist terrorism is our “fault”? Of course not, but it’s a useful distraction to claim that liberals want to “blame America first.” It’s actually pretty insulting if you think about it for a minute or two, but many, many people don’t do that.

What it does mean is that our involvement in other parts of the world sometimes has long-term effects that hurt us far worse than whatever harm we had hoped to prevent or avoid in the first place. Usually, our involvement in the Middle East and other regions throughout the 20th century was part of the Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union—which included an ideological conflict with Soviet communism alongside a military standoff. By supporting the overthrow of Iran’s prime minister to protect the interests of the company that would become BP, for example, we most likely believed we were taking a stand for capitalism and the western way of life.

In a number of ways, the Soviet Union did pose an existential threat to the West, so it makes a certain sort of sense to think that the emerging ideology of the 21st century that is the most diametrically-opposed to Western liberal democracy (a poli sci term, so don’t get offended that I might’ve just called you a liberal) might seem like a comparable threat. Despite the Cold War having effectively ended more than 20 years ago, we are still wired to view our society as under mortal threat. Radical Islamism is different from Nazism and Soviet communism, however, in many important ways.

First of all, both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were modern industrial societies. Both had standing armies, navies, and air forces, and the latter nation had a nuclear arsenal. Nazi Germany only existed for 12 years, but during that time managed to conquer large areas of Europe—let’s not forget, however, that they paid dearly for much of that territory, and they failed to hold onto it for long as nearly the entire world fought against them. It is debatable, absent various “Man in the High Castle” scenarios, whether Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan ever posed a serious threat of overrunning the U.S. entirely, but at the time it surely seemed entirely plausible. The U.S. suffered greatly in a two-theater war against Germany and Japan, but the carnage of WWII’s Eastern Front is simply unparalleled in human history.

Turning to the Soviet Union post-WWII, we essentially fought World War III by proxy for almost fifty years. Sometimes we did this directly (Korea, Vietnam, and to a lesser extent, Grenada), but much more often we did so by supporting local forces we deemed sufficiently anti-communist—even if they were often otherwise at enormous odds with ostensibly Western values (Batista in Cuba, the Shah in Iran, Pinochet in Chile, nearly all of Central America, etc.) It was generally believed that a direct war with the Soviet Union would involve either or both a ground war in Europe or a nuclear exchange, and the concept of “mutually-assured destruction” was probably instrumental in keeping that at bay. Still, we came perilously close to nuclear war multiple times (the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Able Archer in 1983, Stanislav Petrov’s badass caution—also in 1983, and so on.)

I mentioned the fact that Nazism and Soviet communism controlled modern industrial states. They may not have had the quality of life some get to enjoy in the U.S. and elsewhere, but they were functioning, relatively-stable nations with foreign relations and the ability to support large populations for a sustained period of time. Radical Islamism can claim none of this. The Taliban has never controlled all of Afghanistan, and it has never been officially recognized as the legitimate government of Afghanistan by any but a few actual nations (during the 1990s, it was only recognized by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—all of which are considered U.S. allies, BTW). The “Islamic State” has no formal recognition. his might seem like a trivial detail, but it speaks to the power of radical Islamism as a global threat on par with Nazism or communism. So far, all it can do in a geopolitical sense is hold territory.

As for whether radical Islamism can function as an actual state, we don’t have much data, but what we have isn’t good. The Taliban was the de facto government of Afghanistan for five years, during which it accomplished very little in terms of performing the functions of a national government. It subsisted, and continues to do so, largely through the support of the few foreign nations willing to recognize its legitimacy. ISIS, on the other hand, largely relies on the chaos of the region to maintain any hold on power. Unlike Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, neither has or had the ability to produce their own arsenals of weaponry on a large scale—in short, if ISIS has weapons, they were given to them or stolen from us. ISIS has no air force, so any military gains they achieve are limited to the area immediately surrounding them. Any gains they make abroad are the work of individuals acting under their influence. That is where we get to the issue of existential threats.

Had many, many things gone differently during the 1930s and ’40s, the Nazis and/or the Japanese could have invaded and occupied at least part of the territorial United States. The Soviet Union could have carpet bombed the U.S. with nukes. Those are, to put it mildly, existential threats to the existence of the nation. A similar number of people died on 9/11 as died at Pearl Harbor, but after 9/11, we did not have to fight to keep an al Qaeda navy at bay, the way we had to fight the Japanese. If Osama bin Laden himself is to be believed, 9/11 was more destructive than even he had hoped—which I take to mean that even he had not expected it to do as much physical damage as it did. The real damage caused by terrorism is the damage we do to ourselves.

The worst nuclear threat posed by a radical Islamist terrorist, as it is typically conceived, involves one nuke. This is not to say that these are not serious threats, but they are not existential threats to our nation or our way of life. If a radical Islamist terrorist (or any kind of terrorist) were to set off a nuclear device somewhere in the U.S., it would not destroy the nation the way carpet-nuking by the Soviet Union, or fascist occupation by Nazi Germany, would cause the United States to cease to exist. The threat to the nation itself, or to our way of life, would come from how we react and respond. We responded to 9/11 by invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 whatsoever, destabilizing the region and effectively handing a sphere of influence to Iran on a silver platter. The general consensus seems to be that the leaders of ISIS met and began their plans while they were in the custody of U.S. forces in Iraq. That doesn’t make any of this our “fault,” but it does make it our responsibility to learn from the past.

A few more observations, and then I’ll wrap this up.
– We (by which I mean the Allies) defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan through brute force, because we had to, because they were attacking us (Germany in Europe, Japan in Asia and the Pacific), because they wanted to subdue us.
– The use of brute force directly against the Soviet Union was generally considered a bad idea, largely because of mutually-assured destruction. We won the Cold War—although I would say that communism lost the Cold War far more than capitalism won it—to a very large extent because the Western way of life was simply more appealing, and in many ways better, than what the communists had to offer.
– Our involvement in Afghanistan in the 1980s might have helped drive the Soviet Union to financial ruin—faster than it was already bankrupting itself—but the real death knell of European communism was as much cultural as it was financial. Given the slightest opportunity to choose the West, the people of East Berlin physically tore down the Berlin Wall.
– It helped that East German leaders, in 1989, had no recent bombing raids by NATO countries to use as propaganda to stir their population against us. Throughout history, people often tend to side with whomever is not dropping bombs on or shooting at them.
– Groups like ISIS say they want to destroy the United States and the West. Unlike enemies of past decades, however, they can’t. They don’t have arsenals of weaponry like the Nazis or the Soviets, nor do they currently have the ability to produce such arsenals—unless others give weapons to them or they get them from groups we have armed. Even then, though, it is highly doubtful that they could mount a successful invasion of the United States, any more than Nazi Germany could have bypassed the British navy and headed straight to the U.S. East Coast. (Yes, I am aware that the Nazis sent individual submarines to the East Coast. That’s my point. Their actual navy was busy elsewhere. ISIS doesn’t even have a navy.)
– By treating ISIS as an existential threat that could bring down the American republic and usher in a caliphate based out of some Midwestern city, were are giving them, al Qaeda, the Taliban, and countless other radical Islamists, far too much credit.
– By treating them as such a threat, we are also giving them exactly what they want, which is a direct conflict with Western powers. ISIS is brutal and, for lack of a better word, evil, but the ISIS leader is no Hitler or Stalin, and while he might have someone among his followers with the potential to become a Rommel or a Zhukov—they cannot acquire the means to realize that potential, however, without our help.
– Obviously we have to do everything in our power to stop ISIS, but history has a wide range of lessons about what is within our physical power to do, but which will ultimately cause more harm than good to our interests. It is hard to discuss those lessons, however, because of the people who cannot—or will not—tell the difference between learning from America’s past mistakes and “blaming” America for its current problems. That is facile, cowardly thinking, and we should not have to coddle the sensitive feelings of the American right anymore.
– Building on that last thought, if we truly believe in “American exceptionalism,” we should be working towards making America a truly effective force for justice and peace. History suggests that, whatever our intentions, we have not always achieved that goal. Unfortunately, for many people, “American exceptionalism” means that America is great by definition, so whatever we do must be interpreted within that preconceived framework. If everything you do is great, and nothing you do is wrong, though, you never learn, you never grow, and you end up alone and friendless, but still convinced of your own greatness, until you just fade away.
– Throughout the George W. Bush years, criticism of the sitting president was, in and of itself, deemed by many to be tantamount to treason (giving aid and comfort to the enemy). Many of those same people abruptly forgot that the minute Obama took office, and they are entirely unwilling to admit the cognitive dissonance. This is presumably due to notions of exceptionalism, which to them means never admitting error or fault. Anyone who genuinely believed that criticizing George W. Bush helped our enemies should take a long, hard look at themselves—far more than they’ve probably ever done before in their lives—if they do not think the same rule applies to a president they do not like. I happen to think criticism of a sitting president is essential to the health of a democratic republic such as ours, but unfortunately many Obama opponents—as well as the most strident Bush critics of 2001-09—have made it all into a sad cliché, We can do better.

There are criticisms to be made about how Obama views the threat of radical Islamist terrorism, but his views are far more accurate than those of so many of his opponents. A great many of them use sweeping rhetoric about existential threats to our entire civilization to mask a profound ignorance of our own history, and a misguided belief that loving one’s country means never considering the possibility that it did something wrong.

As I keep saying, we can do better than that. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be free of risk (nothing in life is free of risk, so go ahead and get that idea out of your head.) Obama has clearly put far more thought into the problem than many of his opponents. The question now is whether those opponents are brave enough to consider what he is saying, or whether they will continue to hide behind the same fear of the unknown and unfamiliar—without even trying to know or become familiar.

That is not the America I know or want to know, and if that is how you see America, then you embarrass me.


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