To Defeat ISIS, We Must Fight Ideology — Not Terrorism
The Democratic and Republican presidential primary campaigns are now approaching the ultimate reality: voters actually voting. Given the priority of international terrorism in their minds, this is a critical opportunity to test whether the candidates truly understand the threat of radical Islam.
The central question for US policy-makers is how the terrorists (and their state sponsors and other accomplices) see us, and how we should see them. Too often, especially among Democrats but also for some Republicans, there is serious confusion about radical Islam’s true ramifications, thereby blinding us to the magnitude of its danger. Even worse, our misperceptions tie our hands in developing ways to protect innocent civilians at home, and our interests and allies abroad.
Although communism and radical Islam differ in countless ways, they share one critical element: they are ideologies driven by an obsession to force the real world to match their preconceptions, whether of class conflict or superior religious belief. Terrorist attacks are simply manifestations of the ideology, the symptoms of the threat, not the threat itself. Accordingly, US policies that ignore the ideological driving force will fail, because they are not addressing the real menace.
In his classic work, “Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin,’’ George Kennan observed, “Many people in the Western governments came to hate the Soviet leaders for what they did. The Communists, on the other hand, hated the Western governments for what they were, regardless of what they did.” Even considering the profound differences between communism and Islamism, Kennan’s insight is a lodestar for would-be presidents.
In the West, there is nearly universal revulsion at the bestiality of Al Qaeda, ISIS, Hamas, and Hezbollah, and their mass murdering of innocent civilians, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. But their barbarism extends beyond slaughtering noncombatants. It also includes forced marriages, selling women and children into slavery, medieval punishments for alleged heresy and apostasy, and beguiling and then brainwashing the unwary. As heinous as these acts are, however, they are not isolated aberrations. They are symptoms of the underlying radical-Islam disease itself, and it is that disease which should be our principal target.
Similarly, terrorist propaganda against the West is filled with hatred for specific targets: Mohammed cartoons and videos, the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, women’s education, and more, all of which supposedly offend the radicals’ tender sensibilities. “Offensive” though these examples may be, they are merely pretexts. If they were eliminated, there would be others: the presence of US forces in Muslim lands (even when protecting Muslims from terror and oppression), for example.
Those who neither recognize nor understand the terrorist ideology react to the radical Islamists at the capillary level, and their perception of how the West should respond also reflects an instinct for the capillary. Like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, they believe that if we only stopped referring to “Islamic terrorism,” if we only closed Gitmo, or stopped making offensive cartoons and videos, the terrorist threat would recede.
This approach is pure fantasy. Our actions did not cause radical Islamists to hate us. Western efforts at appeasement will not induce more “moderate” policies from them.
We cannot remain crouched in the fetal position, hoping not to offend anyone, or respond to terrorism’s global reality only after we are attacked. We could make innumerable “reforms” to Western behavior that the radicals deem offensive, but it would not alter their ideology. If anything, it would only convince them that many in the West have lost faith in their basic values and philosophy of freedom. Our efforts at appeasement, in this uncomfortably accurate light, are simply evidence of the underlying decay of Western culture itself.
Similarly, ad hoc law-enforcement responses to individual terrorist acts are insufficient. There are simply too many aspiring San Bernardino shooters; too many Tsarnaev brothers; too many Major Nidal Hasans; too many Boko Harams; too many terrorists in Benghazi, the Islamic State, and Afghanistan. Even legitimate law-enforcement surveillance efforts, themselves under assault, will never suffice to protect the United States and our allies against an army of hostile, ideological terrorists.
Refusing to acknowledge that we face an ideologically motivated foe is not a grand strategy. It has already failed for almost 30 years, even as the radical ideology fueling terrorism has spread, gaining countless new adherents. In the war we are in, not of our choosing but because we are being attacked, the only long-term strategy is to destroy the enemy, not try to appease it. That is what the voter should be demanding to hear from the presidential candidates. For as Winston Churchill said, confronting the Nazi ideology, “without victory, there is no survival.”
John Bolton is former US ambassador to the United Nations. He is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
This article was originally published by The Boston Globe.