Interesting Times: Quiet, America is sleeping

It is not so much that Westerners do not feel threatened, but that they do not see how they can win.

June 14, 2007 15:13
saul singer 88

saul singer 88. (photo credit: )

It is not so much that Westerners do not feel threatened, but that they do not see how they can win. Anyone who watched the two most recent intra-party debates in New Hampshire could not miss the result: The Democrats competed over who was more against the war in Iraq; the Republicans over who would more vigorously prosecute the war against Islamofascism. There is a compelling political logic to this outcome. Consciously or not, both parties seem to understand that if the election is about who will get out of Iraq, the Democrat will win; if it is about whether America is at war, the Republican will win. Yet this is not just posturing - the two parties really believe in their respective stances. The parties are aiming at real but contradictory impulses in the American psyche. Most Americans agree with the Democrats that the war in Iraq was mismanaged, but it is not clear that they would support withdrawal at any cost. At the same time, most Americans probably disagree with Democratic candidate John Edwards, who called the war against terrorism "a bumper sticker" rather than a real war. Still, the Washington Post's Anne Applebaum might be right that the West has entered a "post-post-9/11" era. She noticed that the German, central European and British press each covered the recent G-8 summit very differently. From this, "it's pretty clear that that brief moment of consensus - those very few years when the world's most powerful governments all believed that the world's worst problem was international terrorism - has now passed." Indeed, the focus was on global warming, Africa, globalization, missile defenses in Europe - anything but the rising Islamist menace. This is striking since, though there has not been another attack in the US like 9/11, there have been many more "9/11s" since the original almost six years ago, including in London and Madrid. WHY THE apathy? Why the silence? Why the resignation? One explanation is that President George Bush has failed to persuade Americans, let alone Europeans, that the West is at war. The truth is probably slightly different: It is not so much that Westerners do not feel threatened, it is that they don't see how they can win. Psychologically, it is natural to respond to a threat you think you can't do anything about by trying to ignore it. Israelis went through this at the height of the Palestinian suicide bombing campaign, when we hunkered down and tried to fight terrorism by continuing to lead normal lives. This is not entirely unhealthy. There is an element of defiance in ignoring terrorism, since the terrorists are determined not to be ignored. Ultimately, however, Israel fought back against terrorism and defeated it. Between Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002, the security fence, and targeted killings of terrorists and their leaders, the Palestinian assault lost steam - not from a change of heart, or for lack of trying. On a global level and even in the Israeli case, however, it is not enough to defeat terrorism militarily. As we have seen, when suicide bombers became less effective they were replaced by missile attacks. Other countries have a much more difficult problem defeating terrorism because their societies are not protected the way almost every kindergarten, mall, movie theater and cafe still is in Israel. Bush is right that the West is at war, that terrorism cannot be beaten with defensive measures, and that defeating terrorist regimes is the key to victory. Where he has foundered badly is on the implementation, which has grievously harmed the case he has tried to make. By tying America down in Iraq and keeping the pot boiling in Lebanon and against Israel, Iran has stopped Bush's regime change bandwagon in its tracks. There are even reports that Bush won't take military action against Iran because his administration believes it must cut a deal with Iran in order to succeed in Iraq. THOUGH IT looks unlikely, we do not know if Bush will decide to and is capable of starting to lead again, rather than letting Europe define a failing US policy toward Iran. In theory, it is not too late. Bush could still present Europe with a simple choice: either join the US in imposing draconian sanctions that could force Iran to back down, or accept that there will be no alternative to military action. The question is whether the Iran crisis will come to a head under Bush's watch. The mullahs, it seems, have learned the mistake of Saddam Hussein, which was to invade Kuwait just a year or so before he could have built a nuclear bomb, as was discovered after the first Gulf War. Iran is trying to walk a fine line of causing enough trouble to intimidate the West into inaction, but not so much - such as withdrawing from the NPT and openly enriching uranium to bomb-making levels - as to trigger massive sanctions or military action. Iran, in short, is counting on not awakening Americans from their sleep, at least until Bush is out of office. If a Democrat were elected president, this Iranian restraint would quickly end, on the assumption that the US would find a way to live with a nuclear Iran. But even if a Republican were elected and inherited the Iranian problem, the new president would have the tough job of succeeding where Bush failed - convincing the world both that there is a war, and that it can be won. Bush has talked a lot about the universal desire for freedom, and that this desire won't be denied. But in Iraq and Afghanistan, tyrants were toppled directly by American force. What Bush hasn't done is develop a practical paradigm for regime change based on supporting oppressed peoples without invading - the paradigm that is such a necessary part of any strategy to confront Iran. This will be a critical task of the next president if the war against Islamofascism is to be won. [email protected]

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11

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