Interesting Times: That old 'malaise' again

There is widespread concern that we are not winning the global conflict against militant Islam.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
According to a new global survey, about 90 percent of the American, British, French and German peoples oppose Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. At the same time, satisfaction with the "state of the nation" has plummeted since 2003 - to 35 percent in the UK, 29 percent in the US and Germany, and 20 percent in France. The Pew Global Attitudes Project, which conducted the survey, headlined its findings thus: "America's Image Slips, But Allies Share U.S. Concerns Over Iran, Hamas." Indeed, the survey also found concern over the rise of Hamas and marked increases in European support for Israel, particularly in Germany. What do these figures tell us about the state of the world? The short answer: There is a wide Western consensus about the threat from militant Islam, but also widespread concern that we are not winning this global conflict. This moment is reminiscent of 1979, the year US president Jimmy Carter gave his famous "malaise" speech in July. That December, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the new mullocracy in Iran captured 53 American hostages. CARTER'S SPEECH didn't actually contain the word "malaise," but he did speak of a "crisis of confidence... that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will... [There is] growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation." Americans agreed and, a year later, brought in Ronald Reagan. Reagan, unlike Carter, believed that all that had to happen to turn the situation around was to unleash the power and ingenuity of the American people. He would revive the economy by cutting taxes, and he would drastically increase defense spending. Perhaps most importantly, he would bring moral clarity to foreign policy by branding the Soviet Union an "evil empire" that would be consigned to "the ashheap of history." Reagan introduced simple notions of what victory meant and how to get there. By the end of his presidency the American economy had completely reversed Carter's "stagflation"; and the Soviets were about a year from total collapse. The constitution prohibited electing Reagan for a third term, so Americans chose the senior George Bush, Reagan's vice president. But Bush the father, and Bill Clinton after him, did not build on the momentum for freedom and democracy created by the dissolution of the Soviet bloc. America let the Islamist storm gather. THEN CAME 9/11, and the emergence of George Bush the son as the ideological successor, not of his father, but of Reagan. Moral clarity was back. By mid-2003 the regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq had been toppled, and Libya's mad dictator had cried uncle. Now some accuse Bush of heading for the same deal with Iran that Clinton cut with North Korea: handing over light-water nuclear reactors and effective immunity in exchange for pledges not to build nukes. Clinton's "Agreed Framework" fell apart in 2002 when North Korea admitted it had pocketed Western concessions and built nukes anyway, on the sly. However, the problem now is not so much that Bush will go for a similar deal with Iran, but that even if he does not, the sense of momentum that characterized the Reagan era and Bush's first term are gone. Speaking of the Arab-Israeli conflict recently with The Jerusalem Post, Daniel Pipes expressed exasperation that Israelis do not think in terms of victory, but of conflict management. Israelis don't seem to understand that "in the end, one side will win and one side will lose," and that the Arab goal is the elimination of the Jewish state. There is a lot of truth in Pipes's observation, but not just for Israelis. Reagan's revolution was to start thinking in terms of victory, not "detente" or "containment" - that era's form of conflict management. Post-9/11 Bush started off like Reagan, and still speaks of freedom's power to transform the world. But he is veering dangerously close to lapsing into conflict management, this time of militant Islam. On June 8, a senior Iranian official said on Iranian TV: "The American empire is hovering between life and death. If America loses some of the countries it has subjugated and plundered, there will be chaos [there]... America seems so big, but in fact is like a paper tiger - even the slightest tremor could easily make it crumple and disappear" (translation by The jihadis are not confused about what victory means, whether against America or Israel. But they are not invincible; on the contrary, they are themselves a paper tiger. There is, in fact, only one way to lose against a force that is so weak, vulnerable and unappealing: for the West to fall into a strategy of "managing" rather than winning. This week, former Clinton official Flynt Leverett wrote in The New York Times, "By continuing to reject a grand bargain with Teheran, the Bush administration has done nothing to increase the chances that Iran will accept meaningful long-term restraints on its nuclear activities... [or to] ensure that the US wins the longer-term struggle for Iran." LET'S GET something straight: "Winning" means either the Iranian regime's full capitulation and humiliation, along the Libyan model; or, better yet, its collapse and replacement with a democratic government. We've seen in North Korea just how "meaningful" deals based on showering rogue regimes with reactors and guarantees are. In a moving speech to the US Merchant Marine Academy just before departing for this week's European summit, Bush spoke of courage, honor, sacrifice, freedom and victory. He added, "We look forward to the day when... the people of Iran enjoy the full fruits of liberty." But he also spoke of "the Iranian people's rights to develop nuclear energy peacefully, with proper international safeguards." This year, the war against militant Islam will either continue to tip toward "managing" the jihadis, or turn from the brink and tip back toward seeking victory. Hanging in the balance are not only a multitude of lives, but the confidence of Western civilization in its future.

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