Interesting Times: The Islamist bubble

It's not enough to win, we should avoid the tremendous price of previous victories over totalitarianism/

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
Here's a word that ought to be reintroduced into our vocabulary: winning. To his credit, John McCain, in his speech to a conservative convention, used the "w" word. "I intend to win the war," he said, speaking of Iraq. But Iraq is not the only war that needs to be won. Or more precisely, it is only part of the war. And the whole war is eminently winnable. There is a feeling in the air that if we are in a war at all, it is an unwinnable one, or one that will be with us for generations. In attempting to rally Americans, President George Bush has understandably urged perseverance and promised ultimate victory, but the net result has been to reinforce a sense of endless conflict and stalemate. In the back of our minds, we assume that the West will eventually be victorious against militant Islamism, just as we were against Soviet communism and Nazi fascism. But those victories are not exactly ideal models. European and Japanese fascism were defeated, but only in a war in which 55 million died or were murdered (including the Holocaust), and the US was compelled to use nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union eventually collapsed, but only after half a century of direct or proxy wars in Afghanistan, Angola, Nicaragua and elsewhere and central European suffering behind the Iron Curtain. Under Joseph Stalin alone, 20 million people died of starvation and in purges. Our job is not just to win, but to prevent the tolls of human life and freedom inflicted by these other totalitarian ideologies. This means beating Islamofascism before it becomes stronger and before a true world war is left as the only option. The first step to doing this is to realize that democracies often overestimate both their own weakness and their enemy's strength. THE CLASSIC example of this was the resonance of the surprise bestseller The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom. The book, which burst onto the scene in 1987, portrayed American academia as hopelessly polluted by moral relativism. "If Bloom is right, America's founding principles, taken from Hobbes and Locke, may be compared to AIDS," Tom West wrote of the book. "The body whose immune defenses are breaking down may appear healthy for many years before it becomes obviously sick. Thus, although in Bloom's view our founding principles were atheistic and relativistic at bottom, the body politic continued to look healthy for about 180 years before the disease began to manifest itself openly." This message spoke to conservatives, who wondered how such a morally weakened society could prevail against the Soviet regime which seemed able to ruthlessly concentrate on amassing power. Only two years later, however, the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union imploded into a tremendous heap. The collapse of the Evil Empire left behind a huge mess, but ideologically it was almost as if this supposedly formidable foe had never existed. At times, President George Bush has suggested the possibility of such an Islamist collapse. Speaking of Iraq in June 2004, soon after Saddam Hussein was found hiding in a foxhole, Bush said: "As the entire region sees the promise of freedom in its midst, the terrorist ideology will become more and more irrelevant, until that day when it is viewed with contempt or ignored altogether." Almost four years later, this statement invites ridicule. But Bush wasn't wrong; he had just left out part of the equation. Freedom has not been consolidated in Iraq, let alone spread in the region. The reason for this is not that freedom and democracy lack the potential for displacing Islamism, but that the former cannot spread when the Islamists are allowed to sow terror and intimidation with impunity. Among other tactical changes, the "surge" in Iraq has been successful partly because US forces have suppressed and captured Iranian agents and their allies. Iran itself, however, has barely been touched, aside from weak economic sanctions. The war in Iraq, the struggle against Syria and Hizbullah in Lebanon, and the Arab-Israel conflict are all now battlefields within the wider war against militant Islamism. The Islamist front is based in Teheran, which fights on all these battlefields by supporting proxy forces such as Hamas, Hizbullah and al-Qaida. IT IS glaringly obvious that the only way to win the wider war is to defeat the Iranian regime, just as the Soviet regime had to be defeated to end the Cold War, and the fascist regimes had to be defeated to end World War II. This is not as tall an order as it is made out to be. The Iranian regime is vulnerable. The people can't stand the regime, both because they are sick of being ruled by a corrupt theocracy (much as Russians had become sick of communism), and because it has mismanaged the economy so badly that there are rolling electricity blackouts in the depths of winter despite $100-a-barrel oil. Iran accounts for only 1 percent of Europe's global trade, while 40 percent of Iran's trade is with Europe. So if Europe cuts off this trade, much of it supported by government subsidies, it will have a negligible impact on Europe's economy while profoundly worsening the Iranian regime's already precarious situation. Combine this with a cut in diplomatic relations and tightened UN sanctions, and there is every reason to believe Iran could be forced to back down without firing a shot. Militant Islamism is a bubble that can still be burst. It is much weaker than it seems. But this will not be true for long if Iran's mullahs are allowed to go nuclear. The time to win this war is now, before winning becomes much more costly. The West must not follow the World War II model, when we failed to stop the Nazis while they were weak in the 1930s, or the Cold War model, when for decades we were satisfied with "containment" and "deterrence," before Ronald Reagan started talking about consigning Soviet communism to the "ash heap of history." The sooner we start believing in our own strengths and opening our eyes to the other side's weaknesses, the sooner we can win again, and at the lowest possible price. [email protected]

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