Barbarians in the Gates

We left New York harbor on the Norwegian Gem cruise ship on November 23. It was a clear crisp evening and the view of the NYC skyline and points of interest was riveting. We were escorted down the Hudson, past the Statue of Liberty, and beyond the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge by two gunboats and two armed helicopters. I don’t know if there was a particular threat to which the authorities were responding or whether this has become standard procedure for large passenger ships traversing the port of New York City. But it stood out to us as evidence that our world is not as it was just a short time ago. For me it underscored the importance of defeating terrorism.

The week before we left, Paris had been shot up by Islamic jihadists. The day before we were to arrive back home, a jihadist couple killed 14 people and injured many more in San Bernardino, California. Jihadist violence is and will continue to be on the march. Radical Islamists around the world rejoice as the rest of the world mourns the deaths, injuries, and suffering of the innocent. Our leaders, along with many media commentators, show their myopia about the nature of the challenge – none more starkly than President Obama and presidential hopeful Donald Trump.

Critics of Obama claim that he fundamentally underestimates and/or misunderstands the threat and persists with policy that helps the jihadist cause. This is evidenced by:

  1. His refusal to name the threat as Islamist
  2. His premature removal of American forces in Iraq, which led directly to the creation of ISIL and the establishment of a new caliphate (territory controlled by Islamists)
  3. The release of hundreds of dangerous jihadists from our military prison in Guantanamo, Cuba, many of whom have returned to their cause and have killed and injured American soldiers
  4. His challenge and subsequent backing down to the Assad government in Syria which harmed our credibility, aided in jihadist recruitment, and opened the door for the expansion of Russian and Iranian aggression in the region
  5. His generous stance toward Iran, especially in freeing personal assets for known bad actors and clearing a path for their development of nuclear weaponry
  6. His antipathy towards Israel, the only true ally America has in the region
  7. A half-hearted prosecution of air attacks against ISIS targets, wherein American sorties run a meager 12-30 missions per day and release munitions fewer than 25% of the time
  8. His insistence upon bringing Syrian refugees to the United States despite CIA warnings that they cannot be properly vetted
  9. His refusal to tighten security along the Mexican border despite its use by jihadists to enter the U.S.
  10. His rhetorical response to terrorist actions whereby he constantly: a) downplays the scope of the threat, b) admonishes against discrimination toward moderate Muslims, c) uses the opportunity to push the politics of gun control , and perhaps most significantly, d) refuses to admit that policy changes may be prudent.

Those who see things the same way as does Obama look upon Donald Trump’s recent remarks, along with his overall political approach, with a mix of revulsion, incredulity, and amusement. Just this week Trump issued a statement calling for a moratorium on all Muslims entering America. In the resulting hailstorm of criticism from Democrat and Republican political rivals, he clarified that this only applied to non-citizen Muslims who do not currently live in the U.S. But he hedged that stance, citing a Real Clear Politics poll suggesting that as many as 25% of Muslims in America are sympathetic to jihadist goals.

Those familiar with Trump’s methods see what he’s doing here. He uses inflammatory statements such as this to: a) control the media cycle (he’s received more than double the coverage of his nearest competitor for airtime – Hillary Clinton), b) establish an extreme initial position as a negotiation tactic, and c) distance himself from rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, in this case claiming the ground that he is the candidate most serious about protecting American lives.

Critics of Trump (and others in the Republican presidential race) claim that their approach is inflammatory, would lead toward widespread war, promotes racial and religious discord, and violates the constitutional rights of many Americans. This is evidenced by:

  1. Their calls for screening and/or profiling American and non-American Muslims
  2. Costly, both in blood and treasure, policy proposals that would ramp up military efforts in ISIL- controlled Syria and Iraq
  3. Their alienating non-radical Muslims with harsh rhetoric
  4. Aiding jihadist recruiting efforts by increasing the profile of America as a natural enemy
  5. Their willingness to turn our backs to Muslims who are suffering the ravages of war in Syria by denying refugees sanctuary in America
  6. Their blind backing of Israel despite its aggression towards Palestinians
  7. Their seeming not to care about the plight of illegal immigrants in America and their U.S. –born citizen children
  8. Their vilification of natural rivals such as Russia and China which increases the risks of conflict

The space between these two polarities is quite an ideological gulf. Both have some rationale. But both omit important considerations. If we are to elect leaders with better developed worldviews and policies, we need to think things through ourselves. Among the things we all must consider are:

  • How prevalent is the jihadist view amongst the worldwide Muslim population?
  • What is the likelihood and scope of future attacks if we continue our current course?
  • What are the ramifications of a reduction of American influence and power in the Middle East?
  • What steps can we take to reduce the allure of the jihadist viewpoint?
  • Left as a viable entity, what threat does ISIL present to America over the long term?
  • Is there a way for Muslims, Arabs, and other non-American powers to address the jihadist threat without a major American commitment? If so, why isn’t it happening and what must be done to make it happen?
  • How much expense, in terms of resources and sacrifices in freedom and lifestyle, is appropriate to nullify the jihadist threat? If we decide to tolerate a small amount of threat, how much?
  • Can we afford a nuclear-armed Iran? If not, what are we willing to do to stop it?

These are not simple questions and there are no simple answers. As we established, smart people arrive at very different conclusions. In order to come to a more cohesive and effective policy stance, we must openly and honestly examine our values. Fortunately, elections are a perfect way to do this. Unfortunately, the Machine (the Democrat and Republican parties, media, and vested interests) are not interested in the discussion. It’s up to you and me.

In order to do so productively, we must understand the history and dynamics at play. Sadly, most Americans are not well equipped for this task, not because they are unable, but because they are unwilling or do not have the level of education needed to wrestle with the issue. This is okay. It’s why we’re a Republic, not a Democracy. But it does not relieve us of our responsibility as citizens is to know enough to choose our leaders wisely.

So we must familiarize ourselves with the basics. Here’s a quick rundown.

First, jihadist aggression is nothing new. Fundamentalist belief in the teachings of Mohammad means the intolerance of opposition and the call to bring sharia law to every corner of the globe. This worldview requires submission and is the near polar opposite of the values upon which America was founded. What is new is the means by which this goal may be accomplished.

We also must grasp the power dynamics in the Middle East. The nations that exist today were imposed upon the area in the wake of the fall of the Turkish Ottoman Empire by the Sykes-Picot Agreement between Great Britain and France in the wake of World War I. The Arabs longed for self-rule, and largely achieved it within the new nations. Complicating the picture is the enmity between the three major sects of Islam – Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurd. These populations are not contained within the nations but are spread throughout the region. They represent the major factions that are fighting in Syria today.

Another irritant is the existence of the Jewish state of Israel. The area that Israel occupies was for centuries only important for religious reasons. The few Palestinians who lived there were nomadic and sparse and lived a hard-scrabble existence. Fleeing persecution in Europe, Jews began settling the region en masse throughout the late 1800’s and early 20th century. They lived a different lifestyle and held different values. Those values led to rapid economic development of the area, and the population exploded.

In the wake of the Holocaust, to protect the Jewish people from further aggression, the nations of the world recognized Israel as a legitimate nation of its own. This has never been tolerable to the Arab world, and has been a source of conflict over the past 70 years.

Another seminal event in the rise of modern jihadism was the 1979 fall of the Shah of Iran under the feckless foreign policy of Jimmy Carter. Iran, despite inevitable abuse of power by the Shah, was well on its way to becoming a modern state ready to join the civilized world. Instead it became a terror-supporting Shi’a theocracy under Ayatollah Khomeini. That legacy plagues the western world to this day.

President Obama sees jihadists as a relatively minor threat. He believes that they are few in number and are not likely to amass significant destructive capability. Approximately 25% of Americans basically agree.

Donald Trump sees jihadists as a growing and significant threat. He believes that if they are not thwarted sooner rather than later, great harm will befall our country. Approximately 75% of Americans agree.

9/11 proved our vulnerability. It is much easier to destroy than create. If a perpetrator is willing to sacrifice him- or her-self, there is little a free society can do to completely prevent attacks. Some of these attacks are likely to be devastating, especially as chemical, biological, or radioactive weaponry becomes available. The reality is that a handful of people could possibly wipe out a city.

Whatever path we choose, we will not prevent all attacks. But it is the primary responsibility of the federal government to keep us as safe as possible.

There is no right for a non-American to enter America. They do so at our pleasure. Our values are such that we prefer to limit no one. We of course prefer peace to war. It’s unfathomable to us that there are people, both abroad and amongst us, who would like to cut off our heads, kill our children in front of our eyes, rape and torture – shoot, maim, and destroy – simply because we do not accept their worldview. But it is the truth.

The barbarians are in the gates. The question for all of is – what are we willing to do to stop them?

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