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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The Whole Middle East Thing

I remember my first lessons on world affairs as early as the second and third grades. We had to cut articles out of the newspaper and talk about them. Dominant at that time, more than forty years ago, was strife in the Middle East – mainly between Israel and its neighboring states. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Today, foreign affairs remain centered in the cradle of civilization.middle east

Odds are that you’re disappointed in American Middle East policy. Me too. Do you ever wonder why this part of the world has been so problematic for so long? (Far longer than the years since Israel was established as a nation in the wake of WWII – Thomas Jefferson fought the Muslim Barbary Coast pirates in the early years of America’s nationhood, and Europe has been invaded repeatedly since the beginnings of Islam over a thousand years ago – the current one is far more clever than those of the past.)

There is one main problem that has plagued past, current, and judging by the discussion of the issue in the recent GOP debate, likely future administrations. The problem is that westerners cannot or will not clearly see the driving forces behind the ongoing conflicts.

Our myopia comes from at least two places: a failure to understand human nature and a lack of moral clarity. We often think of humans as rational beings. We aren’t. We are emotional beings with the capacity for reason. This distinction is important to understand the full spectrum of human behavior.

Morally, we have bought in to the concept that all religions, creeds, and cultures have equal standing. They do, in terms of an individual’s freedom to believe as he or she wishes. But they don’t, in terms of the social structure and dynamics that result from those beliefs. The failure to see this distinction makes it impossible to properly evaluate the motives of others and determine the most effective ways to resolve conflicts. In the case of the Middle East, we specifically lack understanding of the inevitable social and political consequences of the religion of Muhammad.

Much of the confusion comes from the inability to discern Islamism from Islam. Western pundits and leaders such as President Obama insist that “Islam is a religion of peace,” sometimes claiming that the word itself means peace. (It doesn’t; it more closely translates as “submission.”) The reality is that Muslims do not represent one homogeneous group, just as do neither Christians nor Jews nor Atheists, but rather hold a wide spectrum of beliefs. Some are westernized, meaning that they have found a way to follow their faith within the context of a modern society such as America that seeks to maximize individual liberty.

Others, such as those attracted to groups such as Hamas, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Boko Haram, ISIL, and the Muslim Brotherhood, do not fall into this category. They believe that all people must live under Sharia law, which supersedes all other law. Furthermore, they hold that they are commanded by Allah to actively pursue this end. This belief is known as Islamism. It is the motive force behind jihad and dawa (Islamist missionary strategy to change nations from within.)

For some reason, our leaders believe (or want us to believe) that Islamism represents a tiny fraction of the over 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. The evidence contradicts this. Distinguishing Islamists from other Muslims is tricky, as poll results regarding beliefs vary. The best I can figure from the data is that out of the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, maybe 200 to 500 million of them are truly Islamists. That, of course, is well sufficient to present real and present danger to all who disagree with them. Especially considering that among them are the leaders of nations such as Iran.

The inability to distinguish Islamists from other Muslims was behind the recent flap around Dr. Ben Carson’s comments on the topic. He very rationally explained that he did not believe that a Muslim who believed in the traditional tenets of the Koran would qualify to be President of the United States. He is factually correct, because the oath of office requires loyalty, first and foremost, to the U.S. Constitution. A traditional Muslim would be unable to comply. That his statement was viewed as controversial shows that our society is not currently capable of making this distinction; as a result to many it appeared as though he made a blanket “racist” statement about all Muslims. (There’s more going on underneath this, but we’ll have to save that for another time.)

To be fair, it’s a tough task to discern truth amidst the swirl of invective that comes from all sides. So how do we reasonably assess both the realities of the Islamist threat and the most effective policies to protect our people and our way of life?

Here are a few assertions that I offer for your consideration:

  1. Islamists are more numerous, and more powerful, than ever.
  2. The Islamist worldview is incompatible with the tenets of the U.S. Constitution and the American way of life.
  3. Islamists are serious about the destruction of western culture, specifically Israel and America.
  4. Islamists will continue their aggressions until they succeed or are forcefully prevented from doing so.
  5. Islamists represent a significant ongoing threat to Americans domestically.
  6. Islamists are fierce and dedicated, but far weaker than the full force of technologically advanced societies.

Maybe these appear obvious to you, or maybe they look like horse pucky. Presidential hopefuls Rand Paul, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton seem to believe that #’s 3-5 are not true.

Many in the west simply do not believe that Islamists mean what they say. They believe that Islamists are driven by the same motivators as anyone else.  Marie Harf, spokesperson for the Obama administration State Department said: “We need in the medium and longer term to go after the root causes that lead people to join these groups, such as lack of opportunity for jobs.”

George W. Bush said that Iraqis were the same as everybody else, they want freedom. Maybe so. But their ideas of freedom differ from yours, Mr. President.

If some or all of my six assertions above are untrue, I suppose it is most reasonable to continue to withdraw from involvement in the Middle East. The geopolitical realities there are a big mess. The national boundaries currently in place in the region mean a whole lot more to governments than they do to the people who live there. The population of the region roughly divides out into three groups – Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Among these, Muslims are the vast majority. Within that group, they roughly divide into three – Sunni, Shia, and Kurd.

Many of the difficulties there are not just with Islamist intolerance of non-Muslims, but of Sunni and Shiite intolerance of one another. It is an ideological blend incompatible with domestic tranquility, and fleeting moments of peace are only upheld via the fists of strongmen such as Saddam Hussein (we saw what happens when that heavy hand is lifted.)

It is tempting to just leave the whole mess to them and let them sort it out. That may have been possible in the past. It isn’t any more. Why?

Technology.

Islamists didn’t develop or create the destructive technologies that they employ today. But they sure are willing to use them. From IED’s to beheading videos, they have learned how to conduct real and psychological warfare in the most effective ways.

We stand on the verge of the day when Islamists will possess nuclear weapons. Let me ask you this. If and when they get them, do you believe that will show the same restraint that current nuclear-armed governments have?

President Obama called ISIS (he always uses the term ISIL) the “JV squad.” That was before they had successfully established the first Caliphate in 85 years. The significance of this to the Islamist is difficult to overstate. They believe that it signals the beginning of the foretold “end times.” It represents the successful completion of step five of a seven step plan to fully establish Sharia law worldwide. Steps six and seven aren’t pretty. In fact, nuclear weapons would be quite handy to successfully complete those steps.

The nuclear deal with Iran is therefore particularly crucial. The Obama Administration is quite comfortable with arms-length inspections and trusting Iranian intentions and integrity. Are you?

Candidates such as Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio and Lindsay Graham want to rearm and push the technological and therefore tactical and strategic military capabilities of the U.S. in order to play Wack-A-Mole with bad Islamic actors such as ISIS as they pop up. I’m unconvinced that this strategy will be successful.

It seems to me that the keys for solving Middle East problems lie with Middle Easterners. We need to support those Muslims who oppose Islamism. The problem? There doesn’t appear to be many of those around, at least not in power. Terrorist practices have been quite successful in intimidating all who might stand in opposition.

So here we are. We can’t ignore. We can’t invade. It’s quite a pickle. What do you believe we should do?