Less than a generation after World War II, in the midst of a cold war whose outcome was far from certain, John F. Kennedy famously proclaimed that Americans would “support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” More than half a century later, in an era fraught with conflict and tension, it may be time to ask: Is that still our credo?
In particular, are Americans still committed to liberty — a word that has come to sound old-fangled? Can our friends still rely upon our support — even when the going gets tough? Do foes still have reason to fear us — or have we become too war-weary to effectively oppose them? And those nations that profess friendship but seek to ingratiate themselves with our foes — what are we to do about them?
These questions, I suspect, will require a great deal more study, thought, and debate before they can be adequately answered. But 34 years after the Iranian Revolution, and twelve years after the attacks of 9/11, we at least should know our enemies. And we should have settled on a strategy aimed at defeating them. But we don’t. And we haven’t.
Many of us turn away from an uncomfortable truth: The ideologies most hostile to America and the West have arisen in what we have come to call the Muslim world. These ideologies are not just intolerant but supremacist — which is why, within the Muslim world, religious minorities face increasing oppression and, in many cases, “religious cleansing,” a trend Western governments, the U.N., and most of the media avoid discussing.
Most Muslims do not embrace these ideologies. But for a host of reasons — fear undoubtedly high among them — neither are most Muslims battling them or even denouncing them publicly and without equivocation.
There is this positive development: In the media, resistance to calling a spade a spade is, finally, breaking down. Take, for example, this recent New York Times headline: “Mali: French Troops Battle Islamists.” That’s accurate: The French have not intervened in Africa to battle “violent extremists.”
Former British prime minister Tony Blair — no conservative — has been both candid and articulate in his criticism of those who insist that Islamism derives from “legitimate grievances” that the West needs to address. He does not hold with those who have convinced themselves that Islamists “are as they are because we have provoked them and if we left them alone they would leave us alone. . . . They have no intention of leaving us alone.”
Blair also has made clear that he does not see the Islamic Republic of Iran as a “normal” state, one seeking stability and interested in nuclear technology only to keep the lights on in schools and hospitals or, at most, in response to legitimate security concerns. Rather, the ruling regime, he has said, has an ideological agenda and is “prepared to back and finance terror in the pursuit of destabilizing countries whose people wish to live in peace.”
That leaves America and its allies with a choice that Blair phrased concisely: “to be forced into retreat or to exhibit even greater determination and belief in standing up for our values than they do in standing up for theirs.”
Blair made that statement in 2007. Over the years since, which alternative have Western leaders chosen? Recent negotiations between Iran, on one hand, and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the U.S., the U.K., France, Russia, and China plus Germany) on the other, have so far produced a “joint plan of action” that is intended to be developed into a comprehensive agreement in 2014. Iran is to get relief from the economic pressures imposed by sanctions. In exchange, according to Secretary of State John Kerry, Iran’s rulers are to make concessions that will ensure that they “cannot build a nuclear weapon.”
Most Americans are skeptical. A poll conducted this month by Luntz Global found that only 7 percent of respondents believe Iranian theocrats when they say they are not working to develop nuclear weapons. And more than three out of four fear that the Iranian regime would provide nukes to terrorist groups hostile to America and the West.
The average American, it appears, knows better than do many of our political elites that those vowing “Death to America!” are our foes, and that they are unlikely to become our friends no matter how much “confidence-building” we do. They know, too, that our allies are those threatened by the same enemies — and brave enough to side with us in common defense. But what are we to make of those nations that are not against us — but also are not with us?
For example, despite the much-vaunted “reset,” it’s become apparent that Vladimir Putin sees the diminishment of American power as a Russian national interest, even if that means he will have a nuclear-armed Iran not far from his southern border.
Pakistan, founded as the world’s first “Islamic republic” in 1956, can charitably be called America’s least reliable ally. Since becoming nuclear-armed in 1998, it has been responsible for the proliferation of nuclear technology to any number of rogue regimes. At high levels within the country’s powerful intelligence services, there are influential individuals whose sympathies lie with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. And does anyone seriously believe that no senior Pakistani officials knew that Osama bin Laden — along with three of his six wives and a passel of children — had taken up housekeeping in the hill resort of Abbottabad?
Not long ago, the Republic of Turkey was regarded as the most Western of Muslim-majority nations, a proud member of NATO. But since Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the Justice and Development (AK) party, was elected prime minister in 2003, Turkish nationalism has taken on an increasingly Islamist coloration.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has spent untold billions of petrodollars spreading Wahhabism, a fundamentalist and bellicose interpretation of Islam, around the world. At the same time, the Saudis have felt, and continue to feel, more secure with great-power protectors — the British before World War II, the Americans after. The Saudis are pragmatic enough to recognize the difference between a useful enemy (that would be Israel, a state that would never attack them without provocation) and a genuine threat (that would be Iran, whose rulers disdain monarchical rule in favor of velayat-e faqih — the “guardianship of jurists,” meaning mullahs who interpret Islamic law and combine religious and political power).
Also in this category of neither friends nor enemies — what teenagers call “frenemies” — is the Emirate of Qatar, which hosts America’s most important military base in the Middle East while funding and directing Al Jazeera, the popular Arabic television channel that promotes Islamic rage, anti-Americanism, blood libels against Israelis and Jews, and outrageous conspiracy theories. In June of this year, Qatari emir Hamad bin Khalifa was replaced by his son, Tamim. Will the young ruler move his small but rich and influential state closer to the U.S. and the West? Or will he seek to accommodate Iran or al-Qaeda’s growing network? Or will he continue to play both ends against the middle?
Qatar may be an example of the adage that nations have no permanent friends, only permanent interests. I’m not convinced that always holds true. And even if it does, some nations’ permanent interests permanently align. Those committed to the “survival and success of liberty” are our friends for the long haul; those intent on the destruction of liberty are not. It’s as simple — and as complex — as that.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.