Politics & Policy

The War We Forgot to Fight

This war cannot be won on defensive terms.

Here is my grand unified theory of the history of the universe:

 – democracies show weakness;

 – dictators are emboldened and attack;

 – democracies respond slowly, insufficiently, or appease;

 – dictators are further emboldened and attack harder;

 – war;

 – democracies win;

 – start over again…

This is not original stuff. Alexis de Tocqueville knew it in 1835. Winston Churchill said as much in 1933. This pattern played out most dramatically when, just a few years after the “war to end all wars” — World War I — exhausted free nations appeased Germany, leading to World War II and the Holocaust.

In the Cold War cycle of this pattern we were spared the full force of a potential World War III because the wars were fought on a proxy level (Vietnam, Afghanistan), and eventually the Soviet Union imploded.

Now we are in World War IV, as Norman Podhoretz has pointed out, between what Tony Blair aptly calls Reactionary Islam and the rest of us. The first striking thing about this war is that we’ve managed to fall asleep at a relatively late stage of it.

This war actually began before the last one was over, with the Iranian revolution and the taking hostage of the U.S. embassy staff in 1979. The rise of Soviet-backed terrorism, including by the PLO against Israelis; the drain of proxy wars, and the Iran crisis all fed each other. An American resurgence of confidence in the 1980s turned the tide in WW III and, by the way, put WW IV on hold — but all it took was for the West to rest on its laurels in the 1990s for WW IV to resume where it had left off.

During the 1990s, Osama bin Laden not only took American diplomats hostage, he blew them up. The U.S. responded mainly by turning its embassies into fortresses. This finally led to the full war phase, starting with 9/11 and continuing through the toppling of radical regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But then we stopped.

America, though it occupied and governed Iraq, was so loath to be seen to be “intervening” in Iraqi politics that it turned a blind eye to massive Iranian support for radical forces. Iraqis, and the region, saw that Iran supported its friends and threatened its enemies inside Iraq, while the U.S. failed to do either until it was too late.

As the security situation deteriorated, Iraqis made impressive strides toward democracy, for which Americans also deserve credit. If Iran and its vassal, Syria, have failed to derail Iraq’s political progress, they have succeeded in something no less important: derailing America’s prosecution of the global war.

Since 9/11, America had always had an offensive objective. First it was Afghanistan, then it was Iraq. When Saddam was captured, Libya also fell into line, which was a nice bonus for toppling the regime in Iraq. But despite what Bush said on the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003: “Any outlaw regime that has ties to terrorist groups and seeks or possesses weapons of mass destruction is a grave danger to the civilized world — and will be confronted” — Iraq became the end, not a step, in a war that had not yet been won.

Here, as a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, I must make an admission: If the price of that war was to prevent the U.S. from stopping Iran’s march toward the bomb, it was a mistake.

But why should this be so?

There are two years, five months, and nine days before the next president of the United States is sworn in. During this time the world will not stand still. Rather, the historic pattern will continue: weakness, indecision and paralysis will be rewarded by escalating attacks. The only question is whether Iran will be disciplined enough to postpone its next major escalation until after Bush is gone and it has a nuclear bomb; or whether there will be more 9/11s before that.

This brings us to perhaps the biggest difference between the current war and its predecessors. In the past, our enemies have not been suicidal. Iran is led by the national equivalent of a suicide bomber — a suicide regime. It not only embraces a theology of genocide, as Yossi Klein Halevi called it, but of apocalypse.

In Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, Bernard Lewis cited Ayatollah Khomeini quoted from an 11th-grade Iranian textbook: “If the world-devourers [i.e., the infidel powers] wish to stand against our religion, we will stand against their whole world and will not cease until the annihilation of all them… Either we shake one another¹s hands in joy at the victory of Islam in the world, or all of us will turn to eternal life and martyrdom. In both cases, victory and success are ours.”

In this view, apocalypse, including the deaths of millions of one¹s own citizens, is not neutral, it is good. In the fevered imagination of Ahmadinejad¹s regime, it will bring the return of the Hidden Imam and the ultimate triumph of good (Islam) over evil (everything else).

It is assumed that Bush is powerless to fight this war because he is unpopular. The opposite is the case: He is unpopular because he is seen to be fighting unsuccessfully.

It is also assumed that American people are in no mood for conflict, and if they were, Bush lacks the credibility to lead them. I know this sounds nuts, but I disagree, on both counts.

It is not too late for Bush to describe the nature of the Iranian threat and lay out a coherent, three-pronged approach to dealing with it: draconian sanctions backed by the threat of military force and support for the Iranian people.

The thwarted plot to blow up multiple airliners with liquid explosives, and the subsequent British ban on all carry-on luggage except for wallets and passports carried in clear plastic bags, shows that this war cannot be won on defensive terms.

Perhaps it is possible to hermetically seal an aircraft cabin from bombers willing to die with their victims; it is not possible to seal off entire democratic countries, bursting with unguarded targets. The only way to win is to suck the air out of jihad by driving the regimes that support it out of power or out of the terror business.

Isolated jihadis can kill but they have no hope of winning. The whole point of jihad is to gain power, so the jihad will lose steam if the states that back it lose power. The U.S., U.K., France, and Germany, perhaps individually and certainly collectively, have the power to force the key rogue regime — Iran — to end its race for the bomb and support for international aggression.

The current U.N. Security Council process on Iran is a good beginning, but only has a hope of becoming the basis of something real if the U.S. shows the determination to take this campaign several degrees forward. We’ve reached the limits of common-denominator diplomacy; the U.S. has to start laying markers based on what will work, not what will fly.

American participation in the French-Arab attempt to force a premature ceasefire on Israel, before Hezbollah is sufficiently degraded, will embolden Iran. If this was a way to maintain the international consensus on confronting Iran, it is a strange way to do so. Just as Hezbollah’s survival will be widely seen as a defeat for Israel, it is also a defeat for the United States by Iran.

The choice is between Bush returning to lead America and the world now, or waiting for a drumbeat of terror — or a mega-9/11 — to restart the American-led campaign to confront jihadist regimes. We cannot avoid the war phase of the grand historic pattern, because the war has already begun, but we can win it before it becomes much more costly.

 – Saul Singer is editorial-page editor of the Jerusalem Post and author of Confronting Jihad: Israel’s Struggle and the World After 9/11. This piece first appeared in the Jerusalem Post and is reprinted with permission.

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