National Security & Defense

How to Empower Violent Extremism

Every time Obama “contextualizes,” Putin and ISIS grow bolder.

Not too long ago, most Russians were reportedly unhappy with Vladimir Putin. His crackdown on freedom and his kleptocratic economy were hardly popular. Most likely, given their druthers, Russians were not all that interested in Putin’s risky and costly dream of gobbling up former Soviet Republics to create some grander version of Russia’s mess.

But now? As the ruble crashes, as Russia’s oil income dives, and as sanctions start biting the man in the street, Putin, in counterintuitive fashion, is apparently more popular than ever.

Why? Because he has become an easy mechanism for ordinary Russians to vent frustration and anger over what they perceive as a too-powerful and bullying West. In a fairer world, Western decadence and self-indulgence would not have earned Americans and Western Europeans singular wealth, leisure, influence, and an overall good life — at least not more so than an Orthodox, politically proud, and historically illustrious Mother Russia. Add in the fact that Russians prove covetous of Western things, especially an elite that, like a moth to a flame, seeks to replicate exactly the sort of good life that it condemns as Western decadence.

Most Russians are not Putinists, any more than the nearly two-thirds who voted against Hitler in 1932 were Nazis. But both present-day Russians and Germans of the 1930s were willing at first to be amused by, and later to vicariously invest in, a movement that voiced openly what many at times felt silently. In the German case, scapegoating was multifaceted: the stab in the back to the German army that was forced to quit fighting while on the offensive in France and Belgium, the vengeful Versailles treaty that rubbed the German snout into the muck, the Jewish banking cabal that sucked the blood out of the Volk with punitive reparations, and a myriad of other fantasies that explained away why Imperial Germany lost badly to its supposedly weaker enemies.

Add in the fact that most people have little ideology other than wishing to ally themselves psychologically with a perceived winning cause, and one can see how a Hitler or a Putin could turn minority support into a popular consensus — as long the leader continued to appear successful and bring benefits, whether material or spiritual, to the man in the street without much commensurate cost. Should Putin meet his Stalingrad, then of course Russians would turn on him, as Germans in the end turned on Hitler. Should ISIS lose Mosul and shrink back into obscurity, Muslims will assure the world that ISIS never had any popular support.

And even with Mosul in ISIS hands, something like that is happening in the Muslim world. By all accounts, only a tiny minority, perhaps no more than 2 or 3 percent, of Muslims in the Middle East actively supports ISIS and violent Islamic ideology. But various international polls also show a much higher level of approval for what Westerners would call Islamism or Islamic terrorism — as expressed by support for the tactic of suicide bombing or agreement with the late Osama bin Laden. Approval from this larger minority polls anywhere from 15 to 20 percent, depending on the country in question and the wording of the question. In other words, 60 to 80 million Muslims in the Middle East may, at least silently, condone almost any tactic felt necessary to further the cause of a purer Islam at the expense of the West in general and of what they would see as secularized or Westernized Muslim sellouts in their midst.

This minority of many millions of Muslims in the Middle East and in Europe resents the West. From the time in the morning when they get up and flip on their television sets to the instant they go to bed checking text messages on their smartphones, the West and Western technology are ubiquitous. But — radical Muslims demand, and the Muslim Street itself often wonders — why must this be so?

In terms of culture, the West, with its pornography, open and accepted homosexuality, radical feminism, atheism and agnosticism, lavish and unsustainable entitlements, declining birth rates, and fragmented families, surely does not deserve such global clout. What gives Europe and the United States — our generation’s version of a shrinking and rotting 15th-century Constantinople, whose riches properly belong to the stronger and more pious who can take them — such undeserved sway?

Islamism offers an easy answer, a ready exegesis far more comforting than the difficult-to-stomach but accurate assessment that the West embraces consensual government, free-market economics, capitalism, property rights, meritocracy, equality between the sexes, inclusiveness for minorities, and religious tolerance — and that such values in the end result in greater material wealth, more innovation, better technology, and in general more personal freedom.

The Islamist objects that the poverty and general wretchedness of the Middle East do not derive from self-inflicted pathologies like autocracy, statism, fundamentalism, collectivism, endemic tribalism, misogyny, or intolerance; rather, they are caused by aggressive foreign enemies, Americans and Jews in particular. At home, traitors, heretics, apostates, and atheists have weakened Islamic spiritual life, in pursuit of a tawdry covetousness of Western trinkets and shibboleths.

A once great, spiritually robust umma, which saw successive caliphates chase Christians and Jews out of the Middle East, from the Persian Gulf to the southern Mediterranean, is now mired in religious ennui, chaos, and poverty. Meanwhile, this generation’s incarnation of crusaders, imperialists, and exploiters have their corporations, their oil companies, and their troops planted on Holy Land, siphoning out the material wealth from what is properly Islam’s, while corrupting its youth. Their omnipresence is proof not of their power but only of their greed.

In this supposedly perverted climate, Islamism appeals to a large minority of the Middle East. It will bring back lost pride and assertiveness — a purposefulness, if you will — that transcends both the daily depression of the Middle East and the haughtiness of a spiritually lost West. If most disapprove publicly of ISIS’s more violent reckonings, privately they remain mostly silent, because there are things about such payback that are not always unwelcome. Certainly, for now, ISIS seems to be an ascendant movement where most others are descendant.

Two other factors empower ISIS. Western diffidence and appeasement are interpreted as proof not just that the West is weak, but that its weakness arises from guilt and a tacit admission that Islamism is spot-on in its charges of Western culpability. Barack Obama reifies that message when he offers his confessional Al Arabiya interview, his platitudinous Cairo speech, his apology tour, and his euphemistic campaign to excise words such as “terrorism,” “Islamism,” and “radical Islam,” or when he admonishes Christians and Westerners generally about getting on their moral high horses despite having a cultural tradition of slavery, apartheid, inquisition, and crusading. If touchy and solicitous Western leaders are loath to challenge radical Islam’s charges against the West and instead seek any mechanism possible to avoid being offensive, such tentativeness must be proof of their guilt.

ISIS and its supporters, both radical Islamists and fence-sitting observers, also don’t see evidence of lasting Western military strength. The more the West blows stuff up with its complex technology, the more it loses. The Taliban, they feel, will return once the tired West pulls out of Afghanistan — just as, even when the West wins militarily in Iraq, it loses through abandoning garrisons that are felt to be too burdensome. Libya seemed a cowardly bomb-and-run quickie. Iran’s defiance of serial deadlines and Syria’s indifference to Obama’s red lines confirm that the West is sanctimonious and shrill but otherwise tentative. Radical Muslims look elsewhere around the world, from Putin’s aggression to China’s muscle flexing, and are convinced that America either cannot or will not act successfully, further proof that it confesses its own lethargy.

All this is quite dangerous. ISIS is no more absurd a movement than was National Socialism in 1932. How many Germans, versed in their Goethe and Schiller, ever believed that a paint-by-numbers artist like Hitler, a former chicken farmer such as Himmler, or a failed academic like Goebbels would soon be turning Weimar Germany into a rogue state that would murder its own sick, disabled, and non-Aryan? Radical Islamists of all stripes support ISIS, if occasionally uneasy about its methodologies. Soon, if ISIS consolidates a caliphate of sorts, it will win over more adherents, who appreciate that it has flummoxed the West and restored pride to millions who either hated the West or were forced to move to the West in humiliation.

ISIS is nursed by Western diffidence at best and at worst by the sort of contextualization and rationalization embraced by Obama. Every time he fails to note that Coptic Egyptians are beheaded precisely because they are Christians, or that Jews are killed by reason of being Jews, ISIS takes note. Each time he remonstrates with Christians for their moral high horses, or cites poverty as the root cause of “violent extremism,” or retreats into the distant past in desperate efforts to remind Westerners of their own comparable sins, ISIS takes note. Each time Obama hesitates, issues and then forgets about threats, or slashes defense, ISIS takes note. And if Obama continues, soon a 400-million-person Middle East will take note as well. Millions may not like ISIS, just as millions once were somewhat bothered by Hitler. They may prefer that its beheadings remain untelevised, or may frown on burning someone alive when the firing squad would do. But they most certainly will like the power, territory, and fear that ISIS commands — and the utter helplessness that follows in the once haughty West.

Appeasers like Obama do not like their enemies. They certainly do not feel that an Islamic Middle East is superior to America. But they do dwell on the faults rather than the achievements of their own culture. In their vanity they believe that their own estrangement from their culture is a result of their superiority, and thus they alone possess the wisdom and charisma to unlock the enigma of a Hitler or of radical Islam and to convince it of its own self-defeating aberrations. What is dangerous about a Chamberlain or an Obama is not just that they empower enemies of their country, but that by their own desperate attempts at magnanimity they earn from their enemies utter contempt, to the point that they encourage rather than deter aggression.

The more Obama contorts history and language to contextualize ISIS and its radical Islamic supporters, the more ISIS is likely to want to humiliate Obama — and the more Middle East Muslims will recalculate who is ascendant and powerful and who is not, and then make the necessary adjustments.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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