National Security & Defense

The Upside of Pessimism

It can wake us up to reality: The world is increasingly dangerous, and we need leaders who are equal to these troubled times.

When George Will wrote last week that “Americans should curb their pessimism,” it provoked in me an even deeper pessimism that has been bothering me ever since. If even somebody as wise as Mr. Will can believe that ISIS does not pose “even a serious threat to the social cohesion or functioning of any developed nation,” and that overall “the world is unusually safe,” we should wonder if there’s any hope for rousing us all from somnolence.

First, as to ISIS: Far from being a bizarre perversion of Islam, it is a painstaking return to some of Islam’s roots, and thus it has the ability to recruit millions more Muslims to its jihad. For people of a certain personality type, ideological purity, even a purity of evil, always carries with it an air of romance, excitement, and inspiration. ISIS is steadily expanding its territory — now Libya, having crossed the Mediterranean! — while ISIS’s progenitor, al-Qaeda, also expands throughout other parts of the Middle East, southwest Asia, and Africa. And the Taliban, essentially an al-Qaeda ally, remains so fully and barbarously ensconced in parts of Afghanistan that rumors continue to swirl that its control will be formalized in peace talks. Meanwhile the putative leader of the free world debates semantics and worries about the terrorists’ “legitimate grievances.” This staggering expansion of ISIS and its brethren makes the jihadists’ global mission far more than what Will downplays as a “second-tier problem.”

Will doesn’t even mention Iran, which now stands closer to the ability to project devastating power than at any time since its murderously fanatical reign began in 1979. As Iran relentlessly approaches the nuclear-breakout point, the American president looks on not with horror, and not determined to call a halt, but with tacit approval.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, the Saudis — brutal domestically but at least allied diplomatically with the West — face an uncertain transition after the death of their monarch. And Egypt, led by President al-Sisi, exactly the sort of courageously “moderate” Muslim that Barack Obama claims to support, is so disgusted by Obama’s weakness and backstabbing that Sisi now reaches to Moscow for assistance.

Oh, yes, Moscow. Will spent much of last year (in multiple columns on this theme) warning that Russian neo-czar Vladimir Putin has a “Hitlerian” mind that makes him “more talented and dangerous than either Nikita Khrushchev or Leonid Brezhnev.” Now, though, he minimizes the threat, citing Russia’s “ramshackle economy and its dependence on external financial institutions.” He was right the first time. The old adage is true: The most dangerous bear is a cornered one.

China, holder of massive amounts of American debt, continues to build its military while constructing brand-new, militarized islands in the middle of the South China Sea. North Korea remains North Korea: nuclearized, savage, lunatic. Radical Islamism, still clearly a minority element in other Asian states, is increasingly popular in Malaysia, Indonesia, and even the Philippines.

In central and South America, rabid, Marxist-tinged leftism still holds sway in too many countries. And almost all of Africa remains a mess.

Against all this, the United States under Obama lifts nary a finger, while our would-be allies in Western Europe continue to struggle with weak economies, diplomatic fecklessness, and refusal to meaningfully provide for their own defense. Europe, as has been well documented, is also wracked by growing anti-Semitism — historically a sign of internal weakness, because the impulse to turn one’s fury on “the other” tends to run strongest when one loses confidence in one’s own culture. And with Greece increasingly a weak sister and Turkey all but lost to the West, southeast Europe no longer provides a bulwark against various sorts of revolutionary incursions.

Here at home, the Bush administration’s financial bungling — followed by the wildly overtaxing, overspending, overregulating ravages of Obama’s six years — has left the United States with its highest debt level in its history (apart from World War II) and with historically low work-participation rates; we could well be one economic downturn away from ruinous social unrest. Racial tensions have grown; respect for civic institutions and understanding of basic civics are at a dangerously low ebb; the courts are increasingly populated by leftist judges who scorn founding principles and traditional culture; and the military’s warrior ethic is being eroded by political correctness.

To combat all this, sensible Americans increasingly pin their hopes for salvation on a 2016 presidential election that just can’t seem to come soon enough. America, it seems, has so far been blessed with the right leaders at the most perilous times; surely some new blood will arise, somebody of competence and bold new vision will emerge and help us escape these multifaceted threats. Right?

Maybe not. Certainly not new blood, if the current polls and fundraising tallies are to be believed. In these times of trouble, a Clinton–Bush race looks not just chokingly stale but far more fraught with downsides than in 1992, when peace and prosperity seemed baked in the post–Cold War cake. Worse, this Clinton is more leftist than her husband and at least as corrupt, while today’s Bush is the most arrogant yet and the most openly dismissive of — even disdainful of — the conservative movement.

Sorry, Mr. Will, but pessimism is most definitely well warranted. Sometimes a bracing dose of pessimism can wake us from a stupor. It isn’t just bears who fight most fiercely when cornered; so, historically, have Americans. In times that try American souls, we have always found ample inspiration in “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” May it be so in these coming years as well — if we can survive the next two of them.

— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter: @QuinHillyer.

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