National Security & Defense

‘Better Ideas’ Are Nothing without Guns to Back Them Up, Mr. President

(File photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty)

When the topic of conversation turns to foreign policy, the president can at times sound rather schizophrenic. Depending on the image that he is trying to convey, he can be either the promulgator of immovable red lines or their fiercest critic. Depending on whom he is hoping to impress, he vacillates wildly between the Patton-esque badass who personally killed bin Laden and the supple-minded peace-prize winner who can collapse empires with his hashtags. Yesterday afternoon, the press corps was treated to a lovely example of this indecisiveness. Having proposed initially that the “challenge of countering [ISIS’s] violent extremism” was “not simply a military effort,” Obama quickly went one further and suggested that it might not be a military effort at all. “Ideologies,” the president submitted, “are not defeated with guns, they are defeated by better ideas and more attracting and more compelling vision.”

Should they so wish, the sticklers and the apologists will intuit their narrow defenses. Technically, Obama did not say that our “enemies” won’t be defeated with guns alone, but referred more broadly to “ideologies.” That can be justified, surely? “Vision” is a pretty general term that can mean a whole host of things. Perhaps he has a secret master plan? And by including the word “simply” in his initial assertion, he must have meant to imply that a “military effort” is necessary after all, right?

In a political and historical vacuum, I might have some sympathy for these exonerations. As somebody who has been paying attention for the last six-and-a-half years, however, I think I can be forgiven my skepticism. If there is one thing that we have learned about Barack Obama since 2008, it is that he is prone to a form of aspirational Whiggism that is so preposterously linear in its assumptions that it makes Lord Acton look like a hard-nosed disciple of Alan Taylor. Last year Obama supposed aloud that ISIS “has no place in the 21st century” and that it is therefore destined to disappear. Of course he is buoyed by thoughts of “basic yearnings” and “compelling visions,” and “better ideas”; he is the candidate of platitudes and of hollow assurances, of “Hope” and of “Change,” of historical arcs bending themselves to meet his own transient positions. Why shouldn’t ISIS conform to his musings?

That Obama falls back upon the presumption that all will eventually be well is not entirely his fault. Because the United States is founded upon a spectacular, world-beating, hyper-revolutionary idea, it can be tempting for all of us to imagine that its survival and preeminence is foreordained — that, in Abraham Lincoln’s famous contention, “right,” by its virtue, “makes might.” That temptation, however, is folly. At Yorktown, at Gettysburg, and at Berlin, American soldiers with lofty ideas in their hearts managed to prevail upon their enemies and, eventually, to raise Old Glory amid the intellectual ruins. Certainly, Generals Washington, Grant, and Eisenhower were all possessed of “better ideas.” But, thankfully for us, they also had a cache of advanced weaponry that could not be overcome. Had they lacked those tools, their convictions would have been worth nothing. Do we comprehend that their victories were by no means guaranteed? Do we grasp that America is an outlier?

To ask in earnest how many people have perished despite possessing ‘better ideas’ is to end up feeling a little sick.

To ask in earnest how many people have perished despite possessing “better ideas” is to end up feeling a little sick. One wonders: Were the victims of the death camps in Poland and beyond liberated by benevolent abstractions? Was the fall of the Soviet Union inevitable, as President Reagan optimistically claimed? Would Pinochet’s prey have been as easily overcome had they had recourse to arms?

I do not believe so. In the last century alone, tens of millions of good human beings succumbed to bad ideas enforced by the weaponized agents of disgraceful regimes. Each time, their deaths have prompted the rest of us to say in earnest, “never again.” For them and for their families, Obama’s vague talk of winning the argument and riding History to its final destination will serve as no consolation at all. At present America has both the guns and the good ideas. But one has to wonder: Do its leaders understand which protects which?

One wonders, too, whether they comprehend that human nature persists intact throughout the ages. We have become more thoroughly “modern” since 1939, but we have not yet escaped our bodies. What Christopher Hitchens memorably described as “the mobilizing energy of fascism” remains today — waiting, quietly, for a sufficiently terrible idea to capture and to harness it. It is a truth all-too-infrequently acknowledged that disaffected and bored young men will always be tempted to reject the bourgeois comfort of the capitalist West and yearn instead for absolutism. Rich, poor, religious, atheistic — where there is testosterone and antipathy there will be loyalty to pernicious ideology. We can hold all the graduate seminars we like in Raqqa; none will change the fact that some men aspire to smash things.

#related#Now, as during the days of Italian Futurism and Spanish Fascism, a certain type of man detects romance and heroism in the life of the outlaw. Where I am content to live in the suburbs with my wife and my dog, saving up all the while for a new refrigerator or a vacation to Tuscany, a few bad eggs will always seek violence and derring-do. Where I am happy to strive for personal autonomy and to pursue meaning in my own “little platoons,” a handful of the alienated will never feel truly at home until they have pledged to the strictures of the cult. Unpleasant as it may be for us to acknowledge, a significant number of the fellows who have run off into Mesopotamia will never be seduced by talk of economic or social opportunity, by sappy appeals to #lovewinning, or by hortatory lectures on the value of personal meaning. On the contrary: Like their forebears, they will be stopped only by well-placed bullets to the head.

When your target is a pathetic clown such as Oswald Mosley, ideology can indeed be beaten by “better ideas,” by societal pressure, and by coruscating satire. When you are dealing with Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary or the command structure of the Schutzstaffel, you have little choice but to call in the Marines. They have some pretty solid ideas, I hear.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer for National Review.

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