The historian Thucydides felt that democracies were characteristically volatile and yet complacent when existential dangers loomed on the horizon. But once faced with impending doom — such as the near collapse of Athens after the disaster of the Sicilian Expedition — they usually proved the most capable of marshaling the entire population for war. Accordingly, the recent ISIS terrorist strike in Paris — a result of lax security and failure to monitor borders — even at the eleventh hour should wake up the French to the existential danger they face.
America’s wars of the 20th century seem to confirm that ancient wisdom. A complacent, naïve, and isolationist United States came late to both world wars. Nonetheless, once engaged, the United States almost immediately amassed huge armies ex nihilo and produced unprecedented quantities of arms to ensure Allied victories in both conflicts. No other power fought in so many theaters of battle to such effect and with such consideration for reducing its own casualties.
The pattern of the ensuing Cold War was hauntingly similar: initial Western-democratic naïveté about the vicious nature of the erstwhile wartime ally the Soviet Union, precipitate post-war disarmament — and finally, during the Korean War, an abrupt remaking of the American military, characterized by the development of a sophisticated deterrent strategy that kept the global, Communist Soviet Empire contained until its collapse in 1989.
Ostensibly, that same pattern of initial blinkered indifference and lack of attention ended by sudden reawakening and panicked mobilization marked the American response to radical Islam. The fall of the shah of Iran, the subsequent Khomeini revolution, and the appeasement embraced by the Carter administration between 1979 and 1980 — all in the depressed landscape of the post-Vietnam era — illustrated how the United States was initially baffled by and indifferent to the rise of radical Islam.
At first the U.S. assumed that radical Islam was primarily an aberrant Iranian and Shiite phenomenon uncharacteristic of our Sunni and Wahhabist friends in the Gulf. Some Cold War–era analysts of the time believed that the Iranians were analogous to Marxist-inspired Palestinian terrorists of the 1960s and 1970s, even though the latter were secular and were funded and often trained by Moscow and its appendages. Later, leftists sought to cite proof of American culpability — colonialism, neo-imperialism, racism, capitalist exploitations, etc. — that might in some fashion contextualize the seemingly illogical anger of the Muslim world toward the United States.
In the 20-year interval between the Tehran hostage-taking and the cataclysmic September 11 suicide attacks, radical Islamists, of both the Shiite and Sunni varieties, declared a veritable war against the West in general and in particular the United States — most notably with the Beirut Marine-barracks/U.S.-embassy bombing (1983), the first World Trade Center bombing (1993), the Khobar Towers bombing (1996), the East Africa embassy bombings (1998), and the attack on the USS Cole (2000). But in these two decades before 9/11, radical Islamists, especially those of al-Qaeda organized by Osama bin Laden, were never directly confronted by the United States in any lethal way. Islamists were explained away as either an irritant incapable of inflicting existential damage given their lack of a nation-state arsenal or a passing phenomenon in the manner of former Middle East terrorists of the sort led by Abu Nidal against Western and especially Israeli interests.
There were grounds to be baffled at first, perhaps in the fashion of bewilderment at Hitler’s fanaticism in 1936 or Stalin’s betrayal of his wartime Western allies in 1946. After all, in the 1930s and 1940s, the Islamic Middle East had been enamored of secular fascism inspired by Nazi Germany. Subsequent Pan-Arabism, Baathism, Soviet-inspired Communism, and Palestinian nationalism were likewise mostly secular in nature. And these ideologies similarly proved transient manifestations of the Middle East constant of tribalism, poverty, statism, authoritarianism, anti-Semitism, and religious and cultural intolerance.
Why, then, at the end of the 20th century, had terrorist movements reverted back to seventh-century fundamentalism? Why was it that the wealthier the petroleum-rich Middle East became, the more globalized — and Western-oriented — communications, entertainment, and popular culture grew, the more knowledge that the Islamic world gained of relative global wealth and poverty, and the more the post–Cold War United States proved postmodern in its attitude about the causes and origins of war, all the more did radical Islamists despise the West? Islamists apparently were confident either that Western economic and military power was a poor deterrent against their own supposedly ancient martial courage or that such material and technological power would never fully be unleashed by confused elites uncertain about their own degree of culpability for the mess they found themselves in.
In any case, deterrence was lost. A 20-year path of appeasement of radical Islam inexorably led to 9/11. Then, as with past aroused democracies, 2001 seemingly changed everything, as the West seemed to gear up to restore its security and strategy of deterrence. Almost every aspect of American life was soon altered by just a handful of Islamist planners in Afghanistan and their suicide henchmen in hijacked planes, even as economic recession followed the 9/11 attacks. Intrusive new security standards changed forever the way we boarded airline flights, took the train, and visited public buildings. The Patriot Act accorded intrusive powers of surveillance to government agencies to monitor communications that fit particular criteria learned from prior terrorist attacks.
These Patriot Act measures and their affiliated protocols played a key role in ensuring that in the subsequent 14 years there was no attack on the United States analogous to 9/11, despite horrific but isolated killings such as the Fort Hood massacre and the Boston Marathon bombing. A cultural war erupted over the causes of Islamic violence, with both Republican and Democratic administrations seeking some magical formula that might reassure the world’s billion Muslims, in and outside the West, that the United States did not see any innate connection between Islam and Islamist terrorism. Such a profession was supposed to remind the Islamic world to police its own, on the assumption that there were no logical grounds for any Muslims to hate the U.S. The age-old antithesis — that the West did not much care what the non-West thought of it as long as it understood preemptory attacks against the West were synonymous with the aggressors’ own destruction — was apparently unpalatable to a sophisticated and leisured public that even after 9/11 did not see the Islamic threat as intruding into the life of their suburb or co-op.
How, then, is the supposed war on Islamic-inspired terror currently proceeding, especially in comparison with past U.S. efforts in World Wars I and II and the Cold War? At first glance, it appears the realists were correct that Islamism is hardly an enemy comparable to the Nazis or Soviets. First, other than the case of Iran after 1980, the terrorists still have not openly and proudly assumed the reins of a large nation-state with a formidable arsenal. Second, for all the talk of the spread of WMD, they have not staged a major nuclear, biological, or chemical attack. Third, fracking and horizontal drilling inside the United States, along with petroleum price wars among Middle Eastern exporters, crashed the price of oil, robbing terrorists of petrodollars and aiding Western economies.
That price drop — coupled with a supposed Western exhaustion with war after the experience of Afghanistan and Iraq — has fooled Westerners into thinking the Middle East is now less strategically important than it has been in the past, as if most of the world were becoming as self-sufficient in oil and gas as is the United States. Are the realists correct in reminding us that we still do not face from radical Islamic terrorists an existential threat analogous to those of the 20th century during World War II and the Cold War?
In the decade and a half after September 11, the Islamists have influenced Americans far more than we them — well aside from inflicting a level of destruction inside the United States, in New York and Washington, that neither Nazi Germany nor Soviet Russia was ever able to achieve. Everyday life has been radically altered, from using public transportation to entering a government building for minor business. Westerners are losing the propaganda war: While al-Qaeda and ISIS have matched their blood-curdling rhetoric with equally savage snuff videos, we have been emasculated by euphemisms. “Death to America” is matched by “workplace violence,” “man-caused disasters,” and “overseas-contingency operations.” Jihad is redefined by American-government officials as a personal spiritual odyssey and the Muslim Brotherhood as a largely secular organization. After the Danish-cartoon attacks and the Charlie Hebdo killings, fearful Westerners are voluntarily self-censoring in a manner that Islamists themselves do not have to enforce by direct coercion.
President Obama is not so much complacent as an appeaser of radical Islam — an identification he refuses to employ. Yet the president condemns Christianity by reminding us at prayer breakfasts of its violent Crusader roots, or he lists false glories of the Muslim world, as in his Cairo speech. Obama’s rhetoric of the last seven years has been predicated on the false assumption that his own supposed multicultural fides and his father’s Islamic connections would make him the perfect Western emissary to defuse radical Islam. This has not come to pass, as we see from the recent Paris mass murders. Never has the Middle East been more unhinged and never has the U.S. been more disliked by it. Westerners are as likely to join ISIS as reformed terrorists are to enlist in the fight against the jihadists in their midst.
In other words, the Islamist threat is so far unquenchable because it has the West’s number: Radical Islam understands that the more pre-modern it becomes, the more postmodern is the likely Western response — a situation analogous to a deadly parasite that does not quickly kill but slowly sickens a host that in turn scratches at, but does not kill, the stealthy tormenter. Obama has described ISIS as a “JV” organization and al-Qaeda as “on the run.” On the eve of the Paris attacks, he deprecated ISIS as “contained,” while Secretary of State John Kerry warned that its “days are numbered.” A supposedly right-wing video maker, not a pre-planned al-Qaeda assault, explained our dead in Benghazi. Such euphemism is not just symptomatic of political correctness and an arrogant assumption that postmodern Westerners have transcended the Neanderthalism of war, but also rooted in a 1930s-like fear of expending some blood and treasure now to avoid expending far more later.
The first decade and a half of the current phase of the Islamic war were characterized by insidious alterations in Western life to accommodate low-level but nonetheless habitual terrorist attacks. As long as the Islamists did not take down another Western skyscraper, blow up a corner of the Pentagon, or kill thousands in one operation, Westerners were willing to put up with inconvenience and spend trillions of dollars in blood and treasure on anti-terrorism measures at home and the killing abroad of thousands of Islamists from Kabul to Baghdad.
But conflicts that do not end always transmogrify, and the war on terror of 2015 is not that of 2001, much less that of 1979.
Time for now is on the Islamists’ side. Not if but when Iran will acquire nuclear weapons is the question. Not if but when ISIS strikes a major American city is what’s in doubt. As America abdicates from its role in the Middle East, Vladimir Putin creates an Iran–Syria–Hezbollah arc of influence, reassuring the terrified Sunni Gulf states that he is a far better friend — and could be a far worse enemy — than the United States.
More important, Russia, Iraq, and Iran — and the Gulf monarchies — could act in concert under the aegis of Putin and thereby control 75 percent of the world’s daily exports of oil. It is also conceivable that ISIS could fulfill something akin to its supposedly JV notion of creating a caliphate, given that it has already carved out a rump state from Syria and Iraq. A nuclear Iran could play the berserker role with Russia of a crazy nuclear North Korea cuddling up to China. Meanwhile, our new relationship with Iran makes it hard to partner with moderate Sunni states against ISIS, given that the Iranians enjoy the bloodsport that ISIS plays among both Westerners and Sunni regimes.
In short, on four broad fronts — the emergence of terrorist nation-states, the acquisition of nuclear weapons, the global reach of terrorists, and the ability to alter global economic contours — the Islamists are making more progress than at any time in the last 35 years.
Was Thucydides, whose notions of democracy were echoed from Aristotle to Winston Churchill, correct that democracies in the eleventh hour galvanize to meet existential threats?
So far, not this time. During the Obama administration, radical Islam finally has grasped that the way to destroy Western societies is to employ Western political correctness against them, leading eventually to their paralysis — as long as the war is waged carefully, insidiously, and over decades. In their various rantings, Osama bin Laden and his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri referenced the Western failure both to enact campaign-finance reform and to address global warming — topics not usually associated with the agendas of radical Islam. While ISIS mowed down Parisians, Al Gore was on the top of the Eiffel Tower doing a marathon webcast about the existential danger of climate change and prepping for a Parisian global conference that will now take place amid the detritus of a recent mass terrorist attack — all echoing President Obama’s assertion that the greatest danger to our security is carbon, not radical Islamic terrorism.
The war will be lost when listless and weak Westerners no longer realize that they are in a war but have largely become exactly what their enemies had envisioned them to be all along.
– Mr. Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the National Review Institute. This article is adapted from remarks he gave upon receiving the William F. Buckley Jr. Prize in Dallas, Texas, on October 21, 2015.