Despair and Hope

The short and long wars against radical Islam

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

In the short-term, the ongoing war with Islamic fascists from Afghanistan toIraq , and in peripheral areas from Canada and Manhattan to Madrid , Bali, andLondon , seems surreal.

Not to mention frustrating: almost every day the press highlights another furious outburst from some entertainers or intellectuals who are just enough on the fringes of American popular culture to warrant momentary coverage of their lunacy. Neil Young is worried about the reception of his new album? He hypes George Bush’s malignancies. The Dixie Chicks and Madonna are bothered about being pegged abroad as part of George Bush’s empire? Presto, they call Iraq the real problem. The dropout Sean Penn can’t quite shake his off-screen image of Jeff Spicoli? He seeks acceptance from the Western Left as a serious critic of U.S Middle-Eastern policy.

The largest American aid program since the Marshall Plan has become the receptacle for all the conflicting personal frustrations, unhappiness, and thwarted idealism of Western elites, a sort of scapegoat or totem through which the ennui and angst of contemporary sensitive man can be momentarily excised.

The terrorists in Iraq know this and thus trust that our press corps will harp on the last minutes, rather than the last four years, of the wretched life of the mass-murdering al Zarqawi — did he receive proper medical attention? Was he roughed up by us? Did he die immediately or suffer?

Indeed, the more our own troops are tortured and exploded, the more our own media will rush to judgment on Haditha to assure the world, before an inquiry has even finished, that the U.S. Marine Corps murdered innocents. The more non-uniformed Islamists behead civilians and torture innocents, the more international “rights” organizations will accuse the United States of humanitarian violations in Guantanamo Bay — at least up until the point of calling for the return of such killers to their native countries.

In such an asymmetrical war of perceptions, the gruesome death of a single American does more harm to our cause than does the image of a martyred Zarqawi in sensual Paradise with his virgins. For Westerners, death ruins the precious good life; for the topsy-turvy Islamists, death salvages the bad life.

Our rules of engagement are aimed at winning “hearts and minds.” That precludes the age-old formula for such postwar rebuilding: reconstruct only after the enemy has been humiliated and defeated. A Curtis LeMay would have advised leveling Fallujah in April to save the war; we shrug that doing so would surely lose it. Somewhere the ghost of a Thucydides or Hobbes or Churchill might adjudicate our debate in ways that we might not like.

All this the enemy knows and manipulates to its advantage.

The terrorists also understand that their overtly fascistic ideology — intolerance for other religions, execution of the apostate, subjugation of women, killing of gays, and theocracy — will never earn the proper Western revulsion once reserved for a similar reactionary Nazism, since it butts up against the pillar of multicultural tolerance; no non-Western people can be any worse than the present-day West.

Al Qaeda and its followers can’t manufacture a machine gun or design an RPG. No problem — they realize there are enough petroleum-generated dollars floating around in the region, and enough eager arms merchants, to get what they need.

Politically, the Islamists accept that the world detests them — perhaps even the Chinese and Russians. But they also have discovered that much of the world finds them useful. For the Arab Street , macabre resistance to the West offers a vicarious sense of pride, especially if it is cost-free and does not completely forfeit access to Europe or the United States . Aspiring hegemons like the Chinese, or those in decline like the Europeans and Russians, enjoy it when America bloodies its nose, if for no other reason than envy and spite — and the hope that in the future they are given more consultation, befitting their prior status.

Oil is their best ally, or so the Islamists trust. The Iranians, even if shackled, boast that, Samson-like, they can pull down our entire petroleum temple upon all of us anytime they wish. The terrorists know that billions will always filter down from autocracies as bribe money into their coffers. And no gas-hungry American wants his Labor Day Winnebago parked dry on his pad because some nut let off a bomb in the Middle East .

But in the longer-term war, the Islamists have real problems. Their acquisition of weapons is always parasitical and can’t quite keep up with constant Western innovation, whether in the form of drones that take out terrorists sitting in front of their TVs, or anti-ballistic missile systems that might nullify Ahmadinejad’s nuclear blackmail.

The Islamists are also in a dilemma about escalation. They have a deep-seated suspicion that another 9/11 might unleash an unpredictable Western response that would pollute the favorable Middle East waters in which they swim. Behead a Canadian prime minister; blow up the Eiffel Tower or the Vatican; take out the Empire State Building — and Western bombs may be dropped first, beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, and questions asked later. So for now, jihadists accept that their best strategy is not to upset too much the multifarious forces that conspire to restrain Western power.

Even more depressing for the Islamists is that their enemy is not the American or European West per se, but a far more insidious Westernism, something that has infected diverse peoples from South Korea and China to Central America and enclaves in the Middle East like Beirut and Dubai . Westernization — whether we define that as a C-SPAN televised gripe session on Palestinian rights at a Western university or navigating through 7,000 tunes on an iPod or flipping on the CD, air conditioning, and power seats in a Honda Accord or watching assorted bare navels on MTV — is insidiously seductive and ultimately subversive to the patriarchal world of the eighth century.

How do you arrange a marriage, insist on a beheading for adultery, conduct a proper honor killing of your daughter, or calmly call Jews “pigs and apes” when the wider Westernizing world broadcast into your living room, car, and workplace thinks you are some groveling zombie? Can an Airbus or Compaq be constructed according to the principles of Sharia? How can you demand amoxicillin as your birthright, but hate the system of free thinking and rationalism that created it? Does the Islamist despise equally Chinese internet pornography; does he issue fatwas against South Korean video games; does he ostracize Latin American evangelical Protestants, or burn down Bollywood? In the short-term maybe; in the long-term it is not so easy.

The Middle Easterner is also starting to realize that his once romantic jihadist has turned even approving bystanders into international pariahs. You doubt that? Try getting on an international flight with a Saudi or Egyptian and watch the passengers’ reaction; or wear a veil in Paris or Rome , and see how many smiles you receive. That radical change in attitudes toward radical Islam and its appeasers, the jihadist — and those in the Middle East who tolerated him — begot. How they finally wore down the Western therapeutic mind fromAmsterdam to Copenhagen , I don’t know, but somehow they have nearly accomplished that once impossible feat.

So there is no guarantee that the multiculturalism, utopianism, cultural relativism, and moral equivalence that infect Western capitals today will necessarily always predominate, being as they are a fashionable relish in times of calm and plenty. The more the Islamist insults his benefactors, the more he gradually tries their patience.

A Cindy Sheehan or Noam Chomsky still resonates with a minority of the public because he can; thanks to Western capitalism and freedom, both jet at will around the globe, live comfortably, and count on the tolerance of the Western bourgeoisie society that they so roundly condemn. But should the Islamist endanger that comfortable embryo — as they almost did on 9/11 — then folks like these would be as quickly forgotten as were Neville Chamberlain and Charles Lindbergh by 1941.

As for Iraq , while the post-Saddam reconstruction may not have started out as the new ground zero in the war against Islamist terrorism, it has surely devolved into that, as the Islamists themselves concede. In the short term, because they understand that the juggernaut of Western capitalism, freedom, and choice will spell their death knell, the jihadists have imported and adopted as their own every conventional Western munition, repackaged every Western self-critique, manipulated every Western media outlet, and tried to boomerang every Western liberal virtue and humanitarian protocol back at its creators. And, if the polls on Iraq are any indication, such a strategy has worked, for a time, brilliantly.

But these are ultimately not acts of confidence, but of desperation. As an al Zarqawi knew, the world is evolving; if for the present we can keep our heads, then for eternity the Islamists will eventually lose theirs.

©2006 Victor Davis Hanson

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