I happened to TiVO the Discover Channel/Ted Koppel special on the war on terrorism that aired last weekend and found it to be quite provocative. What Koppel seems to argue is that the war on terrorism is a generational conflict — even if we win or lose in Iraq, the larger war isn’t going to go away any time soon.
Sadly, I think that’s true. The “War on Terrorism” really is poor name for the fallout from the fracture of Islamic civilization. It’s probably too simplistic to describe the war as either a secular/religious conflict or even a Shi’ite/Sunni conflict — it’s really both. In fact, there are fractures even within the various groups. In Iraq, secular Sunnis are being killed by al-Qaeda militants. The Sunni Kurds have more in common with the Southern Shi’ites than with their fellow Sunnis in al-Anbar. It isn’t just Iraq that’s in a civil war, the entire Middle East is cracking.
It’s always been my essential thesis that the “global war on terrorism” is directly attributable to deep-seated cultural failures in the Muslim world. I don’t join those who say that Islam itself is the problem, although it’s a big part of it. The problem is that the vast majority of the Arab world is going through the sort of crisis of identity that the Western world went through in centuries past. That would be destructive but manageable if that conflict were only contained to the Islamic world itself, but globalization, communications technology, and the easy access to ever more destructive weapons means that conflicts are far more deadly than they were in centuries past.
What made Koppel’s special so interesting is how it avoided much talk about Iraq. Iraq dominates the headlines, but the US has been doing incredible work in the Horn of Africa that rarely goes reported. The special made a point of showing how the US is building hospitals, digging wells, and generally building communities in Africa, especially the Horn of Africa. The payoff of all that is that those villagers have a very good view of the US, and al-Qaeda can find no purchase there.
As General John Abizaid noted on the show, only 20% of this war will be fought through military means. 80% of it involves diplomacy, nation-building, intelligence, and the use of “soft power.” Neither side is sufficient on its own, and there’s some debate on whether the current Administration has the right balance, but we can’t realistically hope to deal with a regime like Iran unless there’s a hell of a big stick backing us up. Someone like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has no reason to give up his nuclear program if he knows that the Bush Administration would be politically constrained from striking Iranian nuclear sites if he doesn’t comply. Why would anyone give up that power if they know that the consequences are so small?
Ultimately, we can’t afford to ignore this war. We can’t pretend that leaving Iraq is going to be some kind of panacea, and we can’t even delude ourselves into thinking that if we captured bin Laden, stabilized Afghanistan, and crushed al-Qaeda we could go back to the days before September 11, 2001. That will not happen so long as groups with a grudge against the US and Western civilization in general seek the ability to kill ever greater numbers of us.
Islamic totalitarianism is no more indestructible than Communism or Naziism were. You can’t kill an ideology, but you can so discredit it that it becomes a negligent force in world affairs. Neo-Nazis still exist, but they don’t threaten Europe with war.
The same has to be made true for Islamic radicalism as well. That ideology has to be discredited, and the way you discredit that ideology is by showing that it cannot achieve its goals. On that front, we’re losing badly.
The sad reality of our time is that this will either be our children’s children’s war, or our children won’t survive to start a new generation — at least not in a world that would be recognizable to us today. History is replete with examples of civilizations falling from decadence to decline — certainly the Romans of Marcus Aurelius’ time would have scarcely thought that the wild and barbaric Huns of the unruly North could ever truly challenge the might of Rome. Yet it wasn’t all that long before they sacked Rome and left the once proud Forum to end up as a cow pasture for centuries.
Alaric never had the opportunity to destroy an entire city in one fell swoop. Osama bin Laden, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or Hasan Nasrallah very would could gain that capability, and perhaps faster than we think. We are in a state of war, whether we find it politically expedient to admit so or not, and if our priorities are based around winning political battles rather than winning on this battlefield, the terrible events of September 11, of Bali, of Madrid, or London, and the daily carnage in Baghdad will end up being just the prologue to horrors to come.