”The battle of Waterloo,” the Duke of Wellington is supposed to have said, “was won on the playing fields of Eton.” The battle against the Islamic State could be lost on the campuses of American universities.
Among the reasons: The dominant ideology in academia is multiculturalism. To a multiculturalist, being judgmental is a cardinal sin — not least when it comes to those whose goal is to defeat and destroy the United States and its allies. It therefore should come as no surprise to see The New York Times giving space for an op-ed by Michael J. Boyle, an associate professor of political science at La Salle University in Philadelphia. His theme: The “disturbing return of the moralistic language once used to describe al Qaeda in the panicked days after the 9/11 attacks.”
Mr. Boyle is particularly exercised by President Obama’s reference to the Islamic State as “a ‘cancer’ spreading across the Middle East.” He hears in that “an eerie echo of President George W. Bush’s description of the global war on terrorism as a campaign against ‘evildoers.’”
Why is that a problem? It led to “foreign wars begun in the name of stamping out ‘evildoers’” — wars that incurred “huge costs and reputational damage.” So the preferable option would have been to do what? Refer Osama bin Laden to the U.N. Human Rights Council?
In any case, Mr. Boyle doesn’t think the Islamic State is as malevolent as charged. In his considered opinion, it “operates less like a revolutionary terrorist movement that wants to overturn the entire political order in the Middle East than a successful insurgent group that wants a seat at that table.”
How could anyone be so moralistic as to deny the Islamic State a place to sit — just because its warriors mass-murder minorities, enslave women and sever journalists’ heads?
The professor adds: “The language of good and evil may provide a comforting sense of moral clarity, but it rarely, if ever, produces good policy.”
Hmmm. One wonders whether Mr. Boyle has ever taught — or even taken — a course on World War II. During that conflict, Winston Churchill frequently employed the “language of good and evil,” for example referring to Adolf Hitler as a “monster of wickedness, insatiable in his lust for blood and plunder.”
Would Churchill’s policies have been improved had he toned the rhetoric down and offered the fuehrer a “seat at the table”? To the contrary: Churchill’s moral clarity contributed to his strategic clarity, leading him to oppose appeasement and insist on unconditional surrender and the delegitimization of Nazi ideology.
With that as context, I was encouraged to hear Mr. Obama unequivocally condemn those wreaking havoc across large swaths of Iraq and Syria. What did not ring true was his assertion that the “entire world is appalled by the brutal murder of Jim Foley,” adding for emphasis that this crime “shocks the conscience of the entire world.”
Actually, I’m pretty certain that at this moment a significant number of individuals — Europeans and Americans among them — are watching the video of Mr. Foley’s beheading and feeling inspired to volunteer to serve Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph (the term implies a successor to the Prophet Muhammad) of the Islamic State.
Some such people may be sociopaths. Some may be lost boys, desperate for meaning and a transcendent cause. But not all.
According to a biography posted on jihadi forums, the new ruler has a doctorate in Islamic studies from the University of Baghdad. We can deduce that al-Baghdadi is among those who believe that the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Islamic caliphate following World War I was a terrible injustice; that Christians, Jews, Hindus and insufficiently militant Muslims are “enemies of God”; that Americans don’t deserve the power they wield; that Muslims are obligated to restore Islamic domination of the world; and that nothing that helps achieve that goal — however barbaric and diabolical in infidel eyes — is impermissible.
Which brings us to another statement by Mr. Obama last week: “One thing we can all agree on is that a group like [the Islamic State] has no place in the 21st century.” In fact, we don’t all even agree that this is the 21st century. According to the Islamic calendar, 1435 is the date you should be writing on your checks. If you’re a jihadist, the 21st century is no improvement over the 7th century, the era when Islamic armies began to create one of history’s greatest empires.
The president concluded by predicting that the Islamic State would “ultimately fail because the future is won by those who build and not destroy, and the world is shaped by people like Jim Foley.”
Once upon a time, Western leaders knew better. Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt understood that the course of history is not predetermined and that enormous sacrifices would be required to defeat the forces fighting for German domination. Their job was to explain why those sacrifices were necessary.
Let me end with a word of praise for Mr. Obama: In recent days, he has deployed air power and special forces to prevent al-Baghdadi’s forces from butchering as many Yazidis, Christians, Kurds and disobedient Muslims as they intended, and expanding their territories as much as they planned. That’s by no means all that needs to be done — but it could represent a good, if belated, start.
Mr. Boyle disagrees. He writes that what began as a response to a humanitarian crisis has “morphed into an effort to roll back, or even defeat” the Islamic State. How could any postmodern, multicultural professor on an American campus possibly support that?
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.