“The enemy has to be defeated,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter last week told American forces stationed in the Middle East. That is a simple truth, one that, regrettably, is not heard often from officials in the current administration. Mr. Carter then added: “It will be, because the barbarians are always defeated by civilization.” That is a comforting sentiment — one that, regrettably, is not supported by historical evidence.
No one has studied that evidence more thoroughly than Bernard Lewis, at 99 the greatest living historian of the Middle East. “The Roman Empire and the medieval Islamic Empire were not conquered by more civilized peoples,” he has noted. “They were conquered by less civilized but more vigorous peoples. But in both cases what made the conquest, with the Barbarians in Rome and the Mongols in Iraq, what made it possible was things were going badly wrong within the society so that it was no longer able to offer effective resistance.”
Would anyone argue that things are going well in America and Europe today? Would anyone argue that Western societies are as “vigorous” as those waging what they call a jihad against us? Would anyone argue that the West is offering “effective resistance” to the barbarians Mr. Carter has in mind: the head-choppers and slavers of the Islamic State who now occupy large swaths of what once were Syria and Iraq?
Nor are those our only barbarian enemies. Spokesmen for the Islamic State cover their faces and wield long knives. Spokesmen for the Islamic Republic of Iran display their smiling faces for the cameras and know which forks to use at elegant Viennese restaurants. But is slitting infidel throats any less barbaric than hanging Iranian men for having the wrong sexual orientation, or stoning Iranian women, or persecuting religious and ethnic minorities, or holding innocents hostage or threatening neighbors with genocide? Really?
Iran’s Islamic Revolution erupted in the winter of 1979. In the autumn of that year, the U.S. embassy in Tehran, sovereign American territory, was seized by a group that came to be known as “Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line” — the “Imam” being Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran. For 444 days, they held hostage American diplomats who under international law were entitled to the Iranian government’s protection. They were treated like animals — and tortured.
A few years ago we understood that this episode represented “the first battle in America’s war with militant Islam” — the subtitle of Mark Bowden’s bestselling 2007 book, “Guests of the Ayatollah.” When did we stop understanding that?
Today, militant Islamic forces are engaged in battles across the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. Of late, a potentially pivotal diplomatic battle has been fought and, in my estimation, decisively won by Iran’s rulers. Its outcome is an agreement guaranteed to greatly enrich those rulers and, within a relatively short span of time, allow them to acquire more and better weapons, not excluding nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them to targets anywhere in the world. Those targets will be within what Iranian theocrats call the “House of Unbelief” which, in their theology/ideology, is synonymous with the “House of War.”
As Iran increases its military capabilities, and as the Islamic State, al Qaeda, Boko Haram and similar groups expand their powers, American leaders continue to shrink the armed forces Secretary Carter oversees. The American Enterprise Institute’s Mackenzie Eaglen has pointed out that the U.S. military is today “smaller than it was before 9/11 at the nadir of the Clinton ‘peace dividend’ drawdown.” At the same time, those same American leaders repeatedly proclaim that America has become “war-weary.” That can only be music to the ears of all those who declare America an “enemy of God” and who, on that basis, proclaim themselves enemies of America.
Does Mr. Carter seriously believe the road we’re now on leads to the defeat of these enemies? If so, his belief is based on faith or wishful thinking — not fact, experience or precedent.
Let me leave you with one more thought from Bernard Lewis who, I should point out, has for years been reviled by Islamists and those in the West who sympathize with them. In 1990, a decade before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and a decade after the revolution in Iran, he wrote:
“Islam has brought comfort and peace of mind to countless millions of men and women. It has given dignity and meaning to drab and impoverished lives. It has taught people of different races to live in brotherhood and people of different creeds to live side by side in reasonable tolerance. It inspired a great civilization in which others besides Muslims lived creative and useful lives and which, by its achievement, enriched the whole world. But Islam, like other religions, has also known periods when it inspired in some of its followers a mood of hatred and violence. It is our misfortune that part, though by no means all or even most, of the Muslim world is now going through such a period, and that much, though again not all, of that hatred is directed against us.”
If policymakers, legislators, academics and journalists had listened to Mr. Lewis a quarter century ago and formulated a strategic response, the world might be a very different place today. But they did not. And today, for many of the most powerful people in America and Europe, self-delusion retains its appeal. That can change. It’s why we have elections. A big one is coming up fairly soon and no issue should be seen as more important than this one.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.