In an inaugural address that was more purposeful than poetic, President Trump last Friday vowed to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth.” I hope we can agree, across party and ideological lines, that those are worthwhile objectives. But let’s acknowledge, too, that achieving them will require a much more strenuous and strategic effort than previous administrations have undertaken.
The least likely place for uniting nations: the United Nations, an organization that has never managed even to define terrorism. A few U.N. members fight terrorism day after day (e.g., Egypt, Jordan, Israel). Others, however, condone and even sponsor it (e.g., Iran). The U.N. includes representatives of both the civilized and uncivilized worlds, and cannot be said to prefer one over the other.
Our Europeans allies are civilized — perhaps to a fault. Many embrace moral relativism as expressed in the mantra: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Bringing Europe into a meaningful union against terrorism will require a heavy lift.
A straightforward definition of terrorism: violence intentionally directed against noncombatants for political purposes. That should, indeed, be seen as a barbaric practice. But terrorism is not the enemy. It is only a weapon the enemy deploys.
Most contemporary terrorism is, as Mr. Trump suggested, driven by “radical Islam,” an adequate term for a variety of ideologies rooted in totalitarian, supremacist and medievalist readings of Islamic scripture. Those who understand this also grasp why the Islamic State and the Islamic Republic of Iran are more alike than different.
Not for the first time is America threatened by such totalitarian foes. The goal of the Communists was domination by one class. The Nazis sought to establish the supremacy of one race. Today, the Islamists fight for one religion uber alles. They want all of us, Muslim and “infidel” alike, to obey Shariah — Islamic law as they interpret it. And if you don’t think they’ve been making progress over recent years you haven’t been paying close attention.
To defeat the Nazis and their allies required battles on many fronts from North Africa to the South Pacific. World War II, though relatively brief, was exceedingly lethal: More than 60 million people killed, about 3 percent of the world’s population at the time.
The Cold War followed. In 1946, diplomat George Kennan sent his “Long Telegram” from Moscow analyzing Joseph Stalin’s ideology and intentions. Largely on this basis, President Truman, in 1947, decided to “contain” the Soviet Union and assist those threatened by communist aggression.
Three years after that, as military strategist Sebastian Gorka recalls in his 2016 book, “Defeating Jihad,” a State-Defense Policy Review Group was established under the chairmanship of Paul Nitze, then director of policy planning in the State Department. It produced NSC-68, a 58-page National Security Council report on the USSR, its “fanatic faith” and its determination to “impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world.”
NSC-68 explained why the Soviets were unlikely to sincerely embrace peaceful coexistence: “The United States, as the principal center of power in the non-Soviet world and the bulwark of opposition to Soviet expansion, is the principal enemy whose integrity and vitality must be subverted or destroyed by one means or another if the Kremlin is to achieve its fundamental design.” On this basis, Truman implemented a robust set of policies, including covert actions and psychological warfare, aimed at weakening the Kremlin and frustrating its imperialist designs.
Fast forward to 1983, when President Ronald Reagan came to the conclusion that containment had proven insufficient and attempts at detente unavailing. He accused his predecessor, President Jimmy Carter, of “vacillation, appeasement and aimlessness.”
It is sometimes said that Reagan’s strategy was “We win, they lose.” In fact, that was his desired outcome. The essence of his strategy was articulated in National Security Decision Directive 75. “NSDD-75 was an extraordinarily ambitious, across-the-board assault on the Soviet Union,” in the words of Paul Kengor, author of “The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism.”
To the disapproval of many academics and State Department officials, Mr. Reagan would call the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and exert pressure — diplomatic, political, military, ideological and, not least, economic — on a regime that was not as strong or stable as it looked to most observers, the CIA included.
On Dec. 25, 1991, three years after Reagan left office, the hammer-and-sickle flag that had flown over Moscow since early in the 20th century would be lowered for the final time.
In retrospect, it may appear that the defeat of communism was inevitable. More plausibly, it was the result of Reagan’s revival of national strength and purpose — combined with solid research, analysis and, above all, strategic planning.
Many Americans and Europeans disapproved of the project. They believed the Soviets had a thing or two to teach us about social justice and they looked forward to communism and capitalism “converging.” Such people are with us still.
“The future is unknowable,” Churchill recognized, “but the past should give us hope.” Islamic radicalism and the terrorism it inspires can be defeated — though eradication, at least in the near-term, may be too ambitious a goal. We should not imagine that the process will be quick or easy.
A global revolution is underway. It threatens free nations. It is led by true believers — Sunni and Shia alike — who nurture ancient resentments and exhibit a formidable “will to power.” They have a strategy and they are prepared to fight a long war. Not until the same can be said of us will it be possible to defeat them.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.