The present state of the Middle East provides ample grounds for pessimism: sectarian murders in Iraq; Hezbollah and Hamas violence that puts at risk the future of both Israel and Lebanon; Iranian defiance of European and United Nations efforts to end its enrichment of uranium. With so many problems dominating the daily news cycle, many people seem almost desperate to identify their sources and to seek speedy ways to resolve them.
Ignoring even recent history, some of those who despair hold the style of the present American administration and the nature of its policies responsible for the Middle East’s violence. If only the United States had different leaders, they reason, peace would soon reign in the troubled region. They forget that the region has been in turmoil since this administration’s key members were teenagers. No recent set of political leadership, whatever its party, its style, or its policies, has achieved lasting harmony throughout the Middle East or effectively addressed the root causes of its violence.
The truly desperate propose bringing peace to the region by following the Vietnam example: declaring victory and withdrawing our troops from Iraq. If the ethical aspects of thereby facilitating heightened sectarian violence, a fractured Iraq, and meddling by Turkey, Iran, and Syria strike them as of no consequence, they might at least consider how such an act would effect America’s international standing and security. Violence has already caused the United States to abandon so many places—Vietnam, Beirut, Somalia—that its enemies have become convinced of American weakness and unwillingness to persist in the face of brutal violence.
Slighting the lessons of the past in a different manner, others who have had their fill of the Middle East’s violence urge multilateral negotiation as the route to peace. If only the United States made better use of the UN or accepted the counsel of its European allies, peace would lie just around the corner. Had the UN established a pattern of enforcing its mandates and had EU members consistently hastened to provide troops for that purpose, successful negotiations in either of those arenas might lead toward peace. That has not been the case, and NATO is just now beginning its first ever ground combat operation—in Afghanistan. Negotiation without the backing of armed support and a consistent record of using it remains a weak reed on which to lean.
The Russians, Chinese, and often the French regularly block UN efforts to enforce its own resolution—1559 regarding the conflict in southern Lebanon. The U. S. should certainly consult Europe—but show great care about accepting its advice. Despite offering refuge to foreign imams preaching hatred, England has become less secure—witness last year’s bombing of London subways by native-born Islamists. Nor has the extraordinary tolerance of Sweden and the Netherlands provided them protection. In Holland, Muslim extremists brutally murdered a filmmaker, and death threats force two members of its parliament to compromise their freedom by seeking nightly refuge in secure government facilities. In the Muslim areas of Malmo, ambulance crews require police escort. Jens Orback, Sweden’s Minister of Democracy, nevertheless advises the West to “be open and tolerant towards Islam and Muslims because when we are in the minority, they will be so towards us.” Dream on, Minister Orback. Despite a quarter century of Islamist violence many European nations seemingly lack the will to resist if that requires employing armed force. Until attitudes change, unthinking cooperation with Europe could well undermine America’s present determination to resist militant Islamism.
Such tactical responses to Middle Eastern violence, unsatisfactory as they are, also draw attention from the strategic challenge that faces the United States, the West, and those few nations that share Western values. If America seems out of step, difficult to deal with, and critical of international sacred cows, that may well result from the administration having a better understanding of the problem and a greater willingness to confront rather than run from it.
As Prime Minister Tony Blair made clear at his recent joint press conference in Washington, the violence in the region stems not from American policy but from the aims and methods employed by militant Islamist terrorism. As Ayman al Zawahiri, number two in the Sunni al Qaeda terrorist organization, recently reminded the attentive: Islamists aim, as a first step, to dominate the area from Iraq, across North Africa, to Spain, which requires driving the U. S. out of the Mideast, destroying Israel, overthrowing every Arab government, reoccupying the Iberian Peninsula, and creating a regional Islamic caliphate. That accomplished the Islamists will focus their attention more directly on Europe, a target already softened by the presence of its large Muslim populations, and the United States. The ultimate goal is to Islamize the world under a Wahhabi-style government. Iran’s Shi’ite government has been less explicit about its long-range goals, but its president has proclaimed “Death to the United States,” and in the short run he supports expulsion of Israel and the West from the Mideast and seeks to become the region’s nuclear power.
Nor did such Islamist views arise only after the present administration took office. Under increasing attack for the last quarter century, only after 911 did the United States began to rouse itself to the existential danger posed by militant Islamists. Despite that wake-up call, many Americans, if they ever did, no longer view events in their Islamist context, and few in Western Europe apprehend the danger to the West and its unique civilization and values.
Our charge to this and any subsequent administration should include maintaining its focus on the Islamist threat, endeavoring to bring the European Union to an understanding that the West is at risk, and inspiring Europe to join more fully in the defense of its civilization. While remaining open to negotiations—with Europe or within the UN—the United States should not regard talks and resolutions—or withdrawal from Iraq—as the keys to harmony in the Middle East. The struggle with militant Islamism began over twenty years ago and may last for several generations. Western civilization will not survive that struggle unless the United States, Europe, and others who share its values possess the will to defend it with force. To strengthen that effort, Western powers should seek to undercut the appeal of militant Islamism by helping establish decent Middle Eastern governments capable of bringing prosperity to the region. Once the West has the strategy right—defeat of militant Islamism—flexibility about tactics can prove helpful. We must never, however, attempt to reverse their priority.
Contrib. Ed. James L Abrahamson, PhD