How do you fight a war against an enemy who loves death more than they love life? How do you fight a war against a people who, in the name of religion, deliberately kill, enslave and torture innocent children, women and men? How do you maintain a moral compass while confronting an enemy with no respect for the rules of war? To begin to answer these questions, we must start with an honest examination of our security interests.
In this “war,” military operations will likely be choices of last resort, but our chance for success will be drastically limited unless we confront this enemy as if we were in a full-scale military confrontation. Our current ad-hoc military operations, i.e. drone strikes, will be ineffective over the long term unless they are part of a comprehensive strategy with a clear vision for success.
Seventy-nine years ago, we faced an enemy that was pure evil, and it was known as Nazism. But then, unlike now, we knew that absolute evil had to be extinguished by one means or another.
In the case of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the answer was their unconditional surrender.
In the case of Communism during the Cold War (remember Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire”?), there was no quick exit. There were many military battles and diplomatic skirmishes fought over decades, with no end in sight, until the very end. Yet the non-wavering vision in each case was to bring home as complete a victory as possible, knowing that America and the West were in the right, and the enemy was beyond the civilized pale.
Today’s “evil empire” is radical jihadist Islamism, the 21st century version of Nazism. The jihadists of all sectarian stripes, i.e. Sunni and Shi’ite, expect victory, because their (accurate) assessment of the West is that it does not have the willpower to fight an enemy without a clear exit strategy, or one that may not be vanquished in their lifetime. So we need to ask ourselves: • Are we willing to map out an effective and flexible strategy to destroy, or at least profoundly weaken, radical Islamism, knowing many obstacles and setbacks lie ahead? • Is there a visionary Western leader on the horizon in the 21st century who can look beyond our need for instant gratification and explain that we must confront the menace of jihadism because over time it could destroy and threaten all that we hold dear? • Does the West in the era of 24/7 instantaneous news coverage have the “stomach” to fight a war where all of its actions will be under a magnifying glass, and withstand the inevitable accusations of war crimes for killing civilians purposely embedded within terrorist operating bases? • Can the West fight an enemy that measures success in centuries, has infinite patience, and has tens of millions of adherents and supporters? • Is it too late for America and the West to act? The answer to that last question is no, but it seems that only the Israelis understand the existential dangers posed by radical Islamism. Perhaps that is because it is their survival that is most obviously threatened by it.
There is no appeasement or placation that can satisfy radical Islamism. Until America realizes that our way of life is endangered by the growing radical threat of jihadists, we will be fighting with two hands behind our back.
How does one define radical Islamists? Today’s flavor of the day is the Sunni Islamic State. However, whether Sunni or Shi’ite, Arab or Persian, radical Islamists should be viewed by the West as sides of the same jihadist coin. We must not be confused by the fact that sometimes they are at each other’s throats as mortal enemies, and sometimes cross sectarian lines to work together against the greater evils, i.e. America, Israel and the West.
The next American president must abandon the idea that there are good and bad radical Islamists. The Sunni Islamic State must be defeated, but the danger of radical Iranian Shi’ite Islamism is more likely to be a greater threat to America and Western interests over the long term.
The Obama administration mistakenly believes that Shi’ite Islamist Iran needs to be embraced as part of the solution against radical Islamism. Nothing could be further from the truth. It also mistakenly embraced the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood as the face of moderate Islamism. American allies like Jordanian King Abdullah knew better, and chastised America by stating that the Muslim Brotherhood is simply a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Muslim nation-states must, for their own self interest, become the leaders in this war against radical Islamism.
This is anti-Islamist, not anti-Islam. This can only happen if the strategy has the buy-in of the Sunni nation-states, i.e.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf States, and includes the Kurds, the Turks and Shi’ites who do not support the Iranian regime. Getting into bed with allies like the Wahabi Sunnis of the Arabian Peninsula is certainly distasteful, but it is necessary for success at this point.
The complexity of this overwhelming grand vision should be self-evident. Different theaters of action against differing radical Islamist groups will require different strategic partners and ever-changing strategies. The tools will include support of allied nation-states, recruitment of dissidents, diplomatic pressure, economic incentives and disincentives, clandestine actions, counterterrorism, effective use of social media, and, yes, military operations, among many other possibilities.
The potential length of this conflict makes this war much more analogous to the Cold War than WWII, but even that analogy is a stretch, as this conflict will be profoundly different. This is not a war of financial resources; it is a battle of power and determination.
As was the case for WWII and the Cold War, the war against radical Islamism is a fight against ideologies that want to destroy our freedoms and our way of life.
The author is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political and Information Network), a Middle East research analysis read by members of Congress, their foreign policy advisers, members of the Knesset, journalists and organizational leaders.