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From the Islamic State and al-Qaeda to the Islamic Republic of Iran and all their various affiliates — how dangerous is radical Islam to the West? There have been a number of posts on Ricochet that have touched on this subject. Paddy Siochain asked whether European democratic socialism can muster the will to fight for its own survival. In response, Majestyk argued that secular humanism — which he seems to define as scientific progress or rationalism — is so advanced in the West that Europe doesn’t need a will to fight because the barbarian, low IQ members of al-Qaeda, ISIL, and others can never really threaten us. This view was echoed in a comment by Jim Kearney, where he suggested that a will to fight is unnecessary, as we’ll soon have such advanced remotely-controlled or robotic weapons that we’ll never have to engage the Islamic radical man-to-man again. Though he admits that, in limited situations, there may be a need for actual human soldiers, I assume that he believes the Western cultures will be able to maintain a small warrior class of special forces operators who can carry out such limited actions.
So that got me to thinking that — even among the Ricochetti — there is a variety of views about the threat posed by radical Islam. I’m curious to hear what you think and why. For starters, I’ll lay out what I think.
The Current Threat
From Afghanistan in the East to Tunisia in the West, Islam is in a kind of civil war. The radical elements of the Sunni and the Shi’a theological schools compete both for power and for the right to be the main challenger to the West. That last part is what I find disturbing. The two wings of radical Islam are not just competing for the control of the Islamic world, but for the entire globe. A large component of the competition is about who is the most effective challenger to the West; who can subdue us most effectively. Now, just because someone wants to challenge the West doesn’t make them an effective challenger.
Right now, radical Islam has landed one very lucky sucker punch — 9/11 — that killed nearly 3,000 people. If they had been able to replicate that kind of attack once a year, no one would doubt its status as major threat, worthy of our full attention and might. However, 9/11 remains alone. Most attacks in the West from Radical Islam have been mercifully limited, and the death toll has been relatively low. Run-of-the-mill murders outpace deaths from radical Islamic terrorists in America and Europe. If that is the case, need we really be concerned about radical Islam?
It is not just a matter of body count. The countries where radical Islam is strong have a lot of natural resources, particularly in oil. The world economy would be affected by an Iran that controls not only its own oil fields, but also those of Iraq; combine that with a nuclear weapon and the threat becomes a nightmare. A rising Sunni tide that overthrows the Saudi monarchy could also change the world economy. As such, the location of radical Islam makes it dangerous and poses a threat to our interests in the world.
Given this, I’d say that a radical Islam confined to the Arab/Persian world is a serious-but-low threat to Western lives, but a great threat to the world economy. But if nothing changes, the militaries of Europe and America are adequate to the task.
The Potential Growth of Radical Islam
What keeps me up at night is the potential growth of Radical Islam, and I am afraid there’s a bull market for it in the world right now. When fighting broke out in Moscow in 1918 between Lenin’s Bolsheviks and the Left Socialist-Revolutionary Party led by Maria Spiridonova, there were about 1,800 men (both sides combined) fighting for control of Russia. Lenin’s regime did not look like much of a threat to the world. Even over the next 12 years — when the Russian economy could not match the level of output of the Czarist regime in 1915 — Communism hardly looked like the worldwide threat it would soon become. Nor did the Nazis, after the failed Beer Hall putsch in 1923, look like they would take over nearly all of Europe in just 13 years.
How things can change. Here are the reasons I think the prospects for the growth of Radical Islam are good.
We believe in tactical victories; they believe in survival. Any group forced to face the Americans, British, Canadians, or French in open battle will lose. However, our enemies see no need for tactical victory; their standard is survival. They draw powerful lessons from the PLO in this regard. Arafat became a legendary leader by losing — always and without exception — every battle he fought with outside enemies. But while losing, he slowly gained power until, ultimately, he was able to rule the West Bank and Gaza without ever defeating Israel. Arafat’s strategy was not to win outright, but to survive with just enough power to keep the conflict going.
We have seen this strategy employed in Iraq and Afghanistan to great effect. Once, beating the enemy comprehensively on the field of battle was enough for them to consider peace. Not any more. I am afraid we don’t want to defeat the radical Islamic fighters in a way that would make them feel as if they were defeated. Now, when we beat them in battle, they shrug and think that is part of the plan. It is very dangerous when what feels like a win to us does not feel like a defeat to our enemies.
America’s enemies need radical Islam. Radical Islam is not isolated on the world stage, and they do not fight America alone. Russia and China do not share radical Islam’s ultimate goals — and both face threats from it themselves — but see in a weakened and distracted West an opportunity to solidify their own power. Russia might even envision a triangulation such that it trades total cooperation against growing Radical Islam for a free hand in the former Soviet Union. In any case, Russia and China see an upside in the growth of radical Islam, so long as its primary focus is on the United States and Western Europe.
The Western response to radical Islam is heavily constrained. Fighting the war the terrorists want to fight is expensive and — perhaps — unaffordable. Look at the Charlie Hebdo attacks: the Islamists traded the lives and costs of training two terrorists for the lives of a dozen “enemies,” as well as the time, energy, and resources of tens of thousands of French police and soldiers. Even now, the survivors of Charlie Hebdo are not able to live in their own homes, have 24-hour protection, and are moved from place to place nearly every day. Who really won that exchange? The Kouachi brothers died … but did they lose? Do the radical Islamic terrorists feel defeated after that attack?
If radical Islamic terrorists get a safe area under the protection of even a weak nuclear umbrella, how much more could they ramp up the costs of the Europeans in fighting an insurgency in Europe? How likely are the Europeans to fight back effectively compared to the likelihood of their striking a deal? Spain backed out of the fight after a single attack. France rallied to Charlie Hebdo, but did they really set the radicals back in response? How many journalists are looking at the life of the staff of Charlie Hebdo and saying, “That is not for me”?
This is where the will to fight is so necessary. We have to be willing to inflict a defeat that actually feels like a defeat on the Islamic terrorists. I am not sure we are willing to do that. Iraq gave us one opportunity, but we threw it away in 2011. If Afghanistan slides back into civil war or — worse yet — back into the hands of the Taliban, will radical Islam feel defeated by the American-led war there?
Is not the lesson taught by the PLO still true? If the terrorist fights long enough, we give up and they win. They can lose every battle but, if they just survive, they will win.
Economic advantage is not enough. The constraints Western democracies face in fighting radical Islam are severe and the costs are asymmetrical, in the terrorists’ favor. This disparity gives radical Muslims a distinct edge. Claire Berlinski has written convincingly about France’s turn from political correctness to fighting Radical Islam, but she also writes about how defense spending is falling around Europe, even in France. It is not hard to see how the radical Muslims could continue to increase the cost of the war on Europe without suffering much in return. Outside of the deaths of the attackers, what cost has France imposed on them?
Technological advantage is not enough. While the West’s technological edge is a great strength, it is not enough to win by itself. Technology has to be applied correctly; if we do not apply our technological edge in way a that makes the radical Muslims feel they are defeated, it will be for nothing. I take little comfort in the stupidity of my enemies and believe that doing so makes you vulnerable to defeat. I don’t think they are so stupid that they can’t make at least some use of technology in a way that will pose a real threat to us. If Iran can develop ballistic missiles, they can develop missiles that can kill satellites.
Moreover, radical Islamists don’t have to develop all the technology they need. They can get it from more advanced countries that would like to see the West weaker. Even relatively small increases in the technology available to terrorists willy likely impose massive costs on us.
Culture does not win on its own. From the battle of Manzikert in 1071 to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Byzantines thought their superior culture, learning, and way of life would defeat or tame the Turks. Istanbul is the capital of Islamic Turkey to this day. We have a superior way of life, and our culture produces human flourishing, freedom, and wealth. By any measure we would use, we should be far more attractive to the Muslims than we are. But we are not more attractive to them, because they believe that even though their lifestyle is harder and poorer than ours, their current path might lead them to power. Power is a great tempter. As long as they believe that power can be theirs, they can avoid the temptation of Miley Cyrus, Facebook, and economic liberalism. If they are ever made to feel that they can’t achieve power and that their way of life will only lead them to defeat, our culture may look a lot better to them.
In conclusion, I feel we have not figured out how to impose defeat on our enemies. I think we had a chance to make the radical Islamists feel defeated in Iraq, but failed to follow through. When we win, our enemies don’t feel defeated; when they win, we do. No one wins a war that way. Because of the general belief among our enemies that you can inflict costs on the West while bearing the costs of Western counterattack, the threat of Islam will grow. Technologically sophisticated countries that believe their interests are advanced by a weaker West might well provide our enemies with technological aid. Without the knowledge or the will to impose significant defeats on the enemy, we will give them the time to grow in strength and numbers until they can become a much more significant threat than they are now.
I think there is no better time to impose a real defeat on radical Islam than right now, but fear most of the West lacks the will to do so. Does this mean we will lose in the long term? No, but we will eventually have to fight a much stronger enemy than we do right now.
What do you think? Where am I wrong? Where am I right?