One of the most durable arguments for not responding as forcefully as possible to al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and jihadi groups in general is that they do not pose an “existential” threat to America. Indeed, this lies at the core of the Obama administration’s strategy for the Middle East. As the president told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria back in February: “What I do insist on is that we maintain a proper perspective and that we do not provide a victory to these terrorist networks by overinflating their importance and suggesting in some fashion that they are an existential threat to the United States or the world order.”
Such apparent sang froid is supposed to be a hallmark of “realism” in foreign policy. Thus Harvard political scientist Stephen Walt blogged in response to last week’s Paris attacks that “we must respond with our heads and not just our hearts,” and that “an event like this cannot shake the foundations of society unless we let it.”
That’s true. It’s also true that, despite the horrific nature of terrorist acts, the military strength of al Qaeda or ISIS is extremely limited, even though ISIS has managed to hold on to substantial portions of Iraq and Syria now for an extended time. President Obama was narrowly correct to observe that the Islamic State in the Levant has been territorially “contained.” And unless one of these groups succeeds in acquiring a substantial weapons of mass destruction capability – a danger not to be taken lightly – the amount of material havoc they can wreak is small.
But these are not the only measures of an existential threat. Jihadists certainly intend to “shake the foundations” of Western, liberal society. And they’re having not a little success by exposing the fact that the West is so plagued by self-doubt that it is increasingly unwilling to defend itself. Europe, in particular, faces what might well be an existential threat; a way of life does seem to hang in the balance.
With great generosity – and also great guilt – Europe has, for several generations now, given refuge to millions of refugees and migrants; now, thanks to the carnage in Syria and across the Muslim world, it faces an even larger challenge. As is painfully apparent, these refugees and migrants have not been and cannot soon be assimilated into European society as it is. It matters not whether the migrants or the natives are most to blame; the fact is that the foundations of modern European society are indeed crumbling.
The speed of Europe’s collapse is accelerating, in part, because the United States has stepped back from playing its role as the defender of the West. Safe within an American-built cocoon, Europeans could afford to adopt ironic and post-liberal postures. Once the galvanizing danger of Soviet Russia receded, these “outsider” attitudes have become mainstream. Left to its own devices, Europe is unable to defend itself or its very real interests in the Middle East, which is most definitely part of the world order. It is a measure of Western rot when the leader of a French republic turns to a Russian czar, himself in alliance with an Iranian mullah, rather than an American president for protection. Putin’s strength may be illusory, but Obama’s weakness is all too real.
Passivity is being passed off as cleverness and “strategic patience.” Walt says we must not overreact and thus “give ISIS what it wants.” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has it that “the Islamic State is trying to create a religious divide.”
No. This is a contest between the faithful – them – and the increasingly faithless – us. ISIS is evil, but self-confident; it states openly what it wants, which is the triumph of its caliphate. We are despondent, unable to say what we want, let alone make the effort to make it real.
The emergence of the global, liberal, political “West” was a wonderful historical anomaly. If we respond only with our heads and not our hearts – whence the will to victory springs – the continued existence of our “way of life” cannot be taken for granted.