This Means War!

The double whammy of Paris and San Bernardino has got the country in a tizzy, and Republican politicians scent blood in the electoral waters. Polls show a third of voters identify Islamic terrorism as their biggest worry and another third name gun violence.

In such a feverish environment, No Drama Obama doesn’t play well, nor does his prime foreign policy directive – don’t do stupid stuff. People want the president to do something now to make this nonsense stop. Alas, the war against radical Islam is likely to be another long, twilight, ideological struggle, more like the Cold War than like World War II.

Republican aspirants for the presidency are vying to outdo each other in denouncing the current commander-in-chief for being weak, vacillating, asleep at the switch, insufficiently bloodthirsty. He should act to put an end to ISIS. But the bold alternatives they offer are vague. They’d bomb a lot more. They’d worry less about civilian casualties. They’d make common cause with Assad or Putin. They’d close our borders. They’d curtail civil liberties for Muslim Americans.

Interestingly, very few advocate putting tens of thousands of troops into the snake pit of Iraq or the even worse chaos of Syria. Most want other people to do the dirty work. They’d build a grand coalition to kick some butt. In short, they want what Obama is doing, only more so, and with a lot more jingoistic fervor. Unmentioned is the fact that the military seems to have learned much the same lesson as the president from Iraq, and Vietnam before it. Don’t get into a quagmire if you don’t know how to get back out. Drones, good. Lots of boots on the ground, bad.

The denigrating of Obama may work in terms of domestic politics, but it is unlikely to work geopolitically. Until Islam is willing to cleanse itself of the radical infection within, crusading westerners making war on ISIS simply plays into their apocalyptic narrative and helps them recruit and radicalize more domestic terrorists to shoot up Christmas parties.

Like some really virulent viruses, this strain of madness may be self-limiting. In most cases, the terrorists willing to commit these atrocities die in the process, either by blowing themselves up or by committing suicide by police. Sadly, they manage to kill others before they are killed, but the supply of death-worshipping suicide bombers is not likely to be unlimited.

With slow, steady, erosion of their base abroad and vigilance at home, the damage can be limited and the infection may run its course. There have been waves of radical violence before in the world, religious fanatics, anarchists, Boxers, Luddites, you name it. The trick is to discredit their ideology, offer a better alternative, and isolate the infection until it burns itself out. The worst case is doing things that empower the movement and give it legitimacy, so that instead of waning it grows and spreads into an endless bloodletting, like The Thirty Years War.

It is cold comfort to come to the rational conclusion that we are going to have to live with this sort of craziness for years to come, that there is going to be a long tug-of-war between civic vigilance and civil rights protections. Candidates promising panaceas, quick fixes and dramatic escalations, to “take them out,” to win a “clash of civilizations,” to eliminate “an existential threat,” may seem more thrilling than “slow and steady wins the race.” Do something, do anything is always tempting – until the billions of dollars in bills come due and the thousands of body bags begin to come home.

During World War II, the British Ministry of Information prepared a poster to paper the nation with in the event of an actual German invasion, not just the terror bombing of civilians, the sinking of ships and killing of soldiers. It was never used, but the sentiment was admirably unhysterical: Keep Calm and Carry On. It was good, sober, sane advice then, and it is now. We are stronger than any force on earth, except those unleashed when we give in to our own fears, and to the demagogues who exploit them.

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