The years between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, became known as the “Holiday from History,” a period in which America thought it could withdraw from the burdens of engagement with the world and focus on the pursuit of domestic prosperity and other really important issues like Bill Clinton’s sex life.
It was foolish, of course, as we discovered one Tuesday morning when the world came crashing back into our lives.
Which makes what we’re doing right now that much worse. America is engaged in a similar but even more stubborn and blinkered withdrawal. The Holiday from History at least had some plausibility, even if it seems like a fantasy in hindsight. We really had driven the Soviet Union into the ground. Free markets, individual rights, and representative government really were gaining wider acceptance as an international consensus for the best way to organize a society. We simply got carried away and underestimated the coming backlash from Islamic obscurantists and resentful Russian nationalists, as well as the tenacity of regimes like China which were building a new model for post-Communist dictatorship.
Today, there are no grounds for such an illusion. We are withdrawing from the world, throwing up our hands and declaring it outside our concern, even as one disaster after another screams out for our attention.
This isn’t a Holiday from History. This is a Middle Finger to History. It’s a petulant, willful refusal to take the world seriously.
This is encapsulated in the unseriousness of our response to the rise of the Islamic State. I have been reluctant to call it by that name, using only the acronym ISIS, for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, to emphasize that it had not managed to establish itself anywhere outside the chaotic borderlands between those two countries. But this is now obsolete. The Islamic State has since grown into a regional movement that enjoys the loyalty of affiliates across the Middle East, most notably in Egypt and Libya—as announced recently by the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians by the Islamic State’s Libyan branch—and also in Lebanon, Yemen, Pakistan, and Algeria.
What’s even more disturbing is that the Islamic State has drawn hundreds of recruits from Europe and the United States and has already inspired two major terrorist attacks in Western countries: the Sydney siege and the Charlie Hebdo massacre. From its new foothold in Libya, the Islamic State is issuing threats against Italy.
This is a disaster for American foreign policy. What it means is that President Obama spent six years boasting about how he had vanquished “core al-Qaeda”—yet he sat back and failed to stop the rise of a new jihadist franchise that is now larger, more successful, and quite possibly more dangerous to the US.
In response, President Obama is burrowing even more deeply into a state of denial. In a summit on “violent extremism,” a hopelessly vague phrase, he made the issue even vaguer:
We all know there is no one profile of a violent extremist or terrorist, so there’s no way to predict who will become radicalized. Around the world, and here in the United States, inexcusable acts of violence have been committed against people of different faiths, by people of different faiths—which is, of course, a betrayal of all our faiths. It’s not unique to one group, or to one geography, or one period of time….
Al Qaeda and ISIL and groups like it are desperate for legitimacy. They try to portray themselves as religious leaders—holy warriors in defense of Islam…. They no more represent Islam than any madman who kills innocents in the name of God represents Christianity or Judaism or Buddhism or Hinduism.
So Obama is telling us that he is just as concerned about the threat of Islamic terrorism as he is about the threat posed by Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu terrorists. Which is exactly what we were afraid of.
Even Jimmy Carter, at the end of his first and only term, learned from bitter experience and briefly saw the light about Soviet aggression. But back in 2008, Democrats chose Obama because he was an “idealist,” which meant that he wouldn’t make those kinds of concessions to reality. And he has largely fulfilled that promise.
But it is not just the left that wants to avoid the necessity of serious engagement with the world. We hear the same underlying impulse, in a less obvious form, from the right.
On the right, it comes in the form of a desire to use military force to deal with the Islamic State, through a more vigorous campaign of air strikes and even through the use of special forces on the ground. But having destroyed them militarily, we should return home and warn our enemies not to do it again.
This is becoming the standard post-Iraq-War position on the right: they’re hawkish and all in favor of using military force—but on a swift, clean, in-and-out, one-time basis. Nothing long and messy.
Which is just another way of avoiding the demands of history.
I’m all for the taking down the Islamic State, if only on the grounds that some people need killin’. The group’s escalating atrocities seem calculated to demand our intervention, and we can expect them to keep ratcheting up the seriousness and shock value of their attacks until they drag us in. (An image that seemed to be of Islamic State terrorists threatening to burn a cage full of children turned out to be from an anti-Assad protest, but it was widely believed to be ISIS because that’s their logical next step.)
Yet no tactic will work without a wider strategy. Acting against the Islamic State is a good first step, but to follow up on it—to avoid being dragged back in again a year or two years or five years later—we need to have a view on what we’re going to do about Iran, how we’re going to engage with the government of Iraq and protect our interests there, and above all what we’re going to do with the regime of Bashar Assad.
This is the real lesson of the Iraq War. By 2008, we had already defeated the precursor of the Islamic State, al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Islamic State’s self-declared caliph, just a low-level foot soldier at the time, was held in an American-run prison in Iraq. It was after the current administration insisted that America should withdraw all troops from Iraq and totally ignore the country that the terror group was able to reconstitute itself. The Islamic State is the product of our failure to follow up a military victory with long-term engagement pursuing a wider strategy.
In the absence of this kind of strategic thinking, our current de facto strategy is to be Iran’s air force. We strike from the air to suppress the enemies of Iran’s satellite, the Assad regime in Syria, while Iran also takes advantage of our absence on the ground in Iraq to organize its own Shiite militias and make a bid to take over the Iraqi army. Unless we change this strategic context, proposals to send in ground troops—however hawkish they might seem—amount to a strategy of being Iran’s air force and its special forces.
We do have to act against the Islamic State, which has quickly become a bigger, more successful, more brazen version of al-Qaeda. But doing so requires diving back into all the messy, long-term engagement that we are trying to avoid. It means insisting that we are the ones to train, equip, and fight alongside the Iraqi government—and not the Iranians. It involves taking an active role in Iraq’s internal politics, trying to once again broker and protect a political accommodation between Iraq’s Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish factions. Most of all, it requires that we declare our intention to take down the Assad regime, because our failure to do so is what weakened and demoralized the moderate opposition to the regime and paved the way for an ISIS takeover. No moderate opposition is going to volunteer to be our allies on the ground fighting against the Islamic State, and preventing it from coming back once again, unless we guarantee that we will provided them with decisive support against Assad. This is also the only way to ensure that the beneficiary of our action against ISIS is not an Iranian satellite.
I understand a lot of the reasons for reluctance about new commitments anywhere in the world, and particularly in the Middle East. It may seem paradoxical that so many people want to withdraw from the world even as it is falling apart. Yet there’s certain logic: they want to withdraw precisely because the world is falling apart and therefore any intervention seems hopeless and wearying.
But the fact that it’s going to be a long, messy, and difficult process to protect our interests and security against the Islamic State is not an excuse to give up. We’ve done this many times before. The Cold War was longer, just as messy, more expensive, and a lot bloodier. We know the demands of history, and we flip it the bird at our peril.