Richard Nixon’s rapprochement with China, the end of the Cold War, President Obama’s outreach to “the Muslim world,” the growth of the (largely American-funded) United Nations — weren’t such developments supposed to lead to a safer world, one in which the “international community” would embrace “universal values” and pursue common interests — peace and security key among them?
Those who thought so were, to put it kindly, credulous. “Conflicts within and between societies have occurred since the dawn of civilization,” Henry Kissinger has observed. I’m betting that will hold true until the sunset of civilization which, unless we’re careful, could be around the proverbial corner. Consider just a few of the threats America now faces.
North Korea is ruled by a dynastic dictator whose psyche we can’t begin to fathom and who has acquired nuclear weapons and increasingly sophisticated missiles to deliver them to targets of his choosing.
Iran’s rulers combine medieval jihadism with even more ancient Persian imperialism. They continue to chant “Death to America!” notwithstanding their promise to delay development of the most efficient means to that end.
China’s communist rulers have both regional and global ambitions. Russia is ruled by a revanchist czar-commissar who intends to restore what he can of the Russian empire.
Meanwhile, various non-state actors, motivated by ideologies rooted in Islamist theology, conspire to destroy America both from without and within.
These threats may appear distinct but, in fact, they are intertwined. China supports North Korea. Russia supports Iran. Iran and North Korea cooperate on missile programs and, you may safely bet, on nuclear weapons as well. Iran is the leading state sponsor of jihadi terrorism.
I could go on, but it should by now be apparent that it’s insufficient for the United States to sit back and wait for the arc of history to bend. Nor is the answer to play global whack-a-mole.
To defend American lives and liberties — the central purpose of the government — we need not only sound strategies vis-a-vis specific threats but also a grand strategy designed to address the entire threat matrix.
Why don’t we have that? Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush launched a Global War on Terrorism. Its conceptual flaw: It failed to name or comprehend America’s enemies. Terrorism is merely a weapon those enemies find useful.
President Obama attacked al Qaeda (a still-dangerous organization) but, beyond that, seemed to think America has no enemies — just friends waiting for their legitimate grievances to be addressed by someone with his unique multicultural sensitivities.
He had no plan for the day after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. His re-set with Russia, complete with toy button, was a joke and his “pivot” to Asia was unserious. He withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq and refused to support non-Islamist rebels in Syria, thereby giving the Islamic State — which he initially dismissed as a “JV team” — room to grow, enslave and slaughter.
In return for peace in his time (i.e., so long as he occupied the Oval Office), he promised Iran’s theocrats a key to the nuclear weapons kingdom within a decade or so — even if they fail to moderate which, in case you’re wondering, they won’t.
And, as recent news has made vivid, he did nothing while North Korea’s nuclear capabilities went critical. He might at least have invested in a comprehensive missile defense system. That interested him not at all.
So what’s the plan now? There isn’t one, but President Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, and his deputies, are working on it, in close consultation with Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly.
That Mr. Trump has assigned this task to military men gives me some comfort. First, because military men are accustomed to taking on missions and accomplishing them. Second, because they tend not to say, “There is no military solution,” thereby removing from the deck the highest card the U.S. possesses. They understand there is no solution that is only military — a very different concept. All instruments of American power, military, cyber, economic and diplomatic, are necessary to achieve solutions — not to be confused with quick fixes.
Are Mr. Trump’s advisers up to this task? I don’t know and, truth be told, they don’t, either.
Given the enormity of these challenges, it would be nice if Americans were hanging together. Instead, we are living in what social historian Pankaj Mishra has called the Age of Anger, much of it directed less at foreign enemies than fellow Americans.
Radical identitarians on both the left and the right are setting us against one another. Islamic supremacists, white supremacists, the black-shirted “Antifa” and others who incite and/or employ violence should be vigorously opposed by everyone who embraces American values — whatever their other policy or ideological disagreements. Mr. Trump was not wrong to attempt to draw attention to this immoral equivalence.
But his timing could hardly have been worse. In Charlottesville on Saturday, the anger turned lethal. A young woman was murdered by a white supremacist employing jihadist-terrorist tactics. Little reported: He was the member of a cohort that had been chanting. “White Shariah, now!”
Ivanka Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Vice President Mike Pence and Gen. McMaster denounced those responsible by name and without equivocation. Had Mr. Trump not waited so long to join them, he would have deprived his enemies of ammunition and the opportunity to further distract from his urgent national security agenda.
Only the credulous believe the many “conflicts within and between societies” can be resolved anytime soon. But strategizing to solve them and bringing together anti-extremists to work cooperatively — surely that should not lie beyond the realm of the possible.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times. This article first published online in The Washington Times Commentary section on Aug. 15, 2017.
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