In June, 1967 (at the start of the summer between my 3rd and 4th grade years in school, and as my family was preparing to move from the suburbs of Chicago to a small town just north of Peoria, Illinois), the 6-day War between Israel and an alliance of Arab nations burst on to our nation’s TV screens and newspapers. It seems like turmoil involving Israel, the Middle East, Terrorism, and the “Islamic world” has been a backdrop of our lives over the last 45 years since that event: the tragedy of the Munich Olympics; the Yom Kippur War; the Oil Embargoes of the 1970s; the Egypt-Israeli peace treaty; the fall of the Shah and the takeover of our embassy in Iran; the Soviet-Afghan War, and our support for the mujahedeen; the murder of Anwar Sadat; the killing of our Marines in Lebanon; the Gulf War; the estrangement of Turkey from Europe; our support of Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo against Serbian aggression—and, of course, all that has happened since 9/11/2001, including the events of this past week at our embassies and consulates throughout the region.
Back in February, 2011, I wrote a post at the beginning of the “Arab Spring” about its positive and negative potentials [The Middle East, what can we do?], in which I discussed a passage from David McCullough’s John Adams. That passage dealt with the threat of the Barbary Pirates to American shipping during the 1780s, and the concern Adams expressed in a letter to Jefferson over the Sultan of Tripoli’s threat of war against the United States if it did not pay him tribute. Adams told Jefferson of his concern that, “[w]e ought not fight them at all, unless we determine to fight them forever.”
Before 9/11 it was hard for a modern Westerner, including for the average American, to understand Adams’ concern—and it is still hard to accept even now. In fact, it is this lack of a capacity to understand the real differences and conflicts between the culture of the West and of Islam that Pope Benedict tried to convey to the both civilizations in his much misunderstood and mischaracterized speech at a German university in the fall of 2006 [Faith, Reason and the University – Memories and Reflections]. But, the more I have thought about John Adams’ concern over the years, the more I have come to see how perceptive it was. And this week, my thoughts have turned again to his concern as it seems as though the Middle East will take a more central role in our Presidential Election this year.
In many ways Islam’s early self-image was established by the ease with which it conquered lands that stretched from India to Spain, and was reinforced by defeating Western attempts to push them out of the Holy Lands of the Middle East. During those centuries Islamic leaders governed generally tolerant societies that protected the scientific and philosophic teachings of Greece, Rome and Ancient Egypt, and allowed Jews and Christians to live, work and worship. But, those societies maintained a strict hierarchy within which only professed Muslims participated in politics and the law—they were not pluralistic societies at all. Only military defeats at Tours in 732, and at Vienna in 1529 and 1683, kept Europe from becoming Islamic and allowed the Judeo-Christian culture of the West to spawn the Renaissance, Reformation, Age of Discovery, and Enlightenment.
Since at least 1683, when the second Ottoman siege of Vienna failed, the Islamic world has been caught in a spiral of cultural and political decline in comparison to the advances of the West, and this decline has been driven largely by the damage to their own self-image as being the natural and legitimate leaders of the children of Abraham. In their world-view, the decline of Islamic power and the rise of the West has been illegitimate. From that perspective, it is easier to understand how the Sultan of Tripoli could envision a state of war with a Western nation who had never provoked a conflict, and why Adams could be concerned about America being drawn into a perpetual war in the 1780s.
The decline of the cultural and political power of the Islamic world only accelerated after the 1780s as the British and French seized lands from the Ottoman Empire and established colonies, Zionists returned to the Holy Lands, and the Ottoman Empire and caliphate were dismantled after World War I and replaced with mandates.
Less than a generation later, FDR sent Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican Presidential nominee, on an around-the-world, fact-finding tour at the start of World War II, which included a tour of the Middle East and Turkey. Based on that tour, Willkie wrote an account of his observations about the-then current situation and the post-war challenges America would face, entitled, One World. Like the Pope’s 2006 speech, this book has been misunderstood and maligned ever since its initial publication, mostly by those who never read it. Though I do disagree with some of his ideas for a post-war world, many of his observations and analyses of the predicaments of the people and places he visited were incredibly insightful, and still informative today.
Among those still-relevant portions is his chapter about the Middle East. Mere paraphrasing can’t do it justice, so I will quote the relevant passages here at length:
They need more education. … And they need more of the social dignity and self-confidence which come from freedom and self-rule. …
Undoubtedly such improvement in living standards will add to the markets of the world. For the Middle East is a vast, dry sponge, ready to soak up an infinite quantity and variety of goods and services. There is potential practical advantage, then, in encouraging better living standards among these peoples. But there is an even stronger and more urgent reason for facing this problem. For the present lack of equilibrium between these peoples and their world is a potential source of conflict, the possible origin of another war.
The facts are simple enough. If we had left the olive groves and the cotton fields and the oil wells of this region alone, we might not have had to worry about this equilibrium—at least not yet. But we have not left them alone. We have sent our ideas, and our ideals, and our motion pictures and our radio programs, our engineers and our businessmen, and our pilots and our soldiers into the Middle East; and we cannot now escape the result.
In effect, this result has been to render obsolete and ineffective the old ways of life. … This problem, as it seems to me, of bringing the peoples of the Middle East into the twentieth century in technical and industrial terms is, in turn, intimately linked with the question of political self-government. … Give any Arab I saw a chance to feel that they were running their own show, and they would change the world they live in.
…these newly awakened people will be followers of some extremist leader in this generation if their new hunger for education and opportunity for a release from old restrictive religious and governmental practice is not met by their own rulers and their foreign overlords. The veil, the fez, the sickness, the filth, the lack of education and modern industrial development, the arbitrariness of government, all commingled in their minds to represent a past imposed upon them by a combination of forces within their own society and the self-interest of foreign domination. Again and again I was asked: does America intend to support a system by which our politics are controlled by foreigners, however indirectly, because we happen to be strategic points on the military roads and trade routes of the world? Or, they would say, to put it your way: because we are strategic points which must be held to prevent Axis or some other non-democratic domination of the key military roads and trade routes of the world? Because our canals, our seas, and our countries are necessary to the control of the eastern Mediterranean and constitute the road to Asia?
… we must face the fact that the system is completely antipathetic to all the principles for which we claim we fight. Furthermore, the more we preach those principles, the more we stimulate the ferment that endangers the system. … Somehow, with a new approach and a patient wisdom, the question must be answered or a new leader will arise with a fierce fanaticism who will coalesce these discontents. And the result will be of necessity either the complete withdrawal of outside powers with a complete loss of democratic influence or complete military occupation and control of the countries by those outside powers.
If we believe in the ends we proclaim and if we want the stirring new forces within the Middle East to work with us toward those ends, we must cease trying to perpetuate control by manipulation of native forces, by playing off one against the other for our own ends.
Regardless of whether you agree with every observation Wilkie made, I think any fair assessment of what has transpired over the 70 years since he made these observations, including the events of this past week, is that his worst fears came to pass. A “fierce fanaticism” from Tunisia to Indonesia has assumed power at different times and different places in the Islamic world since World War II, with devastating consequences for the citizens of those nations, as for the rest of us. Moreover, two whole generations have been educated throughout that region into a culture of fanaticism that will continue to reverberate for decades, while their loathing of the U.S. has deepened as the influence of our culture has spread with satellites and the Internet. We have been left with the perpetual conflict that Adams feared, and with the choices Wilkie foresaw: “complete withdrawal of outside powers with a complete loss of democratic influence;” or “complete military occupation and control of the countries by those outside powers.”
Is Adams’ perpetual war, or Wilkie’s choice our only options? What should we do to avoid these options, and re-take control of our future relationships with the people of this region? Frankly, some of the best of minds have struggled with this question over many centuries and have come up short. So it is with a little humility that I offer these suggestions for us to consider:
- We can not bequeath to our children and grandchildren a perpetual war with the Islamic world, because the fanatics eventually will obtain the weapons to destroy us without the self-restraint to keep them from using those weapons. Therefore, we must try to reduce the sources for such conflict as soon as possible, and clarify those sources that would trigger and/or continue hostilities.
- We must avoid this perpetual war with a “peace through strength” approach that is willing to fight and die to defend ourselves, our allies, and our values. To do so, we must clarify the “red lines” that must not be crossed by our enemies in order to avoid further war, and that the consequences of any future conflict will be all-out war and unconditional surrender. To the extent such a war could not be prosecuted without violating a current treaty or international law, the U.S. should withdraw from such limiting conventions or provisions as they might apply to the nations of this region. This stance is not inconsistent with the first objective; instead, it is necessary to achieve it.
- We must make it clear that we only have five interests in the Middle East that will cause us to use military force in that region in the future: the defense of our homeland, including our diplomatic missions throughout the world; the defense of our allies in NATO and Israel; the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to enemies of the U.S. or its allies, including Israel; the defense of the freedom of access to the international shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz and the Suez Canal; and the prevention of mass genocide.
- Regardless of the form of government any nation may choose, fanaticism will not be tolerated or rewarded. Any country that promotes or harbors political, diplomatic, religious or legal fanaticism will not be eligible for recognition of most-favored nation status or foreign aid of any kind, and will not be rewarded with an embassy-level diplomatic mission from the United States or be allowed such an embassy-level mission to the United States (or the visas necessary to staff a mission at the U.N.).
- We will use all forms of non-military power to promote the freedom and self-rule for all people in the region, including the improvement and expansion of non-fanatical education to the people of the region, in a manner that respects the cultural heritage of the people throughout the region; but we will not impose “nation building” on any people, unless it is part of a military reconstruction after winning a war triggered by our response to one of the five interests previously discussed, and after prosecuting such a war to a final, unconditional surrender as was done with Germany and Japan after World War II.
- We must become energy independent from all sources of energy imported from the Middle East by 2020, and from all international sources of energy by 2030. This will require development of all sources of domestic energy over the next 30 years, the conversion of our automobile fleet and filling-station infrastructure to the use of natural gas by 2025, and the ultimate conversion away from fossil fuels as the primary source of our energy needs by the end of the 21st Century.
This list is not perfect, and I welcome constructive dialogue about it—but we need to start this discussion and to agree to a national solution soon—for the good of our country and of the world. I will be looking for thoughts from Romney and Obama about this issue as the campaign progresses, because the attacks of this week underscore the need to address this continuing problem during the next administration—and to address it with a more permanent solution than we’ve been willing to consider for the last 45 years.