The Bush administration’s reluctance to identify the enemy in the “war on terror” — to deal with the Islamic in Islamic militancy — has been maddening. Up until now, though, it’s always been refreshing that the administration got the war part right.
For the president, the war on terror really has been a war. Not mere rhetoric, like a “war” on poverty or drugs. Better still, not some less-demanding struggle from which Americans were free to opt out. The war has summoned us to confront a capable, transnational enemy. One without scruples and committed to killing us.
With 9/11’s wake-up call, the administration became the first in a quarter century to assess what this enemy had actually done and, significantly, to listen to what this enemy was actually saying. This president was the first to conclude that an American government cannot responsibly default from a war that the other side has declared and is actively fighting.
That seems like a long time ago. Now, strength consists of running diplomatic interference, lest we lose the coveted mantle of “honest broker” — which, in the vaunted “international community,” means maintaining a veneer of assiduous neutrality even when staunch, civilized allies square off with America-hating savages.
On July 19, Israel, alone, was engulfed in all-out hostilities with Hezbollah, Islamic terror’s A-Team, a committed enemy of the United States, and the forward militia of Iran’s Islamic Republic, the epicenter of smoldering jihadism. Tony Snow, the administration’s spokesman, was asked, point-blank: “Does the president … believe that this is as much the United States’ war as it is Israel’s war?”
The able White House press secretary then deftly sought to shift the focus, waxing about Hezbollah’s “miscalculation,” the diplomatic triumph to be gleaned from “the extraordinary statement by the Arab League,” and the “threat to peace” Hezbollah poses in Lebanon (which is akin, I suppose, to the “threat” a shark poses to a guppy). But it was no use. He was confronted again: “I don’t think you really answered the part about why is this not our war?”
Snow responded with an extraordinary statement of his own: “Why would it be our war? I mean, it’s not on our territory. This is a war in which the United States — it’s not even a war. What you have are hostilities, at this point, between Israel and Hezbollah. I would not characterize it as a war.”
By then, of course, those threats to peace over at Hezbollah had already besieged Israeli cities and towns with hundreds of missiles (it’s well over a thousand now). Yet, so hell-bent was the administration to avoid acknowledging the war — our war — that its spokesman could not bring himself to admit that our ally, Israel, was fighting for its life. After all, if it’s a war, we might actually have to fight it like one. We might not be able to leave it to Israel. We might actually have to allow as how we may not be able to democratize Hezbollah, and Iran, into submission.
Bush Doctrine Out, Democracy Project In
During a few shining nanoseconds of post-9/11 clarity, the administration had declared that there was an enemy and it had to be wiped out. Now, though, what has been wiped out is the Bush Doctrine: the sober acknowledgement that we had to accept the unsolicited challenge of a long, difficult war; the warning to all comers that we would fight to win, and they could either line up with us or line up with the terrorists.
The Bush Doctrine understood that jihadists were the problem and could form no part of the solution. This is a hard truth, though. It has thus been nudged gradually aside by a more pleasant Wilsonian mirage: the Democracy Project. This ambitious reconstruction of the Islamic world holds that jihadists can be tamed — and the United States made safer — by a political process. By its logic, the third grade is a “democracy” because it elects a class president … even if his constituents still cling to the neighborhood bully and wouldn’t know Madison from the Cookie Monster. To date, it has given us Hezbollah’s accession to key government posts in Lebanon; an Iraqi government that embraces Iran and has seen fit to condemn Israel for the war against Hezbollah; and the legitimizing of Hezbollah’s current collaborator, Hamas, as the de jure ruler of the Palestinian territories.
The Bush Democracy Project is a grander reprise of President Clinton’s Orwellian “Peace Process.” In both, the illusion that the Muslim world is not in the grip of a pathology is the required price of earning plaudits from the “international community” — a price tallied in jihadist aggression.
The exercise is fast becoming a bad Nineties rerun. Back then, as (increasingly) now, terrorists were treated as political actors fit for negotiations. The U.S. endorsed cant — the top exemplar being Yitzhak Rabin’s beguiling refrain, “You make peace with your enemies, not your friends” — as if dreams could change the leopard’s spots and obviate the hard work of defeating enemies, the only known foundation for lasting peace down here on earth. Terrorists, on cue, responded by establishing beachheads within complicit or impotent regimes, ideal for plotting against the United States and its allies.
Jihadists of both Shiite and Sunni stripes executed acts of war. The acts were unambiguous, but just in case we hadn’t gotten the point, they told us, again and again: This was a war, America was the principal enemy, and the jihadists were playing for keeps. Then, as now, we refused to listen.
By 1990, Hezbollah was already the vanguard of the jihad that united competing Muslim sects against America. Railing back then at a Danish rally, Omar Abdel Rahman, an infamous Sunni Egyptian cleric better known as the “Blind Sheikh,” invoked Shiite Hezbollah’s 1983 suicide bombing that killed 241 U.S. Marines: “If there are Muslim battalions to do five or six operations to the Americans in surprise attacks like the one that was done against them in Lebanon, the Americans would have exited [the Persian Gulf] and gathered their armies and gone back by air and sea … to their country.” Abdel Rahman later instructed his American acolytes that the Koran had “ordered” them to be “terrorists,” and that “every conspiracy against Islam and scheming against Islam and the Muslims — its source is America.” They responded by bombing the World Trade Center and failing in an even more ambitious plan to attack various New York City landmarks.
Equally devoid of nuance was Abdel Rahman’s confederate, Osama bin Laden. As is well-known, he is the Saudi leader of al Qaeda. Al Qaeda has been schooled for years by Hezbollah, pursuant to an understanding bin Laden struck with Iran in the 1990s — a fact that is not very well-known and certainly not much spoken of by the Bush administration these days. In 1996 — the same year his al Qaeda appears to have combined with Hezbollah and Iran to murder 19 members of the American air force in the Khobar Towers bombing — bin Laden issued his “Declaration of Jihad Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Mosques,” urging Muslims to pool their resources, the better to kill Americans.
Abdel Rahman, serving a life sentence by then, was still issuing fatwas against the United States, decreeing that “Muslims everywhere [should] dismember their nation, tear them apart, ruin their economy, provoke their corporations, destroy their embassies, attack their interests, sink their ships, . . . shoot down their planes, [and] kill them on land, at sea, and in the air. Kill them wherever you find them.” Bin Laden plainly agreed, proclaiming in 1998 that Muslims were obliged to kill Americans — soldiers or civilians — wherever in the world they could be found.
We’re Not Listening
But we didn’t listen to them. In the comfort of our over-confidence, we blinkered reality. We deluded ourselves into believing that clever words and feints at action could massage a fierce, incorrigible enemy into something less than it was — a nuisance, a crime, or a lamentably unavoidable cost of doing diplomatic business-as-usual.
The litany of failure writ by this approach, much of which well predated the Clinton administration, is grimly familiar: Iran’s storming of the American embassy and sneering seizure of the hostages; the Marine barracks bombing; Hezbollah’s bombings of the U.S. embassy in Lebanon; Hezbollah’s kidnap/torture murders of government officials; Somalia and “Black Hawk Down”; the World Trade Center bombing; the “Bojenka” scheme to blow U.S. airliners out of the sky; Iran and Hezbollah’s pact with al Qaeda; the Khobar bombing; the bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; the Millennium plot against Los Angeles International Airport; the Cole bombing; 9/11; Iran’s determined nuclear-weapons program; Iran’s harboring of al Qaeda fighters fleeing from U.S. forces in Afghanistan; Iran’s arming of anti-American insurgents in southern Iraq; Iran and Hezbollah’s cultivation of Moqtada al-Sadr, the thug whose Mahdi Army continues to fight American forces even as the Democracy Project transforms him into a political power broker. (Under the Bush Doctrine, he’d have been a casualty).
And now we can add Sadr’s determination to send fighters to Lebanon to join with Hezbollah against America’s ally, Israel. Sadr is doing that because he knows there’s a war on. Not a skirmish between Hezbollah and Israel, but a war pitting Islamic militants against America and our allies. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, desperate to support the new Lebanese “democracy” (in which hallucination Hezbollah appears as a political party, not an implacable terrorist organization), suggests that a “buffer” of NATO troops might be the peaceful solution — a first step toward Hezbollah’s disarming and eventual conversion to civilized politics.
… Except that no one in NATO — including the United States — wants to contribute its troops to the buffer because each knows that would inevitably mean fighting Hezbollah. (Indeed, Germany, the most receptive to the buffer idea, will join only if Hezbollah agrees to the arrangement!) As NATO well knows, Hezbollah has no intention of disarming. It has no interest in either democracy as a system or Lebanon as a country independent from the so-called “Muslim umma.” Hezbollah is fighting for what it sees as the single, worldwide Muslim nation. If it put down its weapons it would no longer be Hezbollah. It would no longer be of any use to its masters in Iran. Hezbollah looks out at Israel and sees America. The enemy. In a war.
Don’t take my word for it. Here’s how Hezbollah’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, put it with admirable bluntness in early 2005: “We consider [the United States] to be an enemy because it wants to humiliate our governments, our regimes, and our peoples. Because it is the greatest plunderer of our treasures, our oil, and our resources.... This American administration is our enemy. Our motto, which we are not afraid to repeat year after year, is: ‘Death to America!’”
We’re not listening. Not our war.
The critics roll their eyes at the “hawks.” They point toward the disintegration in Iraq and snicker, “So, now you want another war?” But it’s not “another” war; it’s the same war. And it’s not, for most of us, about testing the syncretic limits of democratic acculturation. It’s about defeating the enemy who started this, who can’t be reasoned with, and who will be content with nothing less than our demise. His war is here. We can hide from it, but it has an ugly way of finding us.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. A former federal prosecutor, McCarthy led the 1995 terrorism prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven others