March 12, 2012 | National Review Online

Let Syria Be

‘We will hold sacred the beliefs held sacred by others.”

That’s the concluding rally cry of the U.S. Department of Defense’s newly issued guidance on the “Proper Handling and Disposal of Islamic Religious Materials — Service Members/Civilian Training.” Here’s how it works: Mainstream Muslims throughout the Middle East believe, based on the Koran and other “Islamic Religious Materials,” that if an infidel force invades a Muslim territory, its members must be killed until the force has been driven out. They further believe that if non-Muslims commit some act — even an inadvertent one — that Muslims perceive as insulting to Islam, a campaign of murder and mayhem is justified.

Our response? We will hold sacred the beliefs held sacred by others.

So as Afghans kill Americans, as our “allied” Afghan trainees turn their guns on their American mentors, Americans policymakers debase themselves by ordering “training to increase awareness of cultural and religious sensitivities regarding Islamic Religious Materials.” As Afghans kill Americans, as the Afghan president demands that Americans be tried and punished for accidentally burning Korans that jihadists had already defiled, our president apologizes for our purported insensitivity. As Afghans kill Americans and explain that the Koran commands them to do so, U.S. policy is to give each captured jihadist a Koran. As Afghans kill Americans and derive support from the Koran’s injunction that Muslims “make ready [against non-Muslims] your strength . . . to strike terror into the hearts of the enemies of Allah and your enemies” (Sura 8:60), U.S. military commanders instruct our troops that the Koran, which non-Muslims are unfit to touch, “is regarded as the verbatim Word of God; the primary source of Islamic guidance.” And, of course, we will hold sacred the beliefs held sacred by others.

Just as this DoD “mandatory guidance” was made public, we began debating whether the United States ought to jump into yet another Muslim civil war — this time in Syria, where the murderous Assad regime is embroiled in a fight to the death with its Islamist opponents, thousands of whom it has killed.

I’ve argued that we’ve had our fill of a region teeming with hatred of the United States and the West, that we have no vital interest in the outcome of internecine savagery between an anti-American Muslim dictator and anti-American Muslim supremacists, and that if they insist on slaughtering each other, we should just buy some popcorn (which is all our tapped-out nation can afford, anyway) and watch the show, accepting the grim silver lining that as they weaken themselves they become less threatening to us. This has prompted a characteristically thorough response from Michael Ledeen. Besides being one of my best friends in the world, Michael is one of the world’s smartest guys — and the one who, for over a decade, has been more right than any other commentator about Iran and its paramount role in jihadist terror.

It is worth remembering why Michael was right when so many were wrong. American policymakers, he has long contended, lack a strategic vision regarding the threat. The terror masters in Tehran are the catalyst: spawning Hezbollah in the early Eighties; training, harboring, and abetting al-Qaeda since the early Nineties; collaborating with Syria, North Korea, China, and Russia; similarly backing Sunnis (not only al-Qaeda but Pakistani warlords, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Hamas branch, and even Iran’s former bitter enemy, the Taliban) as long as they worked against American interests. That being the case, Michael persuasively contends, the war cannot be won without a strategy for defeating the mullahs.

Michael is also a deep believer — much deeper than I am — in the power of freedom to overcome tyranny and cultural backwardness. He has, for example, long argued against a military invasion of Iran, opining that the regime is hollow and widely despised by the Iranian people. Providing the right kind of support — moral and material — to oppressed Iranians could bring about its demise. You may disagree; I myself am not convinced that the regime can be brought down from within. But I do know this: Michael has a better read on the challenge than most of the people we’ve hired to deal with it. It is the regime, not the nukes.

These points are worth stressing because, while Michael’s broad strategic approach is leaps-and-bounds superior to the wishful incoherence of American policy in the last decade-plus, it, too, has a critical blind spot. Moreover, I do not think he accounts for the principal freedom dynamic in the equation: the fact that we are losing ours, and losing it precisely because of the same deranged U.S. policymakers who would be responsible for, as Michael puts it, “shap[ing] the ideological outlook and future behavior” of Syria once we’ve helped the Muslim Brotherhood oust Assad.

Regarding the blind spot: Yes, Iran is the backbone of the jihadists, but Islamic supremacism is the backbone of Iran — the animating ideology of its revolution and the force that unites the region against the West. Michael says Iran is “the prime mover of radical Islamic terrorists.” I respectfully disagree. The prime mover is their ideology and the fact that it is undeniably rooted in Islamic doctrine — the veneration of which American policymakers promote, absurdly and tragically. To be sure, Iran is the most effective agent of this ideology, and thus, as Michael says, the “centerpiece of the enemy alliance.” Yet not all of our enemies are allied, the alliances that exist are not permanent, and the glue of those alliances is not Iran. Our enemies align because of a shared belief that Islam commands them to fight us — something that would not disappear with Iran’s defeat. Iran is not the reason the United States is despised in the region, including in places where Iran is also despised. Iran is not the reason Afghan trainees shoot their American mentors. The reason is the interpretation of Islam predominant in the Middle East.

Michael is quite right that the region is home to some “friends of America and even would-be democrats, too.” But how much more evidence do we need that these friends and democrats are vastly outnumbered by enemies and shariacrats? More Egyptian elections in which Islamists win 80–20? More polling that tells us 80 percent of Pakistanis want sharia or that a substantial majority of the Iraqis we liberated — who promptly installed a sharia government — still think Americans are legitimate targets for violent jihad?

Michael suggests it is unlikely that our policymakers — the guys who think the answer to jihadist atrocities is serial apologies and Koran-sensitivity training — could make the “real mess of statecraft” it would take to render post-Assad Syria worse for us. The grounds for such confidence elude me. Commonsense statecraft would at least tacitly acknowledge that Islam is a problem. Our regnant bipartisan approach holds that Islam is the solution and that its sharia law must be enshrined in new constitutions. That this arrangement inevitably results in the persecution of religious minorities, apostates, and homosexuals never seems to provoke any rethinking of the arrangement — only the slandering of anyone who inconveniently points out that the arrangement is lunatic.

Our presidents and diplomats exhibit bottomless capacity to believe that by portraying jihadist violence as “anti-Islamic activity,” and mainstream Islam as “moderate” and “tolerant,” we will somehow make it so. And as for shaping the region’s ideological outlook: How’s that going? We’ve been in Afghanistan for more than a decade, and as soon as the current round of mayhem ends, next on tap is a negotiated settlement with the Taliban — which our statecraft guys are orchestrating. After eight years of shaping Iraq, we’ve left behind an Iranian satellite. And the same people responsible for our statecraft in Libya and Egypt would be in charge of Syria policy. In Libya, we’ve replaced a dictator who was actually helping us against terrorists with an Islamist regime rife with al-Qaeda elements, one that instantly installed sharia while systematically slaughtering black Africans. In Egypt, where we spent 30 years and tens of billions of dollars cultivating the military as a bulwark against an Islamist ascendancy, we’ve got an Islamist ascendancy. What reason is there to believe our Syria statecraft will be any better?

Michael maintains that by getting “engaged in the fight” in Syria “we have a better chance of keeping the likes of [al-Qaeda leader Ayman] Zawahiri from penetrating the opposition.” But we did get involved in the fight in Libya, and far from being marginalized, the al-Qaeda operatives rose in the rebel ranks. This was inevitable given our policy: If we are going to farcically genuflect to the Koran, we naturally enhance the prestige of those who claim — with accurate citations of scripture — to fight the West based on the Koran’s injunctions; if we are going to encourage Islamists to rise up against dictators, then those trained, ruthless fighters are apt to become heroic figures.

Michael portrays our challenge as “an apocalyptic/messianic movement of the sort the bin Ladens, Zawahiris, and Khameneis [as in Iran’s “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] lead.” This, however, is just a part of the challenge, and not necessarily the most threatening part — at least where our liberty is concerned. To suggest otherwise is reminiscent of the Bush and Obama administrations’ myopic focus on “violent extremists,” which assumes the rest of the ummah is “moderate” and “largely secular” — to borrow the infamous meanderings of James Clapper, our incumbent national-intelligence director.

The Muslim Brotherhood and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation are not apocalyptic. They are the patient variety of Islamic supremacist. They are determined to defeat the United States and the West through an incremental campaign — one that complements terrorism with the march of sharia through social institutions. While we worry about Iran and al-Qaeda, it is the Brotherhood and the OIC who co-opt our military, intelligence, and law-enforcement agencies, which then persuade our policymakers that appeasement is the answer to murderous offense and that Israel (an authentic, pro-Western democracy) is the real problem in the Middle East. It is the Brotherhood and the OIC who collaborate with the administration to curtail the First Amendment.

When the war began, our goal was to protect American freedom. A decade later, we find presidents, secretaries of state, commanding generals, senators, and various other officials positing that the cause of Muslim atrocities is not Islamic ideology but American free expression. Islamists here — not in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria, but here — have intimidated American government officials from uttering the word “Islam” in any discussion of Muslim terrorism; intimidated the U.S. military into avoiding mention of Islam in a report on the Fort Hood jihadist massacre; intimidated the FBI into excluding information about Islamist ideology in its counterterrorism training materials; and are currently trying to intimidate the New York City Police Department — guardians of the nation’s No. 1 terror target — into ceasing its surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods.

What is the rationale for buckling under the intimidation? The notion that upsetting Muslims will trigger the violence to which they are prone in that part of the world, endangering our troops and undermining our precarious efforts to remake the region. But who asked anyone to remake the region? The American people never called for that — there is certainly nothing about it in the authorization for the use of military force.

Like most Americans, I am all for crushing our enemies. I fully agree with Michael that Iran is already at war with us whether we like it or not — and, unlike Michael, I am pretty convinced that the regime cannot be toppled unless we resort to military force. Nevertheless, I want to defeat our enemies and be done with them. I do not believe we owe it to them to rebuild their societies. The Marshall Plan is not the default model. Nation-building in Islamic lands does not make us safer, its costs in blood and treasure are prohibitive, and it does not work because they don’t want what we’re offering. Our security does not hinge on their freedom; it hinges on their knowing that we are not to be trifled with. If they square off against each other, the best thing for us to do is stay out of the way. I am not going to worry about freedom and security in Syria when freedom and security in America are being stripped away. That is a direct consequence of enmeshing ourselves ever deeper in the Muslim morass. We should stop.

Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.


Afghanistan Syria