December 11, 2015 | The Weekly Standard

End of the West?

Should the United States militarily defeat jihadist outfits in the Middle East? After 9/11 the answer seemed easy, but after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Barack Obama is not alone in arguing that large-scale offensive campaigns against radical Muslim movements aren't worth the cost. Even if the president's go-slow approach is actually more likely to provoke more terrorism, is it the sensible policy for America? And can Western governments actually defeat the Muslim radicals who live in the West and are a nightmare for domestic intelligence services to find, let alone stop? These questions are as much about Europe as the Middle East.

The United States could destroy the Islamic State militarily only to see Western-born or immigrant holy warriors continue to slaughter Americans and Europeans. What would be the point? A narrative is already developing—see last week's New York Times piece “U.S. Seeks to Avoid Ground War Welcomed by the Islamic State”—that questions whether the United States can and should destroy the Islamic State if doing so requires tens of thousands of American troops. Left unsaid but clearly implied: Better to have terrorist safe havens in the Middle East and absorb occasional terrorist attacks (especially if they are in Europe) than to risk a campaign that could generate thousands of new holy warriors and require America again to occupy Muslim lands.

And how connected to the Islamic State are the holy warriors who killed in Paris and San Bernardino? Could they survive, prosper, and replicate themselves even if ISIS were destroyed or collapsed? As the French scholars Olivier Roy and Farhad Khosrokhavar have written for years, this militant “globalized Islam” is as much about the radicalization that comes with Westernization—the violent anomie that springs forth as ancestral ethics die and personal freedom and individualism both empower and immiserate—as it is about a discovery of charismatic Islamic history, the fraternal, political power of the Muslim identity, and the appeal of the holy law.

It's already clear that Washington isn't going to rally to Europe unless all hell breaks loose. American armies will not march to save the European Union from the refugee crisis that has followed the Arab Spring, especially the savagery of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The Europeans will have to summon the will and means to wall off the continent from the ever-growing flood of Muslim immigrants if they believe doing so is essential to save the EU or the health of national politics. It's possible to envision that America, after January 2017, might send its soldiers into the Middle East if European cities endured bloody terrorist strikes emanating from the Islamic State. Self-interest might spring from an understanding that, if Washington fails in the eyes of the Europeans even to try to protect the Old World under siege by Islamic terrorism, the West will fracture, and the United States will be alone in an increasingly chaotic, violent, and authoritarian age. A more aggressive America might also spring from the realization that an Islamic State that can organize or mobilize repeated strikes on European soil is just prepping for increased soft-target terrorism in the United States.

Unlike al Qaeda, which never managed to turn its anti-American cause into a mass movement capable of attracting tens of thousands of Muslims to its suicide-loving standard, the Islamic State has shown that its call reaches deep inside European Muslim communities. That call has been immeasurably aided by Syria's Alawite Shiite dictator. The Sunni-Shiite clash in the Levant and the establishment of the Islamic State have proven by far the most magnetic events in contemporary Islamic history—a much bigger holy-warrior draw than the Soviet-Afghan war or the Anglo-American war in Iraq. Arab rulers, secular Arab intellectuals, and even Arab fundamentalists ruminated little over Soviets slaughtering Afghans. ISIS and the Syrian war are different. For everybody.

At the heart of the post-World War II order is an unwritten constitutional amendment: The United States is a European power, and it has sworn to defend Europe as it would defend itself. An unspoken corollary is that Washington would overlook the imbalance of this alliance: Like parents with refractory children, the United States would endure the disrespect and parasitical behavior of the Europeans, to ensure the family stayed intact to face those who loathed Western civilization. United we are stronger than alone. As a democratic people with global responsibilities, Americans have been a bit nervous about the exercise of their power unless they received some European approbation. This is particularly true for the U.S. left, which, since Vietnam, has had an eye on European critiques of American hubris. Conversely, many U.S. conservatives have never particularly liked this transatlantic union, because it placed unfair demands on the United States. It infantilized (already condescending) Europeans. And it implied that American exceptionalism was tempered by American insecurity.

In 2011, when the revolt against Assad's tyranny started, no one in the West predicted it would produce the greatest threat to transatlantic bonds since World War II. Or that an American president, the most eagerly welcomed in Europe since John F. Kennedy, would be so nonchalant about Europe's Muslim problems. He is condign punishment for Europeans who took America for granted. The European left got what it said it wanted: a president who viewed himself as a “global citizen,” averse to the wars that undergirded American hegemony and the liberal world order. President Obama radiates almost no warmth towards Europe and little interest. The president's awkward “pivot to Asia” was not just an attempt to run from the troubles of the Greater Middle East; it was also an attempt to distance the United States from Europe and scale down the the costs and responsibilities of the transatlantic partnership.

In all probability, Obama's approach to the Islamic State will make the Europeans bleed more, perhaps a lot more. The president wants to patiently bomb, drone, and assassinate the Islamic State into submission. That approach is tailor–made to be reciprocated. We will wound the Islamic State, repeatedly, but we will not try to kill it quickly, which would entail tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers in Syria and Iraq and obligate the United States to occupy both countries. The White House probably realizes that a U.S. invasion of Syria and Iraq to destroy the Islamic State and erect a Sunni Iraqi force capable of holding ground and suppressing a jihadist rebirth would inevitably put the United States on a collision course with the Islamic Republic, the region's preeminent power. The nuclear deal probably wouldn't survive that encounter.

In other words, we are going to see how good the Islamic State is. Orchestrating terrorist attacks, even against soft targets, is hard. Finding young men and women who not only are willing to die, but also have the sang-froid to operate clandestinely and securely, under enormous pressure, with the necessary coordination and skill to kill large numbers of people, isn't easy. Though he doesn't openly say so, President Obama's entire counterterrorism policy hinges on a bet that the Islamic State really is a “JV” team, that it cannot routinize the skill that the West's better intelligence and security serv-ices use to operate stealthily in unfriendly environments.

If the Islamic State can't continue to kill impressively, then Obama's counterterrorism policy for Syria and Iraq will surely hold into the next administration, even if Republican. A handful of Europeans mowed down once a year by Islamic terrorists won't rise to the threshold for American action. Europeans will be able to tolerate those losses without European politics coming unhinged.

And we just don't know now whether the Islamic State can effectively harness European Muslims and Muslim immigrants against European security services on full alert and empowered to be much more intrusive than they were before the attacks in Paris. Consider Germany. German security officials have estimated that around 1,500 German Muslims have gone to Syria; roughly half have returned home. The vast majority of returnees came back because their Islamic State dreams didn't survive the reality of the caliphate. These folks are superb antibodies in German Muslim communities, communicating more effectively than any official propaganda the ugliness of the Islamic State. From the perspective of the German interior ministry, however, it's an operational nightmare to try to surveil these denizens until security officials can narrow their focus on those most likely to conspire and kill. German internal-security services are much weaker than their French counterparts. Would-be Islamic terrorists surely know that. What is true of terrorist-rich Belgium (with its complicated federal structure, not particularly aggressive internal security, concern about civil liberties, and lack of interest in taking the fight to Islamists abroad) is also true of Germany. Any counterterrorism analyst looking at Germany would have to conclude that the unknowns are vastly greater than the knowns. If the Islamic State can't strike again before Obama leaves office, then American and European counterterrorism services may start to believe that they have a grip on this threat. The refugee crisis will continue (there is zero chance that diplomacy will end this guerre à outrance). But the fear of Islamic terrorism emanating from Syria will decrease.

In European and American eyes, the Islamic State is judged only by whether it can gain Westernized Muslim recruits. If it can survive but not hypnotize the faithful beyond its reach, then the West won't care all that much what it does to Christians, Yazidis, Shiites, or Kurds. The pool of militant Sunni Muslims in Europe is a given. It has been a problem in Western Europe since the early 1990s. But such radical Muslims have been capable only of random, often lamely conceived acts of terrorism. (Admittedly, one lame act of terrorism, if it had benefited from a bit of luck, like the attempted 1995 derailment of a high-speed French train by an Islamist Algerian terrorist group, could change our conception of the threat overnight.) “Globalized Islam” is only really scary when it comes down to earth organized, capable of sustained terrorism that cannot be consistently thwarted or deterred. The Islamic State has been the lightning rod that has given these radicalized Muslims a cause, self-confidence, and training in how to kill. If the Islamic State can continue to inspire in sufficient numbers, then it's really a math problem: How many American and European victims is the United States prepared to accept before the risks and costs of war and occupation seem less than the destruction, both in lives and in spirit, of such Islamic terrorism?

The indefatigable critic of American hegemony Andrew Bacevich isn't wrong when he argues that the United States will need to decide whether it's in or out of the Middle East's wars. President Obama has obviously decided we're out so long as he is president. His decision and his methods—less is more—will likely continue after him since they fulfill the essential requirement for an appealing presidential policy post-Iraq, offering some hope at minimal cost—provided the Islamic State, as Obama has confidently predicted, fails. If the president is wrong, however, then the Europeans may write the first draft of his legacy. They won't be kind.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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