By Barry Rubin
It has become fashionable to compare the current situation in the world with analogies from Nazism and World War Two. There are some parallels, of course, worth exploring. But a more likely model for the next period in world history is more likely to be that of the Soviet Union and the Cold War.
The future of the confrontation between Islamism, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the governments of Muslim-majority states as well as Israel and the West is more likely not going to be some terrible but relatively brief shooting war for several reasons.
Iran, the closest thing to a leader of revolutionary Islamism, is far less relatively strong and bold than Nazi Germany. It is unlikely to offer the West an occasion for direct, conventional war. It is very strong in the elements of ideology, client groups, and ideological appeal. As in the USSR’s case, Iran will more likely use nuclear weapons as a shield rather than a vehicle for attack. And also, as in the Cold War, there will be many independent or semi-independent revolutionary groups in dozens of countries stirring up trouble.
In contrast to the Cold War era, however, the West has no taste for such a confrontation and would avoid waging this struggle as much as possible. Equally, the revolutionary forces are diverse, including even anti-Iran Islamists, and conditions vary in each country.
The key year here, then, is not 1939, when Germany launched war, but the far less-well-known year of 1946, when most of the West had not yet awoken to face the challenge and was riddled with apologists and would-be appeasers. America and Western Europe were exhausted from too many battles, the former faced with a potential retreat from world leadership, the latter preoccupied with economic troubles.
Fortunately, the United Kingdom has a great leader named Winston Churchill, who had just left office, and the United States has a tough, feisty Democrat named Harry S. Truman as president. You can do the comparisons to today without my help.
In his famous Fulton, Missouri, speech in front of Truman, Churchill sounded the challenge for both countries:
“The United States stands at this time at the pinnacle of world power.,,,For with primacy in power is also joined an awe-inspiring accountability to the future….You must feel anxiety lest you fall below the level of achievement….To reject it or ignore it or fritter it away will bring upon us all the long reproaches of [future generations].”
There were Communists in eastern London then, just as there are Islamists ruling some of the same neighborhoods today. Churchill and Truman were accused of being anti-Communists, the equivalent of “Islamophobia” in that area. A large section of the media and academic, though smaller than the equivalent today, were against them. They weren’t intimidated.
The Cold War lasted about 55 years, compared to less than six for World War Two and only twelve if the whole span of Nazi Germany is included. It involved a large number of fronts around the world, often with totally different conflicts going on simultaneously. The fact that the USSR had nuclear weapons actually lengthened the epoch and made direct combat out of the question.
Once Germany invaded Poland and once Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, it was easy to know that the war had to be fought, though of course it was a difficult battle. Yet the course ahead was clear, the enemy undeniable.
The choices faced today are far more difficult and complex and far more closely resembles the Cold War.
The Cold War was fought with a wide variety of tools ranging from ideological to economic, revolutions to civil wars, covert clashes and rapid changes of fortunes for the two sides. Alliances were made and broken; satellites won and lost. It was what President John F. Kennedy called a “long twilight struggle, year in and year out.” Courage and endurance, two qualities in lamentably short supply in the West, will be required in great quantities.
Kennedy also emphasized the need to fight against poverty, the importance of the UN, and the value of offering peace to enemies that might accept it, all concepts that are incorporated into contemporary policy. But going through the checklist of what Kennedy said in his inaugural address, we can see what is still lacking from American and European leaders and dominant world views today:
“The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans…proud of our ancient heritage and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”
–Americans must be disciplined, hardy, patriotic (rather than ashamed and apologetic); ready to defend human rights, rather than define them out of existence through a bogus Multiculturalism.
Consider how this would have played out during the Cold War: Brutal dictatorship, slave-labor camps, aggressive domination of neighbors, isn’t that all part of the Russian way of life that’s equally valid as is a democratic system? Aren’t all those Eastern European countries like Poland and Hungary, culturally incapable of freedom?
“To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do—for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.”
–Loyalty to traditional allies, rather than often dissing them in order to court enemies.
To the Third World, “we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom—and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”
–Defending those imperiled by the aggressive dictatorships and fashionable tyrannical ideology of the day rather than not even being willing to discuss the nature of the threat. What this means for today is decisive U.S. leadership of European countries, relatively moderate Arabic-speaking states and Israel in the Middle East, and other Third World nations menaced by extremism in the form of radical Islamist ideologies or radical regimes into a strong and confident alliance.
“Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary…we dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed”
–An understanding that weakness on our side breeds aggression on the other side. That certainly was a lesson taught over and over again in the Cold War.
The Cold War required supporting regimes that were themselves oppressive in order to defeat the great threat. Sometimes this was necessary. Sometimes this was mistaken. But there is one mistake that is forever unpardonable. And that great, tragic, and unforgiveable error is to ignore, much less vilify, the lesson that Churchill reminds us of:
“Last time I saw it all coming and I cried aloud to my own fellow-countrymen and to the world, but no one paid any attention.”
Maybe it’s time for President Barack Obama, despite the experiences of his ancestors in the Kenyan revolt against Britain, to retrieve that bust of Winston Churchill for his office that he so hastily returned to London.
Only decades hence will it be possible to judge which model, in terms of type of struggle and of the Western response, took place. But I bet that this is going to be a long, complicated Cold War-type conflict with numerous different kinds of struggles, varying considerably from place to place and going on for a very long time. Not being engaged in a shooting war will make it easier to deny that any war is going on.