Barack Obama’s foreign policy will go down in U.S. history as one of the most dangerously inept ever. Created by equal amounts of ignorance, arrogance, and partisan politics, the president’s policies have left behind a world in which rivals and enemies are on the march, while allies and friends are endangered and alienated. He deserves the opprobrium with which future history should load him.
But focusing on individuals and their personal flaws can prevent us from seeing the larger bad ideas that transcend any one person or party. We justly remember British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain as the architect of the 1938 Munich conference that paved the way for Hitler’s aggression. And indeed, Chamberlain’s flaws of character––most important a vanity about his personal powers of persuasion that blinded him to Hitler’s brilliant diplomatic misdirection about his true intentions––contributed to that debacle. But we should also remember the delirious public joy that greeted Chamberlain when he returned to England, and the global acclaim he received for avoiding war with Germany. Millions of people thought Chamberlain had heroically succeeded because many shared the assumptions and ideas that drove his decisions.
So too today, Obama’s vanity and self-regard have from the beginning led to dangerous foreign policy decisions. His belief that he was a global “transformational” and “world-historical” figure drove him to court inveterate enemies like Iran, the Taliban, and the Muslim Brothers, who he mistakenly believed would be seduced by his brilliance and sympathy for their grievances. His fatuous Cairo speech in 2009 and his numerous groveling letters to Iran honcho Ayatollah Khamenei were predicated on Obama’s notion that as a person “of color,” who had spent a few childhood years in a Muslim country and was ashamed of America’s global sins, he had an instant rapport with hard, cruel men who despise the West as “Crusaders,” godless infidels to be conquered, converted, or killed. Indeed, Obama’s delusional self-estimation recalls Chamberlain’s comments to his cabinet that in the negotiations over Czechoslovakia “Hitler was speaking the truth,” and that “he had established some degree of personal influence over Herr Hitler.” Herr Hitler, in fact, considered Chamberlain “a little worm.”
But beyond these failures of character and self-knowledge, larger cultural ideas have contributed to this country’s mistakes in dealing with a resurgent Islamic jihad. Most important has been the triumph of secularism in the West, the marginalization of religion in our politics and culture. Anyone who believes the received wisdom that the U.S. is a religious country should ignore the polling data on churchgoing and look instead at our public culture. Sordid sexual content in movies, television shows, and popular music; 58 million abortions since 1973; the legitimization of same-sex marriage; the incessant demonization of any participation of religion in schools or politics––all bespeak a culture in which religion has been reduced to a private life-style choice and comforting holiday rituals, as Obama suggested when he reduced the First Amendment’s protection of religion to the “freedom to worship.” Anyone who does take Christianity or Judaism more seriously than that is considered, to quote Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, “shamans or witch doctors from savage tribes whom one humors until one can dress them in trousers and send them to school.”
More important, the animus against faith has contributed to the fashionable self-loathing and dislike of their home country on the part of many progressives and leftists, who have implicated Christianity in the crimes of capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism. Hence Obama’s bringing up and distorting the history of the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition in a speech about religious violence. Meanwhile, a noble-savage multiculturalism masquerading as tolerance for the oppressed “other” considers Islam an exotic “religion of peace,” despite its 14 centuries of slaughter, invasion, pillage, slaving, occupation, and colonization. Those tolerant Muslims of Granada in 1066 killed as many Jews in one day as the Spanish Inquisition did in its 3 centuries of existence.
The triumph of secularization has disarmed us in the fight against modern jihadism. No matter how often jihadists evoke the religious foundations of their actions, no matter how many Koranic verses and Hadith they quote, we cannot imagine a people for whom the spiritual realm is more real than the material world. We cannot imagine a life permeated with the divine and directed by submission––what “Islam” literally means––to Allah and the model of Mohammed. We ignore, as Bernard Lewis has written, the fact that “in most Islamic countries, religion remains a major political factor,” for “most Muslim countries are still profoundly Muslim, in a way and a sense that most Christian countries are no longer Christian.” Hence the worldwide Muslim support for shari’a law and its codified sexism, intolerance, and penal cruelty.
Given this failure of imagination, we have misunderstood jihadism ever since it burst onto the global scene in 1979 with the Iranian Revolution, when our foreign policy establishment ignored or dismissed its religious roots. Thirty-five years later, Obama continues the same mistake, refusing to identify ISIS as an expression of Islamic doctrine, or to use the adjective “Islamic” to describe the numerous jihadist movements active today, or to recognize the apocalyptic messianism and genocidal aims of the Iranian mullahcracy. This blindness reflects widespread delusions like the long mischaracterization of Islam as the “religion of peace,” the reinterpretation of jihad to mean a self-improving “inner struggle,” or the historical fantasies of Islamic “tolerance” in Ottoman Turkey or Andalusian Spain.
Behind this Orwellian rhetoric lies the assumption that all religions are basically the same and preach the same doctrines of “love thy neighbor” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This reduction of religion to Hallmark-card sentimentalism is yet another instance of the refusal to take spirituality seriously, and to acknowledge that all spiritual aims are not the same or compatible. How much easier it is to indulge a flabby ecumenicalism and dismiss the jihadists as “evil” or “barbaric,” as though we are dealing with psychopathic serial killers rather than fervent believers in a worldwide faith with doctrines and practices dating back to the 7th century.
Finally, the dismissal of spiritual causes leads us to focus on material ones, which in turn creates the preposterous analyses of jihadism as a reflection of material conditions or psychological dysfunctions created by them. Hence this administration recently has talked about “root causes” like “lack of opportunity for jobs” (State Department spokesman Marie Harf); the need for “peaceful democratic change” and “economic growth and devoting more resources on education, including for girls and women” (Barack Obama); “alienation, poverty, thrill-seeking, and other factors” (John Kerry); and “the perceived effect of U.S. foreign policy in the Muslim world” (Rashad Hussain, recently named Obama’s Special Envoy and Coordinator for Strategic Counter-terrorism Communications), to name a few.
Yet even some Christian and observant Jewish conservatives have ignored the power of spiritual imperatives and religious differences, particularly in their focus on democracy promotion as the cure for jihadist terror. George W. Bush, in his 2002 National Security Strategy, focused U.S. foreign policy on promoting a “single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise,” for “these values of freedom are right and true for every person, every society.” These dubious ideals became strategic aims during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And for all he styles himself the anti-Bush, Barack Obama has made the same claims, as in his 2012 remarks at the U.N. “Freedom and self-determination,” he said, “are not unique to one culture. These are not simply American values or Western values—they are universal values.”
But no matter how potentially true these claims may be, to those pious Muslims who consider themselves the “slaves of Allah,” freedom and democracy as we understand them are incompatible with shari’a law, and “national success” will be achieved by restoring Islam to its original purity, and following the “model” that empowered Allah’s warriors to create a global empire stretching from the Atlantic to China. If we take seriously Islam’s spiritual aims––the necessity of obeying Allah’s precepts in order to create for Muslims a totalizing political-social order of justice, piety, and equality, and to ensure an eternity of bliss in paradise––then we will see that our notions of earthly freedom, leisure, confessional tolerance, and prosperity are to millions of Muslims mere temptations to abandon their faith and risk their eternal souls. And we will understand that waging jihad against those responsible for those temptations, especially a rich and powerful infidel West, is the communal duty of the Islamic ummah, and death in that battle the key to paradise.
Trapped in our own secularist and materialist assumptions, we mistake the nature of the enemy and thus create policies––most important the appeasement of Iran through negotiations and concessions that will end with the world’s foremost terrorist state in possession of nuclear weapons––doomed to fail and damage our security and interests. But Barack Obama will not be the only father of that failure.
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