Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
In the Thirties many in England blamed their own country for the First World War. Whether for causing the war in the first place, or imposing a “Carthaginian Peace” with “punitive reparations,” considerable numbers of British politicians and intellectuals made excuses for Germany. One Labour M.P. mourned that England had not acted “wisely,” “generously,” or “justly” towards the Germans, and bore “a heavy responsibility for the tensions and menaces of the present international situation.”
What Churchill called “unwarrantable self-abasement” contributed to the wide-spread failure of nerve that led England down the road to appeasement at Munich. But despite that gruesome historical warning against projecting weakness in the face of a brutal enemy, in our fight against Islamic jihad and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, we are repeating that same error.
After 9⁄11, the bodies were still entombed in the rubble when the blame was being cast on the United States and the West in general. A whole issue of The Nation confirmed the preposterous pretexts for the slaughter publicized by Osama bin Laden. Our premier leftist journal identified “the sources of the hatred” of the U.S. and its “decade of neglect and, worse, neglect of international affairs,” and “the failure of our own leadership and the role our government has chosen to play in the world.” There were fears expressed about “an enraged blind superpower” and what horrors it might perpetrate in response. Then there were other crimes like “U.S. missiles smashing into Palestinian homes” and other “historical wrongs and injustices” that had caused “the firestorms.” There was a hope, tinged with schadenfreude, that “our nation’s suffering could open our eyes to the rest of the world’s pain.”
In other words, we had brought the attack on ourselves by propping up dictators, interfering in other countries’ affairs, and supporting Israel. Even our completely justified war against Afghanistan for nurturing the terrorists who had attacked us was condemned. Leftist scribe Howard Zinn claimed that our bombing of Afghanistan was no different from the 9⁄11 attacks, and Zinn’s left-wing Tweedledee, Noam Chomsky, accused the U.S. of being the world’s “greatest terrorist state,” and of fomenting a “silent genocide” against the Afghan people whom our troops were liberating from the vicious Taliban.
President Barack Obama went a long way toward mainstreaming what Middle East hand J.B. Kelly in the Seventies called the “preemptive cringe.” In a 2007 Foreign Affairs article, Obama laid out his foreign policy as an acknowledgement and correction of American misdeeds. He decried the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and condemned interrogation and intelligence-gathering policies because they didn’t reflect the “decency and aspirations of the American people,” as defined, of course, by progressives. Whether or not these intelligence practices helped to keep Americans safe after the worst attack on the homeland in history was not addressed. To Obama, America had acted just as The Nation had feared: like an “enraged blind superpower.” Rather, Obama argued, the U.S. should use its power to benefit the world, “not in the spirit of a patron but in the spirit of a partner–– a partner mindful of its own imperfections.”
In his 2009 address to the Muslim world delivered in Cairo, Obama specifically blamed his country’s sins for Islamic nations’ dysfunctions that supposedly created jihadist terror. He faulted Western “colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.” The specious pretext of “colonialism” for Muslim aggression that dates back to the 1920s––particularly shameful coming from Muslims, one of history’s most successful and brutal imperialists and colonizers –– was now legitimized by presidential imprimatur.
Like the simplistic historical clichés about the malign “Crusades” or the devious “Sykes-Pico” agreement, Obama’s verbal cringe made jihadist terror the fault of the West. Equally destructive to our foreign policy is the lie that our support of Israel has instigated Muslim violence. “The creation and continuation of Israel,” Osama bin Laden told America in 2002, “is one of the greatest crimes, and you are the leaders of its criminals.” In 2010, General David Petraeus perforce accepted this historical lie when he told the Senate that the Israel-Arab conflict “foments anti-Americanism” because of “American favoritism toward Israel” and “Arab anger over the Palestinian issue,” which limit American military effectiveness and weaken “moderate” Arab states.
Of course, 14 centuries of Islamic doctrine and practice, not “national aspirations” or Israeli “settlements,” explain Palestinian Arabs’ genocidal hatred of Jews, who are the arch-villains in the Koran, hadiths, and biographies of Mohammed. The claim that a “Palestinian state” and “national sovereignty” drive Palestinian Arab terror is no more valid than Hitler’s protestations about rescuing the Sudeten Germans from Czech “occupation” was the reason for his aggression. In both instances, the aggressor exploits the ideals and doctrines of his enemy. And as Saul Alinsky advises, the aggressor should seek tactical advantage by forcing the enemy to live up to his own standards––standards that the aggressor despises as weakness. It doesn’t matter if we think we are honoring our values and principles; to the aggressor, we are merely projecting fear and timidity that will pave the way for his eventual victory.
Finally, the two-bit psychology that attributes aggression against us to our own misdeeds is preposterous. It assumes that our enemies do not have agency, or motives and justifications for their own aggression. It is a peculiar Western arrogance to think that only we are capable of acting on our interests, while everyone else can only react to us. Moreover, the evidence of history easily proves that our alleged crimes against Islam are tangential to Muslim dislike of us today.
Take Iran, whose mullahs and ayatollahs continually harp on our support of the shah, our neocolonial interference in Iran’s affairs, and our attacks on Islam. But Russia has spilled more Muslim blood than the rest of the West put together: from the intermittent raiding and wars that started in the 10th century and the 18th century Russian conquest of Crimea; to the Soviet-era oppressive occupation of millions of Muslims in the Central Asian “Stans,” and the brutal destruction of the war against jihadists in Chechnya, which killed over 100,000 including civilians. Yet today Iran is a close ally with Russia, despite that record of slaughtering Muslims.
Or how about China and its oppression of 10 million Muslim Uyghurs in its Xinjiang province? Xinjiang is “a police state to rival North Korea, with a formalized racism on the order of South African apartheid,” according to one expert. Up to a million Muslim Uyghurs have been detained in camps, and new ones are under construction. Detainees are subjected to torture, and forbidden medical treatment. Public displays of Islamic piety are forbidden, and high-tech surveillance tools are used to police religious expression. If abuse of Muslims and attacks on Islam were the reason for jihadist hatred, China would be number one on the list of Islam’s enemies.
Yet even as the U.N. decries Israel’s attempts to defend itself against the genocidal attacks from Hamas and Hezbollah, it ignores assaults on the religious identity and civil rights of the Uyghurs, and demonizes the one state in the Middle East where Muslims enjoy political rights and freedom of religion. As Iran ignores China’s and Russia’s persecution of Muslims, the “Great Satan” has spent more money and blood on behalf of Muslims than any other Western power: taking their side in the wars with Serbia in Bosnia and Kosovo; protecting Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s attempted annexation; destroying brutal regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan and giving their peoples a chance at political freedom; and spending billions of dollars attempting to rebuild and reorder dysfunctional governments devoid of political freedom and human rights.
But of course, Iran and the jihadists know that Russia and China cannot be emotionally blackmailed into flagellating themselves with their crimes and oppression. Only a West filled with self-doubt and fear can be buffaloed into suicidal concessions.
Our alleged crimes against Islam have no more to do with jihadist aggression than the “oppressed” Sudeten Germans did with Hitler’s. Those lies about our criminal behavior are what Thucydides called a “pretext,” the appeal to retributive “justice” –– “A consideration,” the unnamed Athenian ambassador said to the Corinthians and Spartans, “which no one ever yet brought forward to hinder his ambition when he had a chance of gaining anything by might.” When an aggressor lacks the military power to achieve his aims, he will gin up his enemy’s “injustices” against him in order to perfume his aggression and buy time.
Modernity’s novel response to this ancient tactic is to accept the aggressor’s charges, serially apologize for them, and then use them as the excuse to avoid conflict that is unpalatable because of politics or fear. And when a culture has, like the West today, institutionalized self-hatred and empty virtue-signaling as a mark of intellectual sophistication and moral superiority, then appeasement becomes not just easier, but a status symbol. For the British, it was ideas like pacifism, disarmament, and idealistic internationalism that reinforced the “war guilt” syndrome. For us today, it is multiculturalism, an incoherent cultural relativism, and one-world utopianism that facilitate our fashionable self-loathing.
Time will tell if our feckless appeasement will have the ghastly consequences that followed British appeasement in the Thirties. But today it is disheartening to see our civilization repeating a mistake made almost eighty years ago. And it is troubling to think how severe the lesson will have to be for us to finally learn it.