Since 9/11, there has been an orthodoxy split in Western politics. On one side are people who say that we should not call the global security problem “radical Islam,” partly because that tars millions of non-terrorist Muslims and their religion with the brush of radicalism. On the other are people who say that we must call it “radical Islam,” partly because the motives for terrorism by Muslims trace to the commands of Islam, and if we don’t make that clear, terrorists can just keep hiding among their co-religionists.
The “partlies” matter here, although that’s for another post. But Donald Trump expressed willingness during his 2016 campaign to speak in explicit terms of radical Islam, and radical Islamic terrorism, which is something neither Obama nor Bush was prepared to do. Trump’s first national security adviser, retired Army general Michael Flynn, did the same.
This is considered by supporters to be a welcome change, advantageous for policy and indispensable for sound strategic thinking. It’s about defining what the enemy is. If you can’t name it, you can’t fight it.
Now the new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, has reportedly told the staff of the National Security Council that he doesn’t think the formulation “radical Islamic terrorism” is helpful. Those, according to the New York Times, are his words: that saying “radical Islamic terrorism” isn’t “helpful.”
Eager observers interpret this as a break by McMaster from Trump’s perspective. Some are busy concluding that it means Trump is walking back his campaign posture.
We can clear that latter point up pretty quickly. Who out there thinks President Trump will trim his speech or his policy ideas to fit General McMaster’s preference for orthodox formulation? Raise your hand.
Yeah, didn’t think so.
Now, let’s move on. McMaster’s view does matter. But not, I think, because it means he’ll get confused and start looking for “violent extremism” among Catholics, Baptists, and Presbyterians, as Team Obama was wont to do. If McMaster starts lecturing us about the Crusades, I’ll worry that he’s got an Obama-type ideological hallucination problem. But I don’t expect that to happen.
The McMaster proposition
Let’s look at what McMaster’s view really means, first of all. It doesn’t mean we’re back to square one as to what could possibly be going on, with all this terrorism and guerrilla fighting from, well, you have to say it, Muslims.
Remember what McMaster’s background has been for the last 15 years. He’s been in the middle of the campaign to secure portions of the Muslim world against brutal, destabilizing radical domination. That has meant understanding that most Muslims don’t want brutal, destabilizing radical domination. They don’t want to be ruled by Al Qaeda or ISIS.
It’s equally important to understand that that doesn’t mean Muslims in the Middle East want the rule of Western consensualism. They’re all over the map on that, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. But for the purposes of the U.S. policy McMaster has spent years executing, it has been of paramount importance that there are plenty of Muslims we can make common cause with.
Objectively, there are such Muslims. It’s not foolish to say that or act as if it’s true. As a pragmatic condition, it undoubtedly exists. And when McMaster says it’s not helpful to speak of radical Islamic terrorism, that’s the context my ear understands.
The tribal leaders of the “Anbar awakening,” for example, wanted to work with an armed and determined U.S. military to kick out Al Qaeda. But in that counterinsurgency campaign, it would not have been helpful to seem to tar the Anbar tribes, for whom Islam is a way of life, with the brush of radicalism.
Similarly, anyone who meets daily with Muslims – as senior military officers do in the Middle East – is right to say confidently that the local authorities and most of the common people in Muslim nations don’t have the slightest desire to be ruled by ISIS. They don’t see ISIS as “Islamic.” For them, Islam itself, lived and parsed rightly, isn’t scary and terrible for Muslims. But ISIS does bring fear and terror – and for Muslims. They naturally do not see this as Islamic.
So when McMaster says “ISIS is not Islamic,” as he did in 2014, that’s the context my ear understands. There are plenty of Muslims for whom the vision of ISIS is not their vision, and not the vision they see as necessary under Islam. McMaster is acknowledging that: not just to lubricate America’s dealings with a tetchy partner in military operations, but because it’s true.
Many thoughtful observers will object that that still leaves us in difficulty, because we have to make policy at a higher and broader level than “what we do when fighting on the same side as Muslims in the Middle East.”
And they’re right. With millions of Muslims taking flight from their war-racked homelands in the last five years, and surging into the West, we can’t neglect the bigger picture. Our purposes are not all “about” stabilizing Iraq and Syria, or hunting terror cells in Yemen and Libya. And even if they were, stabilizing Iraq and Syria must eventually involve having some degree of political opinion about Islam. Islam is a major geopolitical condition; it can’t be ignored.
If I have a concern about McMaster, it’s this one. Now, I have tremendous respect for him as a military-strategic thinker and leader, and I believe in his well-deserved reputation for integrity. So this isn’t about that.
It’s about a limitation of vision. But – and this is the point of this whole essay – I perceive the same limitation of vision in his newfound critics.
That limitation is what has caused the Western orthodoxy split to be defined around the wrong proposition. If we’re all talking about what Islam is, we’re doing it wrong.
And that’s what we’re doing: talking about what Islam is.
The error is on both sides. To avoid tarring all Muslims with the same brush, it isn’t necessary to actively affirm that Islam is something other than what ISIS or Al Qaeda says it is. But throughout the West, that’s what the practitioners of national policy have been doing since 9/11.
They go too far, in doing that. They box us into a declaration we have no need (or competence) to make.
On the other hand, to make it a litmus test of orthodoxy that ISIS and Al Qaeda represent the logic of Islam is to put our own policy in just as much of a box. Study the matter and make conclusions about it as much as you want; everyone should be free to do that. But state policy has to choose a more comprehensive perspective.
The comprehensive perspective is best illustrated by looking at an analogy from the Cold War. On this point, the analogy is a very good one.
When we spent decades obsessively arguing over “what communism is,” and how it related to socialism and state-welfarism, and how hard we needed to fight it, and in what way, and how much of it we could admit in our own polities without losing our way of life – when we in the free world were doing that, we were doing exactly what we’re doing now with Islam.
We were speaking as if the problem was bigger and more dynamically catalytic than the solution. As if the problem was the defining condition for everything else. But it’s not.
Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, Yasuhiro Nakasone, Brian Mulroney, Lee Kwan Yew, Pope John Paul II – in the 1980s, these leaders and others, in their different capacities, transcended the fixation on “what communism is,” by affirming what principles the free world would live by.
That was their focus: what the free world would do that was useful, right, and good. Their chief antagonists were actually factions within their own polities, for the most part, and we must not forget that. Being able to choose wisely what not to compromise on in internal politics was essential.
When they drew boundaries internationally – or issued challenges while standing at them – it was not out of fear of evil, but out of determination to establish good. The dynamism was on their side, because that’s where the moral confidence was. They were (mostly) careful about drawing boundaries; the boundaries had to be feasibly sustainable, in given geopolitical conditions. But they did it unafraid, because they had the moral confidence to proclaim what the free world was, and assert that that is how we would live, full stop.
It is impossible to overemphasize how that is the key: the fearless assertion of what we are, and how we will live.
If you truly don’t think the Judeo-Christian principles of Western civilization produce a good life for men, you’ll probably drop out right here. But if you do – if you place decisive value on liberty of conscience, true tolerance and political consensualism, the moral equality of men and women, the rule of law, the servant-not-master concept of human government, the utility of empiricism and skepticism – then you may see how important it is to draw your boundaries where those things are affected, and not just wait to react when someone else wants to set his boundaries.
If you sit around talking about Islam all day, and frame everything in terms of what it says about Islam, you might as well be a Muslim. That’s a descriptive, not a qualitative, point. But the good news for Westerners is that there is a whole civilization’s worth of our own affirmative beliefs to fill our minds with, and base our policies on, instead. What we are isn’t defined as “not Muslim.” That’s not how we ought to see ourselves, or the basic proposition of our cosmos.
In the mid-20th century, we spent far too much time trapped in the idea that we were “not communist.” There was a basic narrative that collectivism was where the “arc of history” was headed, and the fate of modern classical liberals was to fight a rearguard action, against a “world-historical” crisis that we were going to lose. It seemed terribly important to many, at the time, to argue that X was true Marxism/socialism/communism, and Y was not, and that trying to brand everyone under the socialist banner as “Y” was unfair and misleading, and we badly needed to understand all that better.
But in the end, what we really needed was to stop focusing on communism, and focus instead on what we believed in, and how we were determined to live. Notice that what happened afterward was not a mass war with communists. Rather, the people living under the yoke of communism found the courage to rise up and overthrow it. It was a movement as astounding and unpredicted as today’s mass migration of peoples out of the war-torn countries in the Muslim world.
The conditions of today are not identical, of course, and I am not suggesting that Muslims will reject Islam en masse. What I am saying is that, if radical manifestations from the Islamic world are to die on the vine, the best thing the West can do is focus on being us.
Sixty-odd million Trump voters foresaw, as Reagan did, that nothing bad will come of that, and great good is likely to. The same can be said of voters for Brexit in the UK, and for the decent, middle-class Europeans who now demand alternatives to failing old-consensus policies.
I’m not actually dubious about H.R. McMaster. I think he’ll be a fine national security adviser. But I don’t think I see evidence beyond a narrow, operational-level vision there. And that’s OK. Larger-scope, “moral-strategic” vision will probably have to come from elsewhere.
Perhaps it will come from thinkers like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka; I don’t know. I think it could. Some of their commentary leads me to believe they understand the true value of the nation-state, which is in protecting liberty and Western civilization. Without the nation-state and its sovereign prerogatives, we will lose both, and it appears to me that they understand that.
Does anyone in the Trump administration have a vision for articulating what good we get out of Judeo-Christian values and Western civilization, as Reagan did? We’ll see. It may simply be that, along the moving finger’s trajectory, it isn’t time for that chapter in our living narrative to emerge yet.
Additional reading (earlier writing relating to concepts in this post and visions for national security in the post-Obama world):
- An American foreign policy requires American liberty
- Back to the future: The post-Pax policy foreign debate
- A world without a hegemon
- The future of our time: Rewriting ‘Westphalianism’