The big story this week is the convergence of horrific news, including the downing of Malaysia flight MH17 (apparently by Russian separatists in Ukraine), the rising death toll in Gaza, and the removal of Christians by ISIS in Mosul.
It’s hard not to put this trend in a larger context — a context that also highlights the need for American leadership. And, I would suggest, such leadership ought to begin with a few fundamental principles of agreement: 1). Moral clarity, 2). the rejection of a false equivalence, and 3). an acknowledgement that there is an ongoing clash between the forces of barbarism and Western civilization.
Earlier this week, I made the argument for moral clarity as it pertains to the Putin regime — so I won’t belabor that here. Except to say that, at some point, the benefit of ambiguity is swamped by reality. At some point, silence becomes a tacit endorsement of evil. We are nearing that point.
Next, it’s important to reject a false equivalence. Currently, this is most pertinent to the situation in Gaza, where Americans are actually divided on whether or not “Israel’s actions” against Hamas are “justified” (in fact, according to Gallup, a strong majority of Americans under the age of 30 say it’s not).
It’s easy to understand why the PR battle inevitably turns out this way. Israel’s military is more efficient — and Hamas has been accused of using civilians as human shields. But none of this takes into account who started it — who began lobbing rockets into whose territory — or that only one side is dedicated to the absolute destruction of the other.
These, of course, are the most important factors.
Yes, regrettably, both Israel and Hamas use lethal force. But their motives are entirely different, and should be treated as such. As William F. Buckley noted during the Cold War:
To say that the CIA and the KGB engage in similar practices is the equivalent of saying that the man who pushes an old lady into the path of a hurtling bus is not to be distinguished from the man who pushes an old lady out of the path of a hurtling bus: on the grounds that, after all, in both cases someone is pushing old ladies around.
Lastly, I think it’s important to recognize that we still live in a dangerous world — and that (so long as we’re on this earth) there will always be an existential battle between the forces of good and evil.
When one looks at ISIS and recent news about their forcing Christians to flee Mosul, we are reminded of this yet again.
Radical Islam isn’t the only threat, of course (as this post makes clear), but it is worth noting that America has been battling radical Islam since the very beginning. As Michael B. Oren notes in Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, this clash helped provide an argument for a stronger federal government:
Though downplayed during the Constitutional Convention, the connection between the Middle East and the American federation figured prominently in the impassioned state-level debates on ratifying the proposed Constitution. The Reverend Thomas Thatcher reminded the Massachusetts convention that the enslavement of “our sailors … in Algiers is enough to convince the most skeptical among us, of the want of general government.” Nathaniel Sargeant said it was “preposterous” to think that the United States could continue under the ineffectual Articles of Confederation and still defend itself from “piracies and felonies on ye high seas” …
My point here is that we have been battling the forces of barbarism from the very beginning. The notion that we can move beyond this paradigm is dangerously utopian — as quixotic as suggesting World War I would be the war to end all wars. (The arc of history may bend toward justice, but let’s not forget that it is a long arc.)
Yet, maybe that’s what President Obama believes? In seeking to explain why the president has seemingly “checked out” of late, Charles Krauthammer suggests that
Obama’s passivity stems from an idea. When Obama says Putin has placed himself on the wrong side of history, he actually believes it. He disdains realpolitik because he believes, in the end, such primitive 19th-century notions as conquest are self-defeating. History sees to their defeat.
“If you believe this,” Krauthammer continues, “then there is no need for forceful, risky U.S. counteractions. Which explains everything since: Obama’s pinprick sanctions; his failure to rally a craven Europe; his refusal to supply Ukraine with weapons.”
If there was ever any doubt, the events of the last couple of weeks should make clear that this is a very dangerous world — as it has always been.
While post-Bush America is still gun-shy about adventurism, I think it’s now clear that the other extremes — moral ambiguity, acceptance of a false equivalence, and appeasement, etc. — are not workable alternatives.