Ronald Reagan once said, “I do not believe in a fate that will befall us no matter what we do; I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing.”
President Obama, apparently, disagrees with this notion. His statement on the beheading of American journalist James Foley drew mixed reviews (even Chris Matthews was underwhelmed — to say the least), but the most talked about lines were probably the lines implying history only moves in one direction.
“One thing we can all agree on is that a group like ISIL has no place in the 21st century,” he said. “People like [ISIL] ultimately fail. They fail because the future is won by those who build and not destroy,” he continued.
You might think that rhetorically relegating Islamism to the dustbin of history would be popular amongst conservatives. But upon a closer examination, these statements prove problematic.
Part of the problem is that these lines don’t exist in a vacuum. They hearken back to one of his favorite lines, which is the phrase “the wrong side of history.” It gets bandied about a lot these days — and not just by Obama. As Michael Brenden Dougherty wrote at The Week a few months ago:
[W]e’ve heard that the Washington Redskins are on the wrong side of history because of their refusal to change their name. Vladimir Putin, of course, is an enemy of the future. Politicians who are against gay marriage, them too. Even poor Scarlett Johansson is set to fall under the opprobrium of tomorrow.
I guess we can add ISIL to the list?
The implication here is that Islamists are somehow cosmically destined to fail — which might be a clever way of undermining morale — if they actually cared what Obama had to say (or were psychologically spooked by his predictions).
But while it is unlikely our enemies will be deterred, a more realistic danger is that we might actually believe it.
This lets us off the hook, in terms of needing to do anything to stop them. After all, why bother with the blood, sweat, and tears to fight them if they’re predestined losers? (Erick Erickson put it this way: “The truth is the arc of history does not bend on its own. People bend the arc. History bends in the direction of those who fight to bend it.”)
Even assuming Obama is ultimately proven correct, this dismissive worldview doesn’t account for all the carnage that will occur between now and whatever time the arc of history catches up to the bad guys. “The Nazis ultimately did fail,” noted Bill Kristol. “But first they killed 6 million Jews, and caused the deaths of tens of millions of others. And they failed because we and our allies defeated them.”
A while back (long before the ISIL speech) Jonah Goldberg has observed that “the wrong side of history” argument derives from a Hegelian or Marxist worldview. “It was a ‘God is on our side’ argument, minus God,” he wrote.
Well, speaking of God, I would suggest that when it comes to stopping the barbarians, we ought to follow this old advice: “Pray as if everything depended on God, and work as if everything depended on you.”