Will the Show Run America?

The capability of radical Islamist terrorists claiming fealty to ISIS to attack soft targets here has been painfully demonstrated again, this time in the form of 49 dead and 53 wounded in an attack on a gay nightclub in Florida.  The Orlando massacre is now added to ISIS-inspired attacks on Philadelphia (January of this year, 1 police officer shot 3 times); San Bernadino (December 2015, 14 dead, 21 injured); Dallas (May 2015, 1 wounded), New York City (October 2014, hatchet attack on 4 police). The Tsarnaev brothers who killed 3 and wounded 264 in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing also reportedly had ISIS ties.

The Orlando massacre stands as the largest butcher’s bill served on America by Muslim fanatics since 9/11. The question haunting us is whether our leadership has somehow made its own separate peace with this form of death-dealing. Under this view, these attacks hardly appear to be earthquakes tearing at the legitimacy of the American government; they can be managed. President Obama himself has noted as much to his advisors stating that more Americans die in bathtub accidents than at the hands of terrorists.  It is a shockingly deformed understanding of the precarious nature of order within any country.

But body counts aren’t the main measure of threats to the nation.  If they were, Pearl Harbor needn’t have bothered the country that much. After all, only 2,000 and change died during that December 1941 attack. However, Pearl Harbor was immediately understood in its full reality as an attempt to push American naval power in the Pacific all the way back to the coast of California, thereby allowing Japan and the Axis Powers an open forum in Asia for their works.

Today our fleet is intact. Nonetheless, these ISIS-inspired attacks reveal to the American people something even worse, potentially, than the Japanese sunrise attack on Pearl Harbor: their leadership has no strategy for dealing with ISIS save drone warfare and a small buildup of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obviously such actions will not disable ISIS, whose truly global reach includes 90 terrorist attacks and 1,390 deaths outside of Iraq and Syria since June 2014. The administration has stressed that the “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq has been reduced in size. This does not meet the case. Its attacks around the world are succeeding. How much longer until ISIS’s weaponry and tactics become more sophisticated and the body counts become higher? Our leaders appear willing to find out.

Nine years ago, the eminent Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis fretted that American policy towards Islamic terror might conclude in indecision, if not outright intellectual avoidance of the threat that confronts us.  Lewis opens a 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed by comparing Soviet and American responses to Middle Eastern terrorism during the Cold War. Such attacks against the Russians (Lewis can recall only one) were met with “swift and dire” consequences. Terrorist attacks on American personnel and interests in the region were met with visits from anxious diplomats: What have we done to offend you—how can we make things right?

U.S. installations in Lebanon were attacked repeatedly in the 1970s and 1980s with little response by the Americans. However, the one known attempt on Soviet officials, Lewis merely describes, was met with the Soviet answer of kidnapping the family of the group’s leader. The threat of body for body ended with the Soviets being released and likewise the terrorist’s family members.

What kind of tone did this set? Lewis notes that Muslim reluctance to criticize the Soviet Union thereafter ran so deep that officials of Muslim nations fought against the introduction of a U.N. General Assembly Resolution that only “deplored” the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. South Yemen voted against it, Algeria and Libya abstained, and Libya was a no-show while the PLO observer took the occasion to cheer the Soviets on. Lewis further notes that the Soviets already ruled and misruled half a dozen Muslim countries in Asia, yet received little to no criticism.

Deference to the Russians was not unanimous, though. Watching all of this, Lewis observes, was a young, wealthy Saudi, Osama bin Laden, who declared America and the Soviet Union to be the twin enemies of Islam—but the Soviet Union was the more dangerous enemy of the two. It was in this context that the mujahedeen were willing to take American arms and materiel to push the Soviet invaders out of Afghanistan. Note the interesting plan here:  One enemy humiliated by Islamist “freedom fighters” would then cue up another as the next phase of their war opened on the West. Osama bin Laden thought that when war was finally brought to America, Americans would wilt under the pressure owing to their moral and social corruption.

Lewis’ ability to cut through the dense soup of confusion, political, cultural, religious, and otherwise, is evident when he puts this question: what has the West historically represented to Islam? Its chief rival, is the answer. Lewis argues that Islam sees itself in competition with Christianity to “bring salvation to the rest of humankind.” The West embodied this religious obstacle. It explains why Arab nations supported the Nazis— because of their threat to the West. After the defeat of the Third Reich, many of these same countries (though not, as noted, the outsider bin Laden) extended support to the Soviet Union.

The worst part is that bin Laden’s views on a weakened America seemed confirmed, what with attacks on the World Trade Center and on U.S. troops in Somalia in 1993, the Riyadh attack in 1995, and the American embassy attacks in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, with little to no consequences dealt to the jihadis. But a wrench was thrown into the plans when the attack on the World Trade Center was renewed on 9/11. The erasure of that building and bombing of the Pentagon incurred the immediate wrath of American arms. America, as Harold Rood would’ve said, decided to run the show. Lewis cites the obvious fact that after that, there were no terrorist attacks on American soil for a long period of time.

Clearly, the forces of Islamist terror were caught off guard and had to regroup. Unfortunately, what should have been an attempt to inflict maximum carnage on America’s enemies morphed into nation-building and democracy-promotion. American policymakers eventually had their way and ignored the obvious truth that nations fight wars only for their own sake. Our policies in Afghanistan and Iraq became the project of the U.S. government now leading wars for other peoples’ sake.

We gave our enemies the opportunity to regroup, while the deleterious consequences of continuous warfare predictably wafted back into America and hardened domestic political divisions. Who had betrayed whom? And the American people rightly saw all of this for what it was and turned against their government’s policies.

Yet we know that unless our country takes matters into its own hands and inflicts death on ISIS in the most terrible degree we can, such attacks will continue across America.

In this respect, we have to remove ISIS as a threat and as a source of inspiration for future terrorists. We have to run the show by defeating ISIS and the world must watch us do it, as Angelo Codevilla observes. We would do well to act mindfully on what Codevilla has termed the tripod of ISIS power: the Sunni peoples it rules, Sunni states that facilitate its trading needs and supply it with revenue, and its legion of foreign fighters who come to join it. Which leg to destroy first?

Reader Discussion

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on June 15, 2016 at 08:59:52 am

Excellent post. Liberty must be defended. Not only does the Obama administration (and the Democrats generally) lack a strategy for fighting radical Islamic terrorism, they seem to lack the resolve. You are correct to invoke FDR's response to Pearl Harbor. No dithering back then.

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Mark Pulliam
on June 15, 2016 at 09:48:00 am

Nothing more need be said - view our version of a strong leader.


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Image of gabe
on June 15, 2016 at 10:38:57 am

Our current leadership is totally ambivalent about protesting this country. And, a vote for Hillary will only be a vote for the continuation of the criminal destruction of the United States by Obama.

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Jim Michaels
on June 15, 2016 at 10:39:57 am

It should have been "protecting: NOT "protesting".

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Jim Michaels
on June 15, 2016 at 14:58:44 pm

Careful gentlemen, careful.

Among the rationale given by bin Laden for hating the US is our history of violence and inhumanity. He said of our 12 year siege of Iraq that it killed one million innocent Iraqis. Based on that and similar kinds of things he concluded that America must be evil.

I don't believe his number was correct. It was only about half that many lives. (ahem) A lot of those were noted in a UNICEF study at the time of the siege that documented how large numbers of innocent children were dying from water-borne disease when they were weened from the breast. The low estimate I found was about 150,000 deaths. The high was about 500,000. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. (Please, someone, prove these numbers incorrect.)

Add in a bunch of non-infant deaths and the numbers probably go up to the neighborhood of a quarter to a half a million.

Most American can't hear this. We could never do something like that, we prefer to believe. (Then we are surprised when the Iraqis turned on us as soon as Saddam Hussein was removed.)

That's the kind of thing that motivates the radical Islamists.

Are those numbers incorrect, or are we actually a people who collectively equate bathtub deaths to terror attacks?

If those numbers are correct we have an issue to address. If we do not address the issue we will be perpetually demonized by the extremists. We will live in a state of perpetual crisis defense, always arguing an eye for an eye, always demonstrating violence.

Responding with violence while ignoring our side of the issue is just adding fuel to the fire. You first have to cast out the mote in your own eye before removing the beam in your enemy's.

It is absolutely necessary to examine how we came to elect a President who equates bathtub deaths with terror attacks. We must examine how it came to be that we held an entire nation under deadly siege for almost 12 full years. We must examine how it came to be that someone so closely associated with that siege became our Secretary of State and is today a front runner for the presidency.

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Scott Amorian
on June 15, 2016 at 15:26:34 pm

You're extremely naïve if you think Bin Laden declared war on us because of our "deadly siege" of Iraq. He was just helpfully offering the usual suspects in the West a pretext for saying that 9/11 was a case of "the chickens coming home to roost," to quote the current White House occupant's former pastor.

That said, the most effective defense of the US homeland against ISIS would be more likely to emerge from a reexamination of our policies for admitting foreigners into this country, whether temporarily or as residents, than from defeating ISIS in the Middle East (where it would promptly be replaced by other terrorist entities with Internet operations). Which is not to say that it defeating ISIS is not a worthwhile goal. Just that there are better ways of protecting Americans from ISIS at home than engaging its rag-tag fighters on the battlefield.

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on June 15, 2016 at 21:43:46 pm

Outstanding bit of analysis. I am not sure how this all would play out. Is it an arms race of a different kind between us and the Russians to determine who deals with terrorists the harshest? If that's the case Islamists might quickly become as rare as unicorns.

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Bill H
on June 15, 2016 at 21:49:38 pm


I would seek further clarity of these numbers and then add in the impact of the rather wanton destruction of infrastructure throughout Iraq caused by AQ in Irag and its' successors. The US was pretty selective in its' targeting and most strikes had to be approved by JAG lawyers (resulting in the death of a number of American soldiers, BTW).

this is not to dismiss the suffering experienced by ordinary Iraqis but a) these numbers are typically inflated by the Islamists, b) also by the UN agencies which tend to serve as media relations staff for the Islamists and c) one can not forget the "human shield(ing) practiced by AlQaida.

The problem with not "engaging" this ragtag band of 7th century miscreants is that the refusal to engage, or the rather minimalist approach adopted by the Big Zero on a girls bicycle, is that the Islamists take this as proof of American weakness.

Teddy Roosevelt was right: Carry a big stick and swat what needs to be swatted. Instead we have loud proclamations of *red lines* and constant backtracking from those red lines. Obama has a wilted reed (his tired, over-rehearsed ideological rhetoric of denial) with which he aspires to persuade the enemy to do right.

A *CLEVER fellow, isn't he!

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Image of gabe
on June 15, 2016 at 21:51:14 pm

oops, forgot to mention in paragraph #1 that I worked on a number of proposals to actually provide surveillance / defense of this very infrastructure against attack by insurgents, as they were oftentimes called.

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Image of gabe
on June 17, 2016 at 10:15:45 am

I must commend this website for its remarkable range of authors. I see that this post in particular has garnered much praise from our usual customers.

Yet I have to find this neocon mentality about the antithesis of libertarianism. So we should now resort to attacking the innocent family members of alleged terrorists in order to control people? Why stop at terrorists? Should this become a standard part of governing? I'm sure it would be very effective--and apparently that's the sole criteria by which we judge such things.

In contrast, I favor a perspective set forth here. It advocates pretty much the antithesis of Reinsch's view. I cannot commend it highly enough.

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.