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Phil-osophically Speaking: September 20, 2012

In The Land Of Make Believe

It happened on the 11th anniversary of 9-11, and yet some still cling to the absurdity that violence in Libya where Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were murdered in cold blood was the result of a spontaneous action to some crude YouTube video vilifying the Prophet Muhammad and not the work of al-Qaeda or some other affiliate of the same genre.

When we are children we often play in the world of make-believe. This is entirely natural and is even an affirmative way to prepare ourselves for the realities of adulthood. But living in a world of make believe is unprofitable for adults (ask Walter Mitty), and dangerously foolish for statesmen. The facts are the facts. We live in a country of free speech and that being the case some hateful and nasty things are going to be said about Muhammad, the President of the United States, the Pope, the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. Protesting against those who hatemonger is one thing; but acts of violence are entirely something else. If we are going to adopt an attitude that it’s understandable that the Muslim world (there are now at least 20 Muslim countries where there have been either acts of violence or threats against U.S. Embassies and interests), reacts with homicidal hostility whenever some birdbrain bigot trashes venerated beliefs about the Muslim religion, than we might as well declare open season on Americans.

These Islamic operatives, with certified terrorist credentials, know full well how to exploit a culture where virulent anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism struggle with each other to gain the upper hand. It doesn’t take much to radicalize a pre-disposed population all in the name of religion. It’s why we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that peaceful cooperation between our two worlds is at hand if we would just be more understanding; or that all our problems with Islamic radicalism began with that warmonger George Bush II; or that Muslim hostility toward the United States is rooted in the belligerency of those damn neo-cons.

The Obama Administration and so many in the media at large are so worried about igniting another Middle East war that they fail to realize that their timidity tilts us ever more toward it. In the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the young President John F. Kennedy promised U.S. air support to anti-Castro Cuban exiles during an invasion of Cuba. But when things started to go south followed by a few pointed threats from Soviet Premiere Khrushchev, Kennedy abandoned the exiles. Three months after the aborted invasion, Kennedy met with Khrushchev for a series of private talks in Vienna that turned into a one-man tongue-lashing. Khrushchev, in effect, seized the President of the United States, the leader of the free world, the legendary Camelot himself, by the scruff of the neck and started slapping him about the ears as if he was his daddy. After Kennedy gave a couple of ringing speeches but did nothing else after the Soviets erected the Berlin Wall, Khrushchev thought he had J.F.K’s measure, leading him to order the installation of intermediate-range missiles in western Cuba, 90 miles off the U.S coast. The Kennedy Administration brilliantly blended the iron fist and the velvet glove to defuse that crisis but only at the brink of nuclear war.

What’s instructive about the Cuban missile crisis is not the demonstration of JFK’s military backbone and diplomatic élan, but Kennedy’s past pusillanimity that led to Khrushchev’s miscalculation and almost another World War. Does anyone believe that if Ike Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied forces, was still occupying the Oval Office that Khrushchev would have so badly misbehaved or tried any of this rough stuff with the General that he did with that scrawny PT-109 commander; the non-descript lieutenant who somehow managed to get his little boat and crew lost in the middle of the great big war that led to his well-publicized heroics (Thank you Joseph Kennedy Sr.)? Not a chance; Khrushchev was a bully but he was no fool. So how would it appear to not only our enemies but our allies, that terror-minded thugs can storm and burn our embassies, kill Americans and murder our Ambassador in the streets of Libya with impunity? How would the Mullahs in Iran, intent on building a nuclear bomb, view it?

The news story here is not about whether Mitt Romney violated Senator Arthur Vandenberg’s admonition back in 1945 that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” It’s about the failure of the Arab spring to blossom into a garden of moderation; it’s about the greatest threat of the 21st Century: Islamic radicalism; it’s about having a foreign policy where diplomats and foreign policy specialists act like children pretending that the fascists who are at war with us really aren’t. Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal noted that nearly four years of politely listening to the Muslim world has resulted in the United States being equally despised but considerably less feared.

This is not a summons for us to be like the gunslinger Will Monney in Clint Eastwood’s classic and elegiac Western, Unforgiven, who shot up the entire town as revenge for them stringing up his friend. But it does mean the United States needs to behave like a superpower and not like some oleaginous mendicant asking for alms. Even if one believes that the most extreme elements of the Muslim world are a small minority, one must remember that a motivated few can still do plenty of harm and it’s not Islamophobic to unambiguously say so. So what should we do in this ferment of chaotic instability in a region that is in some respects the crossroads of the world? We can’t disengage, that would only cause more problems than it would cure. Let’s begin with the following:

1. Punch back when hit. Acts of retribution should, if at all possible, be measured and targeted.

2. Support Islamic governments willing to fight extremism; unequivocally withdraw our support from those who don’t.

3. Stop propping up dictators that are reactionary and destructive. Weaponize economic aid both to reward and punish.

4. Do whatever we can to create stable democracies and open markets but don’t be fooled that such institutions will be an aphrodisiac for things Western or a panacea for ancient hatreds.

5. Stop being a nation of Neville Chamberlains. In other words, we should grow up and stop playing in a make believe world of our own liking. In this maddening cauldron of seething suspicions, ignorance and pathological hatemongers it is no more difficult to separate enemies from friends than it is the sheep and the wolves.

Other than the above, I’m open for suggestions.