A 'Containment' Policy for Islamist Expansionism
by ERIC R. STAAL
January 20, 2011
President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address stands as one of the most definitive speeches in 20th century US foreign policy. In unequivocal terms directed at inspiring international resistance against communism, Kennedy signaled an indefatigable will to stand alongside those who fought for their freedom on other shores:
”we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Thus the new American president committed his country's resources to intervene against foreign powers deemed threatening to freedom. In delivering his words, Kennedy steeped his presidency in what had come to be known as the policy of 'Containment' of Soviet expansionism.
First articulated by George F. Kennan in 1947 and adopted by President Truman, Containment policy became the organizing principle and essential purpose of American foreign policy for the next four and half decades until the end of the Cold War and the ultimate dissolution of the evil empire itself, the Soviet Union.
To use Kennan’s own carefully crafted formulation:
"the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies... Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy, but which cannot be charmed or talked out of existence."
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The policy of Containment underwent many incarnations during the Cold War from the Eisenhower administration's intention to "roll back" Soviet territorial gains, to Nixon's engagement and détente, to Reagan's efforts to negotiate the reduction of nuclear arsenals from a position of overwhelming superiority.
But what was crucial to Containment's effectiveness was the wide array of instruments of power, not simply military force, that was deployed depending on the situation. Examples included political, diplomatic, economic and financial, legal, technical, communication, educational, cultural and other measures. Key aspects of Containment policy were the Marshall Plan, Voice of America radio, political and military alliances, diplomatic efforts through international fora like the UN and other human rights bodies, foreign aid, exchanges and presidential speeches. The point is that all these various efforts were not always simply ad hoc or disjointed but often subordinated to a very clear objective, namely to buy time. That is, a la Kennan's recommendation, Containment policy intended to stop the spread of Communism until such time that the threat itself would run out of steam or even collapse.
What Containment did not mean was bothering to try and eliminate communist ideology as such. Nor did it mean a war against all communists. Karl Marx was not banned reading material, as any Western college student can attest. It obviously did not mean a lack of dialogue or engagement. Nixon went to China, Reagan talked to Gorbachev. But it did mean a line in the sand that any attempt at territorial expansion would be vigorously confronted and stopped.
This article argues that a similar policy of Containment would be the appropriate response to aggressive Islamist expansionism, which is underway across much of the globe. Such a policy response, however, presupposes recognition that Islamist expansionism is a problem, a threat to the “free institutions of the Western world” and one not to “be charmed or talked out of existence.”
To be fair, in the West no such shared view on Islamist expansion exists. If anything, the predominant view is simplistically that Islam is one of the world’s Great Religions, morally equivalent to Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. Western leaders including President Bush and Tony Blair have even trumpeted the propagandist notion of Islam as a “religion of peace.” Others refer to Islam as one of the three Abrahamic faiths.
Essentially, Western leaders have bent over backwards to assure the public that we are not at war with Islam. Fair enough. Obviously a war of such magnitude would be catastrophic for all humanity. But such pronouncements are tripe because a war against Islam is obviously not on the table. Meanwhile, however, we avoid talking about what should be on the table.
According to this mainstream view, Islam is just a religion in need of its own Reformation, an internal process through which its radical elements become moderated and the religion itself becomes subordinated to Western secularism. There are indications that some efforts from within Islam are underway in this regard and there are certainly some leading lights within Islam. A prime example is Zuhdi Jasser’s American Islamic Forum for Democracy.
Such "moderating" influences, however, need reinforcement if they are to succeed against the radical elements taking hold. In the West we do the moderate movement within Islam no favors by failing to take a clearer and more principled stand against Islamist expansionism or by allowing radical elements to pull the wool over our eyes while they stamp out voices of reason. What doesn't help is extending legitimacy to the likes of Yasser Arafat, Hezbollah and Hamas, while being reluctant to even identify the modern problem of terrorism as one that is primarily spawned by Islamism.
Just as there could ultimately be no coexistence between an expansionist Communism bent on world domination and the free institutions of the Western world, we must understand that Islamist expansionism cannot be accommodated or “talked out of existence.”
What makes Containment policy especially compelling in today’s situation is that it was fundamentally designed as a long-term, multidimensional strategy against a multidimensional threat.
Killing Us Softly?
It has been nine years since Islamist crusaders awakened the world to their holy war on 9/11 and to a political force we had had the luxury of ignoring since the demise of the Turkish Ottoman empire. By the only benchmark that counts, i.e. the tally of human death, there has yet to be an effective response.
According to the satirically named website The Religion of Peace, there have been over 16,000 separate acts of terrorism since that fateful September morning. These include the Madrid, London and Bali bombings as well as the tragically typical attacks against Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also included are the attacks not defined as terrorism by President Obama and the Mainstream Media but also deadly, e.g. the Washington sniper early in the decade, the more recent Fort Hood massacre or the mutilation of a Catholic Archbishop in Turkey.
In other words, despite notable successes in foiling some major terrorist plots—the London airliners, the towers in L.A. and Chicago, Mumbai-styled takeovers of multiple European cities—the past decade of supposedly trying to stop the spread of Islamic terrorism has obviously failed.
Conventional wisdom and mainstream apologists like CNN’s Fareed Zakaria and Obama administration officials would say that America’s overreaction to 9/11 with its war in Iraq is to blame. But the simple fact is that law makers around the world have hardly reacted to 9/11 at all.
Other than some half-hearted measures to allow closer surveillance and policing, very little has been done when compared to the continued attacks against Africa, the Middle East, Caucuses, Asia, Europe, Canada and the United States.
And this is despite the fact that for at least the past decade, US and European security and intelligence agencies have known that thousands of individuals, who actively support al Qaeda’s violent jihad against the West, operate uninhibited in their countries.
The recent suicide bombing in Sweden along with the recently foiled Mumbai-styled plots in Europe all show a trend not only toward an increasing number of attacks but toward attacks that will be even more sustained, brazen and bloody—perhaps lasting days at a time and capable of bringing a nano-power like Sweden to its knees. It is hard to conceive many countries are prepared to respond to this type of assault.
The root cause of this failure to respond adequately to Islamic terrorism has been the striking ignorance of the enemy’s objective and of its multifaceted strategy.
The objective is clear. And it is not obtuse demands that Western infidels leave holy lands, or favor Palestinians over Israelis, or don’t draw cartoons or generally be more in tune with the sensitive feelings of terrorists.
The more important objective is to subjugate the West to an Islamic order. And every capitulation is another little victory toward that end, from self-censorship, to recognition of Sharia by Western courts and governments, to acceptance of polygamy, to removing English flags from English prisons, to avoiding history lessons about the holocaust in Western schoolrooms, to tolerating hate speech toward Jews and homosexuals in Western madrassas and mosques.
Muslim terrorists are not demanding coexistence, they are fighting for Islamist expansionism and each accommodation of political, legal, financial and social claims only emboldens the next.
There are strong parallels between the threat today and Soviet expansionism. In the case of the latter, we faced an enemy that increasingly chose proxy wars over direct confrontation. Where there was military engagement, the battles were often asymmetric involving urban warfare and guerrilla tactics. Think of Iran’s arming of Hezbollah and Hamas, alliance with Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, or support for terrorists in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
More to the point, the Soviet Union was active in organizing political movements in the West, even funding Italian and French political parties. Communist functionaries sought to gain influence through academic institutions, legal and court systems, bureaucratic agencies, unions, the media and in other ways.
Today we find terrorist financing for wars throughout Africa, diplomatic efforts by the Organization of Islamic States to restrict freedom of speech through the UN, funding for and Western validation of front groups like the Muslim Students Association in the United Kingdom or the Council on American Islamic Relations in the United States. There are court cases to litigate for special Muslim social privileges—polygamy benefits, the right to force oneself on one's wife in New Jersey, the right of a Florida schoolteacher to receive paid holiday for a trip to Mecca. And the list gets longer by the day.
The strategy is not so much the use of violence as it is the threat of violence to highlight and advance the political and legal agenda of expansionist Islamism. That is why a geopolitical irrelevance such as Sweden can be just as much a target as the United States. The bomb may fail to go off or plot may be foiled, but the territorial claim is staked and the next step in the progression toward Islamization will be more easily approved out of fear of the backlash. Nowhere is safe.
The Islamists are playing for global domination, not cultural recognition or regional hegemony in the Middle East.
A Containment Policy for the 21st Century
This is not the first time we have faced a highly sophisticated enemy with a universalist, messianic ideology and global ambitions.
We need not look to Western scholarly authorities such as Bernard Lewis or Robert Spencer to tell us that Islam is more than simply a religion offering private spiritual guidance to its adherents. One need only look to the Koran itself, the actual history of Islam or the contemporary Islamic world to see the evidence. There can be no doubt about what Islam means for non-Muslims in the places where it achieves power from Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Somalia, Pakistan, Sudan or Turkey.
Islam is a comprehensive spiritual, social, political, economic and legal order that at its core strives for superiority over all other systems, cultures and beliefs. It may be more tolerant in some places than others, but it is always dominant or striving for domination.
There is no more glaringly obvious evidence for this than the fact that there is not a single Muslim country in the world in which religious minorities are fully free to flourish on an equal footing with Muslims. Rather in every Muslim country there is at least repression of Christians, Hindus, Jews and all other religious groups, and that is assuming there is not outright violent persecution. Furthermore, this force is pushing its way into new territories using an entire spectrum of means.
Hence we are today dealing with a very real and powerful force that is as blatantly hostile to human liberty as any we have known since the dawn of the Enlightenment.
What we fundamentally lack is a comprehensive strategy that takes into account the clear and obvious objectives of the enemy and its sophisticated array of tactics. Instead we have a deafening silence and the failure to engage in any real or meaningful sense—whether to buttress nascent freedom movements such as in Iran, to come to the aid of the victims of violence and genocide in places like Nigeria or Sudan, or to raise even the slightest diplomatic “concern” about the persecution of religious minorities in Muslim countries.
In Western countries there is in effect a de facto policy of tolerance for Islamist expansionism, which takes the form of denying material support for freedom movements, persecuted minorities, or regions under assault, while granting political protection and even welfare benefits to extremists who operate freely in Europe and the United States. Western governments can hardly even justify their presence in Afghanistan to their electorates.
Given the number of extremists benefiting from taxpayer support in the West, the US State Department might have to change its definition of countries that it calls “state sponsors of terrorism.”
Unless we are all incrementally to submit to Islamist rule, and the very definition of Islam is “to submit", we must take a sober view of what we are facing and adopt nothing less than a far reaching policy of Containment against the threat of contemporary Islamist expansionism. This would entail the following:
1. international alliances not only for the purpose of disrupting terrorist networks but aimed at preventing further Islamist territorial expansion.
2. massive economic and financial aid for non-Muslim countries, particularly in Africa, that find themselves under steady violent attack by well funded Islamist political movements and militias.
3. restrictions of foreign aid and, where tactically beneficial, even outright economic sanctions against countries that repress religious minorities.
4. diplomatic pressure on all Muslim countries to permit full religious freedom and equality without compromise or condition.
5. immediate military aid for men, women and children suffering from rape, kidnapping, enslavement and murder—particularly in Africa.
6. a comprehensive reform of immigration and asylum policies centered on providing refuge for threatened and persecuted religious minorities from Muslim countries.
7. non-recognition of Sharia in all legal and judicial proceedings along with a reaffirmation of the exclusive sovereignty and constitutional order of any non-Muslim country.
8. an immediate ban on all foreign funding for Islamic schools and so-called religious centers in non-Islamic countries until curricula and teaching can be certified against hate speech, particularly toward homosexuals and Jews, and unless there is full freedom and equality for other religions to worship and proselytize in the country of origin.
9. denial of special privileges in Western countries that are not equally granted to all faiths, cultures and ideologies, e.g. for every Muslim prayer room in a place of work or public institution there must also be a Christian Chapel, Jewish temple, Buddhist shrine, etc.
Essentially the above measures would serve notice that we will accept nothing less than to compete with Islamist political ideology on an equal playing field. In the marketplace for ideas, we are confident that freedom will prevail—that is, as long as it is not extinguished by force.
Contrast the current situation to the above recommendations. Western leaders struggle to pronounce the name of the enemy and remain silent in the face of the persecution of minorities. There is limited assistance at best—whether in military, economic, political or other terms—for countries under assault in Africa, freedom movements in places like Iran or moderate Muslim voices in the West.
The intellectual father of Containment policy against the Soviet Union argued that the goal would be to cause, at a minimum, a “gradual mellowing of Soviet power." We needn’t try to defeat Islamic beliefs and culture themselves but merely to provide sufficient counterforce and resistance to allow competing ideas to flourish, to allow Islamist expansionism in time to collapse under its own weight.
President Obama can transcend partisan politics and get in line with the best American foreign policy traditions of both parties, if he chooses. Or he can go down in history as idly presiding over the beginning of the end of the greatest experiment in human freedom and progress the world has ever known.
Losing this war will have very real consequences that very few people in the West can even fathom. It has been generations since civilians in Western societies have been asked to make any real sacrifice to defend their freedom. Yet that freedom is already being curtailed. Islamists now tell us in the West what cartoons we can draw, what speech we can publish, whom we should elect, how to adjudicate legal proceedings, what we can teach in schools and more.
It is time to stop confirming the Islamists in their radical beliefs that infidels are inferior and to start demanding of them the same respect that they already enjoy from us. The alternative will be the bitter end of liberty and the pain of oppression for all of us.
There must be ‘zero tolerance’ for Islamist expansionism, a line in the sand as clear as the one the free world drew in the Cold War, in order to allow liberty the chance to triumph. We possess the tools, we know how to use them, and we can certainly win, but time is running out.