Twenty years ago, during the Reagan administration, I encountered a young producer at National Public Radio who said she and her husband had decided not to have children because they were convinced they’d die in a nuclear war.
Immediately, I told her, “Please, have children. There’s not going to be a nuclear war.” I have no idea what she did.
Today, I might give the same advice, but not so swiftly. Children born into the 21st century face a far more perilous future than those in the 20th century – partly because adults now seem to lack the courage and wisdom to protect them.
After allowing the Nazis and Japanese to overrun Europe and much of Asia, the civilized world, led by the United States, fought for five years and lost 16 million soldiers (including 407,000 Americans) to conquer the enemy.
Determined to avoid such a catastrophe again, civilization united to resist global communism, and it spent vast treasure to do so for 45 years. In the process, the United States lost 54,000 lives in Korea and 58,000 in Vietnam.
Faced now with a menace from radical Islam, it’s not at all clear that the civilized world has the will to fight. The United States has suffered fewer than 3,000 deaths in Iraq, and already 55 percent of the population wants to withdraw immediately or within a year – regardless of whether the country is stable. Only 41 percent, according to the latest Gallup Poll, are willing to keep troops until the job is done or add more.
It’s true, Iraq is a complicated case. It’s not certain that Saddam Hussein’s regime was part of the war on terrorism when the United States invaded in 2003. He certainly was no Islamic fundamentalist, and his ties to Al Qaeda were tenuous, at best.
Moreover, the Bush administration’s handling of the war is open to sharp criticism. We didn’t commit enough troops to pacify the country and secure ammunition sites, and we let a savage insurgency arise.
On the other hand, there can be no question that Iraq is now the central front in the war on terrorism. And a defeat there would energize Islamic radicals the world over.
Every time jihadists have won a victory – in Lebanon in 1983, Afghanistan in 1989, Somalia in 1993, Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, the USS Cole in 2000, and the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001 – it has energized the movement more, especially when the civilized world’s response has been weak.
A U.S.-led coalition successfully evicted Al Qaeda from Afghanistan and has disrupted its networks, but the jihadist movement has shown resilience, tenacity and reach.
In fact, a reasonable assessment – and this is a dire portent – would be that the forces of darkness are ascendant and those of civilization are in retreat.
The current struggle in the Middle East is a case in point. Israel had withdrawn from Gaza and southern Lebanon, yet its reward was to be attacked by Hamas and Hezbollah, Islamic radical groups bent on Israel’s destruction.
Israel decided that it would eliminate the Hezbollah threat on its northern border to the extent possible, but except for President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, most of the world’s leaders publicly have turned against Israel, even if its action is serving their interests.
The Arab League, aware that Hezbollah is an instrument of Iran’s radical Shiite regime, at first condemned its attack on Israel. Then, as Al-Jazeera broadcast nonstop pictures of civilians killed in Lebanon, Arabs began urging a ceasefire.
The same is true in much of Europe. Worse, France’s foreign minister, visiting Beirut, said, “In the region there is, of course, a country such as Iran – a great country ... which plays a stabilizing role in the region.”
A nuclear-armed Iran and a nuclear-armed North Korea represent the most profound threats of all in the 21st century. And those could be exceeded if Islamic militants gained control of nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Iran’s elected president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has declared that Israel “should be wiped off the face of the earth” and has stated that “a world without America” is “attainable and surely can be achieved.” At the United Nations, he announced that his divine purpose was to prepare the way for the return of the 12th Imam – Shia Islam’s vision of the end of the world.
The civilized world needs to counter the menace of Iran and radical Islam much as it did the Axis powers in World War II and communism during the Cold War.
But it isn’t doing so now.
Israel is doing its part by seeking to administer a decisive defeat to Iran’s agent, Hezbollah, but the world needs to follow up by inserting a robust, willing-to-fight occupation force into southern Lebanon. It’s not clear that the will exists.
The U.N. Security Council is obligated to authorize economic sanctions against Iran in response to its illicit nuclear program, but it’s unlikely that the sanctions will be serious.
No one knows for certain how close Iran is to having a nuclear weapon – some experts say a year, some say five – but there’s a danger that in a short time, it will have the know-how to build one, making actual nuclearization all but inevitable.
Some conservatives advocate early air strikes on Iran’s nuclear installations – by Israel, if not the United States – while liberals hope internal stresses will topple the Islamic regime before it presents a nuclear danger.
There is a middle ground, if it can be pulled off: sanctions so stiff, such as a gasoline embargo that threatens to shut down the Iranian economy, that Iran reverses its nuclear course.
The only way for Bush to sustain that course is with a warning to the civilized world: “I will not leave office with Iran on its way to nuclear weapons. It’s tough sanctions or ...”
There’s a debate under way whether the West-versus-Jihad conflict deserves to be dubbed World War III. Regardless of whether we name it so, we did have our Pearl Harbor on Sept. 11, 2001, and we need to act as if we are at war.
Copyright 2006, Roll Call Newspaper
Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Assn.