Readings — From the November 2009 issue

The War We Can’t Win

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As for the putatively existential challenge posed by Islamic radicalism, that project will prove ultimately to be a self-defeating one. What violent Islamists have on offer—a rejection of modernity that aims to restore the caliphate and unify the ummah—doesn’t sell. In this regard, Iran—its nuclear aspirations the subject of much hand-wringing—offers considerable cause for hope. Much like the Castro revolution that once elicited so much angst in Washington, the Islamic revolution launched in 1979 has failed resoundingly. Observers once feared that the revolution inspired and led by the Ayatollah Khomeini would sweep across the Persian Gulf. In fact, it has accomplished precious little. Within Iran itself, the Islamic republic no longer represents the hopes and aspirations of the Iranian people, as the tens of thousands of protesters who recently filled the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities made evident. Here we see foretold the fate awaiting the revolutionary cause that Osama bin Laden purports to promote.

In short, time is on our side, not on the side of those who proclaim their intention of turning back the clock to the fifteenth century. The ethos of consumption and individual autonomy, privileging the here and now over the eternal, will conquer the Muslim world as surely as it is conquering East Asia and as surely as it has already conquered what was once known as Christendom. It’s the wreckage left in the wake of that conquest that demands our attention. If the United States today has a saving mission, it is to save itself. Speaking in the midst of another unnecessary war back in 1967, Martin Luther King got it exactly right: “Come home, America.” The prophet of that era urged his countrymen to take on “the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.”

Dr. King’s list of evils may need a bit of tweaking—in our own day, the sins requiring expiation number more than three. Yet in his insistence that we first heal ourselves, King remains today the prophet we ignore at our peril. That Barack Obama should fail to realize this qualifies as not only ironic but inexplicable.

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