Judging by media coverage over the past few years, it would be easy to assume that the West is locked in a death struggle with radical Islam. Against that view, I want to make two arguments. Although the first is (or should be) strictly non-controversial, the second may be surprising.
To begin, let us agree on the nature of the violent Islamist terror movements, such as ISIS, the Islamic State. ISIS is utterly evil, and its members are criminals, fanatics or psychopaths. Proven membership in the group, or overt support for its goals, should be a criminal offense under international law. A similar status should also be extended to like-minded Islamist terror groups such as al-Qaeda and its affiliates, or Boko Haram. The United States should give appropriate support, both intelligence-related and military, to allies confronting these enemies. It should also offer humanitarian support to the victims of their crimes.
Obviously, such groups constitute a grave problem. But the containment or destruction of these radical Islamist sects should not be the primary goal of US policy. At least in the foreseeable future, none of these movements poses an existential threat to the United States or its allies. “Islam” of any species does not threaten the survival of the United States or of any European nation. Any suggestion to the contrary distracts from much graver and more immediate threats, which demand far more central notice in Western political discourse and media coverage.
ISIS, Qaeda and the rest can inflict severe damage on Western nations through low-level guerrilla attacks, although the odds of repeating mega-terror assaults such as 9-11 are low. They can bring down airliners, they can shoot up malls, they can carry out heinous murders that inflict limitless grief. We have to continue tracking and preventing those menaces, chiefly through intelligence and policing, and by military means where necessary. But to reiterate, such attacks can’t destroy our countries. Crucially, none of these groups has access to weapons of mass destruction, and certainly not to nuclear weapons. For all the hysteria over supposed Iranian threats, it is wildly unlikely that that country will ever obtain any serious number of nukes, and critically, not the means to deliver them. If that ever became a real prospect, it is all but certain that Israel would remove that menace before it ever posed any real danger.
No Western government seems particularly troubled by the fact that one unstable Islamic nation, namely Pakistan, has had nuclear weapons for a quarter century, and that its arsenal is now around a hundred warheads. We live with the fact, as we presumably could with a nuclear Iran.
For the foreseeable future, neither Iran nor any Islamist terror groups threatens the survival of the United States. Nor could any movements or new circumstances that conceivably could arise within the Middle East. Two countries in the world, though, definitely could pose such a danger here and now, namely Russia and China. Russia probably disposes of 1,500 active nuclear weapons, besides another eight thousand in storage, while China has around 250 warheads. Either country has ample military muscle to challenge the US directly on the battlefield, and in extreme circumstances, either could use its nuclear weapons to destroy the United States as a functioning society. Yes, the resulting apocalyptic war would also devastate Russia and/or China, but that prospect offers small consolation.
For over sixty years, the world has lived with such a balance of nuclear terror, and somehow it has managed to avoid cataclysm. Just in the past five years, though, relations with both Russia and China have been profoundly destabilized, and knowledgeable commentators warn of the imminent likelihood of political and military confrontations with Western powers. In neither case, whether with Russia or China, need such tensions lead to actual conflict, and still less to full-scale warfare involving nuclear weapons. But the possibility of such circumstances does exist, and the US government above all should be focused very sharply on averting these dangers.
Neither the Russian regime nor the Chinese wants to provoke the apocalypse, but to differing degrees, their actions are aimed at sparking confrontations with the West. By sane and carefully thought out responses, the US can defuse such situations, but it has to understand exactly what it is dealing with.
In the Russian case, the question is when (not whether) the Putin regime will follow up its successes in Ukraine with a comparable effort to reassert power in former Soviet territories, such as the Baltic states. Might Russian forces use clandestine and irregular forces against one of those independent nations, on the ostensible grounds of defending Russian ethnic minorities? Apart from expanding Russian power, such a move would pose a direct challenge to the United States, the European Union and NATO. For the record, the roster of NATO members includes Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Rumania, and other former members of the Eastern bloc. The US is legally obliged to come to their aid if they are invaded.
So would the West use its military power to defend Lithuania (say) against a Russian stealth invasion? The Russians would calculate that such a response was unlikely – but if they made a mistake, the results would be catastrophic. We could face another European war, with the real chance of further escalation. Just within the past few months, the Russians have run exercises that involved the hypothetical invasion of Poland and the destruction of Warsaw, and all-too-real Russian bombers buzz the coasts of Britain and Ireland. Yet US media pay virtually no attention to such extraordinarily aggressive moves, and far less than to the notional Iranian menace. The national political debate we should be having right now should concern the existence of the NATO Treaty itself, not the future of Iran.
Relations with China raise similar dangers. The US and China are shadow-boxing over control of the South China Sea, where Chinese maritime claims run up against those of several other countries, including Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines. Even more sensitive are territorial conflicts with Japan, involving the tiny Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. The dangers here are not as critically immediate as those in Eastern Europe, but they are severe within the medium term – perhaps within five years or so. The greatest peril is of local naval confrontations escalating into generalized armed conflict.
The US versus Russia and China … almost imperceptibly, the broad shape of international strategic alignments has drifted back to the Kennedy era.
The fact that the world is full of dangerous places and situations is nothing new, and the US remains a very powerful nation with the ability to respond in different regions. But that capacity is not limitless, and resources tasked in one area cannot operate in others. The more the US diplomatic and intelligence worlds are focused on Islamist and terrorist dangers, the less attention they pay to other situations, in Eastern Europe or Eastern Asia. The less knowledge and understanding they have of those situations, the easier it is to make disastrous blunders or miscalculations.
Moreover, public attention and concern represent a limited commodity, which cannot be focused on an infinite range of problems at once. The more time US politicians spend debating the handling of Iran – confrontation or containment? – the less they notice events and threats elsewhere in the world. And the more the US media, and even supposedly well-informed people, come to view radical Islam as the world’s most pressing danger. Which it is not, by any means.
We face a problem of rhetorical escalation. We know easily enough that groups like ISIS are deplorable and lethal, an image that they cultivate highly successfully with their torture porn videos and snuff films. In response, we pile on the condemnations, making them the number one foe, the Ultimate Evil, the worst thing in the world. This is natural and predictable, but we should not take statements as literally true. ISIS is not and never has been the West’s greatest threat, and in any political or military sense, they remain a fleabite. Yet woe betide the legislator or policymaker who tries to put the group in context. Any such attempt attracts charges of being a Pollyanna, or even a fellow-traveler of radical Islam.
Perhaps we should pay more attention to comprehending and preventing international dangers that actually could annihilate us?