Western conservatives need to internalize the lessons of previous policy failures and adjust accordingly.
In a recent statement, the MI5 chief Andre Parker said that Britain is facing the most severe and unprecedented threat of Islamic terrorism. The United Kingdom is seeing “a dramatic upshift in the threat” post attacks in Westminster, Manchester, on the London Bridge, per the spy chief. He added, “That threat is multi-dimensional, evolving rapidly and operating at a scale and pace we’ve not seen before.” Within days, New York faced a terror attack, which followed the same modus operandi of attacks in Sweden, Germany, the UK, and France, from a self-radicalized jihadist with allegiance to the Islamic State. The estimated combined number of jihadists and other sympathizers with Islamism, their complicit families, as well as socio-cultural fronts and apologists in Europe, would total well over five World War II-sized army divisions. They share the character of an underground simmering insurgency, and they’re waging an all-out cultural war. Needless to mention, all of this has profound implications for U.S. strategic interests.
The challenge comes at a time when the British Metropolitan Police are under sustained strain from Islamic terrorism and funding cuts. They’ve been forced to stop investigating specific crimes, such as burglary and assault. Curiously, though, the police have time, manpower, and money to investigate the arbitrary and inflated crime of online abuse, which is essentially someone being mean to another the Internet. The authorities also have the time and resources to promote LGBT rights and anti-slavery campaigns—which, whatever the merits or demerits of such campaigns, have nothing to do policing duties.
These facts speak volumes about the decades of failed strategies and priorities when it comes to advancing sound foreign policy and battling domestic Islamist terrorism. It is doubly unfortunate these failures have compounded under successive (nominally) conservative governments, which are supposedly more realist, prudent, and restrained. Conservatives, after all, belong to the party of law and order—don’t they? Recent history calls that notion into question. On closer examination, we can see how Western conservatives have deviated from the two most sacred goals of conservatism: providing security to citizens and maintaining strict law and order.
The Roots of Conservative Prudence in Foreign Policy
Before 9/11, India, Israel, China, and Russia, all—at one point or another—warned of an “arc of instability” from Tunisia to Afghanistan. No one paid attention to these warnings, especially in Western Europe and the Americas, simply because the Islamist threat never looked that real from a distance. On the eve of the 9/11, a handful of ideologically motivated insurgents planned to bring the world’s biggest economy to the ground, 12 years after “History” had been declared over. As Kevin Williamson pointed out, Islamists had other ideas and a completely different interpretation of their own history. In retaliation, the globe’s only hegemon at that time did what every hegemon has done since antiquity: give in to utopian emotions, disregard rationality, prudence, restraint, and logic, and go after the wrong enemy, in the wrong way, and overstretch herself to decline. Britain followed America, particularly in the now discredited misadventure in Libya, which ravaged an entire coastline, and turned Libya into a people smuggling, slave trading, and terrorism hub. It was belatedly regarded as a colossal foreign policy blunder, by a bipartisan parliamentary committee.
In strictly geopolitical grand strategy terms, the West never fought a “war on terror.” It fought, arguably, a war on “tyrants.” The “tyrants” in this case, are any and everyone that the broadly soft-liberal/utopian consensus of the Western political and media class deemed evil. In repeated misadventures, which defies the prudent bias for status quo and inertia, as well as realist foreign policy research, secular authoritarians such as Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, and Bashar al-Assad, (who would probably be considered a realpolitik ally by the likes of Lord Palmerston, Hans Morgenthau, or even Henry Kissinger, against outright Jihadist chaos) faced the wrath of democracy boosters and nation builders. More confusion was created with more power vacuums, filled by more and more tribalistic and jihadist forces.
Jihadism at home didn’t go away, either. Instead it took the typical characteristics of an insurgency, with combatants and fighters, along with NGOs, think tanks, and apologists in media. Fact is, the research shows lone wolves are a myth. Jihadists are not alone, and quite possibly act with the support or at least tacit knowledge of their family members. Jihadism is also unique for one single religion, the name of which is taboo in civilized post-enlightenment Western societies. And finally, unchecked migration to Western nations is one of the fundamental results of interventionism abroad, and is one of the fundamental causes of changing Western society as we know it, including far-reaching effects on the rule of law, equality for women, and social engineering resulting in a far-right backlash.
If we believe the MI5 assessment—and there is no reason why we shouldn’t—the West needs a complete recalibration of how it views the terrorism problem. Modern Western justice systems are not based on the principles of punitive deterrence, but of rehabilitation and protecting the rights of perpetrators. That approach has obviously failed, as is evident from the rejoining of jihadist causes by former jailed inmates. In reality, Europe and the Americas face a slow-burning insurgency, with sleeper cells in every major Western city, as well as benign cultural fronts and apologists in media, mosques, and special-interest groups. To tackle that, we need far more than reversing funding cuts. Instead, we need to redirect resources and manpower, which in practice would mean squandering fewer dollars on policing inane online abuse; fewer rainbow colored police cars; and a return to more classical methods of handling insurgencies (community infiltration and surveillance, and more cops on the beat). We also need more punitive deterrence, fewer utopian foreign misadventures, and stricter domestic law enforcement.
Lessons from Failed Policies
The lesson of politics remains that stability and order are better than chaos, both at home and abroad. Every region on this planet is unique. The solution to particular local challenges does not lie with global institutions. In fact, if the latest research is to be believed, human rights-based approaches will always prove to be inadequate counterinsurgency responses. Powers, regardless of political ideology, balance against threats, and the simmering threat to civilized life today is still Islamic jihadism, simply because it is asymmetric and unpredictable. One can talk about Sino-American competition, or a revanchist Russia in Europe, but everyone knows that the policymakers of these powers are rational individuals, who don’t want just to kill people for the sake of it.
That same rationality is not applicable for Western jihadists or their families, with proven loyalty demonstrated towards an extranational caliphate and ideology, which, regardless of their social or economic backgrounds, just wants to cleanse their host society of infidel blood.
Finally, great powers should learn from this American imperial overstretch, that the burden of an idealist crusade of changing the world and global hegemony usually fails, and that alliances, are important and, at times, even alliances with nation states not strictly from our own preferred set of ideological alignments. Similarly, at home, the primary task of government remains enforcing law and order and the security of taxpayers, and if that is not achieved, an electoral backlash is inevitable.
Almost four hundred years back, in another tumultuous period of European and world history, another man wrote how a Leviathan inevitably rises to bring back order amidst chaos, as society and system reach equilibrium guided by natural laws. If a society turns effete in dealing with visible and subliminal threats, it falls either to more martial forces of conquest from outside, or to forces of subversion from within. Sixteen years from September 11, 2001, and in a post-Brexit, post-Trump world, with Islamist terrorism morphing into a simmering insurgency, we ignore that wisdom at our peril.