Europe Slow to Grasp Terrorism

John O’Sullivan argues that the European opposition to American foreign policy in general and the war on terrorism in particular is motivated by a fundamental misunderstanding of events.

Underlying European reactions was the belief that Islamist terrorism was essentially a response to U.S. foreign policy. If that was so, moreover, then Europeans might be spared terrorist attacks if they distanced themselves from U.S. policy.

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The terrorists are fighting the entire non-Islamic world (and what they regard as apostate regimes within the Islamic world) to restore Islamic rule over all the territories over which Islam once held sway. Within that general objective, they have a more specific agenda. Sometimes that agenda is a mirror image of what the West wants — such as proudly wearing Islamic symbols in French schools. On other occasions, it is something entirely mysterious to us — such as restoring East Timor to the House of Islam. But it is an extremely ambitious agenda that includes regaining those parts of Europe — including Spain, Austria and Eastern Europe — that used to be ruled either by the Moors or the Ottoman Empire.

Most of Europe still clings to the Pilger view. As last week’s poll for the German Marshall Fund demonstrated, Europeans are more likely to regard Islamist terrorism as something that the United States invited by such actions as the war on Iraq and less likely to approve of independent and preemptive retaliatory force unless the U.N. OKs it. (Interestingly, the views of most Europeans closely mirrored those of Democrats in the United States.) But this balance of opinion is likely to change as events like Beslan continue to occur. We are at the start of a long war against revolutionary Islamist terrorism — a war akin to those against the French Revolution and against Nazism.

At the start of all such wars those who advocate strong forceful resistance to the revolutionaries — men such as Burke and Churchill — are seen as extreme, unreasonable and too violent in their proposed solutions. Most politicians believe that the revolution can be appeased or that the revolutionaries can be directed to other nations and their own spared. But the Burkes and Churchills gradually convert others to their point of view when it becomes clear that the aims of the revolutionaries are essentially limitless, that they can be diverted only temporarily, and that nations under attack must therefore hang together or hang separately. Americans learned this lesson early because Sept. 11 was plainly directed at them. Europeans will learn it in the future as it becomes clear that Sept. 11 was the first installment of an attack on the entire West.

I expect that O’Sullivan is largely correct. While it is true that Osama bin Laden and others are partially motivated by American foreign policy, the conflict is more fundamental than that. Because U.S. foreign policy is shaped by U.S. national interests and our worldview–which are generally in diametric opposition to those of the Islamists–changing our foreign policy in such a way as to accomodate the terrorists would be to fundamentally change who we are. That’s too high a price to pay, even though the alternative is a war that will cost thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of American lives. The Europeans are going to have to learn the hard way, as did we, that those are their options as well. Once they do, I suspect they’ll make the same calculation.

FILED UNDER: Europe, Terrorism
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.