Weighing the Enemies: Soviets Versus Islamists
The Cold War was the Great Civil War of Western Civilization — exactly like the Thirty Years War, only greater in scope. If the Russians had won, Western Civ would have gone on as before. Only, you know, a lot more repressed and a lot less rich. As it is, the West did win, and Russia is as Russia was except for that whiff of freedom they enjoy.
And if the West were to succumb to Islamic Fascism?
(Take a moment here to shudder.)
To begin with, I disagree strongly that the Russians are part of the West. As Samuel Huntington rightly noted, they didn’t have a Protestant Reformation or an Enlightenment, rather key parts of what made Western Civilization Western Civilization.* A wag once said the Soviets were essentially Upper Volta with nuclear weapons. While that overstates things more than a little, the observation carried an essential truth.
In comparative terms, though, Steve’s right that we had a lot more in common with the Soviets/Russians than with the Islamists. The former was a much more highly educated culture, technically modern at a societal if not cultural level, and imbued with Christian concepts of right and wrong.
There’s a minor problem, though, with the argument: It is simply inconceivable that the Islamists will defeat us militarily, let alone impose their culture on us. As scary as Bin Laden and company are, they are not going to amass an arsenal of nuclear weapons capable of annihiliting the planet many times over.
In hindsight, the only way we’d have lost to the Soviets was through nuclear holocaust. They were simply no match for us in the things that matter in conventional war, a strong economy and a highly trained, technologically advanced force. But that actually made threat of a war between the two superpowers excalating to a nuclear conflagration a near certainty if war ignited.
Indeed, the only way that the Islamists are scarier than the Soviets is intention. Few believed that the Russians had any desire to wipe us out. Expand their sphere of influence and convert us to their ways? Sure. Mass murder? Not so much. Conversely, there’s not much doubt that Osama and company would hit the button without hesitation had they the means.
Since they don’t and won’t, however, they’re not an existential threat, merely a very annoying one.
UPDATE: After a comment and email exchange with EnnuiPundit I realize that I should probably have placed the “annoying” in the context of “compared to the prospect of nuclear annihilation the Cold War offered.” Mass murder, perhaps involving dirty bombs, is no small inconvenience.
UPDATE: John Mueller had an interesting piece related to this matter at Cato Unbound yesterday, reflecting on how safe we are/aren’t five years after 9/11. A key passage:
The United States is unlikely to be toppled by dramatic acts of terrorist destruction, even extreme ones. As it happens, officials estimated for a while last year that Hurricane Katrina had inflicted 10,000 deaths—the tolerance level set by General Myers. Although this, of course, was not a terrorist act, there were no indications whatever that, while catastrophic for the hurricane victims themselves, the way of life of the rest of the nation would be notably done away with by such a disaster. It is also easy to imagine scenarios in which 10,000 would have been killed on September 11—if the planes had hit the World Trade Center later in the day when more people were at work for example—and indeed, early estimates at the time were much higher than 3000. Any death is tragic, but it is hardly likely that a substantially higher loss on 9/11 would have necessarily have triggered societal suicide.
We already absorb a great deal of tragedy and unpleasantness and still manage to survive. We live with a considerable quantity of crime, and the United States regularly loses 40,000 lives each year in automobile accidents. Moreover, countries have endured massive, sudden catastrophes without collapsing. In 1990 and then again in 2003, Iran suffered earthquakes that nearly instantly killed some 35,000 in each case. The tsunami that hit Indonesia and elsewhere in 2004 killed several times that many. But the countries have clearly survived these disasters: they constitute major tragedies, of course, but they hardly proved to be “existential” ones.
Thus the country can readily absorb considerable damage if necessary, and it has outlasted far more potent threats in the past. To suggest otherwise is to express contempt for America’s capacity to deal with adversity.
via Radley Balko, who observes, “The terrorism threat isn’t existential. The only way terrorists can “alter our way of life” is if they can provoke us into doing it ourselves.”
UPDATE: Perhaps Russia is becoming Western faster than I thought: Madonna Set to Ride the Cross in Moscow Tonight
*UPDATE/Footnote: Some excerpts from Huntington’s controversial 1993 Foreign Affairs essay, “Clash of Civilizations,” later expanded into a book, are in order. While many, myself included, have challenged many of Huntington’s conclusions, his concise summary in section IV, “THE FAULT LINES BETWEEN CIVILIZATIONS,” is largely undisputed.
As the ideological division of Europe has disappeared, the cultural division of Europe between Western Christianity, on the one hand, and Orthodox Christianity and Islam, on the other, has reemerged. The most significant dividing line in Europe, as William Wallace has suggested, may well be the eastern boundary of Western Christianity in the year 1500. This line runs along what are now the boundaries between Finland and Russia and between the Baltic states and Russia, cuts through Belarus and Ukraine separating the more Catholic western Ukraine from Orthodox eastern Ukraine, swings westward separating Transylvania from the rest of Romania, and then goes through Yugoslavia almost exactly along the line now separating Croatia and Slovenia from the rest of Yugoslavia. In the Balkans this line, of course, coincides with the historic boundary between the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires. The peoples to the north and west of this line are Protestant or Catholic; they shared the common experiences of European history — feudalism, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution; they are generally economically better off than the peoples to the east; and they may now look forward to increasing involvement in a common European economy and to the consolidation of democratic political systems. The peoples to the east and south of this line are Orthodox or Muslim; they historically belonged to the Ottoman or Tsarist empires and were only lightly touched by the shaping events in the rest of Europe; they are generally less advanced economically; they seem much less likely to develop stable democratic political systems. The Velvet Curtain of culture has replaced the Iron Curtain of ideology as the most significant dividing line in Europe. As the events in Yugoslavia show, it is not only a line of difference; it is also at times a line of bloody conflict.
This centuries-old military interaction between the West and Islam is unlikely to decline. It could become more virulent. The Gulf War left some Arabs feeling proud that Saddam Hussein had attacked Israel and stood up to the West. It also left many feeling humiliated and resentful of the West’s military presence in the Persian Gulf, the West’s overwhelming military dominance, and their apparent inability to shape their own destiny. Many Arab countries, in addition to the oil exporters, are reaching levels of economic and social development where autocratic forms of government become inappropriate and efforts to introduce democracy become stronger. Some openings in Arab political systems have already occurred. The principal beneficiaries of these openings have been Islamist movements. In the Arab world, in short, Western democracy strengthens anti-Western political forces. This may be a passing phenomenon, but it surely complicates relations between Islamic countries and the West.
Those relations are also complicated by demography. The spectacular population growth in Arab countries, particularly in North Africa, has led to increased migration to Western Europe. The movement within Western Europe toward minimizing internal boundaries has sharpened political sensitivities with respect to this development. In Italy, France and Germany, racism is increasingly open, and political reactions and violence against Arab and Turkish migrants have become more intense and more widespread since 1990.
This, written years before the founding of al Qaeda, proved incredibly prescient.
My recollection from Michael Scheuer’s Through Our Enemies Eyes (now boxed up in anticipation of moving to a new house, or I’d check) was that, although Osama and company got organized in the early 1980s as part of the Afghanistan mujahadeen, the group we now know as al Qaeda formed when bin Laden brought together several existing terror groups which aimed its efforts against Arab host governments into one aimed at defeating their common Western enemy.
Regardless, “Clash” was published before anyone had ever heard of al Qaeda.