The Federalist, by James Poulos, May 31, 2016:
Even today, with the West and Russia edging closer to outright conflict, there’s a simple nostalgia for the Cold War era, when conflict was easier to visualize and manage than it is now. Instead of today’s hellbroth of terror groups, failed states, and warring militias, we faced a single, unified foe, an iron curtain drawn across the middle of the world to cleanly demarcate where we ended and they began.
2016 is the year—as the truth comes out about how last year’s Paris attacks could have happened—that this strangely comforting Cold War myth should die. As the latest revelations about those attacks confirm, today’s world bears much more of a resemblance to the world of the Cold War than we might wish to think—and, somehow, the West must respond accordingly.
History confirms the comparison. Think back. The geopolitically bipolar structure of the Cold War world was just one feature of the threat matrix the West faced. As conventional armies and nuclear arsenals squared off against one another, seeds of the unconventional warfare that bedevils us today had already begun to sprout. Beyond the third-world proxy conflicts and arms shipments that defined the age, the Cold War saw the beginnings of state-sponsored terrorism and infiltration as we know them today.
This Time, It’s Not Different
Many may want to cling to the “clean” Cold War myth for its own sake. But the myth also shores up the entrancing idea that the matrix of conflict jihadist Islam and its allies pose today does not rise to threat level when militant communism straddled the globe.
Circumstantial evidence has suggested to our impressionable minds that it’s different this time. After all, “nobody” really thinks absolutist Islam is a genuine intellectual and emotional competitor to Western life. To be sure, some of the West’s losers and rejects have found themselves in the arms of the Islamic State, or loosely associated with foes who appreciate, if not aid and abet, jihadist gains against the United States and Europe.
But at the height of the Cold War, a host of respectable Westerners believed communism might actually be right and capitalism wrong—whether at the level of ideology or sheer practicality. Because absolutist Islam is so alien and particular, relative to the grand yet familiar abstractions Marx ushered in, we’re apt to think the jihadists and their allies may be able to attack our people and our systems, but they cannot really defeat our civilization.
It’s easy to think this way because we’re so resistant to the prospect of another existential threat to our civilization. It doesn’t just strike people as reasonable that terror attacks won’t rise to the level of catastrophe promised by a strategic nuclear exchange. It strikes them as emotionally correct or necessary—not just because it’s easier to live in a world where a few major cities might be destroyed and not all human life on earth, but because so few people really believe we could actually win a world war against the jihadists and their allies.
If the Soviet Union seemed prohibitively difficult to defeat, at least there was a plan and enough willingness in the West to execute it. Today, it’s psychologically unacceptable for many people to imagine that we’re at acute risk of civilizational defeat yet lack a viable, acceptable blueprint to avoid that fate.
Subterfuge May Be More Effective Than Instant Destruction
Well, it’s time for a wake-up call—even though the head check we need raises the risk that fear and recklessness will increase as a result. As the emerging truth about the Paris attacks shows, the parallels are clear between the “dirty” truth about the Cold War and the dark reality of the state of play in our conflict with international jihadists and their allies. The nexus of state-sponsored terror, subversion, and infiltration established during the Cold War has been reactivated, threatening not just Western people or Western systems but Western civilization itself. We can argue over whether this threat is “existential” or not. Most significant is that it really is a civilization being targeted, on top of people and systems.
Let’s be clear about what this means. In theory, terror, subversion, and infiltration could destroy Western civilization by carrying off a kind of coup on the communist model: you wake up one day and a revolutionary vanguard has seized state power and the means of production. However nightmarish, that’s not the kind of attack on Western civilization we should focus on.
More plausible, more efficient, and more effective is an attack with more limited and devious aims. Much as a Russian spy might opt against killing a victim outright, choosing instead to administer a debilitating but nonlethal dose of poison, jihadists and their allies are now well-positioned to cripple Western civilization, inflicting harm without provoking a true world war the West would eventually win.
This is the lesson we are only now able to learn from Paris. France, in a jihadist proof of concept, is now on the verge of becoming a garrison state. Officials have been reduced to monitoring airport and public transit workers for signs of jihadist activity—or mere sympathy. The French head of intelligence, Patrick Calvar, admitted to Parliament that he expected “a new form of attack” from the Islamic State, “characterized by placing explosive devices in places where there are large crowds and repeating this type of action to create a climate of maximum panic.”
What is new here is not terrorism’s fear factor. Rather, it is the active and passive paralysis that comes from a judgment that one’s society is so badly compromised from the inside that one’s civilization—one’s rights, freedoms, pleasures, celebrations, and moral values—is now inoperable.