There is an idea out there. Perhaps not a fully formed one. Perhaps more like the whisper of one gusting like a sudden draft through the rafters of the conservative house, causing some to look toward the attic and ask fearfully, "What was that?"A couple things struck me about the strand of thought that Jonah is describing.
This wisp of a notion is simply this: Maybe a Democrat should win in 2008.
Personally, I don’t believe in this poltergeist, at least not yet. But every now and then, I must confess, I do shiver from its touch.
The idea goes something like this: If you believe that the war on terror is real — really real — then you think it is inevitable that more and bloodier conflicts with radical Islam are on the way, regardless of who is in the White House. If the clash of civilizations is afoot, then the issues separating Democrats and Republicans are as pressing as whether the captain of the Titanic is going to have fish or chicken for dinner. There’s a showdown coming. Period. Full stop. My task isn’t to convince you that this view is correct (though I basically believe it is), but merely that it is honestly and firmly held by many on the right and by a comparative handful on the left.
And that’s the problem: Only a handful of people on the Left — and far too few liberals — see radical Islamists as a bigger threat than George W. Bush. Which is why if you really think that we are in an existential conflict with a deadly enemy, there’s a good case for the Democrats to take the reins. Not because Democrats are better, wiser or more responsible about foreign policy. That’s a case for Democrats to make about themselves and certainly not one many on the right believe. No, the argument, felt in places we don’t talk about at cocktail parties (vide A Few Good Men), is that the Democrats have been such irresponsible backseat drivers that they have to be forced to take the wheel to grasp how treacherous the road ahead is....
First, while I think that the (in-aptly named, I believe) War on Terror is serious business and a serious threat to civilization (the prospect of jihadists ending up armed with poison gas, bio-weapons or nukes is not the least bit funny) there's a certain alarmism that strikes me as stemming from lack of historical perspective.
The tides of Islam were a major military threat to Western Civilization for most of the 800+ years from the time when Charles Martel (or in the vulgar tongue: Charlie the Hammer) stopped the Umayyads from extending their Spanish holdings into France till Don John of Austria defeated the Turkish fleet at Lepanto in 1571, marking the beginning of the Ottoman Empire's gradual decline, which slowly turned the Islamic world's reputation in the West from that of a feared enemy to that of an exotic and charming backwater suitable for the collection of objects d'arte and for colonial administration.
That the West for the last four centuries vastly outpaced Dar al Islam in regards to political and technological development did not, however, de-claw the tiger. If anything, it made it resentful. Nor has the culture of the West become more amenable to the ideals of the Koran. Indeed, the modern West must look rather more an enemy than medieval Christendom did, if that is possible. I doubt that the mullas of the middle ages and renaissance saw and feared signs of creeping Westernism among their faithful. Thus, while the presence of infidel kingdoms was always offensive, the modern West must seem a greater threat.
All of which underlines that I do think that the 'War on Terror' is serious business. But I don't think it's new business. Nor do I see it as likely that it will be "won" in any permanent sense in the foreseeable future, short of actions too terrible to contemplate. The best I can envision is that Dar al Islam will achieve sufficient economic prosperity and theological stability that the forces within it which emphasize the "greater jihad" (the internal struggle for one's own perfection in holiness) over the "lesser jihad" (the spread of the faith by means of war) will be able to suppress the forces which prefer open war.
Which in turn brings me back to the question of whether uniting the country in its prosecution of the "War on Terror" should be such an overwhelming consideration in the coming election cycle that conservatives shouldn't mind seeing Hillary or Obama in the white house, if that means that most of the liberal half of the political spectrum will learn that fighting and winning the war is important.
I don't think this line of thinking works for two reasons:
First, I think that even more important than making sure that the West is not defeated ("winning" in the final sense doesn't look like an option to me in the near term) is making sure that the West is something worth saving. There are some very deep open questions right now in America as to what constitutes life, marriage, education, freedom, responsibility and how our religious and philosophical ideals should relate to our public lives. Certainly, the 'culture war' will not be lost in one fell swoop with the entrance of a liberal presidential administration -- but I don't think that losing a battle becomes a good thing simply because it isn't losing a war.
Secondly, I have serious doubts as to whether a liberal president (whom we shall assume for the sake of argument would soon realize that prosecuting the War on Terror was in fact highly important) would actually prove a focal point for uniting the American people in that fight. Rather, I think that we'd see much more vocal isolationism (both political: "it's a local Middle Eastern issue" and moral: "they only hate those godless liberals, it's not our problem") from the more extreme elements of the right, while the liberal base would remain split between those who don't mind a war so long as it is quick, easy and not led by Bush, and those who are against it no matter what.
The only thing that would bring about an FDR-era-like unity would be an attack so severe that 80% of the country would temporarily unite in seeking redress. (And even during WWII, there was more domestic political wrangling than the popular imagination seems to think.) And that temporary unity (as was seen after 9/11) could be achieved under either party -- a Democrat is not required.