Evil did not disappear with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Of course, many enemies of the free world were indeed destroyed when the Iron Curtain fell. Others saw their power and reach greatly reduced.
And some, like a cancer in remission but not entirely eradicated, bided their time and waited for better conditions to return.
Now there are once again enemies not only at the gates, but well inside the gates, and, after 25 years of complacency, Europe is culturally, militarily, and rhetorically unprepared to fight them off.
The beloved European soft power tools of economic and political engagement do not deter or weaken an aggressive dictator like Vladimir Putin—they encourage him.
The openness and charity that represent the great European Union experiment at its best also make it all the more vulnerable to terrorist groups like Islamic State and the disruptive impact of immigrant groups that do not return that openness and charity—or in fact resent it.
During the Cold War the security focus of the European Union and nearly all of its members was external. The Soviet Union was a tangible threat, with an oppressive grip on half the continent, an aggressive ideology, and a massive military and nuclear arsenal.
The existence of an obvious enemy reduced security matters to simple a binary for the E.U. and for the European nations without complicated colonial legacies.
The United States, often via NATO, set the agenda and spent untold fortunes on defense build-up to keep the USSR in check for decades.
Since the latest terror attacks in Paris, the discussion about what to do to prevent another one have been derailed by distractions and dithering.
An immune system that rarely comes into contact with pathogens never gets strong enough to fight off dangerous diseases on its own.
Europeans resent it and are loathe to admit it still, but for decades the United States has functioned as a sort of disinfectant for Europe (and much of Asia), protecting it from threats with the side-effect of allowing Europe’s own immune system to atrophy.
But the United States has been steadily retreating from the world under President Barack Obama, who has over-fulfilled his mandate to be the “anti-George W Bush” that Americans—and most Europeans—felt was needed after a years of painful and costly engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Obama’s policy of American retreat and retrenchment has been in its way as extreme as George W Bush’s interventionist policy was, with security consequences no less dire. This is especially true in Europe, which has been unable to respond coherently or cohesively while facing so many threats. The weakness of Europe’s defense institutions has been rudely exposed.
Angela Merkel has been the vital center through it all, but now faces strong political challenges inside of Germany as well as the usual Euro-skeptics outside. If the grand experiment of Europe is to survive it must adapt to face the new challenges. Waiting and quietly hoping that the next U.S. president will come riding to the rescue on a white horse only perpetuates the condition of willful helplessness. Plus, Obama still has 14 months in office, a span that looks to become increasingly perilous.
Since the latest terror attacks in Paris, the discussion about what to do to prevent another one have been derailed by distractions and dithering. Inaction is unacceptable after such an atrocity, but not all action is created equal.
French president Hollande responded with bellicose language that was nearly a battle cry against the ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq responsible for the Paris attack. With bayonet thusly attached, Hollande then charged right into the open arms of Vladimir Putin, whose interests in the world and in Syria are directly opposed to those of France and Europe.
Declaring an alliance does not make it a reality and in this case it is blatantly counterproductive. Putin supports the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad and both are closely allied with Shiite Iran. Announcing collaboration with them immediately tells the region’s Sunni majority that ISIS is their only hope of defense.
This strategy goes directly against the one method we know works against IS and similar groups. The Islamic State was born in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq War, but it had been nearly annihilated by 2008 thanks to the surge of American troops and the U.S.-led coalition finally figuring out that the only way to gain stability was by protecting the Iraqi tribes and local Sunnis in order to undercut extremist recruiting potential. Nobody wants to live under violently repressive mujaheddin regimes if they have a choice. If local Sunnis are safe from predatory governments in Baghdad and Damascus they won’t turn to IS for protection. As soon as the U.S. troops left Iraq the Sunnis were again being slaughtered—and IS quickly rose from the ashes.
This means that while more and more bombing may curtail IS’s expansion, they cannot be defeated as long as Assad is in power in Syria—or what used to be called Syria. The borders imposed on the region by colonial powers to suit their own interests long ago were never going to permit any stability outside of brutal totalitarian regimes like those of Saddam Hussein and the Assad family.
We should acknowledge the real borders of the region, which are sectarian and/or ethnic first, geographic second, and only then political.
Bombing campaigns also play into the hands of the extremists. Such indiscriminate warfare is immoral and it impoverishes and radicalizes the survivors. Destroying Syrian infrastructure also makes it even harder for the millions of refugees to ever return—and most of them must return if Europe is to continue to be Europe in any recognizable form. Opening your heart cannot mean losing your head. The refugees are a symptom, a symptom that will never go away until the source is dealt with. That source is Bashar Assad, allied with Iran and protected by Putin’s Russia. Pretending they are allies for the sake of political PR is vile and absurd.
Putin is delighted to see the shaky European and NATO response to his latest troublemaking. To look like a big boss at home he needs bigger and bigger enemies for his domestic propaganda, and in this regard NATO-member Turkey is an upgrade from Georgia and Ukraine.
Putin will not stop because he cannot stop. He needs constant conflict to justify his eternal hold on power in Russia, especially now that the bottom is falling out of what was left of the Russian economy due to the fall in the price of oil. Another reason Putin is focused in the region, and in stoking IS, is to draw in Saudi Arabia, which would lift oil prices.
And as usual with Putin’s regime, understanding his motives means following the money. Last week the U.S. Treasury Department added several Russian banks and individuals to the sanctions list for facilitating the sale of oil from IS to Assad. (Those sanctioned include Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the president of FIDE, the International Chess Federation.) It is increasingly clear that Obama, Hollande, and other E.U. leaders are acting in a charade when they speak of “Russia’s constructive role” and hope for “a shift in Russia’s calculations in Syria” as President Obama did in Paris on Tuesday.
If a fight is worth fighting it is worth winning. Nearly every E.U. nation has been underpaying its minimum NATO requirement for defense spending for years. That must change immediately. Europe needs a plan of action that addresses the causes of the security crisis, not just its symptoms. There must be unity against aggressors and public acknowledgement that military action abroad can be necessary for security at home.
America is retreating behind its ocean walls, leaving Europe on the front line against terror and the refugees born of terror. Europe must fend for itself and Germany must lead for that to be successful. Germany benefits greatly from globalized trade that requires stability and security. Germans have to understand that their living standards will suffer if the enemies of stability like Putin and IS aren’t stopped.
There is a long list of steps to take, but the first and most important is admitting the problem instead of hoping it will go away on its own. It will not. Europe must admit that there are some challenges that cannot be met with endless dialogue and bureaucracy. It is time to put down the pen and pick up the sword.
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