For years, Israelis felt that they had been fighting on various fronts against enemies and threats that, if not checked in the Middle East, might hit anywhere else in the world. When in 1986 El Al flight 426 from Rome to Tel Aviv was hijacked and diverted by Palestinian terrorists to Algiers, Israel learned the lessons and made El Al the safest airline in the world, regardless of costs.
Unfortunately, terrorism in the skies was not fought and uprooted with the same resilience by everybody else, and the rest — 9/11 — is history.
Today, the free world is shocked once again by the savagery of radical Islam, manifested this time by the televised beheading of two American journalists. Confronted by the barbaric rampage of
the Islamic State, the leader of the free world, President Obama, seems helpless. In his press conference on the IS and Iraq (June 19), he said that “you don’t play whack-a-mole wherever these terrorist organizations may pop up.” Then came his later, telling remark, “We don’t have a strategy yet.”
It is unfair to rush to criticize President Obama on his confusion. He had run for presidency on the ticket of pulling U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, and kept his word. Much of the troubles in Iraq and Syria today are the products of the ill-advised war on Iraq, launched by his predecessor (For the record: I supported the war at the time. I was wrong). When he said he was poised on “not doing stupid stufff,” he probably referred to the Iraq War, which had broken that country to pieces and unleashed the radical Islamist groups, which had been suppressed before by Saddam Hussein.
However, the president has committed his own follies in the Middle East, first with his meaningless “Engaging Islam” message, which only threw people in this region into confusion; then with his incomprehensible position (or positions?) on the turbulent events in Egypt; and recently, during the Israel-Hamas war, with his administration’s strange attempt to involve Qatar, the sponsor of radical Islam (I know, there is an $11 billion arms deal in the pipeline, but still).
While licking the wounds from all these misfortunes, “not doing stupid stuff” might sound like a wise doctrine; not doing anything, on the other hand, is not an option, even if the new threat of the Islamic State seems too big to handle. There is plenty of historical precedent to a threat to the free world, which at the time seemed undefeatable, but still was crushed: piracy.
Historian Caleb Carr, in his 2002 book, The Lessons of Terror: A History of Fighting Against Civilians, reminds us of the “Barbary Corsairs,” the pirates of the North African shores of the Mediterranean, who had intimidated American shipping. So much so, that according to Dr. Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States and an accomplished historian himself, payments in ransom and tribute to the Barbary states who had hosted the pirates amounted to 20 percent of U.S. government annual expenditures in 1800.
When America had enough of this, a fleet under Stephen Decatur sailed to the Mediterranean in 1815, in the words of Carr, “sinking Barbary ships, killing high Barbary officers and officials, and generally convincing the pirate states that the United States was better left alone.”
Because putting American troops on the ground in Syria and Iraq to uproot the Islamic State is not an option, then the second best strategy is to hit them from the air wherever they are. This is what Israel has been doing to Hamas — an offspring of the same radical Islam. The fact that these people use innocent civilians as human shields makes the task difficult, but not impossible.
Air strikes against the Islamic State militants — today’s pirates — might throw the United States into difficult dilemmas. For example, America might be perceived as helping Syrian President Bashar Assad, who had been for years butchering his own people.
Alas, the choices in our region are not between good and bad, but between bad and worse. The leader of the free world must decide which is the lesser evil.
This piece ran originally in the Miami Herald