Religion looms larger over the upcoming American presidential election than at any time since 1960. George W. Bush's born-again Christianity, critics charge, renders him oblivious and uninterested in empirical reality. Worse, that faith leads the President to view himself as G-d's anointed whose judgment cannot be questioned and needs never change in light of shifting circumstances. (A recent New York Times Magazine devotes nearly a dozen pages to these claims, which, incidentally contradict other familiar liberal tropes, such as Bush the helpless captive of Zionists in the Defense Department.)
Yet it was the allegedly rigid Bush who quickly grasped the new world revealed by 9/11. Old strategies of deterrence, he noted, are irrelevant against shadowy terrorist networks with neither territory nor citizens to protect. He understood the relationship between rogue states and terrorist networks: the former offer terrorists the sanctuary, training and technology they need. Finally, Bush realized that the "realist" fetish with stability in the Middle East had only turned the region into a swamp breeding men bent on death and destruction.
Most important, Bush apprehended the theological basis of the battle with radical Islam. His own faith gave him insight into the diabolical power of a deformed Islam.
He understood that there can be no compromise between the lovers of life and the lovers of death (in the mullah's terms), and that the battle between Islamism and the West will be determined as much by will as firepower. Islamists lay claim to every inch of land ever under Moslem control, and seek the imposition of sharia over the entire globe. Those goals are non-negotiable.
Bush, like Ronald Reagan, has been ridiculed for describing enemies as "evil." But how else describe those who behead and gleefully hold aloft the severed heads of "infidels" as a recruiting tool to attract others with the same savage propensities, or regimes that starve millions of their own citizens while developing and transferring nuclear weapons and missiles, or those who gas hundreds of thousands and bury the victims in mass graves.
The terminology of good and evil helps clarify the nature of the struggle. Yet the premises of Bush's foreign policy depend on no article of religious faith. Those premises have been articulated in a series of foreign policy addresses almost Churchillian in their power. (Norman Podhoretz, not usually identified as a Christian fundamentalist, applauds Bush's world view at great length in the September Commentary.)
Meanwhile the President's critics remain trapped by their own religion - what might be called the rationalist folly. "Rationalists" view all people as basically alike - each seeking to maximize his share of the desired goods. That model, however, cannot account for the power of religious belief, positive or negative. It must continue searching for the "real causes" of religious fanaticism - e.g., poverty, Israeli settlements. Since no rational human being seeks death, rationalists cannot comprehend societies that have elevated martyrdom to their highest value.
Teresa Heinz Kerry's sunny prescription for dealing with terrorists expresses the na´ve optimism of rationalism: "The way we live in peace . . . is not by threatening people, is not by showing off your muscles. It's by listening, giving a hand, by being intelligent. . . " Yet expressions of understanding for Islamist terrorists and sympathy for the backwardness of Moslem societies only inspire the Islamists' contempt and further fuel their rage.
Attachment to old paradigms prevented John Kerry from comprehending the meaning of 9/11. "[It] didn't change me much at all," Kerry admits in a October 10 New York Times interview. " He simply placed Al Qaeda into the framework of international crime cartels, with which he was familiar as "a former law enforcement official." His goal, says Kerry, is a return to a pre-9/11 world in which terrorism was no more than a nuisance, like prostitution or illegal gambling.
Kerry's words fully capture the limits of the liberal imagination in the face of faith-driven terrorism. The analogy to crime syndicates is ludicrous. Drug lords may be bad guys, but they are also profit-seekers. Make their business unprofitable and you have defeated them. Not so, theologically-driven terrorists whose goals are unlimited and who do not mind dying to achieve them.
There can be no return to the illusions with which we lived prior to 9/11. Tens of thousands of potential Islamic terrorists, many already living in the West, have access to weapons capable of killing thousands. One or two successful terrorist attacks could plunge the world into depression and turn Western countries into security states.
Defensive measures and a law enforcement approach of rounding up the bad guys will not suffice. The United States has had no success stopping the flow across border of illegal drugs or immigrants, and will be no more able to interdict every terrorist or WMD. Only by taking the war to the terrorists and, in the long run, transforming the societies in which they breed can the West ultimately prevail.
President Bush's religious faith cannot dictate strategy or tactics in the struggle ahead, but, at least, it has helped him recognize the life and death nature of that struggle. Without that recognition no viable strategy can emerge.