The western world is full of the distractions that our prosperity and liberal values allow. So much so, that for the most part we forget that we are at war. Then along comes a tragedy like the Paris attacks yesterday night, and for a few days – sometimes even weeks – we remember again about our war.
It is a war like no others before it. It doesn’t often come onto our soil, but it pervades our governments’ and security forces’ actions almost in total. Our military forces are nearly exclusively engaged in military action in the middle east; our security services dedicate the majority of their attention to threats from that same middle east.
But this isn’t just a one-sided military war. It is a culture war too. It is a war of liberalism versus fundamentalism, and the hinterland of this cultural dimension is at the heart of fears about the refugee crisis dominating Europe.
There is no clear resolution. Well, there is no clear resolution that commands political support. On our own domestic front – thrown into stark relief once again by the killing of over 120 innocent Parisians doing nothing more warlike than enjoying the leisure offered by a liberal society – it is an obvious misnomer to equate the killers with a single religion. Their creed is a more nihilistic brand of fundamentalism, and that exists across all religions. These particular fundamentalists are more militarised because their immediate counterparts in the middle east are militarised, but their core opposition to the values of liberalism are not much different from the opposition of any fundamentalist to the values of an individualist, free-thinking society.
So how did liberalism get here? How has a western society, drawing its guiding principles from an ideology which elevates tolerance and individual freedom get to a point where it is in a terrible, almost underground war on its own soil against those who want to dismantle it?
Perhaps the problem originated with the inability of western governments to divorce themselves from an interventionism that has also been part of liberalism. Liberalism shouldn’t be interventionist – or expansionist – but the foreign policies of liberal governments have never quite subscribed to that view. Inevitably perhaps, since governments are the least able to protect themselves against a corruption of power which demands your aggressive defence against known and unknown enemies.
Thus, in the name of defending liberal values, western governments have found themselves at war. And they are finding what true liberals could have told them all along – war is fundamentally destructive of liberal values, both internally and externally.
Externally, in the ways we have seen. The enemies the war has created do come after you, and if they themselves are weak then they come after your weakest element too. IS are a brutal, murderous group governed by an abominable fundamentalist mentality, but compared to the military complexes of the liberal nations they are weak. They win on the ground because our governments have started to hesitate in their use of their own military power. Hesitated too late, alas. So IS attacks in a way that their weakness finds most effective. By taking aim at the ‘soft underbelly’ of western society.
Internally, the threat to liberalism exists because each time an attack takes place, more credibility is given to the idea that governments and their forces should increase their own domestic power.
So has liberalism failed? How do we escape this desperate cycle? There will not be wanting voices to call for greater action in Syria; more bombings of sometimes military and sometimes civilian targets. More boots on the ground. More action in Iraq too perhaps. Maybe Afghanistan. But consider this. The only real path for military success is to engage in a full, total and continuous war until we have utterly decimated and destroyed all the forces arraigned against us; and then to maintain a full military presence to suppress any resurgence of that fundamentalism which militates against us for as long as such feelings might exist.
Read that last bit again and see if it has any likelihood to it whatsoever. Of course it doesn’t. Not even war-based empires like Rome succeeded in such a path for any length of time. But it is the only way of operating if you want to go down the path of military success.
Alternatively, we could try and rescue liberalism and the societies which embrace it by beginning the slow, painful retreat from interventionism. It won’t be easy. The seeds of terrorist opposition that have already been sown are still growing and being harvested, and will be a long time before that soil can finally dry up. There is still a long slog ahead for governments and security services as they seek to protect their societies without reducing them to illiberal states. But if we really want to escape from the cycle of mindless, fundamentalist, random attacks on the innocent of our societies, then we have understand where it has come from. And it came from the failure of liberal governments to fully embrace an ideology that should never have allowed them to send half-hearted military forces into areas they barely understood.