No Exit

The American war, against an enemy whose name we dare not speak, has opened yet another front in Libya. We are not at war with Islam, according to the White House. Still, we now kill Islamists or Muslims on four fronts within dar al Islam; Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and now North Africa. The American predicament has been described as Kafkaesque. A more appropriate analogy might be Sartre.

Jean Paul Sartre is the existentialist who defined hell as "other people." For Americans and Europeans, the "others" all seem to be Muslims these days. In his signature play, No Exit, written during WWII, Sartre put the condemned in a windowless room. There, the guilty must endure the tedious company of other sinners. No hellfire, no brimstone; just the damned; sharing the worst transgressions of their venal lives, torturing each other for eternity.

There are four characters in No Exit: Joseph, Ines, Estelle, and Valet. Joe is an arrogant coward, a military deserter. Ines is a vicious lesbian, a wrecker of homes who relishes cruelty. Estelle is a society girl who marries for money, cheats on her husband, and kills her illegitimate child. The infanticide precipitates the suicide of her lover. Valet is the doorkeeper, a kind of concierge for the doomed.

Slowly the trio of sinners realizes that their personal hell is the companionship of other miscreants. Towards the end of the play Joe screams to be set free -- and the one door in the room flies open. No one moves. None have the courage to leave the hell that they have created for themselves.

Such is the predicament of Europeans and Americans, trapped in four acrid corners of the Muslim world surrounded by insufferable companions. We all know how we got there and we torture ourselves daily with the ugly historical details. We remonstrate endlessly about who made the worst mistakes, yet none of us seems to have a clue about the end game or an exit strategy. In short, the two most advanced cultures on the planet are locked in a cage with the most backward; all trapped in hell of their own making. And like the cowards in Sartre's play, no one has the courage to bolt for the exit. 

There are several keys to the door of Islamist hell. The first is candor, some honest acknowledgment of the problem. No drunk ever gets well without recognizing the ailment. At some point, the West must realize that Islamism is a global strategic problem, not some aggregate of local crimes or series of isolated atrocities.

If the threat were recognized, a next step would be reality therapy. Europe and America have little or nothing in common with Arab, Persian, or Muslim cultures -- and the gap is getting wider. The culture of which we speak includes law, politics, religion, and history. Call it a "clash of civilizations," but the bottom line is basic cultural incompatibility.  Europe and America cannot show a way forward for a Muslim culture that looks backwards.

The nut of the dilemma is captured in a word, Islam: literal and figurative submission. All notions of "peace" or co-existence are derivatives of submission.  And the coin of compromise is Western values and law, not Islamic dogma or doctrine. The conflict between the West and Islam is a strategic zero-sum game. If we continue to delude ourselves about the nature of this struggle, we do so at our peril.

Relinquishing the "white man's burden" is another key to the gates of Islamist hell. In their own ways, maybe Idward Wadi Said, Tariq Ramadan, Tayyip Erdogan, and Yusuf al Qaradawi are correct.  Maybe Europeans and Americans need to stop corrupting, patronizing, and exploiting the Arab and Muslim worlds.  Maybe the West needs to step back and allow the Ummah to solve its own problems, do its own nation building, and suppress their own insurrections.

If we can believe what they say about themselves, the goal of Islamist sects, Shia and Sunni, is some sort of theocratic utopia. The ambiguous homophone, "eutopia," is closer to the mark: good place and no place at the same time.  Surely the West can not save Islam from itself or the inevitable implosion. We probably shouldn't try. 

The nexus of the struggle within the Arab and Muslim worlds is the battle between secular and religious tyranny. The resolution of such dialectics might best be left to history and the natives. Who knows what form of government Muslims will choose after the blood dries? Many on the religious right and secular left seek martyrdom. If the West relinquishes its role as referee, surely the path to the hereafter can be paved with the bones of zealots of both political stripes. In either case, Europe and America do not have any dogs in that fight.

The West cannot judge Muslims, nor should the West submit either.  If Islamists prevail in ongoing, and likely, viral civil wars; so be it. The "Arab awakening" binds the suicidal impulses of the Muslim right and the liberal Christian left. We are assured almost daily, by pressmen and politician alike, that the children of this odd couple will be on the "right side of history." So be it.

If conflict between the civil world and the Ummah then becomes inevitable; so be that too.  A targeting problem is thus simplified.  State actors, especially utopian theocrats, are much easier to dispense with than sub-national terrorists.

Whenever the specter of war with Islam is raised, we are reminded that Muslims are a fourth of the world's population; surely we "can't kill them all" say the appeasers. Instead of worrying about how many assassins need to be killed, we might remind the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Arab League, and the Gulf Cooperation Council that the other three fourths of the world's citizens (Russians, Asians, and Indians for example) might not be as squeamish about Muslim casualties as Europe and America have been. In any state-to-state conflagration, the Ummah has every military vulnerability and precious little capability.

The civil war in Libya provides an illustration. In spite of all their lavish expenditures, the Arab League has neither the will nor capability to mount offensive or defensive military operations -- even when genocide looms. Arab military hardware and infrastructure comes from abroad. Their best air force is a static display and their best land campaign is a parade. Muslim armies, especially those of the Arab League, have two missions; regime support and repression.  Few Arab armies could fight their way out of a harem.

So what is to be done?

Maybe it's time to let Muslims resolve their own problems and let the Arabs, especially, redirect their wealth to positive change instead of horse races, soccer matches, golf tournaments, yachts, and Riviera palaces. Western intervention creates the worst of two worlds in dar al Islam; the ayatollahs, Imams, and autocrats have a convenient goat for any failures -- and the social maturity of Islam is put off for yet another generation.

The only culture in the Levant worth European or American blood or treasure is Israel. Our commitment to the strategic defense of that one model of progress in the Middle East ought to be etched in stone.

For the moment, European and American politicians are frozen like the cowards in Sartre's hell. The excuses of poltroons are real enough: fear, oil, and debt.  Nonetheless, it's hard to believe that inertia will solve any of those problems. In the military arena, political temporizing has infected generals who have lost their nose for success. "What does victory look like?" is a universal refrain. Soldiers who can't smell victory are likely to become experts on defeat.

The choices are clear. We can torture ourselves indefinitely over a past we cannot change and pretend that there are no alternatives or exits -- or we can leave Islam to the fate that all utopian illusions must suffer. Insha' allah!

G. Murphy Donovan is a former USAF Intelligence officer who writes frequently about national security issues.