Editor’s Note: A few weeks ago, Americans were overwhelmingly opposed to war in Middle East. But, after a few beheadings, we Americans, who seem to love war more than almost anyone on Earth (except perhaps the Afghans), are once again ready to fight, or at least ready to send our young people to fight. Of course, John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Dick Cheney never met a war they didn’t like, and can’t wait to see “boots on the ground.” Given the failure of our last two missions in that region, this time around, I’m going to reserve judgment on how smart it would be to declare war on ISIS at this point.


You’d Be Surprised What You Can Live With

 

 

In what seems like déjà vu all over again, Senator John McCain and his personal echo, Lindsey Graham, are insisting that “we have to destroy ISIS.” In 2001, the target was al-Qaida, but the same question persists: “What would victory look like?” Once again, the answer is unclear.

After expending trillions of dollars and enduring thousands of casualties in two long wars, Americans actually feel less safe today, according to the polls, than they did after 9/11. As al-Qaida mutates into more well-funded, dangerous and amoral offshoots, the war on terror has evolved into a game of global Whac-a-Mole, with no end in sight.

 

In an episode of “House” (the best TV drama series ever), a young, idealistic doctor lamented falling in love with her dying husband’s best friend. When an older colleague asked whether she’d slept with him, she replied, “Absolutely not. I couldn’t live with myself.” To this, the more-mature and world-weary doctor answered, “You’d be surprised what you can live with.”

I hate to sound like a glass-half-empty pessimist, but, as I’ve gotten older, I’m constantly surprised what one learns to live with. From never sleeping through the night to owning two pairs of glasses (one of which are bifocals), but still being unable to read the label on my blood pressure pills, the “golden years” aren’t much fun to live with.

In foreign affairs, this is far from the worst of times, but only a Pollyanna isn’t disturbed by the spread of militant Islam. We’ll need to learn to live with it, as we once coexisted with the Soviet “Evil Empire” and its affiliates. And, we’ll need to remember that we won the Cold War not by destroying our enemies, but by waiting them out, until they mutated into their current, somewhat-less-dangerous incarnations.

We can learn from the Israelis, who’ve lived with the barbarians at the gates since 1948. Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and the PLO show no signs of morphing into civilized entities, but anything’s possible. Northern Ireland suffered for decades with murderous sectarian strife, and Irish Catholics and Protestants now live together in relative peace.

The chicken hawks like Dick Cheney can rattle their sabers and pontificate about destroying ISIS, but radical Islam isn’t an army or a country that can be stamped out by bombs or tanks — it’s an ideology. Islam has never played well with others, and Muslims can’t even get along with other Muslims, but, having said that, there are more than a billion of them, and they won’t be converting to something less malignant anytime soon.

Obviously, most Muslims aren’t terrorists, but as radical Islam metastasizes, its spread has scared the hell out of us. Ironically, as we worry about Western recruits to ISIS with U.S. passports bringing terrorism back to the homeland, we’re also apprehensive about foreign travelers bringing back the Ebola virus. There’s no alternative to learning to live with these two plagues, because there exists no real cure for either.

Most so-called “moderate” Arabs will provide little help, because they vacillate between terror and ambivalence toward the Islamists. The loathsome Saudi regime fears the extremists, while providing them funding and ideological support. And there are no hopeful trends on the horizon — the mirage of the Arab Spring has devolved into a nightmare. From Libya to Syria, the region’s now more dangerous than ever. Meanwhile, elections yield governments run by Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Once President Bush succeeded in destabilizing the region, many pundits (myself included) correctly posited we’d one day be nostalgic for Saddam. Most of us already wish Hosni Mubarak still ruled Egypt, and I predict that, one day, we’ll feel wistful for the monstrous Bashar al-Assad. As vile as the Saudi royal family is, the “Arab street” is almost always worse, requiring brutal dictators to keep a lid on the chaos. There are no “good guys” in that part of the world, so the best we can hope for is coexistence with what are the lesser of many evils.

We’re going to have to learn to live in a world in which civilization cohabitates with barbarism, and modern Western culture is affronted by the ranting of religious fanatics. It’s the cost of continuing to cling to primitive belief systems in the 21st century. Historically, the crusades, pogroms, holy wars, inquisitions, jihads and slavery have been the price tag for the comforting promise of paradise that religion offers its adherents.

In the U.S., fundamentalist Christianity has opposed the advance of science, civil rights, marriage equality, education, medicine and women’s rights. In this most religious country in the West, we progressives have had to learn to live with it; however, the incipient ISIS caliphate is fundamentalism on steroids, with fanatical religious brutality not seen since the Crusades. We’re going to be surprised at what we’ll have to live with, from beheadings on TV to terrorists infecting our homeland, because, realistically, there just aren’t enough troops or drones to prevent it.

We’ve been lucky here at home since 9/11, but, after nearly 13 years of the Bush/Obama war on terror, the mission still hasn’t been accomplished, and probably never will be. So, what’s the answer?

I once asked my father-in-law, who’d lived in Beirut, what the solution was to the Mideast crisis. His answer was, “What makes you think there’s a solution?” As we debate going to war in Iraq for the third time, we ought to consider whether this is the lesson we should have learned during our decades of intervention in the region, along with Obama’s caution that we “not do something stupid.”

Not all problems can be resolved, just as not all diseases have cures. But, on the glass-half-full optimistic side, you’d be surprised what you can live with.


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