July 25th was the 70th anniversary of the fall of Mussolini, voted out of office by the Grand Fascist Council, arrested by order of the king, and imprisoned. At first, Italy remained in the war under a military government, but the armed forces were in shambles, the Allies had landed in Sicily, and the new government negotiated an armistice with Eisenhower that was agreed on September 8th. Whereupon, in a matter of days, the Germans occupied most of the country, liberated Mussolini from a mountain top and set him up with a little “republic” in the north, and the battle of Italy was on.
Mussolini had led a mass movement to power, had successfully challenged the dominant superpower of the time (Great Britain), had enjoyed enormous popularity for most of two decades, and had entered the war on the side most military experts expected to win (Nazi Germany). He had every reason to expect to rule Italy for years to come, and to be a major actor on the world stage.
It didn’t work out that way. The Americans were unexpectedly bombed into the war at Pearl Harbor, and created an army and a system of production of weaponry that virtually nobody anticipated. The Germans unexpectedly invaded the Soviet Union as winter approached, its troops unprepared for the terrible weather. Hitler was defeated at Stalingrad. The Allies invaded North Africa, defeated Axis forces, and attacked Italy itself. Thus, July 25th.
This surprising history comes to mind when I read the confident predictions and analyses about the various battlefields in our world today. You couldn’t anticipate the fall of Mussolini — at the hands of men he had appointed to high office — until the surprising and dramatic events took place. Without Pearl Harbor, the United States would not have entered the war and it would most likely have taken a very different course. Without the German invasion at the wrong time, Stalingrad would not have occurred, and the Allied North African campaign might have been delayed, or even lost.
These crucial events, and others like them, were the results of human decisions, and many of them were mistakes. At the end of the day, it was all about winning and losing, and the Axis lost even though Germany and Italy had created wildly popular and successful totalitarian mass movements. And the defeat of the Axis was also the defeat of fascism and Nazism, neither of which plays any significant role anywhere in Europe.
So when I hear some smart people say that the Muslim Brotherhood is not going away, or that Assad is doomed, or that Assad is going to win, I want to say to them, “But we don’t know. It all depends…” Popular mass movements like the Brotherhood can indeed go away, especially if they are defeated. Fascism was once a global movement, but it’s gone, even if some of its evil elements survive here and there. It’s gone because it was defeated, and its claims to represent the future were thereby demonstrated false.
The Brotherhood might be decisively defeated in Egypt. The jihadis might be decisively defeated in Syria. So might Assad, along with his Russian and Iranian defenders. You may think any one of these outcomes is impossible, but impossible things happen all the time. My father delighted in quoting to me a slogan from General Electric in the 1930s: “The difficult we do at once; the impossible takes a little longer.”
As I try to penetrate the fog of the future, I keep reminding myself that we are in a big war, and that the big war is very similar to the Second World War and the Cold War: we are being attacked by a series of countries that support a messianic mass movement. Just as we broke the ideological spine of fascism and Nazism and Communism, we, or others, can do the same to jihadism. Since much of the appeal of such movements rests on the followers’ belief that the future belongs to them, the ideological consequences of defeat are enormous. You can see that in the case of our defeat of Iran and al-Qaeda in Iraq. It became much more difficult for bin Laden and Zawahiri to get waves of new recruits once it became evident that they had no chance to defeat us. Now they’re back, worse than ever, but that’s our fault. We didn’t — and still haven’t — come to grips with the unpleasant fact that it’s a big war, and we’ve got to win it on a big scale, not just in one place (after which we pack up and leave the future to our enemies).
If the jihadis are beaten in Syria, it will be bad news for the Brothers in Egypt. If Iran and Hezbollah are defeated in Syria, it will strengthen the anti-jihadi forces in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. And if Iran should implode, it would gravely weaken their proxies throughout the region, and their “Bolivarian”allies to our south. Etcetera, etcetera, and so forth.
We have skin in all those games, and we have numerous moves available. It may well be that, as the intel guys have been chanting for some time, “there is no good outcome in Syria.” But that’s only if you look at Syria out of the context of the big war. If I had to deliver a two-line recommendation to our strategists, it would be “the road to Damascus leads through Tehran. Support the Iranian opposition.” Without a jihadist regime in Tehran, Assad won’t survive (which is what we say we want, isn’t it?). Without this sort of regime in Tehran, the Egyptian Brothers will be trying to fly in a deflated balloon.
Meanwhile, don’t underestimate the effect of the overthrow of the Brothers in Cairo. They were faced with the biggest demonstration in human history, after all. It behooves us to take note. Very few have. The debate over whether or not it was a “coup” is unworthy of serious people, as coups do not involve upwards of fourteen million angry demonstrators. Some smart “expert” should be trying to sense its effects on the peoples and leaders of the region. I suspect they are quite substantial. For starters, the jihadis’ claim on the future of the world has received a big kick in a very sensitive part of its ideological anatomy.
Remember the 25th of July, and how surprising it was. I fully expect that the world of July 25th, 2016, will be equally surprising. I don’t envy the policy makers, but I do wish they had a better sense of the war we’re in and the urgency of winning it. I don’t expect to see many of them in high office under this commander in chief, which is yet another reason why I anticipate all manner of surprises.