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What Is a 'Grand Strategy'?

The other day, I had the pleasure of joining an earnest group of serious thinkers in a freewheeling discussion with Henry Kissinger at a disclosed, but still secure, location at Yale.  The occasion for the discussion was Kissinger’s new book, World Order, a brilliant historical conspectus of the major political dispensations that have imposed, or -- in some lucky places -- merely coaxed order out of the recalcitrant matter that is humanity. 

There is a lot that might be said about World Order, about Henry Kissinger (who is well into his 92nd year), and about the huge topic that is the subject of his latest book: world order, a quality that seems in short supply in these increasingly fraught days.

For now, however, I’d like to focus on discrete subset of that capacious topic.  At one point in the afternoon’s discussion, Kissinger was asked about ISIS, AKA, Islamic State, the newly declared caliphate whose favorite book seems to be Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading.

As my readers surely know, President Obama recently took to the airwaves to scold ISIS.  The problem, as Kissinger and others have pointed out, is that the president’s speech was long on detailing what he was not going to do and rather short on positive statements of policy. As one wag put it, the president’s performance amounted to a reverse Teddy Roosevelt: Talk harshly and carry a soft stick.  That, more or less, was the president’s message.  His tone was plenty bellicose, but his strategy (and remember, just a week before, he admitted that he didn't yet have a strategy for dealing with ISIS) was flaccid.

I doubt that the world can boast a more circumspect diplomat than Henry Kissinger. And yet the former secretary of State was blistering about Obama’s response to public beheadings carried out by Islamic State. No nation, Kissinger observed, can stand by while two of its citizens are brutally and publicly murdered, outrages compounded by the worldwide publicity assured by the circulation of internet videos of the incidents. Such actions must be met by swift and decisive force, obliterating the actors.  But what has Obama actually done? To date, he has authorized a series of pin pricks, a few dozen, low-yield sorties. (Update: "U.S. Launches First Allied Airstrikes to Hit ISIS Targets in Syria.")

That evening, some twenty of us present at Kissinger’s afternoon discussion assembled for dinner and further repartee. Kissinger continued to field and pose questions, and the subject of what to do about Islamic State recurred. Two former diplomats, both of whom worked for President Obama, and whom charity prevents me from identifying, argued that it was extremely difficult to formulate a strategy for dealing with such groups because they were so disparate. What we were dealing with, said one, were “no-state actors” whose behavior proceeded not from any “grand strategy” but from hard-to-discern motives. Boko Haram in Africa was one thing, al Qaeda another, the Taliban something else again, and now we have a group calling itself first al Qaeda in Iraq, then ISIS, then ISIL, and then simply Islamic State. This transnational criminality, they both suggested, was an amorphous if still deadly threat, difficult of definition.

These are the people -- the “folks,” to use one of President Obama’s favorite words -- who are conducting our foreign policy? Let me give these experts a little lesson in world affairs. Possessing a grand strategy does not depend upon being a nation state.  How do I know? I ponder phenomena such as those on the next page.

  • The bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993
  • The American-born “shoe-bomber” who tried to blow up an airliner
  • The bombing of the U.S.S Cole
  • The bombing of a train station in Madrid
  • The bombing of the London subway
  • The 9/11 massacre that brought down the World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon, and resulted in the crash of United 93
  • The bombing of a hotel in Mumbai
  • The bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya
  • The shooting rampage at Ft. Hood
  • The bombing of Pan Am Flight 93
  • The hijacking of an Air France plane in Entebbe
  • The bombing of a nightclub in Bali
  • The “underwear” bomber
  • The bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia
  • The bombing at the Boston Marathon
  • The murder of Chris Stevens and three other Americans at our consulate in Benghazi

Et very much cetera.  What do all of these incidents have in common? Take your time.  If you said, “They were all perpetrated by Muslims,” go to the head of the class but don’t bother applying for a job in the Obama State Department. No, when it comes to atrocities committed by Muslims, the Obama administration has its blinders firmly affixed. It’s strictly see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

The two diplomats at that dinner just couldn’t, or wouldn’t, connect the dots.  To have a “grand strategy” you don’t need a nation state. You need a binding ideology.  And that is precisely what Islam provides. This is something that Andrew McCarthy has forcefully set forth in his book The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America. McCarthy quotes copiously from “An Explanatory Memorandum on the General Strategic Goal for the Group In North America,” a document prepared in 1991 by Muslim Brotherhood operatives working in the United States and  presented by the FBI at a terrorism trial in in 2007. Hows’s this for a “grand strategy”?

The Ikhwan [the Muslim fraternity] must understand that their work in America is a kind of grand jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and “sabotaging” its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all other religions.

A “kind of grand jihad,” bent on “eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within,” “sabotaging” its institutions so that Islam “is made victorious over all other religions.”

I don’t think you need an advance course in hermeneutics to understand what the Muslim Brotherhood was about.  I have no doubt that common or garden variety criminality figures in many radical Islamic movements -- in Boko Haram, for example, with their penchant for kidnapping young girls, or Islamic State with their grotesque and murderous theatrics.  It is depressing, though, to contemplate the puzzlement of these senior State Department officials, infected as they are with the enervating virus of  multicultural all-cultures-are-equal blindness.  The contrast with the forthright recognition of political reality displayed by Henry Kissinger was stark and sobering.

During one of the 2012 presidential debates, Obama, responding to Mitt Romney’s suggestion that Russia might well be America’s “chief geopolitical foe,” quipped that “the 1980s are calling for their foreign policy back.”  In fact, the foreign policy of the 1980s, and those years in the 1970s when Henry Kissigner directed the State Department, are looking better and better.