American intellectual Will Durant's The Lessons of History—co-written with wife Ariel and published in 1968, when the Soviet Union posed a threat to the United States—still offers insightful lessons, especially concerning American-Muslim relations.
In the chapter titled "History and War," the Durants posit some hypothetical speeches and approaches concerning war. First, an imaginary U.S. president says before the leaders of communist Russia:
If we should follow the usual course of history, we should make war upon you for fear of what you may do a generation hence.... But we are willing to try a new approach. We respect your peoples and your civilizations as among the most creative in history. We shall try to understand your feelings, and your desire to develop your own institutions without fear of attack. We must not allow our mutual fears to lead us into war, for the unparalleled murderousness of our weapons and yours brings into the situation an element unfamiliar in history. We propose to send representatives to join with yours in a persistent conference for the adjustment of our differences, the cessation of hostilities and subversion, and the reduction of our armaments.... Let us open our doors to each other, and organize cultural exchanges that will promote mutual appreciation and understanding.... We pledge our honor before all mankind to enter into this venture in full sincerity and trust. If we lose in the historic gamble, the results could not be worse than those that we may expect from traditional policies. If you and we succeed, we shall merit a place for centuries to come in the grateful memory of mankind.
Once the imaginary president concludes, "the general smiles," write the authors, and retorts:
You have forgotten all the lessons of history and all that nature of man which you described. Some conflicts are too fundamental to be resolved by negotiation; and during the prolonged negotitiations (if history may be our guide) subversion would go on. A world order will come not by a gentlemen's agreement, but through so decisive a victory by one of the great powers that it will be able to dictate and enforce international law, as Rome did from Augustus to Aurelius. Such interludes of widespread peace are unnatural and exceptional; they will soon be ended by changes in the distribution of military power.
Now, consider how well this hypothetical exchange, written in 1968, applies to the current situation between the U.S. and the Muslim world:
First, the "imaginary" president has become all too real, in the person of Barack Obama. Above and beyond his so-called "historic Cairo speech," where he reached out to and cloyingly flattered the Muslim world, everything this man has subsequently said and done—from expunging all references to Islam in U.S. security documents, to ordering NASA to make Muslims "feel good" about themselves—far exceeds the expressed outreach of the imaginary president.
Next, the situation has changed in a way that makes it even more naïve and irrational for the U.S. to be so appeasing of the Islamic world. Whereas the U.S.S.R was a nuclear-armed superpower—making dialogue and cooperation logical, practically risk-free options, since, as the imaginary president concluded in his speech, the alternative was war, anyway—that is not the case with the Islamic world, which is currently militarily inferior, and thus need not be appeased.
Quite the contrary, by giving one's opponent time and freedom, "subversion would go on," as the imaginary general correctly points out, whether Muslim nations like Iran grow to become nuclear powers, or whether Muslims in the West work to subvert their host nations. This threat of subversion is especially apt considering that Islam's own teachings promote subversion and deceitful tactics.
Likewise, the imaginary president's idealistic approach was directed at Russia, which, while communist for several decades, still shared in the Western heritage and worldview, and so may have been better expected to reciprocate and cooperate—certainly more so than the Islamic world, the culture of which is fundamentally alien to such utopian principles expressed by the imaginary president, the utopian principles expressed by Obama. Accordingly, the general's observation, "Some conflicts are too fundamental to be resolved by negotiation," is especially applicable to today's conflict with the Islamic world—a conflict that stretches back some 1400 years.
Even so, as the Durants indicated, no matter how utopian an American president might be, it was a safe assumption (in 1968) that at least America's generals would maintain sobriety. Yet today, that, too, no longer appears to be the case, as naivety and censorship have so thoroughly penetrated the war colleges and intelligence agencies—evinced by a politically-correct Pentagon, an Assistant Defense Secretary for Homeland Defense who absurdly refuses to associate "violent Islamist extremism" as motivating al-Qaeda, and an Intelligence Chief who thinks the Muslim Brotherhood is "largely secular."
What, then, are the "lessons of history"? This: Ideas that were once recognized as overly naïve, put only in the mouths of imaginary characters, have, in the course of half a century, become so mainstream, despite the fact that the political circumstances that may have warranted them then, vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, have changed to make their application now, with the Muslim world, wholly irrational—a sort of slow-motion suicide.
Raymond Ibrahim is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center and an Associate Fellow at the Middle East Forum.