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In his 1960 pre-election book “The Strategy of Peace,” then-Senator John F. Kennedy writes, “The Middle East today is a monument to Western misunderstanding. During the last eight years the West has ignominiously presided over the liquidation of its power in the whole region, while the U.S.S.R. has gained important footholds. American policy has wavered and wobbled as much, if not more, than any other Western country.”
Kennedy was prescient in his belief that Western misjudgment and abdication in the Middle East carried enormous consequences not only for American policy, but also for the safety and security of the region and the world. Unfortunately, history indeed repeats itself. Today, we are reaping those consequences.
Syria is literally in flames. The Assad regime is still in power, propped up by proxies Iran and Russia, and millions of refugees flee to Europe on a scale not witnessed since World War II. Our $500 million program to train and equip the Syrian rebels was a disaster, and the credibility of American policy still stings as Assad continues to murder civilians after crossing this President’s arbitrary red line. As the world watches Syria burn, Russia has stepped in to gain these “important footholds” that JFK spoke of. Consequently, Putin is now the power broker, and given his geopolitical interests and tactical moves to rid of the Syrian rebels, the consequences of this can only be viewed as bad for U.S. foreign policy.
After the monumental mistake in 2011 to remove all American troops from Iraq, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, now controls large swaths of territory in both Iraq and Syria. As we now know, this group is the epitome of savagery, beheading innocent civilians while declaring their intention to create a radicalized caliphate. Their actions rightfully provoked international outrage, and so the West vowed to ultimately degrade and destroy this terrorist group. President Obama promised to lead an international coalition to destroy the Islamic State, and airstrikes reliably commenced.
But where are we now? Various radical Islamic terrorist proxies are still pervasive across North Africa and parts of the Middle East. As Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson points out, total fatalities due to armed conflict in the world have risen by a factor close to four since 2010, while total fatalities due to terrorism in the world have increased by a factor close to six. Western intelligence currently believes that Islamic State sympathizers in the Sinai bombed a Russian airliner this past October, killing over 200 people. France has become the Western target of choice for terrorism, including three separate terrorist incidents just this year: the tragic shootings at Charlie Hebdo, a gunman’s attempted attack on a French train, and now the massacre in Paris.
Ironically, on the same day President Obama remarked that the Islamic State had been “contained,” its affiliates went on a killing rampage in Paris, bombing a soccer stadium, occupying a concert venue, and randomly terrorizing multiple public places. In the worst attack on French soil since the days of Hitler, over 120 people brutally lost their lives. The consequences of Western inaction were painfully laid bare in the streets of Paris.
So where do we go from here? Above all else, a credible strategy that destroys ISIL must be clearly delineated. Obviously, the current lack of strategy has failed. We can no longer afford to deal fecklessly with the Islamic State. Similar to President Bush after September 11, or Reagan after the 1983 bombings in Beirut, our leaders must now send a clear message that these terrorists will be annihilated.
If the West continues to maintain its current passivity, the Islamic State’s perceived invincibility increases, which acts as a recruitment tool for potential jihadists. More consequential, however, is the widely accepted belief that the next target will be the United States.
When preparing his fellow countrymen for action, President Kennedy often cited Winston Churchill’s admonition: “We shall not escape our dangers by recoiling from them.” History should have taught us that this is a self-evident truth, neither passing nor mitigating through the annals of time. Withdrawal has always only tempted the enemy, and today is no different.
As the ramifications of Western inaction continue to manifest, it is imperative that we start to change sail. It is time for the West, and America in particular, to reclaim the mantle of leadership. Now is the time to act.
Jack Whitfield is a visiting senior at Harvard College from the University of Kentucky.
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