Three simple words comprise the motto of the nation’s newest and most powerful aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan: “Peace Through Strength.” The choice of this phrase could scarcely be more appropriate, given that it captures both the purpose of the vessel and the most important legacy of the president whose name she proudly bears.
What is more, the philosophy that guided Ronald Reagan throughout his life and whose practice made the 40th presidency one of this country’s greatest — the proposition that the competent exercise of U.S. power is essential to maintaining international security — remains a formula for guiding U.S. defense and foreign policy in our own time.
At a moment when the nation is in the throes of mourning and nostalgia for our fallen leader, it is easy to forget that this core Reagan principle was once considered wildly controversial. In fact, it took great fortitude and robust leadership to overcome the virulent opposition of those who railed against the costly military build-up and “aggressive” policies in Europe, Afghanistan and Central America.
The history of strenuous opposition to Mr. Reagan’s application of the philosophy of peace through strength for the purpose of ending the “Evil Empire” and liberating its oppressed subjects offers important perspective on the present controversy: President Bush’s determination that, among other things, the liberation of Iraq was required to achieve success against yet another global threat — the use of terrorism to advance political agendas.
One of the most important insights from the previous experience, however, is the importance of being clear about precisely who and what we are up against. Ronald Reagan appreciated that it was necessary — but not sufficient — for U.S. military strength to be rebuilt. He also understood the need to wage a “war of ideas” against the Soviet Union.
Specifically, Mr. Reagan explicitly and repeatedly addressed the odiousness and illegitimacy of Soviet communism, discrediting it in the world’s eyes, demoralizing its proponents and emboldening those who longed to be free of that tyrannical ideology.
In today’s conflict, clarity about our enemy is no less essential.
Most of those wielding terrorism against us, our allies and interests adhere to an ideology every bit as dangerous as that of the Soviet Union. Some have described it as “Islamofascism”; others as communism with a god. While not all who threaten us are Islamists — the radical, intolerant and violently jihadist subsets (both Sunni and Shi’ite) of the Muslim faith — the latter tend to be the best organized, financed and disciplined. And the rest, like Saddam Hussein’s regime, either actively cooperate with the Islamofascists (see Stephen Hayes’ excellent new book, “The Connection: How al Qaeda’s Collaboration with Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America”) or are, at the very least, supportive of their hostility toward us.
The need for a “war of ideas” has been much on the mind of the man charged with securing peace through strength through more obvious means, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. For months, he has been warning that the Islamist recruitment and training pipeline is capable of generating jihadist cannon-fodder faster than U.S. and allied forces can kill them.
According to the Associated Press, in remarks to an international security conference in Singapore on Saturday, he warned that “the United States and its allies are winning some battles in the war against terror but may be losing the broader struggle against Islamic extremism that is terrorism’s source.”
The Pentagon chief observed, “What you have is a civil war in [Islam] where a small minority are trying to hijack it.”
Complicating matters further is the fact that Saudi Arabia — ostensibly one of our most important allies in the war on terrorism — is a significant part of the problem. A featured article in the New York Times, was headlined, “The Saudis fight terror, but not those who wage it.” It reported that “the attempt by some [Saudis] to expose and uproot the ideological and theocratic influences used to justify [terrorist] attacks was suppressed by the religious establishment. … Instead, the official line became that the terrorists were infected with an alien ideology, imported by those who fought in Afghanistan or Chechnya, and that the religion espoused by Saudis is a peaceful one. …’The official religious establishment does not admit there is a problem inside Wahhabism [the state-approved fundamentalist version of Islam] itself,” said …a former radical turned reformer.”
If President Bush is to succeed in defeating Islamofascism as Ronald Reagan defeated Soviet communism, he must not only rebuild and employ effectively U.S. military strength. He must also bring to bear, as Mr. Reagan did, reinvigorated U.S. intelligence capabilities and the panoply of economic, financial and technological assets at our disposal.
But arguably most importantly, he must emulate Mr. Reagan’s war of ideas by countering the Islamist ideology that animates our enemy and powers its ambition to succeed in world domination where godless communism failed.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. held senior Defense Department positions during the Reagan administration. He is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.