Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Problem with Islam Is Aggressive Scripture, Not Aggressive “Traditionalism.” By Andrew C. McCarthy.

The Problem with Islam Is Aggressive Scripture, Not Aggressive “Traditionalism.” By Andrew C. McCarthy. National Review Online, January 16, 2016.


On the Corner this week, the eminent Jim Talent touted (with some reservations) an essay about “moderate Islam” by Cheryl Bernard. A Rand Institute researcher, she is also a novelist, a defender of war-ravaged cultures, and the wife of Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to post-Taliban (or is it pre-Taliban?) Afghanistan. With due respect to Dr. Bernard, who does much heroic work, I believe the essay highlights what is wrong with Western academic analysis of Islam.

The problem comes into focus in the very title of Senator Talent’s post, “Aggressive Traditionalism.” That is the attribute of Islamic societies that Dr. Bernard blames for the frustration of her high hopes for “moderate Islam.” In truth, however, the challenge Islam poses for moderation is not its tradition; it is Islamic doctrine — the scriptural support for traditional sharia and Islamic supremacist ideology.

I give Bernard credit. She is the unusual strategist who is willing to admit failure — in this instance, of the strategy of promoting “moderate Islam” as the antidote to “radical Islam.” But even this concession goes off the rails: She maintains that the strategy was somehow “basically sensible” despite being “off track in two critical ways.” The real problem, though, is not the two errors she identifies but the fatal flaw she fails to address: The happenstance that there are many moderate Muslims in the world does not imply the existence of a coherent “moderate Islam.” Try as she might, Bernard cannot surmount this doctrinal hurdle by blithely ignoring the centrality of doctrine to a belief system — without it, there is nothing to believe.

But let’s start with the two critical problems she does cite. The first is the matter of defining what a “moderate” is. Bernard concedes that she and other thinkers adopted a definition that was “too simplistic” — meaning, too broad. It made “violence and terrorism” the litmus test for “moderation.” This enabled what she labels “aggressive traditionalists” to masquerade as moderates.

Who are the “aggressive traditionalists”? Muslims who, though nonviolent themselves, “harbor attitudes of hostility and alienation” against non-Muslims. The failure to account for the challenge that “aggressive traditionalism” poses for moderation led to the second flaw Bernard admits: the undermining of “integration” — a reference to Muslim assimilation (or the lack thereof) in the West.

This is fine as far as it goes. In fact, Bernard is quite correct about the main challenge posed by hostile, alienated, integration-resistant Muslims: Even if they are personally nonviolent, the communities they create become “the breeding ground for extremism and the safe harbor for extremists.”

But “extremism” about what? This is the salient question, and it is one Bernard studiously ducks. The error is implicit from the very start of her essay (my italics):
Over the past decade, the prevailing thinking has been that radical Islam is most effectively countered by moderate Islam. The goal was to find religious leaders and scholars and community “influencers” — to use the lingo of the counter-radicalization specialists — who could explain to their followers and to any misguided young people that Islam is a religion of peace, that the term jihad refers mainly to the individual’s personal struggle against temptation and for moral betterment, and that tolerance and interfaith cooperation should prevail.
Plainly, the “prevailing thinking” casually assumes “facts” not only unproven but highly dubious. Bernard takes it as a given not only that there is an easily identifiable “moderate Islam,” but also that this . . . what? . . . doctrine? . . . attitude? . . . is the most effective counter to “radical Islam.”

But what is moderate Islam? She doesn’t say. She maintains that there are countless moderate Muslims who, by her telling, embrace “Western values, modern life and integration.” In fact, she assumes there are so many such Muslims that they constitute the “mainstream” of Islam. Yet, that proposition is not necessarily true even in the West, where Muslims are a minority who might be expected to assimilate into the dominant, non-Muslim culture; and it most certainly is not true in the Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East.

Even worse is Bernard’s assertion — uncritical, and without a hint that there may be a counter-case — “that Islam is a religion of peace, [and] that the term jihad refers mainly to the individual’s personal struggle against temptation and for moral betterment.”

As is the wont of Islam’s Western apologists, Bernard is attempting to shield from examination what most needs examining. Her reliance on the potential of “moderate Islam” to quell “radical Islam” is entirely premised on the conceit that Islam is, in fact, moderate and peaceful. Her assumption that the vast majority of Muslims can be won over (indeed, have already been won over, she seems to say) to Western values is premised on the conceit that those values are universal and, hence, locatable in the core of Islam — such that “tolerance and interfaith cooperation should prevail” because Islam is all for them.

Islam, however, is not a religion of peace. It is a religion of conquest that was spread by the sword. Moreover, it is not only untrue that jihad refers “mainly” to the individual’s internal struggle to live morally; it is also untrue that the Islamic ideal of the moral life is indistinguishable from the Western conception.

To be clear, this is not to say that Islam could not conceivably become peaceful. Nor is it to say that jihad could not be reinterpreted such that a decisive majority of Muslims would accept that its actual primary meaning — namely, holy war to establish Islam’s dominance — has been superseded by the quest for personal betterment. To pull that off, though, will require a huge fight. It cannot be done by inhabiting an alternative universe where it has already been done.

That fight would be over doctrine, the stark omission in Bernard’s analysis. I do not think the omission is an oversight. Note her labeling of faux moderates as “aggressive traditionalists.” Citing “tradition” implies that the backwardness and anti-Western hostility she detects, to her great dismay, is a function of cultural inhibitions. But what she never tells you, and hopes you’ll never ask, is where Islamic culture and traditions come from.

Alas, they are direct consequences of Islamic scripture and sharia, the law derived from scripture. She can’t go there. She wants Islam to be moderate, but its scriptures won’t cooperate. She must rely on tradition and culture because traditions and cultures can and do evolve. Scripture, by contrast, does not — not in Islam as taught by over a millennium’s worth of scholars and accepted by untold millions of Muslims. Mainstream Islam holds that scripture is immutable. The Koran, the center of Islamic life, is deemed the “uncreated word of Allah,” eternal. (See, e.g., Sura 6:115: “The Word of thy Lord doth find its fulfillment in truth and justice: None can change His Words: For He is the one Who heareth and knoweth all.”)

Bernard must blame aggressive traditionalism because if the problem is aggressive doctrine rooted in aggressive scripture, then it’s not changing any time soon — or maybe ever. Moreover, she is not in a position to challenge doctrine and scripture without deeply offending the believers to whom she is appealing. They are taught that any departure from centuries-old scholarly consensus is blasphemy.

The story Dr. Bernard tells of Islamic intransigence in her own Northern Virginia neighborhood is instructive. A Muslim-American friend of hers is a social worker who finds jobs for Muslim immigrants. He lands openings for a group of Somali women in a hospital laundry service; but the women first tell him they must check with their imam, then they turn down the jobs because they will not be allowed to wear their hijabs. The social worker and Bernard are exasperated: Why don’t the women and their adviser grasp that because hijabs could get caught in the machinery and cause injury, there is a “pragmatic reason” for departing from the traditional Islamic norm?

Notice: Bernard never considers, or at least never acknowledges, that there is doctrinal support for every decision the Somalis make: The scriptures instruct Muslims to consult authorities knowledgeable in sharia before embarking on a questionable course of conduct; they instruct Muslim women to wear the veil (particularly in any setting where they will be exposed to men who are not their husbands or close relatives). And while pragmatism suggests to the rational Dr. Bernard and her moderate, Westernized social-worker friend an obvious exception to Islam’s usual clothing rule, mainstream Islam in the Middle East and Somalia admonishes that Western reliance on reason and pragmatism is a form of corruption, a pretext for ignoring religious duty.

Doctrine is the answer to virtually every immoderate instance of aggressive “traditionalism” Bernard complains about: the separation of men from women in the mosque, and the decidedly poorer accommodations (“often unacceptable and even insulting,” as Bernard describes them) to which women are consigned; the separation of the sexes in work and social settings; the instructions not to trust or befriend “unbelievers”; the admonitions to resist adopting Western habits and developing loyalty to Western institutions. There is scriptural support for every one of these injunctions.

From the fact that she has moderate, “modernized” Muslim friends, who do not comport themselves in such “traditional” fashion, Bernard extravagantly deduces that tradition is the problem. She never comes close to grappling with doctrine — i.e., the thing that most devout Muslims believe is what makes them Muslims. The closest she comes is the fleeting observation that her moderate social-worker friend “is a scholar [presumably of Islam] and a professor who emigrated from a conservative Muslim country.” The obvious suggestion is that if he is not troubled by the flouting of traditional Islamic mores, surely there must not be any credible scriptural objection. But if it is relevant that her friend is a scholar, is it not also relevant that there are thousands of other scholars — scholars who actually do Islamic jurisprudence rather than social work for a living — who would opine that sharia requires these traditional behaviors and that it is the social worker who is out of touch?

When Dr. Bernard’s husband, Ambassador Khalilzad, served in Kabul, he midwifed the new Afghan constitution that purported to safeguard Western notions of liberty while simultaneously installing Islam as the state religion and sharia as fundamental law. In short order, Afghanistan put former Muslims who had publicly renounced Islam on capital trial for apostasy. Dr. Khalilzad, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and other Western officials and intellectuals pronounced themselves duly shocked and appalled — notwithstanding that anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Islamic scripture knows that it calls for public apostates to be killed.

To great American embarrassment, the apostates had to be whisked out of the country lest the incompatibility of civil rights and sharia become even more painfully apparent. It is worth acknowledging, however, that what chased them out of Afghanistan was not aggressive traditionalism. It was Islamic doctrine, which simply is not moderate. Looked at doctrinally, the challenge for “moderate Islam” is . . . Islam.

Trump Embodies Jacksonian America’s Long History of Bigotry, Fear, and Hatred. By Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg.

(Credit: Wikimedia/Reuters/Nati Harnik/photo montage by Salon)

We have always been good haters: Our Donald Trump problem goes all the way back to the Founding Fathers. By Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg. Salon, January 16, 2016.

Burstein and Isenberg:

The battle between fear and hope is as old as America. We have always been idealists – and suspicious.

Some days, the poll-manufactured drama of the long and laborious 2016 campaign is presented as though it’s the only development in the life of the planet that’s current and newsworthy. We lose the larger picture. In truth, a super-rich guy’s affront to American values is not really newsworthy, and its currency is equally debatable. Furthermore, despite what you’ve heard, the coming presidential contest is not about one-upmanship; it’s not about little things at all.

As historians, we’ll go so far as to suggest that the culture-warring drums that daily beat are but reverberations of the 18th-century Enlightenment and 19th-century struggles to define America’s moral position in the world. That’s how not far we’ve come in 2016. We are not independent of our cultural inheritance. Americans were always idealists. And always good haters.

Historians are taught to see the present through a long lens. To take one hot-button issue of the here and now–perceptions of immigrants from Mexico and the Islamic world–a student of the past knows that the visceral language used to tar new arrivals as pollutants and regard them en masse as objects of suspicion is as old as our country. In colonial Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin had no patience for Germans who refused to abandon their native language. The Irish, across generations, were despised as simple-minded, argumentative drunks and rabble-rousers. Swarthy southern Europeans and Jews were “filthy”; Chinese were “loathsome” and legislatively prohibited from entering the country.

The list is long. The anti-foreign types in today’s GOP who court the votes of bigots and xenophobes reflect American history. And yet, the story we are taught is that of the Statue of Liberty, and the poor immigrant who saw America as an asylum from persecution. So many politicians credit their honest, hardworking immigrant parents for pointing the way. But what are they leaving out? Answer: historical perspective. Without even knowing it, here is what they are professing: that the United States of America was the one place in the world that enacted the admirable ideals of the Enlightenment. This one statement underlies all claims of American exceptionalism. It is who we wish we were.

The Enlightenment, first and foremost, was a movement conceived for the broad betterment of the human condition, promulgated in an age when the civilized world, so-called, regularly wrought destruction through military adventure. The technology is vastly improved, but that’s where we still are in terms of the ethical dilemmas we confront. War is constant.

A second, highly charged aspect of the Age of Enlightenment was an intellectualization of the reactionary tendencies inherent in organized religion. Traditionally, ministers retained influence and obtained preferential treatment by allying with royal power and the warrior class of aristocrats attached to the authoritarian state. Ordinary people were kept from thinking for themselves, kept from challenging aristocratic prerogatives and the royally sanctioned power structure. In short, popular ignorance kept the powerful safe.

So you see, we’re pretty much in the same place as we debate the role of government and rights of the individual today.

Philosophes challenged existing authority by holding that religion was but one branch of knowledge, imperfectly understood, and subject to science and the law of nature. Miracles and biblical authority belonged to ancient superstition, and had no place in the modern world. The divine right of kings, as a concept, was overthrown. When Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Almighty God hath created the mind free,” he was reflecting at least a century of Enlightenment philosophy emanating from the works of Baruch Spinoza, John Locke and others decrying the willfully blind, self-promoting clerics who ran from rationality and logic.

In the eighteenth century, religious conservatives who resisted the Enlightenment stood against humanistic progress that they insisted was illusory. They felt the rise of the individual conscience in human affairs would bring on chaos and the collapse of moral civilization (as symbolized by the sturdy pillars of church and the royal state). Thus, the grasping leaders who profess belief in abject submission to an all-powerful deity–a deity whose implicit message for humanity such men arrogate to the gyrations of their own minds–have always been able to subordinate worshippers to their “received” message. Why wouldn’t they be comfortable with a tough-talking strongman who courts their bloc of votes? It should come as no surprise that leaders of today’s fundamentalists (in more than one religious sect, mind you) ally themselves with the pro-war/apocalyptic message of the political right wherever they are. They retell stories about the need to smite mortal enemies, so as to better worship God.

In the grandest terms, the Enlightenment contested imperial dominion. Adopting that liberating spirit, progressives of 2016 have effectively reconstituted the moral-intellectual energy of the Enlightenment. They express pride in possibility, in the idea of applying scientific knowledge to the existential challenges of our century; they protest the oppressive power of the large banks and corporations that pay millions to influence government; they place trust in global institutions and cooperative bodies to engage in high-level negotiation, using calm reasoning and respect for difference in order to reduce conflict and minimize the chances of economic catastrophe or world war.

And the reactionaries? Who adopts the role of the unenlightened war-making kings and the ministerial cohort of old? Why, those who have no respect for the liberal intellectual class and their dreams of a world built on collaborative, multi-state organs aimed at a peace-seeking balance of global forces. They prefer a Social Darwinian order, in which the strongest prevail by force of arms. They want Andrew Jackson to be in charge.

Andrew Jackson with the Tennessee Forces on the Hickory Grounds (Ala), 1814. Library of Congress.

He was the epitome of reaction. Everything about Jackson (as a soldier, politician and president) revolved around character assassination. Name calling was his specialty. When he rejected a perspective, he would (in vague terms) recommend punishment at the hands of the people; in opposing a decision, he’d call the decision maker “base and vindictive,” but he never acknowledged himself as vindictive. Retributive justice was his mantra. He demanded “redress” of whatever injuries he felt, and decried every man he saw as a “petty tyrant.” Every political enemy was a “villain.” Defending a coarse vocabulary, he insisted it was the language of “freemen” who know their rights. He made it a habit to judge others’ character while asserting his own virtues with an unshakable self-confidence. And people loved it. He threw caution to the wind. He preferred, as much as possible, to dictate terms. He made good on his threats when he fired his entire cabinet. He most assuredly did not accept criticism. He did not admit mistakes. He regularly promoted yes men. In 1824 and 1828, Jackson’s vocal supporters declared their candidate a man of active energy, and the over-educated President John Quincy Adams a “sedentary” executive–in Trumpian parlance, a low-energy bureaucrat. This week, President Obama remarked that the Trump phenomenon was “nothing new” in American history. He’s right.

Since the Tea Party triumph of 2010, fanatics have shouted obscenities at the industrious thinkers and project engineers whom they associate with the amorphous enemy known as “big government.” In the eighteenth century, the equivalent enemy was “Philosophy.” The question that reactionaries could not effectively answer then or now is: how does blind adherence (dishonestly called “personal freedom” today, when it’s really fear-based tribalism) make things better for anyone?

Even in the lumbering age of sail, a promoter of the Enlightenment was a global citizen, someone who dreamt big. Education and self-cultivation, engines of gentility, were synonymous with personal opposition to dogma. Their idea was that critical thinking among a literary public produces societal change, advancing a community-wide sense of decency. It remains part of the Obama way of thinking too: that thoughtful engagement is not weakness but the definition of responsible republican governance, and preferable to the language of “attack and subdue.”

The countervailing Jacksonian model came with heroic imagery associated with westward expansion. Jackson embraced warfare initiated by the state and violence initiated by the armed individual–both as a proper function of conscience when one anticipated a possible attack. His populist message was laden with bellicosity, if not cruelty. But it resonated because it was predicated on a belief in the essential goodness and innocence underlying the “true” American identity. The Hollywood myth of the frontier hero, forced to commit violent acts to save the world from unreasoning evil, is as alive today as it was when the Indian fighter Andrew Jackson came of age. That America has to protect itself at all costs, using any and all means.

Supporters of Trump, Cruz, Rubio and those who see threats to the homeland coming from all directions are the inheritors of this Jacksonian mindset. They lead with threats. Jackson did so because it came naturally to him as a hardened frontiersman. His language was more than bluster; that of today’s GOP candidates is nothing but. Though they have never been to war or courted danger in any appreciable way, they pretend that their political competitors are weaker than they, and that they know how best to contend with existential threats. Such irresponsible, pandering phoniness is the military equivalent of a preacher insisting that God has instructed him in charting a moral course for society at large.

For those who are responsive to the pandering candidates, the world today is relatable to the lawless Wild West of myth, where the good guy out-shoots the bad guy. It is a useful myth. (And on occasion, it’s true.) Jackson, the first president to arise from outside the elite world of college-educated sons of relative privilege, made America strong, whereas–the way the story went–his predecessors, frilly bewigged eggheads, merely cogitated. The Jacksonian of today promotes conflict, believes in winning at all costs, and insists on peace that is best sustained in social Darwinian terms by retaining preponderant power. And in that world view, those who don’t belong–immigrants who don’t readily appear assimilable–are necessarily suspect.

While the Enlightenment exposed faulty beliefs, it did not preach pacifism but reason. The so-called conservative candidate of today may label the empathetic progressive as weak, but progressives are not utopians either. A Bernie Sanders would not unilaterally disarm, because that defies reason. (No one can talk sense to the irrational dictator of North Korea.) So if the history of the post-Enlightenment teaches anything, it is that peace is sought not by wishing for enlightened communion among culturally distinct states, as desirable as that might be to all who owe their sense of humanity to Enlightenment values; rather, coexistence is based on rationally applied leverage, balances of forces.

Yet even this approach is flawed. The United States, during the Cold War, befriended undemocratic governments, looked the other way at the backwardness and inhumanity of leaders, and rewarded them with arms in return for oil, air bases, etc. As a nation, we have been doing this for so long on the basis of realpolitik that we have to recognize that neither a Democratic or Republican presidency can reverse course easily.

So this is where we are. Where we still are, locked in a 300-year-old battle between fear and hope. For some, discredited forms of knowledge are still considered sacrosanct, because any threat to hallowed tradition is perceived as a threat to a protective order of the world without which the fires of anarchy will consume all. Enlightenment thinkers objected to tyranny over the mind. To consider Biblical stories timeless, universal, and somehow “the holy word of God,” was, they understood, to artificially construct a moment of uniform, universal truth. Rather, the “holy” Bible was a less than intelligible compilation of ideas that animated a narrowly positioned, long-dead people of one very limited part of the world.

An expansive, unfettered liberal arts education dictates against blind allegiance and uniformity, placing historical study for the sake of intellectual advancement alongside empirical energies directed toward improving humanity’s lot. Cross-cultural communication and the evidence-based questioning of old ways are the very definition of enlightened modernity, while an unquestioning acceptance of rigid ideologies only stands in the way of new possibilities.

We have the world we do today because the change we want happens very, very slowly and in select places only. The Enlightenment set the course for Obama-style hope and change. But in spite of the general, imperfect direction pursued by America’s founders, responsive to the Enlightenment, reactive forces continue to limit choice and promote authoritarianism. The suspicion-laden Jackson model (commanding obedience from lesser peoples) makes America’s delusive neo-populists appear in the eyes of others as hubristic, hypocritical, contemptuous, gun-toting moralists.

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are professors of history at Louisiana State University and coauthors of "Madison and Jefferson" (Random House). Follow them on Twitter @andyandnancy.

This is a typical attack by liberal progressive academics on Jacksonian America, its people, its values, and the Jacksonian style of leadership. It reflects the widening gap between the liberal progressive elites and the Jacksonian populist/conservative public which responds to leaders like Trump. Burstein is also the author of The Passions of Andrew Jackson, which has very little good to say about Old Hickory.

Europe’s New Medieval Map. By Robert D. Kaplan.

Amid a wave of migration, Slovenian soldiers set barbed-wire fences on the Slovenian-Croatian border, Nov. 12. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES.

Europe’s New Medieval Map. By Robert D. Kaplan. Wall Street Journal, January 15, 2016.


As the European Union unravels, the continent is reverting to divisions that go back centuries, writes Robert D. Kaplan.

Look at any map of Europe from the Middle Ages or the early modern era, before the Industrial Revolution, and you will be overwhelmed by its dizzying incoherence—all of those empires, kingdoms, confederations, minor states, “upper” this and “lower” that. It is a picture of a radically fractured world. Today’s Europe is, in effect, returning to such a map.

The decades of peace and prosperity, from the 1950s to 2009, when the European Union’s debt crisis began, made the political and economic contours of the continent look simple. There were two coherent blocs for the duration of the Cold War, and they were succeeded by the post-Cold War dream of a united Europe with its single currency. Today, as the European Union suffers one blow after another from within and without, history is reversing course—toward a debilitating complexity, as if the past half-century were just an interregnum before a return to fear and conflict.

For the U.S., the reality of this new situation is only just now coming into view. Europe, whose economy rivals that of the U.S. as the largest in the world, remains an asset and an ally, but it is also a profound problem. The pressing question is how to manage it.

Europe’s divisions were visible for decades as the EU worked to expand its boundaries and practical reach. There were those countries inside the EU and those outside; those inside the borderless zone of free travel (the Schengen Area) and those outside; those able to manage the financial rigors of the eurozone and those unable to do so.

What is less appreciated is the deep roots of these divisions in the continent’s history and geography. The sturdy core of modern Europe approximates in large measure the Carolingian Empire founded by Charlemagne in the ninth century. The first Holy Roman Emperor, he ruled the lands from the North Sea down through the Low Countries and radiating outward to Frankfurt, Paris, Milan and so on. The weaker cousins of this Europe extend along the Mediterranean, from the Iberian peninsula to southern Italy and the historically less-developed Balkans, heirs to the Byzantine and Ottoman traditions.

Charlemagne receiving the submission of the Saxon leader Witikind at Paderborn in 785. By Ary Scheffer (1795-1858). Versailles.

During the decades following World War II, this divide was suppressed because of Europe’s relative isolation from its “near abroad”—that is, from the regions of North Africa and Eurasia that, for centuries, did so much to shape the distinctive character of the continent’s periphery. Today that wider geography can no longer be ignored, as Europe’s various regions adopt very different attitudes to the threats posed by Russia’s bullying under President Vladimir Putin, the flood of refugees from the Middle East and the latest terrorist outrages at home and abroad. It has become clear that the centralization imposed for decades by the EU and its distant, unrepresentative bureaucracy hasn’t created a unitary Europe. Indeed, it has created a powerful backlash across the continent, one that the EU can survive only by figuring out how better to establish its legitimacy among its diverse nations.

The geographical defenses that shielded Europe during the postwar era no longer hold. When the great mid-20th-century French geographer Fernand Braudel wrote his classic work on the Mediterranean, he didn’t treat the sea itself as Europe’s southern border. That, he suggested, was the Sahara. Today, as if to prove him right, migrant caravans assemble across North Africa, from Algeria to Libya, for the demographic invasion of Europe proper. The Balkans, too, have resumed their historic role as a corridor of mass migration toward Europe’s center, the first stop for millions of refugees fleeing the collapsed regimes of Iraq and Syria.

Europe thus now finds itself facing an unhappy historical irony: The decades in which it was able to develop its high ideals of universal human rights, including the right of the distressed to seek havens in Europe, was made possible, it is now clear, by the oppressive regimes that once held sway on its periphery. The Arab world was slammed shut for decades by prison states whose dictator-wardens kept their people in order. Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Assad family in Syria, Muammar Qaddafi in Libya—they allowed Europe to have its idealistic cake and eat it, too.

Worse for European unity, geography and history have conspired to make some regions of the continent more vulnerable to the flood of migrants and refugees than others. As Germany and parts of Scandinavia lay down a very tentative welcome mat, Central European countries like Hungary and Slovenia erect new razor-wire fences. The Balkans, virtually separated from the rest of Europe by war and underdevelopment in the 1990s, have now been dealt another blow by the anarchy in the Middle East. At the southeastern extremity of Europe, Greece, once a poor Ottoman province, has seen its economic crisis exacerbated by its unlucky position as the gateway for hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing the Arab world’s turmoil.

Another critical factor in the period of relative stability now coming to an end in Europe was the geopolitical role played by Russia. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was an obvious strategic threat, but it was a threat well-managed by the U.S., and for most of the period, after Stalin’s demise, the Kremlin was led by stodgy, risk-averse functionaries. After the Soviet collapse, a decade of turmoil and institutional weakness in Russia meant, among other things, that it was no threat to Europe.

Today, needless to say, Russia is very much back as a strategic player in Europe. Mr. Putin’s consolidation of control inside Russia following the infirmity of the Boris Yeltsin era has created a deep divide between Paris and Warsaw, Berlin and Bucharest. If you were a Pole or a Romanian in the 1990s, Russia was conveniently weak and chaotic, and membership in NATO and the EU held out the prospect of lasting peace and prosperity. The strategic horizon is very different now: The future of the European enterprise appears uncertain, and a revived Russia has annexed Crimea, overrun eastern Ukraine and again threatens your own borders.

Here we may be witnessing the start of a remarkable reversal of Cold War alliances. Europe is again redividing into halves, but this time it is Eastern Europe that wants to draw closer to the U.S. because it increasingly doubts that NATO alone will be an effective defensive barrier against Russia. Meanwhile, the countries of Western Europe, worried about the tide of refugees and terrorist attacks at home, seek to draw closer to Russia (the Ukraine crisis notwithstanding) as a hedge against the chaos emanating from Syria.

Mr. Putin knows that geography and raw power—both military and economic—are still the starting point for asserting national interests. Europe’s elites take a very different view. After centuries of bloodshed, they have largely rejected traditional power politics. To maintain peace, they have instead placed their hopes on a regulatory regime run by the post-national technocrats of Brussels. In their minds, the continent’s divisions could be healed by the social-welfare state and a common currency. Distinctive national identities shaped by centuries of historical and cultural experience would have to give way to the European superstate, whatever its toll on the political legitimacy of the EU among the diverse nations of Europe.

In the U.K. and much of Western Europe, there is now a backlash against the overreaching of Brussels, and it is finding powerful expression in domestic politics. Social-welfare policies once touted as a balm for the continent’s divisions have acted as a drag on national economies, and this stagnation has provided, in turn, the backdrop for nationalist (sometimes reactionary) politics and rising hostility to refugees.

Still another set of concerns is visible in Central and Eastern Europe. For the past three years, I have been traveling back and forth to Romania, a country where World War II ended only in 1989, with the downfall of the Stalinist Ceausescu regime. In Romania, as in the Baltic states and other parts of the former Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union, the EU still represents more than a balance sheet. It stands for a politics based on modern states rather than on ethnic nations, governed by the rule of law rather than by arbitrary fiat, protecting individuals no matter their ethnic or religious group, or their father’s name.

The region from the Baltic states and Poland, south to Romania and Bulgaria, and then east to the Caucasus constitutes what I call the Greater Intermarium (Latin for “between the seas,” in this case, between the Baltic and Black). The Intermarium was a concept invented by Josef Pilsudski, the Polish leader of the 1920s and 1930s, who hoped to see a belt of sturdy democracies between Germany and the Soviet Union to thwart the imperial tendencies of both.

The threat today, of course, is solely from Russia and not from Germany. Germany’s political dominance of Europe should flow naturally from its economic dominance, and that has happened to some degree, with power moving east from Brussels to Berlin. But German leadership remains awkward and hesitant. Of all the European elites, Germany’s in particular have, since the late 1940s, put their faith in European integration, in large part as a way to exorcise the demons of their own past.

In the face of multiple crises, Chancellor Angela Merkel has played a deft political hand, with only occasional setbacks like the recent news of sexual assaults committed on New Year’s Eve by Arab migrants. But Ms. Merkel is no Bismarck or Frederick the Great, nor would she want to be. The legacy of Nazism and the ambivalence of sitting between the West and Russia weigh heavily against German leadership.

As the EU continues to fracture, this power vacuum could create a 21st-century equivalent of the late Holy Roman Empire: a rambling, multiethnic configuration that was an empire in name but not in fact, until its final dissolution in 1806.

This means that there is still no alternative to American leadership in Europe. For the U.S., a Europe that continues to fracture internally and to dissolve externally into the fluid geography of Northern Africa and Eurasia would constitute the greatest foreign-policy disaster since World War II. The success of the EU over many decades was a product of American power, stemming from the victory over Nazi Germany. For all its imperfections, the EU, even more than NATO, has been the institutional embodiment of a postwar Europe that is free, united and prosperous.

Elements of the Obama administration, to their credit, have tried valiantly to grapple with Europe’s post-Cold War disintegration. The Pentagon has put forth plans for the return of more ground troops, and Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European affairs, has been energetic in standing up to Russia in Ukraine.

But President Barack Obama himself has evinced a certain lack of interest in the continent’s travails and has taken a less than robust posture toward meeting Mr. Putin’s aggression. The administration is plainly distracted, its attentions focused on crises not only in the Middle East but in the Pacific Basin as well. The problem is not, however, the president’s much-discussed “pivot to Asia,” where U.S. leadership is also very much needed to rally our allies. The problem is the mistaken idea that somehow Europe matters less than it did during the Cold War.

The current administration and its successor must put the security of the Greater Intermarium at the center of its priorities. This is a matter not just of more military aid but of more robust diplomatic engagement with every country from the Baltic to the Black seas. The aim should be not just to resist Putin’s aggression but to maintain the internal cohesion and capacity of both the EU and NATO.

At the political level, this will mean helping the EU to develop in a direction that provides more democratic accountability. As for security matters, a turn to Europe will mean putting an end to the counterproductive view that the U.S. will do more for Europe’s defense only if NATO member states themselves raise their defense budgets. With a few exceptions, that isn’t going to happen amid today’s economic woes. If Europeans were to see greatly intensified U.S. involvement, however, they would be more likely to take bold actions to save their own institutions.

The decades when we thought of Europe as stable, predictable and dull are over. The continent’s map is becoming medieval again, if not yet in its boundaries then at least in its political attitudes and allegiances. The question today is whether the EU can still hope to permanently replace the multicultural Habsburg Empire, which for centuries sprawled across Central and Eastern Europe and sheltered its various minorities and interests.

The answer will depend not only on what Europe itself does but also on what the U.S. chooses to do. Geography is a challenge, not a fate.

Republicans Have Overestimated the Conservatism of the Jacksonian Populist Base. By David French.

Republicans Have Overestimated the Conservatism of the Base. By David French. National Review Online, January 15, 2016.


I live in Donald Trump country. Maury County, Tenn. — like much of the South — was dominated by the Democratic party until just a few short years ago. Tennessee’s legislature didn’t flip red until 2008, and my own legislative district in my own “conservative” county was blue until 2010. Tennessee didn’t change dramatically between 2004 (when Democrats were in total control of state government) and 2011 (when control flipped to Republicans), but national politics changed. And — as Donald Trump is proving — they can change again.

If there is a consistent refrain among former Democrats (and there are lots in the South), it echoes Ronald Reagan: They didn’t leave the Democratic party; the Democratic party left them. That means many things, but it does not mean that they’re small government, constitutional conservatives. It means that while they may have been attitudinally “Tea Party,” they were never on board with the core substance of the movement.

So, what do my Trump-supporting neighbors prioritize? It’s a reasonable approximation of the “three-legged stool” of Reagan Republicanism, but with important philosophical distinctions from true movement conservatives.

First, there’s patriotism, but it’s not a patriotism that implies or mandates a particular foreign policy or national-security philosophy. It’s embodied in a deep love for this country and a desire to defeat its enemies, but no particular commitment either to intervention or isolationism. They’re repulsed by the Left’s mindless multiculturalism and elite’s disdain for America, but they’re foreign-policy pragmatists. Fight when it’s smart, and don’t let political correctness get in the way of national defense.

Next, there’s cultural conservatism, but it’s not the cultural conservatism of the evangelical Right. In other words, they don’t really care what anyone else does with their lives, but they’re unwilling to join the sexual revolution either personally or politically. They’re not crusaders in either direction, but they perceive the Left as attempting to draft them into a movement they find personally distasteful. When Bill Clinton said abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare,” he was tapping into this mindset — speaking to those who dislike abortion but aren’t willing to place it at the centerpiece of their politics.

Finally, there’s a commitment to economic opportunity, but it’s not embodied by intellectual devotion either to free markets or to small government. You won’t hear former Democrats crying out for social-security reform or changes to Medicare — unless those changes make the system more stable and reliable. And southern voters have proven that they’re more than willing to hand out generous, targeted tax breaks and subsidies to pull manufacturing out of the North or to welcome Japanese automakers to their new, union-free homes in Dixie. Call it “corporate welfare” all you want, but these new Republicans simply don’t care.

Immigration is a potent political issue because it hits each of these concerns. The patriot worries about the impact on national security. The cultural conservative is concerned about assimilation and contemptuous of the Left’s reassuring multicultural platitudes. And a flood of low-skill workers depresses wages and limits economic opportunity and stability. Combine these concerns with the South’s (and industrial North’s) longstanding willingness to embrace colorful, larger-than-life political figures, and it’s easy to see why Trump’s support map looks like this:

New York Times Trump Support Map

Indeed, as the New York Times noted, a significant portion of Trump’s support comes from “a certain kind of Democrat,” and he currently stands ready to pull up to 20 percent of Democratic support from Hillary Clinton.

The GOP underestimated Trump in part because it overestimated the conservatism of its own southern, rural northern, and Midwestern base. It underestimated the extent to which many of its voters hadn’t so much embraced the corporate conservatism of the Chamber of Commerce or the constitutional conservatism of the Tea Party as much as they had rejected the extremism of the increasingly shrill and politically correct Left. And, yes, the size of this population calls into question the very process of building a national Republican electoral majority, but it also threatens Democrats who seem intent on drumming every blue-collar white male straight out of the party.

At present, Donald Trump’s greatest electoral danger (at least in the GOP primary) is that his supporters are so alienated from both parties that they disproportionately choose to stay home. But if they turn out, and he can escape with a win in Iowa, the early primary calendar is largely a march through Trump country. America may end up with three distinct ideological movements: the progressive Left, the constitutional Right, and populist core that will now say of both political parties: I didn’t leave you. You left me.