As we (or the better informed among us at least) celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto this Saturday, marking the date in 1571 when the navy of Pope Pius V’s Holy League turned back the Ottoman Turks from one of their recurrent jihads, it might be opportune to consider how the Islamic world has advanced politically over the last half century.
Not terribly well, I reckon. But if the Arab portion of that world is soon swept up by democratic reform, then it seems likely that the future will be, well, perhaps something like the Gaza Strip, where political parties Hamas and Fatah supplement ballots with running street battles, familiar to us as well from Lebanon and Iraq.
To each his own, says I. Better that Arab-Muslim passions be turned against their own city councilmen and politicos than against the Zionist-Crusader Conspiracy, and better that Sunnis and Shias proclaim death to each other rather than death to us — though the gunmen of Hamas and Fatah and others in the region seem fairly ambidextrous in their hatreds and willingness to dispense violence.
As far as our national interest is concerned, it doesn’t much matter what Islamists and Baathists and Fatahists do to one another as long as they leave us alone — and by leaving us alone, I mean not only not attacking us (or developing means to attack us), but deferring to our right to befriend whom we choose to befriend, to trade with whom we wish to trade, and to broadcast our ideas to whoever wants to listen, to be ourselves in the world, and to be true to our unofficial motto of Don’t Tread on Me.
THE TRICK TO ENSURING that they do leave us alone and confine themselves to killing only each other, is to copy the best example we have of peaceful Christian coexistence with the Muslim world, which is not some imaginary Islamic renaissance in medieval Spain, but the British Empire.
The British, when they ruled a quarter of the globe, had millions of Islamic subjects. And while British troops had to slap down mad mullahs, impetuous imams, crazed tribesmen, and dervish armies on the periphery of empire, for the most part Her Majesty’s Muslim subjects were not only quiescent, a great many of them were markedly loyal and were numbered among the warrior races with which the British liked to stock the Indian Army.
The key to this was that while the British were happy to leave traditional arrangements (tribal leaders, religious affiliations, and so on) standing, they insisted that Muslims accommodate themselves to British law, custom, government, and civilization.
The pressure today, after the collapse of the European empires and the not coincidental rise of moral relativism and multiculturalism, is the reverse. Danish cartoonists, German operatic productions, the pope, and European law and foreign policy are expected to accommodate militant Islam. Militant Islam is not expected to accommodate the West — even when the Islamists live in London or Berlin or Paris — because the West lacks confidence that it has a civilization worth promoting over, or even defending against, the Islamists.
TO WIN THIS BATTLE, Americans (and preferably Europeans too) need to recapture a bit of civilizational confidence. We might begin by reminding ourselves that we have every right to act freely in the world, that we are Britain’s heirs of empire, and that that’s nothing new. The Founders knew that.
One need only open Federalist One to see Alexander Hamilton refer to America as “an empire, in many respects, the most interesting in the world,” and one that he later hoped to extend to the Southern Hemisphere. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and George Washington likewise thought of America as an empire — an empire that would surpass Britain’s in size and power. King George III himself recognized that “The rebellious war… is manifestly carried on for the purpose of establishing an independent empire.” Thomas Jefferson, of course, envisioned America as an “empire of liberty.” James Polk considered that the Mexican War had delivered “to the United States an immense empire.” And American empire builders like Andrew Jackson (annexing Florida) or the filibusters who brought us Hawaii or America’s acceptance of the White Man’s Burden in the Philippines (where we set up the first democratic government in Asia), spread America’s Manifest Destiny from the Atlantic Coast, to the Gulf of Mexico, to the far reaches of the Pacific. All of which is not to mention our taking on the imperial responsibility of setting things aright for the world in two world wars and the Cold War and creating a global system of free trade and international institutions like the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund. The world has enjoyed a Pax Americana for at least the last half century, and it takes an imperial power to deliver a global peace.
Whenever the liberal myth that America is inherently anti-imperialist has guided our foreign policy, the result has been disaster, whether that myth was held by FDR who was far more insistent on getting the British out of Hong Kong and India than on protecting Eastern Europe from Stalin (“Of one thing I am certain, Stalin is not an imperialist”); or by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and President Dwight David Eisenhower standing side-by-side with the Soviets and Gamal Abdel Nasser and against Britain, France, and Israel at Suez in 1956; or by Jimmy Carter, refusing to support the Shah of Iran (whose very position was a shameful reminder of the sin of Anglo-American imperialism) against the people’s choice, and obviously a man we could do business with, the Ayatollah Khomeini.
That anti-imperialism is a harmful idea should be obvious from our own history. Should we not have annexed the American southwest from Mexico? Should we have prevented Andrew Jackson from seizing Florida from Spain? Should we have accepted the British-drawn proclamation line of 1763 and left the interior of America to the Indians? Should we regret the British Empire’s original sin of planting us here at all?
The left beats the anti-colonial, anti-imperial drum because it serves the liberal interest of accommodating the West to retreat, to moral relativism, and to multiculturalism.
BUT IT SHOULD BE OBVIOUS, though apparently it isn’t, that if America is to win the so-called war on terror we will need to revert to our imperial heritage as a people whose regnant spirit has always been Don’t Tread on Me, who would not willingly accept any restrictions on our trade, our travel, or our speech, and who had no doubt that where Americans went, there went liberty, and that Indians and Mexicans and Spaniards and Frenchmen, had better make way because a superior civilization was plowing through. We need a similar confidence if we are to tame militant Islam.
The Pax Britannica was a tremendous civilizing force. We now need a renewal of a Pax Americana that likewise thinks of our own institutions, our own ideas of justice, and our own civilization — including, even most especially, our religion — as worth spreading, as a benefit to the world, and to be denied nowhere.
Imperialism is an outward sign of such confidence and vigor. Today, it is something of an imperative as well. If we are going to win the clash of civilizations, if Europe is to be saved, if America’s spirit of Don’t Tread on Me is to be perpetuated, it will be because we will once again have convinced our enemies — and ourselves — that the West is best.