Nice Guys Finish Last

Last Wednesday The Wall Street Journal featured an article by Bernard Lewis, perhaps America’s foremost scholar of Islamic history and society. The article is entitled Was Osama Right?, and carries the following subheading:

Islamists always believed the U.S. was weak. Recent political trends won’t change their view.

In recent decades, both the USA and the Soviet Union have tangled with Islamic jihadists, but with very different approaches — reflecting the inherent differences between authoritarian systems of government, as have prevailed in Russia for the past thousand years, and liberal democracies. Lewis begins:

During the Cold War, two things came to be known and generally recognized in the Middle East concerning the two rival superpowers. If you did anything to annoy the Russians, punishment would be swift and dire. If you said or did anything against the Americans, not only would there be no punishment; there might even be some possibility of reward, as the usual anxious procession of diplomats and politicians, journalists and scholars and miscellaneous others came with their usual pleading inquiries: “What have we done to offend you? What can we do to put it right?”

A few examples may suffice. During the troubles in Lebanon in the 1970s and ’80s, there were many attacks on American installations and individuals–notably the attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, followed by a prompt withdrawal, and a whole series of kidnappings of Americans, both official and private, as well as of Europeans. There was only one attack on Soviet citizens, when one diplomat was killed and several others kidnapped. The Soviet response through their local agents was swift, and directed against the family of the leader of the kidnappers. The kidnapped Russians were promptly released, and after that there were no attacks on Soviet citizens or installations throughout the period of the Lebanese troubles.

While neither Lewis nor the waka waka waka editorial staff is suggesting that America would be a better place if it were organized along the lines of the Soviet Union of the 1980’s, he does quite frankly acknowledge a grim but important reality: if you are dealing with a ruthless opponent, one who only respects naked power, then once you have decided to fight you must be prepared to fight with everything you have. It is very difficult to rouse a peace-loving Western democracy to such steely resolve, but it is only with such an attitude that such conflicts can be won.

The same principle applies in martial arts; I constantly remind my students that, although it is uncivilized to fight, and although violent conflict is to be avoided if possible, when one does decide to fight there must be no doubt, no wavering of one’s resolve. The psychological battle is vastly more important than any matters of tactics or technique; once one has destroyed the opponent’s confidence the rest is simple. Our patient and implacable enemies know this very well — and as matters stand, they haven’t much to worry about.

You can read Lewis’s article here.

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