Gov. Rick Perry is running for president again, and presidential candidates need Issues on which to take Strong Stands. So Perry has decided to build his run for president around foreign policy, and particularly, around the growing, all-enveloping catastrophe in the world’s most complex and politically intractable region—the secondary effects of the Syrian Civil War, and the rise of the Islamic State.
Perry—he of the oops, remember—will wade waist-deep into a conflict so clockwork-complicated and massive in scope that people who have been studying the neighborhood their entire lives can’t even figure out what’s going on any given day. He will provide perfect, Windex-wiped clarity, and demonstrate his great capacity for strategic thinking. This sounded like a great idea to someone on Perry’s team.
So on Tuesday, the governor found himself in London, in front of a crowd at the Royal United Services Institute, a distinguished think tank that has served as a place for discussion of defense issues since the Queen’s strongest foe was the Prussian Army. RUSI advertised that Perry would “analyse the challenges the United States and Western allies face in confronting threats to the international community in the twenty-first century,” a pretty comprehensive subject for a 40-minute address. Of course, Perry didn’t meet that promise—his speech was devoid of policy proposals or much analysis—but he did tell us a lot about how he thinks about the world.
America should plunge itself headlong into the civil wars now happening in the Middle East. We should “defend the lives of innocent Muslim people” just like we did in “Iraq and Afghanistan.” Dissent within the county should be curbed, because it causes moral “confusion” which inhibits our ability to do battle with our foes.
Perry’s foreign policy as outlined in his address is the doctrine of bright colors and high contrast—like a methamphetamine-boosted mash-up of speeches from the George W. Bush era. Perry told the British policy analysts that the Western coalition had to “hold nothing back if it will better assure our security,” without saying what would better assure our security. As for the jihadis, Perry said, “in all our conduct toward this enemy, there can be no illusions and no compromise of all that we are defending.”
We’re fighting, Perry said, for “the rightness and truth of the values of the West.” It was those values that led the West to protect “innocent Muslim people. Whether in Iraq or in Afghanistan or Syria today, or back in the 1990s in Kosovo.” The West’s humanitarian actions in Afghanistan and Iraq were part of what made criticism of the West so distasteful, he said.
“There are always people ready to insist that our societies could stand some improvement too—that we have our own injustices to correct. Such a posture of moral equivalence is seen now and then on the left,” Perry said. It’s a posture that “pretends not to see the most basic of distinctions. The shortcomings of Western democracy, and the systemic savagery” of groups like ISIS “all get mixed up as one,” he continued, describing it as a sickening “attitude of cultural relativism.”
Doubts about the course of the United States, and about the wisdom of intervening abroad “reflect a kind of deep confusion, at a time when moral clarity is at a premium,” he said. Later: “Without confidence in the truth and goodness of our own values, the great moral inheritance of our own culture, how are we going to deal with the falsehood of theirs?”
It’s a really bizarre sentiment, and not one that seems to accurately characterize what’s happening in the country right now, where’s there’s no great love for ISIS but a great deal of honest disagreement about what to do about the group. Open societies have always liked to believe that they benefit from debate and diversity of opinion—that they have strength, while closed societies and totalitarian movements ultimately break. But according to Perry, only purity and unity of thought will allow us to confront the current threat.
When Perry turned to the issue of Muslim assimilation in Europe, the language got stronger. “Suddenly, there are these closed enclaves in great cities,” Perry said, “where you have to be a fellow fanatic, or at least a fellow Muslim, to enter.” He added: “Of course, we all know who’s especially unwelcome in these nasty little no-go zones—a Jew.”
Forceful action had to be taken, Perry said, soundingly momentarily like a member of the European far right. “To every extremist, it has to be made clear: We will not allow you to exploit our tolerance, so that you can import your intolerance,” he said. “You will live by exactly the same standards the rest of us by, and if that comes as jarring news: Welcome to civilization.”
Western values, Perry says, helps “instill a yearning and a hope to be better and to do better by others” and “see the worth and the goodness of everyone.” Few others in the world hope for a better world for their children or see the universal value of human life. “You don’t find all that in every tradition,” Perry said. “Its abundance in our Western tradition is to be cherished, tended, and protected.
Perry may think moral confusion is the supreme danger to the United States, but moral clarity can be considerably more deadly. We know that we don’t like ISIS. The Islamic State is not good. But how to oppose them? This was not a subject of Perry’s talk.
Look briefly at a very small part of the current situation in the Middle East. The United States has spun the roulette wheel and determined that our best current ally is the Kurds. But there is no such thing as “the Kurds.” There are Turkish Kurds, Syrian Kurds, Iraqi Kurds and Iranian Kurds, and each of those four groups can be dissected and divided several ways. Each have complicated relationships with each other, experience significant internal political disagreements, and exist in a difficult-to-outline set of concentric circles of alliances with neighboring states, armed factions, criminal groups, global oil companies and international powers.
Right now, there’s a serious risk that the civil war in Syria and Iraq could spill over into Turkey, where the government may be relaunching a decades-long military campaign against the Kurdish PKK. There, no “moral clarity” is possible.
The Obama administration has been coolly detached and utilitarian in its use of American military power, and reluctant—until recently—to engage in bloodthirsty hyperbole. Come 2016, will Americans be looking for a return to Bush’s certainty? Or will they want to stay far away from the big brawl?
Maybe Perry will sound better at this the more he does it. At RUSI, it sounded rough. He concluded by striking the pose of the unctuous Anglophile.
“You British always sound so darned smart and refined, no matter what you’re saying,” Perry said, concluding his speech. “And it’s not just because of your many cultural exports: from James Bond and Julie Andrews to Simon Cowell and One Direction.”
He continued: “We Americans feel this affinity, and we admire you as we do no other nation, because of who you are and what you stand for.”
Perry thinks he’s figured out what America stands for. If he’s right, it’s going to be a bloody decade.