Dear Concerned Citizen,
At first glance, it appears that Islamic radicalism is the challenge of the twenty-first century. Historian Bernard Lewis, perhaps the foremost living authority on Islam, has argued as much. The West’s 70-year struggle with Soviet Communism, Lewis has argued, is a short detour and now the centuries-old battle between Judeo-Christian civilization and Islam has been resumed.It is tempting to agree with this assessment, and focus American energy, as the Bush administration has done, on remaking the Islamic world. Although this project is risky and dangerous and expensive, costing America dearly in resources and even lives, there is no real alternative. Better to have our soldiers fighting over there than to have our civilians blown up over here. A democratic Afghanistan, a democratic Iraq, a democratic Middle East would not only be an immeasurable gain for human liberty worldwide, it would also greatly enhance the security of Americans.
Despite the heroism of this attempt, however, the Bush administration should not lose sight of the two great forces that it must contend with outside the Islamic world. One is a force from the past, Russia. The other is the force of the future, China. For the Bush administration to ignore the special challenges posed by these two nations would be a catastrophic blunder.
Yes, 3000 people were killed on 9/11, and that’s more than were killed during the entire 50-year duration of the Cold War. On the other hand Islam doesn’t have thousands of nuclear warheads as the Soviet Union did, and as Russia still does. Russia today is democratic, but it is becoming less so. Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, has suffocated the country’s independent media, he has abolished the election of regional officials, he prosecutes his political opponents, seizes businesses and private property, and he is working to undermine democracy in neighboring republics. His scorched-earth policy in Chechnya has leveled Grozny and extracted a terrible human toll.
Still, the Bush administration is trying to keep friendly relations with Putin. Of course there may be no alternative to working with Russia on issues like nuclear proliferation. But the Bush administration is making a serious error in confusing America’s fight against Al Qaeda with Putin’s fight against the Chechens. Putin’s war should not be mistaken for a “war against terrorism”; it is, rather, a “war against national liberation.” The “terrorism” of the Chechens–although inexcusable when it threatens innocent civilians–pales against the state-sponsored terror that Soviet forces have unleashed against the Chechens.
Perhaps more important than Russia over the long term is China. America is accumulating alarmingly-high trade deficits with China. In 2004, for example, America bought $164 billion more in Chinese goods than the Chinese bought in American goods. The previous year, the trade deficit with China was $124 billion. The year before that, $103 billion. In other words, the number continues to go up. Over the past decade America has accumulated nearly a trillion dollars of debt to the Chinese.
Contrary to some of the foolish rhetoric of some free-trade dogmatists, this isn’t simply an accounting fiction. It’s real money ($1,000,000,000,000) that the American people owe the Chinese. The Chinese could use it to lay a claim to $1 trillion in American assets: land, office buildings, corporate assets, whatever. Unlike the federal budget deficit, which represents money that the American government owes to the American people, the trade deficit represents money that America owes to foreigners.
The Chinese are using their labor market advantage to make themselves the manufacturing center of the universe. They are using their newfound wealth to build up their military strength. Today, their goal isn’t to destabilize the American economy. But they are increasingly in a position to do that in the future. Today, their goal may be to increase their regional influence in Asia. But China will one day become a global super power. America will not be eager to fight a country that can put 100 million men on the battlefield, that has many nuclear weapons, and that has a gross national product that equals if not exceeds the United States. All these are real prospects for the future.
Yes, Islam is today’s greatest problem, but contrary to Bernard Lewis’s prediction, it may not be tomorrow’s greatest problem. Looking further out, America has other challenges in the world that may turn out to be bigger threats. In slaying the tarantula in our living room–a necessary task in order to sleep better at night–let us not forget the dragons outside, because one day they too can breathe fire and endanger our lives and liberty.