What a difference a year makes. In September 2013, President Barack Obama bragged to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, "The world is more stable than it was five years ago." This week, the president again addressed the U.N. delegates, but claims that the world is somehow more stable thanks to his leadership were, understandably, missing.
It is difficult to know whether President Obama has finally learned his lesson or not. The man's hubris knows no bounds. Perhaps now he thinks he can vanquish Islamic extremism on his terms — a few bombs here, a cruise missile there, a shipment of small arms to pro-Western fighters on the ground elsewhere.
But the battle to defeat the Islamic State will not be so easily won. Nor does eliminating one group ensure that others, even more dangerous, do not emerge. Indeed, the short, terrible history of the Islamic State (or ISIL or ISIS, as it is variously known) demonstrates exactly how these groups metastasize, with each mutation more deadly than the previous.
The U.S. may have killed Osama bin Laden, but the next generation of al-Qaida, the Khorasan Group, is busy plotting more attacks from bases in Syria. It is one thing for a great power to eliminate the leadership and annihilate the soldiers of an enemy army and quite another to defeat the ideology that inspires others to take their place.
And that is the problem the West faces. The struggles of the 20th century to defeat first Nazism and then communism in some respects pale in comparison with the challenge of the 21st century to defeat Islamist totalitarianism. As an ideology, communism ultimately collapsed of its own weight. Its utopian premise could not meet the test of reality. Communism promised heaven on earth but delivered scarcity and deprivation. Nonetheless, communist ideology advanced for seven decades, spreading suffering to many parts of Europe and Asia and, with more limited success, to Africa and Latin America before collapsing.
But radical Islamism faces no such earthly reality check. Radical religious ideologies are always more difficult than political or economic ideologies to prove false. Islamism promises not heaven on earth but a reward that will only be received after death. And who returns to report that there are no virgins awaiting the suicide bomber or beheader?
Fanatical religious sects are not restricted to Islam, of course. There are putatively Christian sects that preach violence and exert totalitarian control over their members — Jim Jones' Peoples Temple and David Koresh's Branch Davidians, to name two of the most famous American examples.
But radical Islamism is no mere cult restricted in its scope and threat. Its aim is world domination — much as communism's aspiration was. And opposing the threat of radical Islamism will require the same determination and proportionate commitment of resources as defeating communism did.
President Obama focused in his latest U.N. speech on the threats Islamism poses in Iraq and Syria, but these are just the tip of the spear. What about Yemen — once the president's favorite success story in the fight against al-Qaida — whose government has now been deposed by Iranian-backed rebel Houthis? Or Libya, where Majlis al-Shura and Ansar al-Sharia have crushed any hopes that the deposing of Moammar Gadhafi would bring freedom to the people? Or the myriad other places where security is threatened by such groups, from Algeria to Nigeria to Uganda to the Asian subcontinent? Even the country with the world's largest Muslim population, Indonesia, must now contend with the Islamic State. Can Saudi Arabia and other nations on the Arabian Peninsula be far behind?
And even these threats are not the Islamists' most dangerous. Iran, which the Obama administration shows no serious willingness to confront regarding its march toward building atomic weapons, looms larger than all the others combined.
President Obama's call to "dismantle the network of death" established by the Islamic State is not enough. Terrorism and death are simply the tools radical Islamism employs in its struggle for world domination. To misjudge its aims would cost us dearly.