White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon listens at right as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting on cyber security in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017

White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon listens at right as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting on cyber security in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017 Evan Vucci/AP

America Is Facing a Dangerous Enemy. We Just Can’t Agree Who It Is

Our ideological adversary is powerful, authoritarian, and spreading. And it is completely different depending on which government officials you’re talking to.

America is currently engaged in an epic war of ideas in which the country’s very way of life is at stake. The struggle is reminiscent of earlier clashes against ideologies such as communism or fascism. The ideological adversary of the United States is powerful. It is authoritarian. It is spreading. And it is completely different depending on which government officials you’re talking to.

During the Cold War and World War II, American leaders largely agreed about what ideological battle they were waging, even as they disagreed about how to fight it. Not so today. Among those who believe the U.S. is engaged in an ideological struggle, there is division on the question of which ideology represents the greatest threat to America: ISIS-style radical Islam or Russian-style autocracy.

Donald Trump referenced the first enemy during his address to Congress on Tuesday. In pledging to prevent a “beachhead of terrorism” from forming inside the United States, Trump summarized the threat in three words—“Radical. Islamic. Terrorism.” Sebastian Gorka, a counterterrorism adviser to the president, wrote that in saying those words Trump had uttered the “key to Victory against Global Jihadism.” Gone were the days of Barack Obama refusing to associate terrorism with Islam and probing the “root causes” of violent extremism, Gorka rejoiced. Here were the days of recognizing ISIS for what it is—“evil incarnate”—and finally committing to eradicate the scourge of jihadism after 16 years of failed counterterrorism policies.

Obama’s defenders often dismiss anger over the Obama administration’s avoidance of the term “radical Islam” as a distraction. (Their arguments are sometimes contradictory: They simultaneously claim that the language is a mere right-wing talking point with no power to stop terrorists, and that the phrase—in suggesting that terrorism is justified by Islam and that there’s a clash between the Western and Muslim worlds—has enough power to embolden terrorists and alienate Muslim allies.)

But those who clamor for the use of the words maintain that the terminology is actually central to the fight against terrorism, because it reveals the true nature of the enemy. Radical Islamic terrorism, they say, is precisely what it sounds like: terrorism rooted in radical interpretations of Islam. As a political-religious ideology, it must primarily be combatted not at the level of drone strikes or even immigration restrictions, but at the level of ideas. And as a political-religious ideology, it poses a threat to the Judeo-Christian values and liberal democracy that characterize Western civilization. The long war against radical Islamic terrorism, they assert, is nothing less than the defining struggle of our time.

This argument has been advanced by several members of Trump’s inner circle, including Trump’s former national-security adviser Michael Flynn. (There are splits within the administration on the “radical Islam” issue; Flynn’s replacement, H.R. McMaster, is reportedly opposed to the the language.) Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, has described the “immense ... war” against “jihadist Islamic fascism” as the latest manifestation of a centuries-old “Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam,” lamenting that “Christianity is dying in Europe” while “Islam is on the rise.” Gorka—whose father, a Christian dissident, escaped imprisonment in communist Hungary—typically describes the struggle in both religious (good versus evil) and political (totalitarianism versus democracy) terms.

Today’s jihadism is a totalitarian ideology like the one that held sway over inhabitants of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Gorka argues. “Ultimately totalitarian ideologies aren’t put in body bags. They are delegitimized” by, for example, the U.S. government conducting Cold War-like counter-propaganda campaigns to undermine the jihadist narrative and empowering moderate Muslim allies, like the leaders of Egypt and Jordan, who are fighting Muslim extremists “for the soul of Islam.” Decisive victory will come “when people don’t want to become jihadis anymore,” he says. Gorka often quotes chapter and verse from the Koran to prove that those seeking to kill “infidels” can find textual support for their actions. In an appearance on a Christian talk show last year, Gorka, a Catholic, noted that jihadists reject the “absolute truth of the Gospel” and “natural law”; as a result, he said, “If you don’t have personal faith, you really don’t understand the extent of the [jihadist] threat to America.”

Jihadism “defines itself against us,” Gorka told Bannon, then the head of Breitbart News, in an interview during the presidential election. “We are the antithesis—everything America stands for: individual liberty based upon the dignity of the human being made in the image of God. That is what must be destroyed or enslaved [by the jihadists]. This is not random acts of violence. This is a plan. It has a strategy. It’s been brewing for decades. Now they have the Islamic state. We must understand the threat if we want to defeat it.”

Meanwhile, others in government are expressing alarm about a more secular struggle that threatens the liberal form of democracy practiced in the United States. Consider what Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told me last month regarding why he was so intent on Congress investigating the Russian government’s possible contacts with the Trump campaign and interference in the U.S. election through hacks and leaks of Democratic Party emails: “We’re in a competition with Russia right now. They are championing autocracy all over the world. We are promoting democracy. It is not communism versus capitalism anymore, but it is authoritarianism versus representative government. And it’s the Russian goal to take down Western liberal democracy” by meddling in the politics of the United States and European countries.

And so far in this “new war of ideas,” democracy appears to be receding while autocracy is advancing, Schiff told Politico’s Susan Glasser in a recent interview. “You see in many parts of Europe a retreat to nationalism, a de-emphasis on human rights. You see in the countries of our NATO allies the imprisoning of journalists. We’re seeing an awful turn away from representative government, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.” Russia gets “a lot of criticism for being an authoritarian system, and they would like nothing better than to show that the democracies, the Western democracies, are corrupt; that they’re no better than Russia,” he explained. Trump has only helped Russia’s cause by suggesting that Vladimir Putin isn’t any more brutal a ruler than those who have led the United States, Schiff added.

Writing in The Atlantic, the democracy scholar Larry Diamond recently detailed some of the Russian efforts cited by Schiff:

Western intelligence agencies have been monitoring a Russian campaign on a Cold War scale to support a wide range of European parties and actors—illiberal parties and politicians of both the far left and far right—that are sympathetic to Russia and Putin. This includes not just newer neo-fascist parties, but anti-immigrant far-right parties like the National Front of France … which obtained a 9 million euro loan from a Russian bank in 2014. …

The romance between far-right, anti-immigrant European parties and Vladimir Putin’s Russia springs not just from practical ties of support but a shared conservative reaction against liberalism, globalization, and multiculturalism.

Anxiety about the forward march of anti-democratic forces isn’t confined to Democrats. It is shared, for instance, by the Republican Senator John McCain, who has condemned the Russian cyberattacks as an “act of war” on “our very fundamentals of democracy.” In a speech at the Munich Security Conference last month, McCain pondered whether “the West”—meaning the military and diplomatic alliances among advanced liberal democracies that emerged after World War II—“will survive.” People around the world are turning “away from universal values and toward old ties of blood, and race, and sectarianism,” he noted, while “more and more of our fellow citizens seem to be flirting with authoritarianism and romanticizing it as our moral equivalent.” He observed that “many of our peoples, including in my own country, are giving up on the West.”

Schiff and McCain are issuing these warnings at a time when the growth of democracies in the world has stalled, and American democracy is plagued by low confidence in government and high levels of political polarization. They are doing so as a growing number of Americans gravitate toward “strong” leaders who appear capable of overcoming democratic gridlock, and as a new American president with populist-authoritarian leanings challenges democratic norms.  

It’s not surprising that people with different political beliefs would have different understandings of the dangers facing the United States. Nor are these threats mutually exclusive; John McCain is surely concerned about both Russia and jihadist terrorism. But how America’s leaders decide to prioritize these threats—and which ideological struggle, if any, they choose to wage—will help determine the course of American foreign policy.