When President Carter sought reelection in 1980, the Islamic Republic of Iran not only held dozens of Americans hostage in the American Embassy in Tehran, they wielded powerful influence over Carter's reelection hopes. Having ordered an attempted rescue of the hostages that ended in a tragic embarrassment with the wreckage of military helicopters in the Arabian desert, Carter was seen as a weakened leader who could not secure the release of the hostages nor the reassertion of American strength against both the threat of Iran and the Soviet Union. So that November a majority of American voters went to the polls and cast their ballots for Ronald Reagan. Within days of his inauguration the Iranian government released the hostages and by the end of his second term the Soviet threat not only receded but became an historical artifact with the dissolution of the once great Soviet Empire.
Though having at one point in the 20th century claimed dominance over half the world's population, Communism seemed to have been a flash in the night compared to the religious-political system of Islam that has functioned steadily since the 7th century and now encompasses a billion and half people. The Islamic ideal of complete global dominance has not necessarily diminished in this age of increased contact between cultures, as a Turkish Muslim economist recently reminded me at a dinner party. While discussing the philosophy of Feytullah Gulen, a Turkish religious leader who has opened dozens of Islamic schools across the world, including charter schools in nearly all fifty American states, my acquaintance laughingly agreed with Gulen that of course Islam would someday cover the earth. Maybe he was being sarcastic, but for many it is no joking matter.
Such is the case with Iran's ruling elite. Ahmadinejad has revealed this week that Iran has created a new battery of highly advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium. A centrifuge is a bit like the spin cycle on a very high-powered clothes washer. But instead of flinging the moisture out of your favorite pair of jeans, the uranium centrifuges spin so fast they can produce highly reactive uranium which in turn can be placed inside a container and exploded in a nuclear reaction releasing unimaginable energy. No country has openly and consistently expressed more hostility and anger toward the small nation of Israel and the United States than the Islamic Republic of Iran, going to the extent of calling for their overthrow. No other globalizing ideology has endured for longer than the one held by their religious leaders. The possibility of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon poses a grave threat. The next president of the United States will in the next four years most certainly be confronted with some very difficult situations and decisions in regard to a nuclear Iran.
The next president will also face serious challenges from political situations across the Arab World. After the so-called "Arab Spring", an Islamic government now leads Egypt. The Egyptian Coptic Christian minority has experienced horrendous persecution resulting in deaths, such as when Egyptian tanks ran over and crushed peaceful Coptic protestors. The relationship between the Egyptian Muslims and Israel and the U.S. is uncertain. In Syria President Assad daily orders his military to massacre citizens, sometimes including women and children, so he can maintain control on the country. The nature of that conflict is essentially a power struggle between Assad's ruling Alawite (Shiite) minority and the Sunni majority. The pattern across the Middle East is for Sunni majorities to overthrow their secularized strongmen and seek a return to a government they consider more in keeping with traditional Islamic law. Perhaps the U.S. could ignore these developments except for the simple fact that the immense American economy keeps churning because it imports at least half its petroleum from the Middle East. America may have the world's greatest economic and military machinations but the Middle Easterners have their hand on the light switch.
The next president will face many domestic issues. Some will be social, some economic, and some legislative. But Americans no longer have the luxury of isolationism. The days of consuming only the wood and coal we produce and eating only the corn we grow passed away with the advent of the automobile and light bulb (interestingly, Alaska, our last true frontier, still holds the promise easing our dependence on foreign oil). The men and women chosen for the presidency and congress will need at least as much savvy and courage than Reagan needed in facing the threats of 1980. Maybe that's why some have suggested that this election cycle will be one of the most important ever. America can remain a force for good in a dangerous world, but only with decisive and moral leaders committed to the values of freedom upon which the nation was founded.