The head of the University of Texas system says the conflict playing out in the Middle East and North Africa is the great challenge of our time. Speaking last week at the University of Texas at Tyler's Distinguished Lecture series, former Navy Admiral William McRaven warned that defeating Islamic extremism won't be easy or cheap, but it must be done.
McRaven, a Navy SEAL for 37 years, became chancellor of the UT system in January. He spoke of how the world changed on Sept. 11, 2001.
"We in special forces reinvented ourselves," he explained. "We faced a new kind of enemy. They presented an asymmetric threat, coming at us from all directions, locally, regionally and globally. We had to change the way were organized and the way we fought."
But those lessons were quickly learned and the SEALs and other special forces adapted.
"We had to flatten our hierarchy, reduce the time from idea to decision to implementation," he said. "We had to operate at the speed of war."
And that, he added, is a model for the UT system.
"Great organizations aren't built to deal with a specific threat," he said. "We had to build our special operations forces to be flexible, adaptable, agile and fast. And that's what we're doing with the University of Texas system."
But most of McRaven's speech was focused on the threat of radical Islamism. It's an existential threat to the West, he believes.
"The fight we are in with these extremists groups may be the most righteous fight we've had in the past 1,000 years," he said. "It is a fight between the civilized world and the barbarians who seek to destroy it. They bring nothing but destruction, tyranny, savagery and slavery. There are no redeeming qualities about their extremist views."
He said that sooner or later, American forces will have to fight ISIS. And he recommends sooner.
"We have been playing defense for several years now, hoping to contain them in the red zone," McRaven said. "Well, they are marching down the field now, in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, North Africa, Nigeria. If you think the problems in the Middle East don't affect East Texas, think again."
So what should the U.S. do?
"We must fight the extremists and fight them with everything they have," he said. "We must see this as an assault on everything we hold dear. Must accept more American young men and women will pay ultimate price, and that it will cost us billions of dollars more. If we approach without a sense of commitment, we will lose."
And that's unacceptable, McRaven said.
"Many say we can't be the world's policeman," he noted. "Yes we can, and we must. If this sounds alarmist, it should. We are in perilous times. If we do not engage them now, we should not be surprised when we find the barbarians at our gate and it's too late to stop them."
A veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, McRaven knows the cost.
But he's right - it must be paid.