It has been 18 months now since the 9/11 attacks, and the government is still unsure of how to really ‘defeat terrorism’. The War on Terror suffers from a major ideological flaw, which is that it ignores the role that the American foreign policy has played in creating the climate of virulent anti-Americanism that exists in much of the Muslim world. Without that climate, people like Osama Bin Laden would not find their recruiting so easy.
The conventional wisdom, certainly among the neo-conservative crowd that dominates the Administration and much of the punditry, is that anti-American terrorism springs from hatred of American values. This is a grossly self-serving and self-righteous argument. Essentially it says that people are attacking us because we are so good. If that were really the case, why are they not attacking Denmark or Sweden or Switzerland? Are they not sufficiently free and liberal societies to merit the hatred of the terrorists? And if hatred of American values is really the motivation, then how does one explain that Muslim terrorist groups have spent 20 years attacking their own governments and citizens across the Muslim world, in nations that were not run according to ‘American values’? The real reason why this nonsense was pedaled is because it relieves Americans of any need to consider the deeper reasons of why there is anti-Americanism. If it is truly a reflection of hatred of American values, then we can hardly be expected to consider altering those values as a response to terror. The irony is that we have altered those very values of liberty and freedom by setting up secret tribunals, by using secret evidence, and by denying the Geneva Convention rights to prisoners of war taken in Afghanistan.
There are three groups of people in the Muslim world that hold critical views of the United States. On the most extreme end of the spectrum are the terrorist groups and Al-Qaeda sorts. There are people with that view all throughout the Muslim world, but their largest numbers are among the so-called Afghan Arabs, the Arab volunteers who fought the Jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980’s, then took their fight to their home countries seeking to impose an Islamic state. Osama Bin Laden was one of these, as was the origin of Al-Qaeda, which was basically a database of Arab volunteers coming through Pakistan. These people are truly and ideologically anti-American. No matter what the US were to do it would probably not satisfy them. They are the source of terrorism, and the US government is properly engaged in a struggle against them. But to succeed, they must recruit and obtain financial and moral and political support from the second group.
This second group is the vast majority of average Muslims. They have a positive view of the American people, they consider America a good place to live if you are Muslim, and would probably jump at the opportunity for a green card. But they have become quite upset with the US for three very specific reasons. These are the effects of the Iraq sanctions over the last ten years, the lack of justice for the Palestinians and their ongoing subjugation, and the presence of US military forces in Saudi Arabia. The last item probably is of minor or no significance to many Muslims, but to some it is a major issue. This broad middle of the Muslim world acknowledges that the US has done some good things (Kosovo etc.) but is deeply unhappy over Iraq and Palestine. Under the proper circumstances, Muslims from this second group can be sufficiently indoctrinated to accept the terrorist worldview and join in anti-American terrorism.
The final group of Muslims comprises those of a more liberal and pro-democracy bent. This group is enthusiastic about American values, but is angry that the US has for the most part never supported those values in the Muslim world. It has preferred dictators and torturers to democrats. This is perceived to be due to American fixation on oil security and the Cold War when that was active. Liberal Muslims are not the source of terror, but they are hard pressed to defend the US when the US has never cared about them.
There are two things that come out when we analyze this problem. One is that anti-Americanism is not insurmountable. Secondly, that anti-Americanism is mostly about American policy not toward the entire Muslim world, but its policy toward the core region of the Arab world. Muslims are not complaining about US policy toward Malaysia or Morocco. It really comes down to Palestine, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.
Can these policies be changed? Yes, and I strongly urge the Bush Administration to do so. Three years ago I wrote a piece calling for an end to Iraq sanctions. The human toll far exceeded the strategic value. Now with regime change in the offing, the suffering of the Iraqi people, once the war itself is concluded, may be at an end. But the postwar rebuilding of Iraq must be handled correctly if the US does not want to create another sore point with the Muslim world. The people of Iraq themselves must genuinely believe that a better Iraq is forming.
The US should also make an Israeli-Palestinian peace a priority. As high a priority as disarming Iraq has been. If the US was willing to do that, a peace is certainly possible. The nightly images on Arab TV screens of Palestinian sufferings must be brought to an end. A two-state solution based on the 1967 borders will be acceptable to the majority of Palestinians, and the majority of Muslims. Such an outcome is totally consistent with the stated goals of US policy in the Middle East, and is not some sort of sellout to the terrorists.
The US should remove its military from Saudi Arabia. It normally only has a few thousand personnel posted, but there is no compelling reason that they have to be there, especially after Saddam is overthrown. The US has major bases in Kuwait, Qatar, and will have them in Iraq. The Saudi bases are redundant and unnecessarily provocative to a segment of the Muslim world.
Finally, the US should unabashedly support democracy. This is sometimes a double-edged sword, and the US gets criticized when it speaks on behalf of democracy activists in Iran or Egypt for ‘interfering’ in the domestic affairs of the country and ‘hurting’ the cause of democracy. Frankly, there may be some of that in the short term, but in the long run, it is the best policy, and should be pursued much more aggressively.