Monday, August 02, 2004

With Successes Like These...

The Bush administration announced in the aftermath of 9/11 that they intended to launch an initiative to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. This is more than an abstract concept, without changing the attitudes on the Muslim street, groups like al-Qaeda will continue to have an ample pool of candidates from which to recruit jihadists intent on destroying Americans and other Westerners.

In crafting my treatment of this dilemma, I do not ignore the role that many of these Muslim nations play in stoking the fires of anti-Americanism, nor can any meaningful solution gain traction without addressing these causes. For too long the governments of Muslim nations, particularly in the Middle East, have fueled anti-American rage through propaganda laced state run media outlets in order to draw attention away from the inequities and economic imbalance resulting from policies propagated by the governments themselves. America has served as a convenient and multi-purpose scapegoat for problems large and small.

Saudi Arabia, our supposed ally, with its funding and promotion of Wahhabism (the most virulent,anti-American, pro-jihadist strain of Islam - of note, Osama and most of al-Qaeda are Wahhabists) has played as much a role in this as any nation, but Egypt, Syria, Iran, and many others are guilty of these crimes. The only feasible solution is to use our diplomatic leverage to compel these countries to rein in this rhetoric, and to promote an alternate narrative through legitimate venues, but this will be a long and arduous process. Of course, there are also real non-propagandized underlying causes for animosity to the United States that must be addressed if we want to address the full nature of the problem with our perception in the Muslim world, and give the chance for moderate, pro-reform movements to hold sway over the vast majority.

Despite the bluster of the Bush administration, the full extent of this crucial diplomatic campaign was limited in scope and light on substance. We did start a rival news program, Al Hurrah, to counter the angles taken by Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, but our effort has been widely dismissed as propaganda in the Muslim world since the positions taken by this network basically echoe talking points of the administration, and the content is sanitized compared to the graphic imaged broadcast on its competitors (also contributing to its lack of legitimacy, it broadcasts out of Virginia).

The hard work, a shift in policy priorities in the region, a meaningful engagement in the Israeli/Palestinian peace process, and the real promotion of reform movements, has been sorely lacking. We have even failed to take the seemingly simple task of providing meaningful humanitarian aid to Palestinians living in squalid conditions in occupied territories, and this oversight has not gone unnoticed. Compounding, and building on our inability to make progress in these other areas, the invasion of Iraq (a second Muslim country after Afghanistan), the failure to find adequate justification for this invasion (no WMDs, no ties to al-Qaeda), and the treatment of Iraqi civilians (Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, civilian casualties) has dealt a decisive blow to our efforts to win over the good will of the Muslim people.

An article in the Washington Post details some evidence, via a series of polls, of our deteriorating position in the Middle East, and the failure of the Bush team to formulate a cogent policy to win the hearts and minds of the populace and stave off the well-spring of radical Islamist jihadists:

"In 2002, the single policy issue that drove opinion was the Palestinians; now it's Iraq and America's treatment, here and abroad, of Arabs and Muslims," said James Zogby, who commissioned the report with the Arab American Institute.

In Zogby's 2002 survey, 76 percent of Egyptians had a negative attitude toward the United States, compared with 98 percent this year. In Morocco, 61 percent viewed the country unfavorably in 2002, but in two years, that number has jumped to 88 percent. In Saudi Arabia, such responses rose from 87 percent in 2002 to 94 percent in June. Attitudes were virtually unchanged in Lebanon but improved slightly in the UAE, from 87 percent who said in 2002 that they disliked the United States to 73 percent this year.

Those polled said their opinions were shaped by U.S. policies, rather than by values or culture. When asked: "What is the first thought when you hear 'America'?" respondents overwhelmingly said: "Unfair foreign policy."

And when asked what the United States could do to improve its image in the Arab world, the most frequently provided answers were "Stop supporting Israel" and "Change your Middle East policy."
These poll results highlight the disturbing trend pointing to the counter-productive nature of our invasion of Iraq. Instead of dealing a blow to al-Qaeda, we have increased their support in the region by making them seem righteous in their opposition to our perceived heavy handed and one sided tactics. This in turn has made their recruitment efforts all the more easier.

These sentiments were echoed in the book Imperial Hubris by the 22 year CIA veteran and counter-terrorism expert identified only by the moniker Anonymous. According to Anonymous, "Bin Laden saw the invasion of Iraq as a Christmas gift he never thought he'd get." By invading a country that's regarded as the second holiest place in Islam, he asserts, the Bush administration inadvertently validated bin Laden's assertions that the United States intends a holy war against Muslims. It has become increasingly difficult to refute these accusations in the Muslim world.

Consider this take from an article appearing in
Foreign Policy (subscription required):

The military component of the war on terrorism has had some significant success. A high proportion of those who associated with bin Laden between 1996 and 2001 are now either dead or in prison. Bin Laden's own ability to commission and instigate terror attacks has been severely curtailed. Enhanced cooperation between intelligence organizations around the world and increased security budgets have made it much harder for terrorists to move their funds across borders or to successfully organize and execute attacks.

However, if countries are to win the war on terror, they must eradicate enemies without creating new ones. They also need to deny those militants with whom negotiation is impossible the support of local populations. Such support assists and, in the minds of the militants, morally legitimizes their actions. If Western countries are to succeed, they must marry the hard component of military force to the soft component of cultural appeal. There is nothing weak about this approach. As any senior military officer with experience in counterinsurgency warfare will tell you, it makes good sense. The invasion of Iraq, though entirely justifiable from a humanitarian perspective, has made this task more pressing.

Bin Laden is a propagandist, directing his efforts at attracting those Muslims who have hitherto shunned his extremist message. He knows that only through mass participation in his project will he have any chance of success. His worldview is receiving immeasurably more support around the globe than it was two years ago, let alone 15 years ago when he began serious campaigning. The objective of Western countries is to eliminate the threat of terror, or at least to manage it in a way that does not seriously impinge on the daily lives of its citizens. Bin Laden's aim is to radicalize and mobilize. He is closer to achieving his goals than the West is to deterring him." [emphasis added]

In a related matter, the complete erosion of public opinion toward America has hampered the efforts of democratic reformers whose calls for democracy are tainted by their association with American ideals, which is a nearly untenable position in the Muslim world today. Instead, the hard liners and fundamentalists are gaining in power and influence because their message is the gospel of resistance to the perceived American led aggression. Not exactly a domino effect of democracy emanating from the epicenter in Baghdad. More from the Washington Post article:

"What we're seeing now is a disturbing sympathy with al Qaeda coupled with resentment toward the United States, and we ought to be extremely troubled by that," said Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland professor who commissioned one of the surveys.

Telhami, who is collecting statistics for an upcoming book on the Arab world, said the "United States had it right when it said after Sept. 11 that we would battle for hearts and minds. But, unfortunately, things went the way al Qaeda wanted them to go rather than the way the U.S. wanted them to go in terms of public opinion."
This trend was also observed and noted in the bi-partisan 9/11 Commission report:

The findings reflect the concerns raised in the Sept. 11 commission report released yesterday, which emphasized a losing battle for public opinion. "Support for the United States has plummeted," the commissioners wrote.

For how long can the war against radical Islamic jihadists persist without addressing the fountain from which the foot soldiers in this battle spring forth. The ranks of jihad well be reinforced in perpetuity until we make a meaningful effort to address the underlying causes. This won't be easy, and may be beyond our reach in the near term, but the current trajectory has not been productive in the least nor free of enormous peril and sacrifice.

Yes, Arafat walked away from Clinton's proposed peace settlement swayed by the intransigence of certain Palestinian militants, and Rabin was gunned down by hardliners from within his own ranks, but that doesn't mean we should abandon this vital effort. Ironically, Arafat would be more prone to accept the Clinton plan today than four years ago, but Sharon is not likely to put it on the table again. Nor is Sharon likely to yield on the issue of the "Wall" or his use of heavy-handed military tactics in the occupied territories, which only further diminishes our standing in the region at a highly sensitive time considering the realities in Iraq. Unfortunately, in an election year neither Bush nor Kerry appears intent on exerting any pressure on Sharon to return to the table, instead opting to lay all the blame at Arafat's feet, where some but not all belongs. Furthermore, it is even unlikely that either candidate would promote humanitarian aid for the Palestinians in crisis, despite the fact that this would at least be a small step in the right direction toward rehabilitating our image in the Muslim world

But it goes beyond Israel. The United States must find a way to empower reformers and democratic movements without delegitimizing their members by too closely associating them with our policies.

Richard Clarke has more on these topics:

Even more important than any bureaucratic suggestions is the report's cogent discussion of who the enemy is and what strategies we need in the fight. The commission properly identified the threat not as terrorism (which is a tactic, not an enemy), but as Islamic jihadism, which must be defeated in a battle of ideas as well as in armed conflict.

We need to expose the Islamic world to values that are more attractive than those of the jihadists. This means aiding economic development and political openness in Muslim countries, and efforts to stabilize places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Restarting the Israel-Palestinian peace process is also vital.

Also, we can't do this alone. In addition to "hearts and minds" television and radio programming by the American government, we would be greatly helped by a pan-Islamic council of respected spiritual and secular leaders to coordinate (without United States involvement) the Islamic world's own ideological effort against the new Al Qaeda.

Unfortunately, because of America's low standing in the Islamic world, we are now at a great disadvantage in the battle of ideas. This is primarily because of the unnecessary and counterproductive invasion of Iraq. In pulling its bipartisan punches, the commission failed to admit the obvious: we are less capable of defeating the jihadists because of the Iraq war.
Given the record of monumental setbacks and repeated incompetence, why is it that there is still an underlying presumption among large swaths of the electorate that Republicans are stronger on foreign policy and defense, in particular the war against radical Islamic jihadists? What exactly has the Bush team done to earn this benefit of the doubt? Rather than make headway in the long hard slog to stave off the flow of desperate and embittered youth to the side of jihad, the Bush administration has alternately hampered efforts, remained indolent and reversed positive trends and forecasts. If honest, intelligent people view these efforts as a success, what does failure look like?

[Update: An Op-Ed by Robert Wright in today's New York Times touches on some of the themes mentioned above. He discusses the need to "rebrand" America in the Muslim world, and to change the paradigm of "better to be feared than loved" into one of "better to be respected than feared." Here are some excerpts:

What is new, and uniquely challenging, about the war on terrorism is that hatred of America well beyond the bounds of its alliance now imperils national security. Fervent anti-Americanism among Muslims is the wellspring of terrorism, regardless of whether they live in countries whose governments cooperate with us.

For a nation to be thoroughly respected, the perception of its strength needs to be matched by a perception of its goodness. It helps to be thought of as just, generous, conscientious, mindful of the opinion of others, even a little humble. In lots of little ways, Mr. Bush has given the world the impression that we're not these things.

Mr. Kerry touched on some of this, noting that global leadership means inspiring more than fear. But he didn't carry the respect theme explicitly into the context of Muslim opinion.

Doing so wouldn't by itself amount to a strategy for the war on terrorism. But it would add a new dimension to the Democrats' emerging critique of the president's foreign policy - and a potent one. The plummeting regard for America in Muslim nations like Indonesia over the last few years is a well-documented fact. If voters can see the link between this and the security of their children - see that for every million Muslims who hate America, one will be willing to fly an airplane into a shopping mall - then President Bush will have a lot of explaining to do. And existing criticisms of his policies will acquire new force. (Given how unpopular the Iraq war was known to be in the Muslim world, wasn't the lack of postwar planning beyond inexcusable?)
I aree with Wright's assessment, and his suggestion that Kerry/Edwards might want to think about touching on these themes in the campaign. Of course, this is a very delicate messsage to craft in a political campaign because of the risk of appearing to suggest that America should pander to the Muslim world and cater to the demands of terrorists. Still, even if it doesn't become a campaign center piece, it should be incorporated into a possible Kerry strategy post-November.]

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?