Commentary

Prerequisite for Victory Against Terrorism

By Charles V. Peña
September 12, 2004

In an interview with NBC’s Today show host, Matt Lauer (broadcast on the same day the Republican National Convention opened in New York), President Bush said, “I don’t think you can win it [the war on terrorism].” Democrats quickly pounced on what they perceived as the mother of all flip-flops. But Bush reversed his position on Rush Limbaugh’s radio program the next day. Saying that he needed to be more articulate, the president explained that “this is not the kind of war where you sit down and sign a peace treaty. It’s a totally different kind of war.” Bush also reaffirmed that “we will win.” The flap over what the president said, however, misses the more important point: How do we win?

On how to win the war on terrorism, Bush’s remarks reveal a misguided approach. He told the American Legion convention that “we will win by staying on the offensive” and “pursue them around the world so we do not have to face them here at home.” This is a mantra repeated by legions of Republican politicos and pundits at the Republication National Convention. To be sure, America must aggressively seek out the terrorists who would do us harm, specifically the al Qaeda terrorist network operating in 60 countries around the world. But al Qaeda is more than just an organization. It is a radical Islamist ideology with a life of its own — and it is infusing the Muslim world.

The U.S. preoccupation with Iraq for nearly three years after Sept. 11 (beginning with President Bush naming Iraq as part of an “axis of evil” in his January 2002 State of the Union address) has given time and space for the cancer to spread, as well as created a rallying cry to generate sympathy and recruit more Muslims to al Qaeda’s radical cause.

So the war cannot be won simply by killing the terrorists. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked in an October 2003 internal Pentagon memo: “Are we … dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and radical clerics are recruiting, training, and deploying against us?” In other words, we must also stem the growing tide of anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world. Sadly, the evidence suggests that we are not focused on that challenge.

According to Shibley Telhami, a member of President Bush’s advisory group on public diplomacy, we are “worse than failing. Failing means you tried and didn’t get better. But at this point, three years after September 11, you can say there wasn’t even much of an attempt, and today Arab and Muslim attitudes toward the U.S. and the degree of distrust of the U.S. are far worse than they were three years ago.” Telhami’s forecast is bleak: “There is a total collapse of trust in American intentions and it’s only gotten far worse over the past year. When people hate or resent the United States far more than they dislike bin Laden, how can you succeed?”

Success first requires understanding that Muslim hatred is fueled more by what we do, i.e., U.S. policies, than who we are. In other words — as numerous polls conducted throughout the Islamic world show — they do not hate us for our freedoms, way of life, culture, accomplishments, or values. Indeed, in 1998 a Department of Defense study recognized that much of the anti-American resentment around the world, particularly the Muslim world, was the result of interventionist U.S. foreign policy.

Yet, then and now, we refuse to understand that point, much less to reevaluate the policy. Such refusal results from not wanting to be accused of blaming America for 9/11. That is understandable and certainly nothing justifies those terrorist attacks. But we cannot afford to be blind to the consequences of U.S. policy choices either.

Like an alcoholic in denial, U.S. foreign policy continues to chart the same path, oblivious to the consequences. Attempting to forcibly democratize the Middle East amounts to more U.S. interventionism abroad that reduces rather than increases security at home. Furthermore, the official goal of democratization highlights the hypocrisy of U.S. support for authoritarian and repressive regimes in Muslim countries, such as Egypt and Pakistan. The result is just more fuel to stoke the fire of anti-American radicalization throughout the Islamic world.

If we do not change U.S. foreign policy, we will never win the war on terrorism, however victory is defined.

Charles V. Peña is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute, a member of the Cato Institute Special Task Force that produced the book Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al Qaeda (2004), and an analyst for MSNBC.