The first step in ending the War on Terror is to stop calling it “the war on terror.”
Ever since 9/11, the Bush administration—supported by the news media—has endorsed the radical jihadi idea that the world is engaged in a great ideological struggle between two competing foes. But this has never been the case. The United States was attacked on 9/11, as it had been many times before and since, by a small band of extremists who cloaked their disdain for America’s global power in the language of religion and the images of cosmic war. They needed to be isolated and brought to justice for their misdeeds, not glorified as America’s global enemy.
The effect of thinking in terms of global war was to make enemies out of millions of Muslims who otherwise would have been our friends—or at least not our cosmic foes. Perhaps the greatest paradox is that the war rhetoric also made George W. Bush into a satanic figure in many parts of the Muslim world.
Shortly before the previous presidential election, I interviewed a Muslim activist in Iraq who supported the jihadi insurgency against the US occupation. I asked him who he wanted to win the US presidential race, and to my surprise, he supported the reelection of President George W. Bush.
“But you hate Bush,” I said in astonishment. “Why would you want him to win the election?”
“We want to defeat him,” he told me, saying that he didn’t want Bush to go quietly.
“We want to win the war and humiliate him,” he said, “the way he has tried to humiliate us.”
Now, over four years later, Bush is on his way out. Whatever symbolic significance he has had as an enemy of radical Islam is leaving the global political stage. The Obama administration has a golden opportunity to rethink the War on Terror.
It seems to me that there is a strategy for victory that does not require armed conquest. My suggestion is that the new administration can “win” the War on Terror in part by rethinking the nature of the conflict. Let me suggest five steps that the U.S. could take in a post-Bush era to bring the War on Terror to an end:
1. Recognize that we are not confronting war but a war mindset.
The radical Muslim war against the secular West has been a powerful idea, erupting from time to time in destructive acts of terrorism, but it is largely an idea. It has no organized army nor is it poised to take political control over any country, especially not the United States. It is an imagined war between what are thought to be the forces of good against the forces of evil—incarnate in the likes of George Bush and his colleagues.
To some extent the Bush administration’s “war on terror” is an imagined war as well. It has placed Osama bin Laden and his cadre on a symbolic pedestal in what has been characterized as a struggle between good and evil. President Bush’s exhortation to be either “with us or against us” might well have compelled a good number of people who were otherwise on the fence to take sides against America. The young Muslims who were involved in the bombings in London’s subway said that they chose to take a stand, and thought of themselves as soldiers in a great moral war. If that image of war disappeared, young men like them would not be enticed into imaginary roles as soldiers for truth.
Obama’s pledge to hunt down bin Laden and exterminate him might have sounded good in tough campaign rhetoric, but it is not a platform for building a foreign policy in South Asia and the Middle East. Anti-Americanism is at an all-time high in Pakistan, and Obama has a fresh opportunity to rebuild the terms and image of US military presence in the region. The Muslim world is waiting for a US president who can stop treating them like enemies to be invaded but as potential friends.
2. Accept that America is the enemy because of what it does, not what it is.
America and other Western powers are thought to be evil because of their actions, such as supporting the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The United States is imagined to be an evil enemy by jihadi activists not because of its freedom or anything else that is inherent in American society, but because of its policies and actions, particularly in the Middle East. Specifically, the U.S. is regarded as the enemy of Islam because of its support of undemocratic dictators like Egypt’s Mubarak and the Saud family monarchy in Saudi Arabia, its invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, and for its one-sided support for Israel without equal concern for the rights of Palestine.
When I interviewed one of the Muslim activists involved in bombing the World Trade Center in 1993, he told me that he liked America. It was easy for him to be a Muslim in the United States, he said, and he respected our freedom of religion. Though he and other Muslim activists, such as Sayyid Qutb, disliked what they regarded as America’s lax moral standards, they were angered only when they thought that we were trying to force our way of living onto them, or to control or exploit Muslim countries. They did not hate America’s freedom—they hated what they regarded as America’s attempts to control others and deprive them of what they regarded as their freedom from the West.
In the same way, most Americans do not despise Muslim activists because of who they are—Muslims—but because of what they do. Bin Laden and his forces are thought to be evil because of their horrible acts of terrorism, not because we think that there is anything inherently evil about Islam. This means that the differences between the two positions are not insurmountable, and the imagined war will end when each side stops doing things that the other side regards as acts of evil.
This means that the Obama administration should not waste its energy in trying to shore up America’s public relations image. That will improve instantly once US military forces are out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the U.S. has brokered an enduring peace between Israel and Palestine.
3. Stop acting like an enemy.
The great terror war would come shuddering to a halt if the United States was no longer perceived as doing evil things in the eyes of its Muslim activist opponents. Many of these allegedly “evil things” involve the US military. The jihadi recruiting videos that are posted on the internet always begin in the same way—showing American military actions that kill and oppress Muslims. An end to those military actions will immediately undercut the support for the anti-American jihadi ideology.
One proof of the effectiveness of a non-military response is the Awakening movement in al Anbar province of Iraq, a movement that arose in 2005 and then became associated with the so-called “surge” strategy of General David Petraeus. As Obama correctly pointed out in the 2008 campaign debates, the success of Petraeus’ strategy was only partially related to a surge in troop strength. In fact the strategy actually involved a reduction of troops in the Sunni territory of al Anbar province. Though these troops were re-deployed to Baghdad—where they joined a surge of new American forces dispatched to patrol neighborhoods and make them more secure—they were not replaced in the al Anbar countryside.
With no US military around to hate—and with American financial support for their new security operations—local militias turned their attention away from America and toward another enemy, the al Qaeda forces that had infiltrated the resistance movement. In this case the US military quickly changed from an enemy to an ally.
When the United States withdraws from Iraq, a major symbol of America’s imagined evil will disappear. During the campaign, Obama consistently supported a pull-out of US troops, and Iraqis will be watching to see how completely this promise is kept. If the withdrawal is slow, if large numbers of combat forces remain in a new name, such as “military advisors,” if the huge US military bases that have been constructed in the Iraqi desert are allowed to remain under US control, Obama’s words about withdrawal from Iraq might be seen as an empty promise.
Of even more concern is Obama’s stance on Afghanistan. During the campaign, he has called for an increase of a hundred thousand troops, which would double the number presently there. Yet it will still be half of the numbers of Russian troops that the former Soviet Union had deployed in Afghanistan—and it lost the war, dragging much of the Soviet economy down with it.
A similarly dismal prognosis is in store for America’s continuing presence in Afghanistan. Moreover, the persistence of US troops in the region will continue to provide an irritant that will bolster anti-American forces not only in Afghanistan but in neighboring Pakistan. There, this presence is a major catalyst, supporting the kind of radical jihadi ideology that has led to acts of terrorism both within Pakistan and in adjacent India, including the recent attacks in Mumbai. For this reason, a strategy for withdrawal from Afghanistan, and from Iraq, should be a high on the list of objectives for the Obama administration.
4. Become a problem solver not a problem maker.
Aside from what is regarded as its military meddling, the other thing that makes the United States appear as an enemy to many Muslim activists is its influence on Middle Eastern politics. As I mentioned, this includes US financial and political support for regimes that are regarded as dictatorial, and its seemingly uncritical stance toward Israel.
Though the U.S. will not retreat from its political support for Israel—for it has moral and historical reasons for assuring Israel’s security—this stance need not appear completely one-sided. It is important that America be seen as championing the just cause of Palestinian freedom. The Baker-Hamilton Commission report correctly concluded that peace between Israelis and Palestinians would affect the way that the U.S. is perceived in the Middle East, and that a positive outcome to the peace process would undermine the militant anti-American jihadi cause.
The perception that the U.S. is tied to Israel affects everything else that the U.S. does in the Middle East. In Iraq, for example, when citizens in Fallujah demonstrated against the killing of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin by an Israeli military strike in 2004, the protesters linked the Israeli actions toward Palestine with the US military occupation in Iraq. The mob then turned on American contract workers who happened to be driving down Fallujah’s main street (which had just been renamed “Sheik Yassin Street” in honor of the fallen Palestinian leader), killing them and stringing up their charred corpses from the girders of a bridge. It was an image that hardened the resolve of US officials to punish and control Fallujah, which led to the invasion and decimation of the city later that year—actions that in turn increased the level of anti-Americanism among Iraqi insurgents.
So the support for Israel has had a direct effect in increasing the anti-American sentiment in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Conversely, American support for Palestinian autonomy and a renewed effort by the U.S. to become engaged in the peace process would be seen as an attempt by America to be a problem solver rather than a problem maker in the region. It is disconcerting that during the recent Israeli attacks on Hamas in Gaza there has not been a more vocal expression of concern from the Obama camp. Though his administration will not be in a position to affect US policy until after the inauguration, they should appear poised to enter into the negotiations in a positive and fair-minded way, concerned not only about Israel’s security—which it should be—but about the security and autonomy of the Palestinian people as well.
5. Take the moral high road and adhere to international standards of justice.
Perhaps the most enduring position the new administration can take to end the War on Terror is to elevate the discourse of international politics. This means in large part restoring America’s image as a protector of human rights and international law. Both have been tarnished in the zealous antiterrorism tactics of the neo-con years of Bush foreign policy, and this has deeply damaged America’s image throughout the world.
Soon after the revelations of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib, a well-educated woman who taught at Baghdad University asked me, “How can the U.S. expect Iraq to adhere to human rights when it doesn’t do so itself?” Though she had hated Saddam, she told me, she was disheartened to see the U.S. stoop to some of his standards.
The Iraqi woman had a good point, and illustrated the fact that by relaxing our standards of justice and human rights we helped to make enemies out of those who might otherwise have been our friends. Rather than diminishing the threat of terror, it was one of the factors that promoted anti-Americanism and made terrorism possible. Practices of torture and imprisonment without trial have helped to enlarge the image of America as an evil enemy.
The Obama administration would be well counseled to restore the standards of international justice and human rights that were reduced in the name of the War on Terror. For one thing the most pernicious aspects of the anti-terrorism legislation should be repealed. Torture in any form should never be acceptable, and the incarceration facilities at Guantanamo Bay should be closed. Persons accused of abetting in terrorist acts need to be held accountable for their actions, of course, but in the same way that any person involved in a criminal act is held accountable and brought to justice.
These five courses of action will help to diminish the spiral of violence associated with the War on Terror. They will not obliterate all acts of terrorism, however, since there will always be lone acts of extremists who will try to goad us into responses that will magnify their importance and spread their view of the world. Terrorism has become a tool of those disaffected with authority, and it would be as difficult to eradicate all forms of terrorism as to do away with all forms of handguns.
It would be prudent not to overreact to incidents of terrorism when they occur in the future, however. Following the Good Friday Agreement that ended the troubles in Northern Ireland, a rogue band of IRA extremists who were unhappy with what they thought was a sell-out by their own leader instigated a bloody act of terror in the town of Omagh. To the credit of the British and Northern Irish authorities, however, they did not let this incident affect the agreement that they had signed, and they treated the incident as a criminal act undertaken by a few extremists rather than the expression of a mass movement.
The War on Terror will come to a close when America takes the high road in international affairs, and does not exaggerate its response to the provocation of a few. Some aspects of the strategy to end the War on Terror will be difficult. Removing US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan will take time and effort, and engaging in the peace process between Israel and Palestine will involve a great deal of diplomatic maneuvering.
Other aspects of the end to the War on Terror will be more easy to accomplish, and can be done as soon as the new Obama administration is installed. Among them will be an end to the phrase “war on terror,” words that indicate a long-term engagement with ideological positions that are not easily changed. That’s the kind of stagnant thinking that Obama has pledged to overcome. It is time to stop thinking and acting as if the world was at war.