We Are Making al-Qaeda Stronger
Despite any efforts on the part of the United States, the Middle East remains awash in violence. In July, 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice famously described the moment as "the birth pangs of a new Middle East," but that seems to have been wishful thinking. A recent U.S. National Intelligence..
Despite any efforts on the part of the United States, the Middle East remains awash in violence. In July, 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice famously described the moment as "the birth pangs of a new Middle East," but that seems to have been wishful thinking. A recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate states that al-Qaeda has regrouped and is more powerful than at any time in recent history. A 2007 report from the National Counterterrorism Center is starkly titled "Al-Qaeda Better Positioned to Strike the West." The United States seems to be locked in an endless occupation of Iraq, and meanwhile the true perpetrators of September 11th have been largely ignored.What went wrong? How did the war on terror fail so disastrously?It might be instructive to place this moment in historical context. The modern Muslim world was shaped during the days of European colonialism. Then, as now, Western liberalism was a handmaiden to the imperial project. It was permissible to subjugate other peoples as long as one came bearing the ideals of the European Enlightenment. Even noted liberal Alexis de Tocqueville-involved in bringing the Enlightenment to French colonial Algeria in the mid-19th century-reveals in his correspondence a sentiment that is remarkably illiberal. Criticizing squeamish French officers, he wrote, "I have often heard men in France whom I respect, but with whom I do not agree, find it wrong that we burn harvests, that we empty silos, and finally that we seize unarmed men, women, and children. These are in my view, unfortunate necessities."Today's internationalists claim that America can bring liberalism to the Muslim world, beginning with Iraq. Sadly, their policies have produced the opposite result. They have strengthened sectarian identities as well as Islamist movements, and they have weakened democracy and the rule of law.Right now, al-Qaeda is less a terrorist group than a brand-a multinational organization competing in the global marketplace of ideologies. Jihadism is commonly believed to be an expression of religious fanaticism. There certainly is an element of truth to this, in that the cult of religious martyrdom provides for cheap human cannon fodder. But it belies an important truth: Suicide bombers use a political rather than a religious calculus. The first suicide bombers were not Muslim; the explosive vest was popularized by secular Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist, has developed the most detailed profiles of jihadis. In his book, Leaderless Jihad, he argues that the second generation of jihadis is motivated by the belief that Islam is under attack by the West. Thus, the rhetoric of a new world war, Islamofascism, and the playing out of imperial fantasies strengthens jihadis not only in terms of recruitment but also in terms of solidarity. There is a curious symmetry between the rhetoric of bellicose Western conservatives and bloody jihadis. Jihadis agree with their Western counterparts: Yes, the West is at war with Islam. But in this war, the jihadis are defending Muslim lands. For the West, a war on these terms cannot be won.The British have largely eschewed the belligerent rhetoric of their American cousins (there is little talk in Britain of Islamofascism). They have instead shrewdly criminalized jihadism. Jihadis are not Islamic, nor are they defending Muslims, they are merely criminals. How does one defend a common criminal, a murderer? One doesn't. Sadly, such wisdom has not reached the shores of the New World, where an apocalyptic vision of World War IV (the title of a recent New York Times best seller by the neocon Norman Podhoretz; he counts the Cold War as World War III) and fantasies of a liberal empire empower the very enemy they claim to fight.How was the war on terror lost? The recipe was simple: Ignore the jihadis who attacked America. Instead invade a foreign Muslim-majority country or two. Position NATO troops in a number of Muslim-majority countries spanning Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Support authoritarian Muslim regimes that suppress their citizenry and hold sham elections. Talk up the need for democracy. Support torture abroad-especially of Islamists. At the same time, talk up the need for human rights. Promote rhetoric about fighting Islamofascism. Continue ignoring the jihadis. Simmer slowly, and wait for everything to boil over.