Most things that we read in the popular media about radical Islam are fantasies. They are promulgated in the mistaken belief that such dogmas will appease terrorists, or at least direct their ire elsewhere. But given the recent news — murdering in Algeria, war in Mali, the Syrian mess, and Libyan chaos — let us reexamine some of these more common heresies. Such a review is especially timely, given that Mr. Brennan believed that jihad is largely a personal quest for spiritual perfection; Mr. Kerry believed that Bashar Assad was a potentially moderating reformer; and Mr. Hagel believed that Iran was not worthy of sanctions, Hezbollah was not deserving of ostracism, and Israel is equally culpable for the Middle East mess.
1. Contact with the West Moderates Radical Muslims
In theory, residence in the West could instruct young Muslim immigrants on the advantages of free markets, constitutional government, and legally protected freedoms. But as we saw with many of the 9/11 hijackers, for a large subset of Muslim expatriates, a strange schizophrenia ensues: they enjoy — indeed, seek out — the material bounty of the West. But in the abstract, far too many either despise what wealth and affluence do to the citizenry (e.g., gay marriage, feminism, religious tolerance, secularism, etc.) or try to dream up conspiracy theories to explain why their adopted home is better off than the native one that they abandoned.
Finally, foreign students, journalists, and religious expatriates tend to congregate around American campuses and in liberal big cities. There, they are more often nursed on American race/class/gender critiques of America, and so apparently believe that their own anti-Americanism must naturally be shared by millions of Americans from Bakersfield to Nashville. Take Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s new theocratic president. He should appreciate the U.S. It gave him refuge from persecution in Egypt. It allowed unfettered expression of his radical anti-American views. It schooled him in meritocratic fashion and offered him secure employment at the CSU system, despite his foreign national status. It gave citizenship to two of his daughters (apparently retained). But the result is that Mr. Morsi is an abject anti-Semite (“apes and pigs”) and anti-American. He does not believe terrorists caused 9/11. He wants the imprisoned, murderous blind sheik, who was the architect of the first World Trade Center bombing, sent home to Egypt. And he is pushing Egypt into a Sunni version of Iran.
2. The West Must Atone for Its Past Behavior
I have noted elsewhere both the fantasies found in Barack Obama’s Cairo speech and their general irrelevance to the Muslim world. Polls from Pakistan to Palestine — both recipients of massive U.S. aid — show that the U.S. is as unpopular under Obama as it was under Bush. All small nations have writs against large ones, especially the globally ubiquitous U.S. But America must be seen in comparison to … what? Russia’s artillery and missile barrage that leveled Muslim Grozny (which the UN declared the most destroyed city in the world)? China, which outlaws free expression of Islam and persecutes Muslim minorities? Both are largely left alone by al-Qaeda, due to their unapologetic attitudes, possible unpredictable response, and inability to offer attackers a globalized media forum.
In contrast, no single nation lets in more Muslim immigrants than does the U.S. No non-Muslim nation gives more foreign aid than does the U.S. to the Muslim world — Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt, and Palestine. No nation has so sought to save Muslims from dictatorial violence — whether bombing European Christians to save Muslims in the Balkans; jawboning Kuwaitis to spare Palestinian turncoats in 1991; trying to feed starving Somalis; aiding Muslims fighting Russians in Afghanistan; freeing Kuwaitis from Saddam; rebuilding Iraq; rebuilding Afghanistan from Taliban terror; trying to free Libyans from Gadhafi; and on and on.
The sources of radical Islam rage are thus not past U.S. actions. Read The Al Qaeda Reader to chart all the bizarre excuses that bin Laden and Dr. Zawahiri alleged were the roots of their anger at the U.S. So why exactly does radical Islam hate us? Mostly because of the age-old wages of insecurity, envy, and a sense of inferiority — and the hunch that such gripes win apologies, attention, and sometimes money. In a globalized world, Muslims see daily that everyone from South Koreans to North Americans are better off. Why? In their view, not because of market economies, meritocracies, gender equality, religious pluralism, consensual government, and the Western menu of personal freedom. To draw that conclusion would mean to reject tribalism, gender apartheid, religious intolerance, anti-Semitism, statism, authoritarianism, and conspiracy theory — and to admit indigenous rather than foreign causation. Instead, it is far easier to blame “them” for turning the majestic Islamic empire of old into the chaos of modern Islam — as well as to fault Arab secularists whose lack of religious zealotry allowed the West to move ahead. All antidotes to these deductive beliefs — foreign aid, democratization, outreach, better communications — have so far proved ambiguous at best.
3. Israel Is the Source of Muslim Rage
Note two facts about the current mass killing in the Muslim world, in Afghanistan, Algeria, Libya, Mali, Syria, and Yemen. First, it has nothing to do with Israel. Second, the Muslim world is largely silent about the carnage that dwarfs the toll of an Israeli response to missiles from Gaza. The Muslim world cannot do anything about Muslim-on-Muslim violence, but apparently thinks others can do a great deal about Israeli-on-Muslim violence, which is sporadic at best.
Why, then, do Westerners so often scapegoat Israel? A number of very human considerations, apart from the most obvious of anti-Semitism, the Arab world’s oil wealth, and the vast demographic fact of 1 billion persons versus 7 million. We have influence with Westernized and liberal Israel, none with Mr. Morsi or the Libyan assassins or the Algerian hostage-killers. Symbolic pressure is a psychological mechanism to excuse factual impotence. The Arab world is so complex and so torn by tribalism, religious schisms, and embedded pathologies that the Western mind seeks a simple sword stroke to Israel to cut such a complex Gordian knot. For now the problem is supposed to be Mr. Netanyahu, who in appearance and speech seems like an easily demonized American neocon. Yet every writ against Israel is elsewhere in the world commonplace and mostly ignored: our drone killings trump their targeted assassinations; a divided Nicosia trumps Jerusalem; occupied islands off Japan or Tibet trump the West Bank; a million ethnically cleansed Jews from Arab capitals or 13 million Germans cleansed from Eastern Europe trump the Arab flight from Palestine. For a displaced German now to speak of a right of return to “Danzig” is creepy; for a Palestinian to demand residence in Haifa after a similar seven decades of absence is appropriate.
4. The U.S. Can Solve the Muslim World’s Problems.
I supported the war in Iraq as a way of getting rid of a long-term enemy of the U.S., Saddam Hussein, in accordance with the 23 writs of action approved by the U.S. Congress. We did that, ended the 12-year containment and no-fly-zones, and defeated a huge Islamist coalition that flocked to Iraq to wage jihad. That said, Iraq is more stable than Syria or Libya largely because a U.S. presence baby-sat democratic change. To the degree that Iraq will revert to the usual Arab paradigm is probably contingent on the fact that the U.S. refused to leave even a small garrison and simply pulled out lock, stock, and barrel.
Elsewhere, I don’t think the Western intervention in Libya led to much of an improvement over Gadhafi’s nightmarish dictatorship. Morsi may make the kleptocratic Mubarak look good in another year. Take your pick in Syria: the murderous security of the Assad secret police or the murderous chaos of Islamist gangs. I am sure that there are Google execs among all the dissidents, but I am also sure that none will come to power — and most will soon flee their respective countries. No one now is pressuring 8th century Saudi Arabia to become a 21st century “democratic” Egypt. Eastern Europe — warped by a half-century of Soviet-imposed communism, torn by past wars between Russia and Europe, with a baleful legacy of Ottoman occupation in the southeast, and distant from the Renaissance, Reformation, and New World exploration — was saved by its Western heritage and its incorporation into Europe, at least for now. As far as the Muslim world, I see no such heritage or possible likeminded interventions from the West. Perhaps some day globalization or Westernized oil-fed elites in the manner of a Dubai may make a difference — or perhaps not.
In this regard, the Obama administration’s therapeutic approach — jihad is a personal journey; Major Hasan committed workplace violence and endangered the Army’s diversity program; terrorism is a man-caused disaster; anti-terrorism is an overseas contingency operation; there is no war on Islamic terror; trying KSM in a civilian court; loud talk of shutting down Guantanamo; reading Miranda rights to terrorist suspects; loudly inventing underappreciated Islamic discoveries and inventions — is not just silly and embarrassing, but dangerous. The therapeutic approach sends the message to the young terrorist that we are in some way culpable for the violence that he intends to commit, that there may not be dangerous repercussions to his terrorist acts, or that we do not believe in the values of our culture as much as he does in his own.
5. We Are Largely Safe from Islamic Upheavals
While we are largely impotent in terms of modernizing the Arab and larger Islamic world, and while many of its conflicts do not involve any major U.S. interests, I’m afraid we cannot simply wash our hands of radical Islam. September 11 taught us that premodern killers can still reach postmodern Westerners. Oil revenues will give Iran not just the bomb, but in ten years the ability to rocket it to Europe and perhaps the U.S. If there is to be a Persian nuke, there may well be soon an Egyptian or Saudi one as well. Pakistan at any moment could lose its warheads to al-Qaedists. Rising Muslim populations in Europe — the embryo of the Holocaust — are already changing its geo-politics. Over forty terrorist plots have been uncovered in the U.S. since 9/11. A characteristic of radical Islam is nihilism, the morbid desire to destroy all that it cannot create.
In short, we must continue our anti-terrorism vigilance, maintain our military strength, speak honestly to the public, and seek alliances with sympathetic nations who share our views about radical Islam.
More importantly, it is time to reassess our posture in the Muslim world. Giving billions of dollars in aid to Mr. Morsi’s Egypt is unsustainable, logically and morally. We should quietly chart a five-year plan to reach zero aid, a cut-off that could be reassessed should Morsi prove a reformer (fat chance). Ditto diminishing aid to Pakistan, and the Palestinians. The key is not loud lecturing, but just a quiet yet steady twist of the spigot in the off direction. If anti-Americanism earns U.S. money (Pakistan and Palestine just polled the most anti-American of all nations), then perhaps no U.S. money might earn a little pro-Americanism.
Our immigration policy in general is wrecked. But we should radically reassess granting visas to those from non-democratic countries in the Middle East. This hiatus need not be permanent, but again can send a quiet message that there are wages to anti-Americanism.
Oil and natural gas self-sufficiency are now possible in a way undreamed of just four years ago. In other words, there are now real answers to our age-old worries: a stop to predicating our national security on the Persian Gulf; an end to the Arab League holding our foreign policy hostage; a stop to berating Israel and courting Hamas; a curtailing of our disastrous imbalance of payments caused by importing over-priced oil — as well as the possibility of exchanging coal for clean-burning natural gas, creating millions of new jobs at home, and earning revenues to help pay down the deficit. Not developing new wells on public lands and cancelling the Keystone pipeline are not just mistaken, but mistaken to the degree of lunacy.
To the degree that the administration quietly kept in place most of the Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism protocols that it had in campaign-mode so opportunistically derided, and to the degree that its own loud new initiatives either were shelved or faced a storm of opposition in Congress, we have been kept safe for another four years. But if we believe any of the above five truisms, we won’t be for long.