How to Lose the War on Terrorism:
V. The Politics of Indignation

Mark Perry & Alastair Crooke

Asia Times, June 8, 2006

The foundational belief of the "war on terrorism" is that militant Islam is hollow. We are not fighting a credible movement with a set of core beliefs, but "evildoers" - people who have nothing to say, who are without values, who hate our freedoms and who want to return their societies to the 7th century. Militant Islam is much like worldwide communism, an empty shell that, if confronted with overwhelming power, will crumple like burned paper. Not coincidentally, neo-conservatives aver, the evildoers of militant Islam, a new class of post-Soviet religious Bolsheviks, have taken root in a region that suffers from the same maladies that fueled the "evil empire": state-engineered poverty, endemic corruption, political oppression, access to weapons of mass destruction, and a failed ideology.

For America's neo-conservatives, the past victory over the Stalinist state and its Warsaw Pact allies points the way to the future. All that needs be done to triumph over this evil is to replicate the late US president Ronald Reagan's strategy of confrontation with the USSR: increase defense spending, deploy Western armies to troubled regions, undermine collaborationist societies, spread democracy, and counter the evildoers' propaganda with political toughness. Those who counsel caution (Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft, George H W Bush - those who called a halt to the first Gulf War after 100 hours and so saved Saddam Hussein) do not understand that "managing" Middle Eastern extremists, particularly in an era of benevolent US military hegemony, is to signal a surrender against the forces of evil. Ronald Reagan had it right: a little nudge and Islam's Nicolae Ceausescus will be hunted in the streets.

This "implosion of tyrannies" belief is now a central tenet of neo-conservative doctrine. Yet as a result of the Iraq debacle and the seeming incoherence at the center of US and European policies, even some of neo-conservatism's core believers are beginning to have doubts. In a series of recent articles and a best-selling book, Francis Fukuyama - one of neo-conservatism's charter members and a scholar most responsible for establishing its post-Reagan bona fides (particularly in The End of History and the Last Man) - exiled himself from the movement and critiqued its mistakes. Writing in the British newspaper The Guardian, Fukuyama accused the neo-conservatives of "overreaching" in Iraq "to such an extent that they risk undermining their goals".

Saying that "neo-conservatism is something I can no longer support", Fukuyama directly attributes its failing to its interpretation of the end of the Cold War. "The way it ended shaped the thinking of supporters of the Iraq war in two ways," Fukuyama wrote. "First, it seems to have created an expectation that all totalitarian regimes were hollow and would crumble with a small push from outside. This helps explain the Bush administration's failure to plan adequately for the insurgency that emerged. The war's supporters seemed to think that democracy was a default condition to which societies reverted once coercive regime change occurred, rather than a long-term process of institution-building and reform."

Fukuyama expands his claim by adding that neo-conservatives have not only misread the history of the end of the Cold War, they have failed to understand the true nature of democratic political institutions and how they are established. In fact, the neo-conservatives (and Fukuyama) also misread the Cold War's beginnings.

The West's response to the Soviet threat was shaped by the military lessons of World War II. The two American military giants of that conflict, Generals George C Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower, emerged from the war convinced that the United States and its allies needed to follow a policy in which communism was contained, but never directly confronted.

Their view was adopted not simply because they believed it provided the best chance for ultimate victory, but because (contrary to the "greatest generation" historical narrators), US soldiers had not acquitted themselves particularly well in the fight against the Axis. At the height of the conflict (at the time of Germany's counteroffensive in late 1944), the rate of desertion in US units reached an astounding 45.2 per thousand - the highest rate of any Allied army - and the beginnings of domestic impatience with the length of the war was becoming obvious. As a result of this, Marshall and Eisenhower shaped and implemented a foreign policy that contradicted General George Patton's strutting dictum that "Americans love a good fight". In fact, they don't, and Marshall and Eisenhower knew it.

The resulting Cold War strategy followed Marshall's and Eisenhower's unofficial dicta: fight only when you have to, never fight alone, and never fight for long. These beliefs were reinforced by British military thinkers, including Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery and Winston Churchill, whose experience at "scraping the bottom of the barrel" for combat soldiers in the Second War stripped Great Britain of yet another generation of young men. So it was that over the course of a generation, the United States and its allies played a "zero-sum game", fighting a series of "partition wars" (in Korea and Vietnam) and "proxy conflicts" (in Afghanistan) that bled the Soviets of their moral authority, economic growth and political will.

Winston Churchill predicted this. Meeting Eisenhower in Lisbon in 1947 for the founding conference of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Churchill summarized his views of how communism might be defeated: "We wait," he said. Eisenhower responded with a question: "For how long?" Churchill did not hesitate - for about 50 years, he said. He was wrong: in 1999, the Soviet Union and communism had been dead for 10 years.

While there is little doubt that Ronald Reagan's confrontational style and defense buildup accelerated the Western vision, it is also clear that he did not singly or solely cause the fall of the Soviet Union.

The strategy that was followed by the West was cumulative, coherent and implemented through the dependence on the creation of a painstaking alliance of democracies who believed in the efficacy of international law and an appeal to international opinion. To claim otherwise is not only to misread history, but to misread the willingness of the American and European peoples to engage in ill-defined, unilateralist and seemingly endless foreign conflicts. This misreading is the direct result of a fusion of the belief that militant Islam replicates the Reagan era with a (Bernard) Lewisian perception that Islam is a form of medieval tyranny. This is intellectual casuistry. It has resulted in the needless deaths of thousands of young soldiers and innocent civilians in a war that is so morally bankrupt that it may lead to our, not their, implosion.

Defining terrorism
Paradoxically, the Arab world's takfiris (those militantly intolerant of "infidels") mirror the West's conclusions about the collapse of the Soviet Union, reading history through the optic of the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, Ayman Zawahiri and their revolutionary supporters believe that international communism's collapse is directly attributable to the mujahideen's political and military pressure. It hardly matters whether this reading is correct (though, as we have noted, it seems unlikely that the Soviet collapse is single-sourced). The reason for the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Soviet Union's subsequent collapse is clear: a major Western power imploded as the result of a defeat at the hands of militant Islam. For al-Qaeda, the differences between the USSR and its American and European antagonists are marginal - Marxism is a uniquely Western world view, rooted in the views of a German philosopher writing in a London library. The lessons derived from the Soviet collapse are, therefore, applicable to the United States.

Speaking three years before September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden laid out al-Qaeda's strategy, saying that just as the Soviets were defeated as a result of their failed war in Afghanistan, so now the United States would be defeated in the same way. But bin Laden implied that his would not be a military victory; rather, he said that the United States would turn in on itself from within, just as the Soviets had: "What is true is that God granted the chance of jihad in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Bosnia, and we are assured that we can wage jihad against the enemies of Islam, in particular against the greater external enemy - the Crusader-Jewish alliance."

Bin Laden expanded on this message in the wake of September 11 in several televised videotapes, each of them reflecting a relatively sophisticated understanding of the weaknesses of Western societies. "We have no difficulty in dealing with [US President George W] Bush and his administration because they resemble the regimes in our countries, half of which are ruled by the military and the other half by the sons of kings," bin Laden told one interviewer. "They have a lot of pride, arrogance and thievery. [Bush] adopted despotism and the crushing of freedoms from Arab rulers - calling it the Patriot Act under the guise of combating terrorism."

Author and scholar Faisal Devji, an assistant professor of history at New York's New School University, has provided Western readers with a small but powerful essay that focuses on militant Islam's message. Devji's Landscapes of the Jihad may well be the most thoroughgoing and insightful treatment of al-Qaeda in the West - shorn of the language of America's rising class of terrorologists, Devji refuses to slum with the pundits or accept that what Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants say is "rigmarole".

Reflecting on bin Laden's post-September 11 messages, he provides this exegesis of bin Laden's words: "The hollowness of the World Trade Center, whose imposing towers crumbled so easily in the face of al-Qaeda's attack, represented the void at the heart of Western civilization itself, not least because the attacks of September 11 were followed by a significant if partial breakdown of America's much-vaunted culture of democratic rights and civil liberties, including even a suspension of certain provisions of the Geneva Convention."

Devji then adds: "This fact was not lost upon any participant in the jihad, to whom it demonstrated that the West's moral superiority was not only hypocritical, because its boasted freedom was based upon the un-freedom of others, but hollow as well, because it could not preserve this freedom even for its own citizens."

Osama bin Laden's thinking mirrors the views of America's takfiris - if you simply poke at the West's structure it will crumble like burned paper. In fact, according to bin Laden, the attacks of September 11 were of little account in terms of actual damage, particularly when compared with the damage the US would inflict on itself in its reaction: the United States and its allies would turn in on themselves; they would seal their borders, spy on their own people, expand domestic police powers, detain people without a warrant, hold people without evidence, torture suspects, violate international norms and subvert foreign governments - becoming, in his words, "a suicide state".

So too, it would seem odd that Western governments would deny liberties to their own citizens but grant them to others; more likely we (we in the West, that is) would, and have, demanded that "our" (and the sense of property here is not accidental - for "our" allies are "our" friends in more than a passing sense) allied Kemalists suppress all resistance to the Western anti-terrorism program, accept Western counter-terrorism funding, agree to US military training, open their societies to "our" (Western) monitoring and, finally, suppress Islamic parties participating in free, fair and open elections - because while Islamists might adopt different tactics, there are "no major differences in goals".

This, in fact, is the doctrine of Islamic revolutionaries: that in refusing to differentiate between al-Qaeda and more moderate groups, in refusing to empower them in their own societies, and in denying the peoples of the region the tools of democracy and self-government that the West extols, the United States and its allies would actually help to spread the jihad, just as the Soviet Union had done by its actions in Afghanistan. Our claim in our first article in this series (Talking with the 'terrorists') - that America's takfiris actually mirror the beliefs of Islam's revolutionaries - now seems particularly pertinent, and eerily Straussian. Islam's revolutionaries see the materialism and self-centeredness of secular liberal society as a destructive mechanism at the heart of Western society.

They view the purposelessness of lives based on a consumerism leading to corruption, fragmentation and, inevitably, nihilism. They see Western commercial interests as dehumanizing and exploitative and its financial structure skewed toward large corporations at the expense of the individual and community enterprise. Finally, they believe that the United States and its allies are incapable of differentiating between moderate "revivalist" Islam and militant "revolutionary" Islam - are incapable of differentiating between the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, Jamaat e-Islami (all of whom endorse democratic practices, have fielded candidates in elections and, in the case of Hamas, have actually taken their place in government) and, say, al-Qaeda in Iraq. These revolutionaries not only believe that Western leaders will fail to differentiate the "revolutionaries" from the "revivalists", they are counting on it.

The invasion of Iraq has provided Osama bin Laden with the circumstances in which to build a genuine Salafist revolutionary movement by capitalizing on the West's missteps and miscalculations. His aim is to create a revolutionary climate that will radicalize the Islamic world and lead to the fall of the Arab "colonial" regimes. The Salafist methodology is neither medieval nor regressive, but global, modern and without borders. Its methods are sophisticated, psychological, nuanced and carefully planned. These are not barbarians, they do not babble; while the United States has focused on September 11, Osama bin Laden's jihadist movement has diligently worked to broaden its appeal by purposely talking to its co-religionists with words that reflect the language of the oppressed.

It has responded to our military strategy by speaking not of victory, but of respect and dignity and self-determination. "Violence, though definitive of the jihad today, is probably the least important of these responses, and likely the most short-lived compared to the other transformations that al-Qaeda has wrought," Faisal Devji writes. "Indeed such violence might well represent the final agony of an old-fashioned politics centered on a specific geography and based on a history of common needs, interest or ideas. Rather than marking the emergence of a new kind of Muslim politics, in other words, al-Qaeda's jihad may signal the end of such politics."

It is this, then, that causes our "angst" - our feeling that somehow we have gotten the "war on terrorism" wrong; that we are not winning this conflict and that, in continuing our current policies, we cannot win it. We have a growing sense that the enemy we are fighting cannot be contained, limited or quarantined, that its foot soldiers are not easily identified, that its ideology is ever-changing, that its methods have less to do with violence than with the use of language. That what we face is not simply an insurgency in Iraq, or car bombs in Beirut, or bombings on our subways, but a coalescing transnational intifada that does not so much oppose our beliefs as demand that we live up to them - and that somehow gains strength with every aircraft carrier that we deploy.

Our colleague Jeff Aronson - who joined us in Beirut for our exchanges with the leaders of political Islam, puts this another way: "We have to come to terms with a disturbing and blunt truth and finally face it - that after September 11 a segment of [the] planet celebrated. We cannot simply pass it off, we cannot ignore it. We have to face it."

After September 11, the West is evincing a growing unease that we can now begin to characterize, that identifies the "long-known vulnerability of our complex civilization" that makes us question our most "deep-seated conceptual presuppositions". That "angst" - simply stated - grows from our having not listened to or understood the enemy we are fighting. Instead, we have drowned out the diverse voices of Islam with our own univocal ascriptions, while our enemy continues to evade our attempts to frame his existence. The "angst" comes from the slow realization that our policies have begun to reflect a hypocrisy in spreading our most cherished ideal. We say we support democracy, but our most recent initiatives seem purposely designed to undermine it.

A leading foreign-policy figure in the United States, though not a US official, recently accompanied us to Beirut for discussions with a Hamas official. His purpose was to explore Hamas' views toward Israel and the conditions under which Hamas might be willing to accede to Israel's recognition. The discussion was detailed and fruitful, as it identified Hamas' views that recognition should include a reciprocal exchange in which Israel recognized the legitimacy of Palestinian aspirations and rights and that recognition be discussed at the conclusion of a deeper comprehensive settlement.

The foreign-policy figure came away from our meetings impressed by Hamas' grasp of the current political environment and its dedication to good governance. Disappointment followed the meeting, however, when the United States adopted a "soft coup" policy aimed at "punishing the Palestinian people for making the wrong electoral decision". Our colleague's response to this policy unveiled the "vulnerability" at the heart of "presuppositions" and the "angst" that we now feel: "Perhaps I am mistaken in this," he reflected wryly, "but I was under the impression that punishing the innocent for political gain is the definition of terrorism."

That the West does not live up to its beliefs - and that contradictions plague the Western program for the Islamic world - is the subject of many of bin Laden's video commentaries. "The killing of innocent civilians, as Americans and some intellectuals claim, is really very strange talk," he said in an October 2001 interview. "Who said that our children and civilians are not innocent and that shedding their blood is justified? That it is lesser in degree?

"When we kill their innocents, the entire world from east to west screams at us, and America rallies its allies, agents, and the sons of agents. Who said that our blood is not blood, but theirs is? Who made this pronouncement? Who has been getting killed in our countries for decades? More than 1 million children died in Iraq and others are still dying. Why do we not hear someone screaming or condemning, or even someone's words of consolation of condolence?"

For bin Laden, says Devji, killing "has become the instrument of achieving equality with the enemy", and he goes on to quote bin Laden's October 2001 analysis of the September 11 attacks: "Just as they're killing us, we have to kill them so that there will be a balance of terror."

For bin Laden, the guilt of Western leaders for implementing policies that killed innocent Muslims is shared by all. The American people put Bush in office, returned Prime Minister Tony Blair to 10 Downing Street, and hence institutionalized the war with Islam. We - we in the West - are all guilty, bin Laden claims. "Your security is in your own hands," he says, "and each state which does not harm our security will remain safe."

The war of the takfiris
As we have criticized "America's takfiris" for promoting false political categories that rob language of its meaning and cultures of their diversity, so now we are confirmed that Islam's revolutionaries stand in the same dock as their antagonists. As we believe that the neo-conservatives have done violence to the central pillar of "our" Western "values" - tolerance - so too it seems eminently clear that in holding all guilty, bin Laden and his takfiri allies believe that their actions are not subject to Islamic legal restraints, especially those prohibiting the killing of non-combatants.

His explanation is that Islam is fighting an existential battle against an intransigent enemy and that differentiating between innocent and guilty is a useless enterprise, since "they're all the same" (that is, the West's culture is "ethnocentric"). He would undoubtedly argue that any exercise that fails to recognize the fact of Western oppression is guilty of moral relativism. His failure is ours: a refusal to differentiate, a desire to hold all responsible, to sharpen our intellectual incisors on a foundation of collective guilt, not only to divide the world into "us" and "them", but then having dipped into this bit of vacuous legerdemain to suppose that when we talk about building a just world we're lying - but he's telling the truth.

Our response has been consistent:

We understand that one does not become a revolutionary through science, as Marxists believe, but out of indignation. We understand that there are grievances and that it is possible they are just. But all humans are caught by involuntary responsibility and guilt by circumstance, and not just those who have suffered through colonialism or exploitation. Oedipus did not want to marry his mother and murder his father, but he did it - and it's a crime. Nor is it necessary for us to dissociate ourselves from our own history simply because it is sometimes shameful.

That we engaged in an inquisition does not make our condemnation of any future inquisition moot; our support for Saddam Hussein does not justify his gassing of the people of Halabja, September 11 does not justify Haditha. We are not naive. We know, in philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty's formulation, that "there is no line between good people and the rest and that, in war, the most honorable causes prove themselves by means that are not honorable". Still, "that the bully does not know what he is doing does not excuse the bully". We do not love peace out of weakness, but because of the strength of our belief that peace is the only course that will assure us a future.

We have talked with those political Islamists whom we define as "revivalists" because they derive their beliefs from a set of principles that human actions must be moral and just. They believe that there is an indisputable system of values, articulated in the foundations of their religion, that provide a guide for all actions: not simply that policies must be grounded in principles, but that the ends can never justify the means. These "revivalists" are committed to the proposition that as God has given humans the right to choose their beliefs, so too God has given individuals the right to choose their leaders.

The takfiris on both sides reject these principles, holding that some lives are inherently more valued than others, that "there must be a balance of terror", that "pity is treason", that the innocent may be made to pay for the crimes of the guilty, that "power is virtue", that all compromise is perfidy, that the ends justify the means.

The "revivalists" believe that there is justice in the universe, that it must be pursued and that it can be implemented, no matter how imperfectly. Not all people pay for their crimes and some are even rewarded. But our celebration of justice is not dependent on its perfection. The people who fell to their deaths through the air of lower Manhattan did not bear the guilt of a generation of leaders, any more than all Sunnis are responsible for the tragedy of Karbala, or all Jews for Israel's occupation, or all Christians for Auschwitz, or all Shi'ites for Iraq's death squads. People are responsible for their actions.

Saying what we mean
In preparation for this article, we returned to the Middle East region for the specific purpose of discussing the "war of values" between Islam and the West and the deepening despair that seems to grip our societies. We reviewed with our interlocutors our briefings in Washington, London and Brussels and bluntly reviewed the increasingly remote possibility that the West would recognize and differentiate among the several forms of Islamism.

Our Hamas interlocutors found our review of our meetings in Washington particularly compelling, but were angered by the West's rejection of what they viewed as Hamas' good-faith commitment to provide good governance for their people. "How are we to view what you are doing to our people?" a Hamas leader asked. "And we are forced to conclude - when we say we're for democracy you say we're lying, but when you say you're for democracy we know you don't mean it."

Another Islamist leader listened closely to our report, but then issued an emotional response dripping with sarcasm: "So that's why you killed all those people in Fallujah," he said. "It's because they didn't agree with your values."

But by far our most interesting exchange came in Amman, with a respected and dignified Iraqi leader who spent years in the West but has seen his country "ripped apart by your policies, and infiltrated by the jihadists you created". He listened politely to our presentation and thought for a moment. "For years and years we have talked and pleaded with you," he said. "We told you we did not want kings and princes over us, but you did not listen. We told you we wanted a future for the Palestinian people, but you did not listen. We said we wanted a fair price for our resources, but you did not listen. And we said that we wanted you out of our lives and our societies, but still you did not listen.

"And then the great tragedy of September 11 happened and we were sad, but in our hearts we all asked you the only question that matters: 'Are you listening now?'"

And here he paused again, dissatisfied with his metaphor and suddenly discomfited by the meaning behind his words. It was not what he had meant to say and so he shifted uncomfortably, feeling the need to amend what he had said. And so he spoke of his religion, emphasizing the importance of the Koran in the life of a Muslim. "Its central message is so important that it is almost never stated in our societies," he told us, "and it is simply this: God 'speaks' in the Koran and human beings learn by listening."

This article first appeared in Asia Times.



One Comment

  1. Andy Simon wrote:

    Very interesting. Do you have a facebook or twitter page I can follow you on?