Steven Metz: Islamophobia and the crumbling of American strategy

Posted on February 7, 2011

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Although I don’t agree with the conclusions, this guest post by Dr. Steven Metz is an excellent critique of American grand strategy since September 11th and the corrosive effects which Islamophobia has had. He is the author of more than a hundred publications on future war, the emerging security environment, military strategy, defense policy, international relations and world politics.  His book Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy was published in 2008 and he has written for  journals such as Washington Quarterly, Joint Force Quarterly, Current History, and The National Interest. He also a regular blogger on national security affairs for National Journal and The New Republic.

In the early years of the Cold War, Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg, the powerful chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, urged that politics stop “at the water’s edge.” When facing a major threat – as the United States was at the time – Americans should set aside partisanship, at least in foreign policy and national security strategy.  This was sage advice but seldom heeded.  The norm was for foreign policy and national security strategy to be used as partisan ammunition, particularly against whoever happened to be president and, by association, other members of the president’s party.  The reasons for this lie deep within the American strategic culture and political system.  As a general rule, Americans are not deferential to public policy experts.  The public believes that it should play an important role in formulating policy even on issues where it is not particularly well informed.  Expertise is deprecated with the assumption that common sense can substitute.  Simplicity is lionized and complexity disdained.  Clearly the populist instinct runs deep in American political culture, its ideas advanced by the media in their never-ending quest for a larger audience and politicians in pursuit of votes.

This is good to a degree – it is part of what makes the United States and Americans special.  But the intersection of public opinion, domestic politics, foreign policy, and national security strategy is treacherous. Since most Americans have little knowledge of, interest in, or understanding of world affairs, they are vulnerable to exploitation by pundits and politicians looking for a cudgel to use against a sitting administration.  To resonate with a mass audience, issues are simplified to the point of caricature.  This not only hinders serious policy discussions, but also confuses and antagonizes foreigners, whether allies or enemies (or those trying to decide whether to be allies or enemies). Any domestic consensus which does emerge from this tumult is fleeting and fragile.  It may form during a major conflict or crisis, but quickly crumbles as the perception of danger declines.  One has only to look at the precipitous decline in the approval rating of George H.W. Bush soon after the 1991 war with Iraq.  America loved him, but only briefly.  Historically, rip-roaring partisanship rather than consensus is the American norm.  And today, the United States is once again in a crescendo of this phenomenon.  This has a very dark side: growing domestic hostility toward Islam is undercutting the foundation of America’s global strategy.

For a while after September 11, American politics did stop at the water’s edge; public anger and fear dampened partisanship.  But it did not last long.  As Iraq slipped into protracted and bloody counterinsurgency President Bush’s opponents understood that the conflict there was his greatest political vulnerability.  They had no qualms about using it against him despite the effect that their criticism had in Iraq or elsewhere in the Muslim world.  Ironically, though, even while attacks on the Bush handling of Iraq intensified, there was consensus on his broader strategy for dealing with al Qaeda and Islamic extremism.  Partisan disagreement focused on the execution of the strategy rather than its foundation and assumptions.  Both Democrats and Republicans agreed that the conflict with Islamic extremists would be won or lost in the psychological realm – in the complex, shadowy world of attitudes and perceptions.  Both agreed that a forward defense was best–that extremism should be stifled at its source.  And both agreed that the best way to do this was by mobilizing support and strengthening partners in the Islamic world.  Direct American action, including the use of military force, was sometimes necessary but ultimately victory would come when partner states were stable, prosperous, and capable and thus could control extremism on their own.  Hence the strategy was both forward and indirect.

“Success,” as the Bush counterterrorism strategy stated, “will not come by always acting alone, but through a powerful coalition of nations maintaining a strong, united international front against terrorism.” In addition to building partner law enforcement, intelligence, and military capacity, this included altering “the underlying conditions that terrorists seek to exploit.”  The essence remained psychological.  “In the long run,” the Bush strategy added, “winning the War on Terror means winning the battle of ideas.  Ideas can transform the embittered and disillusioned either into murderers willing to kill innocents, or into free peoples living harmoniously in a diverse society.” President Obama, while committed to changing some of Bush’s methods, largely adopted this strategy.

But while the basic contours of the strategy against terrorism and extremism were accepted by both a Republican and Democratic administration and had wide support from Congress and the American public, it was precarious largely because it was constructed on questionable assumptions formed in the traumatic months after September 11 and never seriously analyzed.  For instance, the strategy assumed that most governments and publics in the Islamic world shared the American threat perception, believing that extremism was inextricably related to terrorism and hence illegitimate.  The strategy assumed that Islamic governments and publics saw the American role much as Americans themselves did.  The United States, Americans believed, wanted only to see extremism controlled and terrorism extinguished.  Certainly, they thought, Muslims must understand this.  And, perhaps most importantly, the strategy assumed that what Americans consider misperceptions common in the Islamic world – that the United States primarily sought to exploit the Islamic world’s resources, to impose its values, or to promote Israel’s security – could be changed by “strategic communications” and assistance.  Differences were simply misunderstanding.  Americans, in other words, saw their power as benign and their motives as pure, and believed others did as well.

These assumptions, having been formed in haste during a time of deep national trauma, were deeply flawed.  Partners in the Islamic world have steadfastly demonstrated different priorities than the United States, often tolerating extremism that only threatened America (or Israel, Europe, Australia, Russia, or India) rather than themselves.  Witness Pakistan’s tolerance of the Taliban and al Qaeda, and Saudi Arabia’s acceptance of extremists, at least until they threatened the regimes in Islamabad and Riyadh.  Much of the Islamic world rejected terrorism which targeted other Muslims, but did not automatically associate what Americans consider extremism with terrorism.  Many Muslims distinguished legitimate extremism, even extremist movements which used violence, and illegitimate extremism.  American strategy did not.  The assumption that anti-Americanism could be fixed by strategic communication and assistance has not proven true.  It resists strategic communications and foreign assistance.  While the Obama administration has been able to moderate some of this, it remains a powerful force, particularly in Pakistan, the most important Islamic nation in the struggle with violent extremism and a major recipient of U.S. assistance.  And counter to American assumptions that closed political systems spawn anti-Americanism, the more democratic a government in the Islamic world, the more it reflects and responds to the deeply anti-American and anti-Israel sentiments of its public and the less likely it is to attack extremism directed only against outsiders.  A closed political system like those in Egypt or Saudi Arabia can, to an extent, ignore public opinion.  They normally exercise control over their military and intelligence services.  More democratic states like Pakistan cannot, thus making them vulnerable to the whims of public opinion and willing to overlook any relationship that their militaries and intelligence services has with extremists.

The notion that public diplomacy and strategic communication would address these problems also proved false.  Ultimately it does not matter whether the perceptions of the United States which are common in the Islamic world – that Washington is in the thrall of Israel, deliberately seeks to keep Islamic nations weak by any means available, and wants to politically dominate the Islamic world so as to exploit its resources – are accurate.  The naive American trust in the power of objective truth does not work in a deadly struggle with extremism.  Beliefs matter more than reality.  Hostility, anti-Americanism, and misperception are simply parts of the strategic terrain, as immutable as mountains or swamps.  Changing deep set perceptions and attitudes is like changing physical terrain: it may be possible over an extended period of time and at great cost and effort, but is normally not the wisest course of action.  Yet the United States continued to rumble along with a strategy based on wishful thinking rather than cold reality.

Yet for a few years after September 11, the fissures and faulty assumptions in America’s global strategy were papered over and held in check.  Islamic partners were willing to cooperate to a point given the benefits involved.  This gave Americans the impression of progress.  But cooperation was fragile and thin, based more on an expectation of material gain than shared priorities and perspectives.  And the United States was able to teeter along with a flawed strategy because opposition from the element of the American public most likely to oppose the partnerships in the Islamic world – the political right – was held in check by Republican control of the White House.  As long as it was George W. Bush and his administration arguing that extremists were not representative of Islam – something that President Bush stated often – the right muted its anger and hostility.  Criticism would only strengthen Bush’s critics.  But with a Democratic president, the gloves came off.   Politicians and pundits on the right found that public anger and hostility toward Islam was a useful tool to mobilize their constituency and attack a president whom a significant portion of Americans believed to be a secret Muslim.  Just as Iraq was President Bush’s vulnerability, Islam is President Obama’s.

Before the 1970s, the vast majority of Americans thought or knew little about Islam.  Most probably did not have an opinion one way or the other.  But two things changed that.  One was the Iranian revolution and its vociferous hatred of the United States.  Seeing Iranian clerics hissing that the United States was “the Great Satan” while hypnotized crowds screamed in assent was an eye opener for Americans. Second was the adoption of terrorism by the Palestinian movement and Hezbollah.  For many Americans, including a number of fundamentalist Christians, opposition to Islam because a component of the support for Israel which, they believed, the Bible required.

These things sparked a distrust, apprehension, and outright fear of Islam which, of course, grew immensely after September 11.  In the anger of that time, hostility began to move from the political fringe toward the mainstream, and to grow in power.  In recent years this has taken a number of forms.   One end of the spectrum is inhabited primarily by people driven by the psychological need to hate something, whether propagandistic bloggers, talk radio hosts who stoke fear and anger to boost ratings and income, or small-time fundamentalist ministers who believe they are implementing divine writ.  These people are simply hard-wired to hate.  With the demise of the Soviet Union, they had no bete noire until what they saw as dangerous and aggressive Islam emerged to replace godless communism.  This realm is also populated by those who are fearful and ignorant – witness groups like Act! For America which has started a nonsensical campaign to prevent sharia law from being applied in Oklahoma.  Reputable publications like the Washington Times run editorials like the one by musician Ted Nugent which (incorrectly) asserts that “If there are in fact moderate Muslims, they have been quiet as mosque mice regarding their views.”  Whether one accords Nugent any credibility as a political commentator or not, the point is that false and often delusional ideas about Islam are no longer at the fringe.  Witness the inability of many journalists, pundits, and broadcasters to understand that the notion that Islamic nations much choose between “secular” and “Islamic” political leaders – which was heared often during discussion of the 2011 Egyptian revolution – makes no sense.

The American public remains divided on their attitude toward Islam.  Polling data shows that 49% of Americans now have a negative view of Islam – the highest number on record.  Of course, Americans themselves would say that means that a majority does not.  But ultimately what matters for the U.S. global strategy is whether the publics and elites in Islamic countries believe that Americans are hostile toward Islam, not polling percentages.  Given the psychological dynamics of the situation, all it takes is periodic outbursts of anti-Islamic sentiment, particularly those with support from American elite figures, to sustain the impression of hostility by Muslims abroad.  Call it the Abu Gharib syndrome – one negative event can counteract dozens of positive ones or majority support.  This is unfortunate, but it is the reality of cross-cultural communication.

But despite the perception of growing American hostility toward Islam, U.S. strategy persists in assuming that there is no basic incompatibility between Islam and Western civilization, only misunderstanding.  Policymakers have not come to grips with the dissonance between domestic hostility toward Islam (whether real or perceived) and a global strategy based on winning support and building partnerships in the Islamic world.  With widespread opposition to the planned Cordoba House Islamic center in New York City, demonstrations against mosques across the country, and Koran burning ceremonies by fundamentalist ministers, passions are boiling.  Muslims abroad are well aware of this.  This undercuts the idea that America’s war is only with terrorists and not all Muslims.  They feed the narrative of al Qaeda and its sympathizers that America and the West are at war with Islam itself.  Condemnation of the Cordoba House by well known figures, including a number of prominent political leaders with electoral ambitions, mosque attacks, and Koran burning make a major contribution to the strategic communication of al Qaeda and other extremists.

Today American strategy has hit the wall, crumbling in the face of growing public hostility toward Islam.  There are only two solutions.  One would be to try and re-cage the tiger by constraining domestic mistrust and hostility toward Islam at least enough to sustain the global strategy.  This would require Republican leaders in particular to return to the messages of the Bush administration – that extremism does not represent or reflect Islam in general, and that despite recurrent anti-Americanism, U.S. partnerships in the Islamic world are making progress and can be sustained.  Republican leaders, in other words, would have to abandon a theme which energizes and excites their political base, and give up on the notion of reviving the emotions of September 11 as elections approach.  This is unlikely.  Equally importantly, leaders and publics in the Islamic world would have to control anti-Americanism.  Countries like Pakistan would have to recognize that they cannot be shrilly anti-American while expecting massive U.S. assistance.  Again, this is unlikely since anti-Americanism in Pakistan and across the Islamic world has become legitimate and institutionalized.  It sells papers and attracts viewers for the media.  It makes politicians popular.  Ironically for Americans, the growth of a free press and the process of democratization in the Islamic world have fueled and will continue to fuel anti-Americanism.

The alternative is to accept the notion that irresolvable differences exist between the United States and the Islamic world, and that the clash of civilizations is a reality.  Americans could stop ignoring blatant hypocrisy such as criticism of opposition to the Cordoba House at the same time that Islamic nations prevent the building of Christian churches, or vehement anti-Americanism combined with a demand for more American assistance.  Americans could stop ignoring the misinformation which abounds in the Islamic world where any conspiracy theory about the perfidy of the United States, no matter how bizarre, finds a ready audience, even among the educated.

If this happens, the United States would be forced to craft a new global strategy based on at least a major if not a total disengagement from the Islamic world, shifting to a close rather than forward defense against terrorism.  In the rubric of the Cold War, the United States would substitute roll back with containment, mirroring decisions made in the 1950s when the infeasibility of roll back became clear.  While a solid argument can be made for this, it is important to think it through.   It would, for instance, require disengagement from Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf.   Afghanistan and Iraq might remain democracies, but would certainly become intensely anti-American, their leaders recognizing that public support is more important to the retention of political power than U.S. assistance.  Iran – as the modern founding father of anti-Americanism – would certainly become more influential (although not hegemonic, given the Sunni-Shiite and Persian-Arab divisions).

Most nations in the Islamic world would be officially anti-American. A few, particularly those facing a major threat to the regime and able to disregard public opinion (i.e. closed political systems) might sustain some type of cooperation with the United States, but it would be tenuous.  Even this would undercut the basis of American strategy since even though al Qaeda needs some sort of sanctuary or base, it does not need any particular sanctuary or base.  It could simply move to nations which heed the demands of their publics to end cooperation with the United States.  Some of these would allow an al Qaeda presence, whether openly or clandestinely.  Across the Islamic world, Al Qaeda would grow in prestige and popularity claiming, whether rightly or wrongly, that it drove the United States out of the Islamic world.  Much of the public there would believe it.  Al Qaeda would welcome many new recruits eager to be part of the perceived victory.  In such a strategy, the United States would “fight them here” because it could not “fight them there.”

Ultimately this might prove better than the current American strategy.  The consideration which long inspired American involvement in Southwest Asia – concern for access to oil – now seems obsolete.  Oil will be available at market prices no matter how anti-American the governments in producer nations.  Disengagement from the Islamic world would allow the United States to make major cuts in the size of the military and the defense budget, thereby providing an opportunity to lower taxes, pay down the national debt, or invest in infrastructure and education.  The United States could fend off even a strengthened al Qaeda.  After all, America’s vigilance and defenses are far superior to what they were in September 2001.  Every indication is that these things rather than involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan are what has prevented another terrorist attack in the United States.  The United States could launch long range spoiling attacks against known al Qaeda bases or sanctuaries.  While these might not be as effective as having allied governments controlling extremists for the United States, they might suffice.  And, if the close defense was effective, it would not matter whether anti-Americanism reached new peaks in the Islamic world.  Disengagement would be a risky strategy but, potentially, one with significant payoffs.

This is, however, speculative.  Still, a few things are clear.  American domestic hostility toward Islam will grow, particularly in the electioneering leading up to 2012.  Hostility toward Islam has fused with political opposition to President Obama.  (Hostility toward Islam is highest among Americans who oppose Obama.)  It has become an integral part of the political battle between the left and right.  But it is also clear that the American public cannot be anti-Islamic and expect Islamic nations to serve allies in the fight against extremism.  This dissonance cannot be ignored or wished away.  It cannot be papered over it with a bit more foreign assistance and more adept strategic communications.  This is akin to painting a rusting hulk.

Albert Einstein once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.  Whatever the context of his statement, he might well have been commenting on current U.S. strategy.  Reality now calls.  If a clash with Islam is inevitable, then current U.S. strategy is paralyzingly flawed.  A new strategy must reflect the inherent antagonism.  This would represent the greatest shift in American strategy since the emergence of the Cold War.  Unfortunately, neither of the feasible strategic options – continuing on with a deeply flawed strategy or totally abandoning it – is appealing.  Both abound with risk.  But the rising tide of domestic hostility toward Islam will soon force the United States to choose.  Americans have ignored the fissures and dissonance in their global strategy for nearly a decade now.  Now that time has passed.  Dangerous times lie ahead.