Symposium | After Iraq: A Symposium

Rejoin the Battle of Ideas

By Will Marshall

Tagged Foreign Policynational security

Come what may in Iraq, the next president’s top priority will be regaining the moral and ideological initiative against Islamist extremism. In the crucial battle of ideas, President George W. Bush’s inept handling of present conflicts has given radical Islam a second wind and thrown America on the defensive. In fact, the president’s mistakes in Iraq and elsewhere have resulted in a bizarre moral inversion: Only six years after losing nearly 3,000 people in a single morning to jihadist terrorism, America is now widely regarded not as a principled champion of human rights and democracy, nor even as a nation sensibly acting in its own self-defense, but rather as an occupier and aggressor.

Our inability to stabilize Iraq feeds this impression, but so does
the way Bush frames the broader conflict against jihadism. For too many
Muslims, his “war on terror” has morphed into a war on Islam. The
Administration’s excessively martial policies and rhetoric play into
the hands of Osama bin Laden, who invokes the specter of a new crusade
against Islam to radicalize Muslim opinion.

To counter the Islamist surge, we need a more precise definition of
the conflict. As Reza Aslan, a scholar of politics and religion in the
Middle East, argues, “The United States has not so much launched a war
against Islamic terrorism as joined a war already in progress.” This is
a struggle for Islam’s soul, and therefore not one that America can
“win.” On one side are Salafi zealots who promise to restore Islam’s
glory by violently purging Muslim societies of modern ideas and erasing
all boundaries between politics and religion. On the other is a Muslim
mainstream striving peacefully to reconcile Islam and modernity.
Unfolding amid a general revival of Islamic fervor and identity, this
contest is mainly for Muslims to decide. Yet America cannot safely
disengage from the conflict. On the contrary, our country (and Europe
too) has an enormous stake in the outcome. In the wake of the Iraq
debacle, we need a new strategy for tipping the scales toward Muslim
moderates and modernizers.

Stretching from Morocco to Pakistan, the greater Middle East is to
the early twenty-first century what Europe was to the twentieth: the
world’s crucible of ideological militancy and war. Radical Islam has
arisen here in response to a tangle of pathologies, including unpopular
governments whose competence is confined to repression; stagnant,
command economies; sectarian and tribal divisions; and anger over what
many see as the Muslim world’s humiliating weakness.

Amid the mounting turmoil, it should be obvious even to the most
doctrinaire realist that the United States cannot simply return to its
60-year policy of supporting “moderate” autocracies in the name of
stability. Corrupt and oppressive, haunted by the failures of socialism
and Arab nationalism, and seemingly impervious to reform, the Middle
East’s post-colonial order is breaking down. It makes no strategic
sense for the United States to prop up this rotten status quo; on the
contrary, such a course would only reinforce a jihadist narrative that
has America talking democracy while practicing imperialism. Besides,
Washington can’t have it both ways. We can’t defeat jihadist terrorism
by embracing the very regimes whose mis-governance, corruption, and
outward deflection of extremist energies feed it. Our security now
depends, as never before, on change in the Middle East.

With this paradigmatic shift in mind, our next president must do
three things to put America back on the ideological offensive against
radical Islam: First, rebuild America’s moral credibility, which will
drain the jihadist narrative of much of its potency. Second, support
Muslim reformers who reject intimidation and violence. Third,
marginalize Islamist extremists by stigmatizing their ideas and their

We should start by putting our own house in order. That means
unequivocally banning torture, closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay,
and junking the “Cheney Doctrine,” which holds that U.S. presidents can
make up their own rules for detaining, interrogating, and trying
terrorist suspects without regard to domestic or international law.
These policies, by belying America’s reputation as a liberal champion
of the rule of law, make us weaker, not stronger. They have handed our
enemies a propaganda windfall and made it harder to win our friends’
cooperation on counterterrorism. By realigning U.S. security policy and
our liberal values, we can gradually rebuild trust in American
leadership and shift the moral onus in this conflict where it
belongs–to the devotees of a jihadist death cult who murder innocents
in Islam’s name.

Second, Washington should use the neglected tools of American
statecraft, especially economic strength and public diplomacy, to back
Muslim moderates struggling to modernize their societies. As the Arab
U.N. Development Report of 2005 makes amply clear, the Muslim world’s
lagging economic development is an incubator of extremism. Once the
great crossroads of trade connecting Europe and the Orient, the Arab
world is now a conspicuous outlier in the global economy. As the
Progressive Policy Institute’s Ed Gresser has documented, its share of
world trade and investment plummeted 75 percent between 1980 and 2000,
even as its population has nearly doubled. The entire region attracts
about as much foreign direct investment each year as Sweden. It’s
easier to reject modernity if you enjoy few of its benefits, so a new
U.S. strategy should use our economic power to help Muslims improve
their economic prospects.

That’s why we need a large-scale, Middle East Prosperity Plan aimed
at opening the region’s economies, lowering barriers to trade and
investment, and integrating the Middle East into global markets. This
would not be just a massive infusion of aid, but a strong push to
stimulate trade and investment and break the Arab and Muslim heartland
out of its economic isolation. Granted, economic growth and development
won’t magically “cure” extremism. But spreading the tangible benefits
of prosperity to the Middle East can help the West deepen ties of
mutual interest in the region, temper the perceived injustice of
economic globalization, and open new avenues of opportunity to aimless
young men who otherwise might be tempted to sign up for global jihad.

Helping Muslims build more responsive and accountable political
institutions is another way to undercut the allure of jihadist
insurrection. Unfortunately, Bush has set back the cause of Middle East
democracy by conflating it with the Iraq war. And recent electoral
gains by Islamists in Iran, Lebanon, and especially the Palestinian
territories have fed fears that democracy may be spreading extremism
instead of curbing it. But as Shadi Hamid of the Project on Middle East
Democracy has argued in these pages [“Parting the Veil,” Issue #5], the
United States should not rule out the possibility of finding allies for
political reform in mainstream Islamist parties, like Egypt’s Muslim
Brotherhood, that have renounced violence. While such parties are
rarely paragons of liberalism, they are challenging regimes widely seen
as corrupt and unjust. They are also anathema to Al Qaeda, which
considers democracy a form of idolatry punishable by death. Backing the
Islamic parties’ right to compete for power could align America with
popular aspirations and open space for genuine political competition
and pluralism.

The next president must also revive America’s moribund institutions
for public diplomacy. Washington spends upwards of $400 billion each
year on the military but a paltry $1.5 billion on public diplomacy.
This is no way to win a battle of ideas. How can we counter the
arguments of Islamist extremists when, according to a 2005 study of
public diplomacy, the State Department had only five Arabic speakers
capable of appearing on Arab television? Beyond ramping up attendance
at language schools, we also should recruit a corps of Muslim-American
volunteers to tell America’s story around the Muslim world. A landmark
poll by the Pew Research Center found that U.S. Muslims are
well-assimilated, on average well-educated and prosperous, and
satisfied with the way their lives are going. They are, in short,
uniquely qualified to testify to the essential compatibility between
Islamic faith and culture and liberal democracy. America needs these
credible interlocutors who can debate, challenge, and reason with
Muslims–preferably in their own language.

Finally, given America’s diminished moral stature in the Muslim
world, we should work with Europe and other great powers to marshal the
legitimating force of international agreements and institutions to
stigmatize terrorism. For example, we should push for a new
international anti-terrorism treaty that outlaws all acts of violence
against noncombatants–with no exceptions for “resistance” to
occupation. The next president should lift the administration’s
pigheaded bar on U.S. participation in the International Criminal Court
and ask that body to indict Al Qaeda and other terrorist leaders for
crimes against humanity.

The civil war raging today within Islam is not ours to win or lose.
But America can help to tip history’s scales by standing alongside
those who are willing to take a stand against fanaticism and terror.

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Will Marshall is the president of the Progressive Policy Institute.

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