One hears the same question again and again. “Why do so many Muslims hate America? Is it because of who we are, or is it the policies we pursue?” Usually this question comes from the anti-war left (and right), where the answer is always the same — it’s our policies.[i]
A pure, almost quintessential, example of this position appeared in a recent interview with Michael Scheuer, erstwhile CIA officer and now freelance critic of the Administration’s war on terror. Scheuer said bluntly, “[T]his war has nothing to do with who we are or what we believe, and everything to do with what we do in the Islamic world.” And, of course, Scheuer’s what-we-do list contains pretty much what you’d expect, e.g., support for Israel, exploitation of Arab oil, the backing of Arab tyrants, and so on.
The first half of Scheuer’s answer is nonsense. In order to believe the anti-American jihad “has nothing to do with who we are,” you have to close your eyes to 1,400 years of history. America today is the core state of Western Christendom, and from the beginning Christendom has always been Islam’s main civilizational sparring partner — that’s the deep reason the radical Islamists have us in the crosshairs. Of course, there is more to East/West history than conflict. Some of it even inspires hope for the future, like the enlightened treatment minorities enjoyed for centuries under the millet system in the Ottoman Empire, or the democratic record of the modern Turkish Republic. Nonetheless, it is simply a fact that the historical enmity between Dar al-Islam and the West is thoroughly wrapped up in civilizational identity, i.e., who we are. And the precipitous decline Islamic civilization has suffered over the past 300 years has only compounded the problem, as humiliated Muslims either blame the West for their failures or, at the very least, seethe resentfully at Christendom’s embarrassing ascendance.
The second part of Scheuer’s answer, on the other hand, deserves consideration. After all, American policies in the Muslim world have consequences, and surely those consequences influence popular attitudes toward our country. Ironically, however, the blame-American-policy argument gives little support to the anti-war position, and actually cuts the other way. This has become especially true since last week’s remarkable elections in Iraq.
Effects of U.S. Policy
American policies in the Middle East fall into three broad categories. The first is support for Israel. Even though an ocean of ink has been spilled trying to show this is a major source of Arab hatred toward America, the results are unconvincing. Few of the real problems that plague the region have anything to do with Israel, and most Arabs know it. From the slaughterhouse of the Iraq/Iran war, to the invasion of Kuwait, to Syria’s continuing subjugation of Lebanon, to the failed experiments in Arab socialism, to the daily crunching of human beings under the heels of tyrants in practically every country of the Arab world — these are Muslim disasters, not Jewish ones. While Israel is certainly a source of irritation and a focus of anger, Bernard Lewis’s theory probably comes closet to the truth:
[Israel] is, so to speak, the licensed grievance — the only one that can be freely and safely expressed in those Muslim countries where the media are either wholly owned or strictly overseen by the government. Indeed, Israel serves as a useful stand-in for complaints about the economic privation and political repression under which most Muslim people live, and as a way of deflecting the resulting anger.[ii]
The second U.S. policy category consists of those myriad actions throughout the Middle East that must be taken by an outside power simply because of the weakness, incompetence, and venality found in so much of the current indigenous leadership, coupled with the global importance of petroleum. When Saddam made a grab for the Gulf oil fields, for example, someone had to stop him, and the only nation who could lead the effort and supply the requisite muscle was the United States. We can play this role smarter and better than we have, certainly, but it’s a role we cannot responsibly abandon, regardless of whether it inflames the militants. The only way American action in the region could be significantly curtailed would be if the region itself changed, and that brings us to the third and final policy category.
This last category is the broadest and most significant. It encompasses not only U.S. actions and attitudes, but those of all Western powers since the latter half of the 19th century. Put in propositional form, it is simply this: The Arab people, for reasons both historical and cultural, are incapable of living under a government that is not essentially authoritarian. That means the best we can hope for is a region of cooperative tyrants who will keep order and let the oil flow. It is this belief that governed Western policy toward the Middle East for over a century, helping to empower and perpetuate brutal regimes from the Atlantic to South Asia. This is also the belief that the Bush Doctrine is challenging.
You can see the old assumptions everywhere. In his 27 January speech at Johns Hopkins, Sen. Kennedy said the “Iraqi people yearn for a country that is not a permanent battlefield and for a future free from permanent occupation.” Not democracy, not a voice in their future, just an end to the “occupation” and presumably a comfortable return to the rule of some homegrown strongman. Just before the elections in Iraq, The New York Times ran a piece filled with familiar platitudes about “whether it was ever wise or realistic to think that Jeffersonian-style democracy” would stand a chance “in a country and a region that has little experience with anything but winner-take-all politics.”[iii]
The best response to this mindset, and the most hopeful sign so far that the cycle of Arab tyranny can be broken, is the Iraqi elections themselves. And these would have been impossible without the Bush Doctrine and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Of the three categories within which America’s Middle East policy operates, the only one where genuine, promising change seems possible is the third. That means discarding the ugly belief that the Middle East is full of savages who must be ruled with an iron fist, and turning instead to policies and actions that promote popular, responsive government. And whether the anti-war crowd wants to admit it or not, Operation Iraqi Freedom is a vital part of this new approach.
Mr. Carroll is a former officer in the Clandestine Service of the CIA. He can be contacted through Carroll Associates at www.tpcarroll.com.
[i] There are exceptions. For example, see Victor Davis Hanson’s article in the 13 January 2005 issue of the Jewish World Review, Islamicists hate us for who we are, not what we do.
[ii] Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam, The Modern Library, New York, 2003, p. 93.
[iii] John F. Burns, “The Vote, and Democracy Itself, Leave Anxious Iraqis Divided,” The New York Times, 30 January 2005.