President Obama’s recent speech, in which he announced the scaling down of drone strikes, was in many ways a conundrum. For a half hour Obama gave a rousing defense of the effectiveness and morality of drone warfare. Subsequently, however, Obama made a 180 degree turn to announce that the US would henceforth largely abstain from these most precise of anti-terror weapons. The reason for this, Obama explained, is the negative impact drone strikes are having on the US’s long-term counter-terrorism strategy: “winning Muslim hearts and minds”.
Here is what Obama said:
“In the absence of a strategy that reduces the well-springs of extremism, a perpetual war … will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways. So the next element [in our counter-terrorism strategy] involves addressing the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism, from North Africa to South-Asia. As we have learned this past decade, this is a vast and complex undertaking. We must be humble in our expectation that we can quickly resolve deep-rooted problems like poverty and sectarian hatred. … But our security and our values demand that we make the effort.”
Reflect a moment on what Obama says here. In the next stage of its counter-terrorism effort, America should aim (while, admittedly, being humble in its expectations) to eradicate poverty and sectarian hatred ‘from North Africa to South-Asia’. You know, among other ‘underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism’. No big deal.
A while back I wrote that there is currently a stalemate in Western foreign policy thinking. On the one hand, neo-conservative attempts to democratize the Middle East have ended up in catastrophic failures. On the other hand, neo-isolationist attempts to appease Arab concerns and disengage from the Middle East have broken on the rocks of unraveling situations in Syria and Iraq.
What produces this stalemate? The answer lies precisely in what Obama expresses as his long-term anti-terrorism strategy: “winning Muslim hearts and minds”. Ironically, this is the single element shared between the polar opposites of neo-conservativism and neo-isolationism. The only difference in this regard is that neo-conservatives think regime-change and democratization will ultimately win over ‘the Arab Street’ to pro-Americanism, while neo-isolationists think abstaining from Muslim affairs and accommodation of Muslim concerns will do the trick.
But does the ‘hearts and minds’ paradigm actually explain ascendant Islamist violence? Is it a source for sensible policy making? Let’s think for a moment about this question.
It is often said — for example in explaining the recent terror attack in Britain, here, here — that Muslims are just angry about Iraq and Afghanistan But this is somewhat cynical. Because in fact the overlarge portion of civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan were caused by Islamic extremists. So how can these numbers serve as reasonable grounds for further Islamic terrorism? What is more, both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were a reaction to Islamic terrorism, which antedates Iraq and Afghanistan by decennia. So perhaps we should look at 9/11, instead. What ‘grievances’ produced this ‘act of resistance’? U.S. policies in the Middle East, the common answer goes. But what policies? Remember that in Afghanistan the U.S. actually supported Islamic radicals in their fight against the Soviet Union. Without America, all of Afghanistan would be speaking Russian right now. Moreover, the U.S. also supported Wahhabist Saudi Arabia against the secular Saddam Hussein (which is why U.S. troops were based in Saudi at the explicit request of the Saudi King), and the US supported Saddam in turn against the ‘horrible kufar Shi’ites’ of Iran. So what exactly is the big Sunni grievance about the U.S.? Perhaps it is US support for Israel. But by any account the Israeli injustice done to Palestinians pales in comparison to the suffering of Muslims at the hands of other Muslims. This is today illustrated by the horrific violence in Syria, where Assad has succeeded killing as many Muslims in two years as Israel throughout its existence. So what explains, on the one hand, that it is largely Muslims, rather than other populations world-wide, who are continually enraged at the West, and, on the other hand, that Muslims are enraged mostly at the West, where the causes of their suffering are hardly Western?
The point here is that there is no ‘universally rational’ answer to these questions. Anti-Western violence by Muslim extremists is not in fact meted out in objective proportion to injustices done to Muslims, nor are such injustices required to ‘recruit’ Muslim support for Islamism. This is because, pace Obama’s hopeful expectations, Islamist violence is not in fact a proposition that the overlarge number of Muslims in principle reject, as good liberals would, unless they somehow are convinced by compelling and objective evidence of Western aggression.
Rather, Islamic extremism exists for reasons that lie buried deep within the intricate complexities of Islamic and Arab history and culture, and in particular the clash of these with colonialism and modernity. The fact that much of the Muslim world sees appeal in the bizarre idea that the West is engaged in a ‘Zionist Crusade’ signals not a rational rejection of particular U.S. policies, but a much deeper complex of victimization and resistance. As such, if it is not Iraq that Muslims are enraged about, it is Afghanistan, and if not Afghanistan, then drone strikes, and if not drone strikes, then the Israeli occupation, and if not the Israeli occupation, then the existence of Israel itself, and if not the existence of Israel, then Western support for unfavorable regimes, or the lack of Western intervention in Syria, or too much intervention in Syria, etc. etc.
The West cannot, as a matter of policy for the foreseeable future, change these complex attitudes, which are widespread in the Islamic world. Of course the West should still aim to ‘divide and conquer’, as during the Iraqi surge, and reflect on the popular consequences of military efforts. This is simply good counter-terrorism strategy. But counter-terrorism should have modest goals. Obama is wrong to indulge in fantasies of completely ending the conflict with Islamic extremism, and continually attempt at some ‘grand bargain’ that aims to do so. It is precisely such grandiose aspirations that got the West bogged down in the Middle East in the first place. Instead, the West needs to abandon its liberal utopia-seeking tendencies, and get used to the possibility of profoundly anti-Western cultural climates, with which it will have to endure a semi-permanent state of conflict.
[UPDATE: There is one objection that I want to forestall. It is sometimes said that Muslim extremists are angry at the West because it ‘supports Arab dictators’ or ‘exploits natural resources’. First this does not explain why Muslims, in particular, are angry at the West, or why Muslims are angry at the West in particular. All great powers support regimes all over the world and exploit natural resources all over the world. So there is no more reason for Muslims to be mad at the West than at Russia, or for Muslims, rather than, say, Africans, to be mad at the West. Moreover, and more profoundly, this objection departs from what can be described as the ‘Buddha’-critique of American policy. So what, the US should never have given money to Egypt or Saudi Arabia in order to win allegiance in the Cold War? US companies should not have developed projects outside the US, and the US government should not protect these interests? This is not a genuine perspective on the policy making of any state. It seeks to hold state behavior to the moral standards of idealized individuals, who roam the world in saintly benevolence. That has never been the policy of any state, nor could it ever be; as a consequence, it does not provide grounds for the particular phenomenon of anti-Western Muslim violence.]