Why Liberals Can’t Win the War on Terror

In a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Peter Beinart – former editor of The New Republic, who has declared that only liberals can win the war on terror (the self-proclaimed subtitle of his new book) – offers up a weak mea culpa for “mistakenly” backing the Iraq war but lauds President Clinton’s “multilateral war to prevent the neo-fascist Slobodan Milosevic from cleansing ethnic Albanians from their homes.” What he conveniently ignores is that Clinton’s war in the Balkans was no different than the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein. Both were unnecessary military actions against sovereign states conducted without the formal approval of the UN Security Council, and neither represented an imminent threat to U.S. security – and both were rationalized on humanitarian grounds. As long as liberals like Beinart cannot fathom that liberal internationalism (or what he calls anti-totalitarian liberalism) is fundamentally the same thing as neoconservatism as implemented by the Bush administration, liberals cannot hope to fashion together a policy and strategy to win the war on terror.

Beinart believes the terrorist threat confronting America is a different form of communism or fascism, which is a page straight out of the Bush administration’s March 2006 National Security Strategy:

“The United States is in the early years of a long struggle, similar to what our country faced in the early years of the Cold War. The 20th century witnessed the triumph of freedom over the threats of fascism and communism. Yet a new totalitarian ideology now threatens, an ideology grounded not in secular philosophy but in the perversion of a proud religion. Its content may be different from the ideologies of the last century, but its means are similar: intolerance, murder, terror, enslavement, and repression.”

Beinart’s prescription “for the U.S. to promote freedom in the Islamic world” could also be mistaken for Bush’s national security strategy: “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture. … The goal of our statecraft is to help create a world of democratic, well-governed states.”

Where Beinart and the Bush administration depart company is the liberal internationalists’ preference for working with the United Nations and cultivating the support of the international community. But this difference is largely style over substance. It is about how to implement policy (via international institutions and multilateralism), not about policy itself – the equivalent of John Kerry saying “it was the right decision to disarm Saddam Hussein,” but that he “would have done everything differently.” The reality is that liberals like Beinart and neoconservatives both arrive at the same end point. The result is an alliance of strange bedfellows brought together by the belief that American security is best served by using military power to spread democracy throughout the world, as evidenced by a January 2005 letter from the Project for the New American Century to the leadership of the U.S. Congress calling for increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps for “promotion of freedom.” The signatories included many of the “usual suspects” of neoconservative ilk – e.g., Max Boot, Thomas Donnelly, Frank Gaffney, William Kristol, and Danielle Pletka – as well as many left-leaning luminaries – e.g., Ivo Daalder, Michele Flournoy, Michael O’Hanlon, and James Steinberg (not surprisingly, all except O’Hanlon served in the Clinton administration).

Like so many other liberals, Beinart fails to recognize that the terrorist threat represented by al-Qaeda (now growing into a larger radical Islamic movement) is not due to a lack of democracy in the Muslim world. Moreover, it is not necessarily true that all future democracies will be friendly to the United States – especially democracies in Muslim countries. Indeed, if completely free and popular elections were held in Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, the resulting governments would likely be anti-American. Even Reuel Marc Gerecht at the American Enterprise Institute – considered a bastion of neoconservative foreign policy thinkers – admits that democracy in Arab and Muslim countries is not likely to be pro-American.

The reality is that Osama bin Laden has been very clear about why he attacked America on 9/11: as a response to U.S. policies, particularly in the Muslim world. When bin Laden talks we hear the “kill Americans” part, but we tend to be deaf to his reasons why. In his 1996 fatwa “Declaration of War on the Americans Occupying the Country of the Two Sacred Places,” bin Laden claimed, “The [Saudi] regime is fully responsible for what had been incurred by the country and the nation; however, the occupying American enemy is the principle and the main cause of the situation. Their [Muslims’] efforts should be concentrated on destroying, fighting, and killing the enemy.” In February 1998, bin Laden issued another fatwa to all Muslims claiming that “the ruling to kill the Americans and their allies – civilians and military – is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim.”

Neither of these fatwas cites American or Western culture and democratic freedom as the reason for jihad against the United States. Indeed, in an October 2004 videotape bin Laden said, “Contrary to what [President George W.] Bush says and claims – that we hate freedom – let him tell us then, ‘Why did we not attack Sweden?'”

According to al-Qaeda expert Rohan Gunaratna, “What Osama and his followers object to is not so much the American way of life, not so much Americans themselves, as what they perceive the American government, in the shape of its foreign policy, is doing to Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, the occupation of which is intolerable to Osama.” This is reinforced by Peter Bergen, one of the few Western journalists to interview bin Laden: “What he condemns the United States for is simple: its policies in the Middle East. Those are, to recap briefly: the continued U.S. military presence in Arabia; U.S. support for Israel; its continued bombing of Iraq; and its support for regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia that bin Laden regards as apostates from Islam.” And according to Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA’s bin Laden Unit and anonymous author of the bestseller Imperial Hubris:

“There is no record of a Muslim leader urging his brethren to wage jihad to destroy participatory democracy, the National Association of Credit Unions, or the coed Ivy League universities. Many Muslims may not particularly like what and who the rest of us are, but those things seldom if ever make them hate us enough to attack us.

“What the United States does in formulating and implementing policies affecting the Muslim world, however, is infinitely more inflammatory. While there may be a few militant Muslims out there who would blow up themselves and others because they are offended by McDonald’s restaurants, Iowa’s early presidential primary, and the seminude, fully pregnant Demi Moore on Esquire‘s cover, they are exactly that: few, and no threat at all to U.S. national security. The focused and lethal threat posed to U.S. national security arises not from Muslims being offended by what America is, but rather from their plausible perception that the things they love most and value – God, Islam, their brethren, and Muslim lands – are being attacked by America.”

The key to winning the war on terrorism, then, is not a liberal internationalist version of neoconservatism or going back to the future by applying Truman anti-totalitarian liberalism to promote freedom and democracy against the radical Islamic threat. Rather, what is required is a real overhaul of U.S. foreign and national security policy based on an understanding that U.S. interventionism is a root cause of anti-American resentment in the Muslim world – which breeds hatred and becomes a steppingstone to violence, including terrorism. Accordingly, the guiding principle for U.S. policy should be to stop meddling in the internal affairs of countries and regions around the world, except when they directly threaten U.S. national security interests – i.e., when the territorial integrity, national sovereignty, or liberty of the United States is at risk. This is especially true in the Middle East and Muslim world.

There are three important points to be made about the role of U.S. foreign policy in strategy for the war on terrorism. First, while it is not enough to think about targets simply as people or things, as we ordinarily would when it comes to war, there is some usefulness to Clausewitz’s admonition that “a certain center of gravity develops, the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends. That is the point against which all our energies should be directed.” According to Michael Scheuer,

“[B]in Laden has no center of gravity in the traditional sense – no economy, no cities, no homeland, no power grids, no regular military, et cetera. Bin Laden’s center of gravity rather lies in the current list of U.S. policies toward the Muslim world because that status quo enrages Muslims around the world – no matter their view of al-Qaeda’s martial actions – and gives Bin Laden’s efforts to instigate a worldwide defensive jihad virtually unlimited room for growth.”

Second, although U.S. foreign policy may enrage Muslims, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the key to calming that rage. Yet because bin Laden uses the plight of the Palestinians to appeal to Muslims around the world, that is the commonly held perception. That perception is grounded in the fact that Muslims around the world identify with the Palestinians’ situation, but fixing the Israeli-Palestinian problem will not fix grievances that other Muslims have in their native countries. Thus, it is important to remember what former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tip O’Neill once said: all politics are local. So while it would certainly help to have the Israelis and Palestinians peacefully resolve their differences, it is naïve to expect that achieving such a peace will solve other problems in other countries. Moreover, a true peace can only be achieved when both parties are serious about wanting peace and willing to take all the necessary steps to achieve peace. Instead of improperly presenting itself as an honest broker and failing to produce peace, it would actually be better if the United States was less involved in trying to arbitrate and impose a peace settlement. And the downside risk of active U.S. involvement if the peace process fails is that Palestinian terrorists could use U.S. bias toward Israel as an excuse for the failure and a reason to make America a target.

Third, there is a paradox that must be understood: although the United States needs the cooperation of governments such as Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries to hunt down al-Qaeda within their borders, that does not necessarily mean that American foreign policy should be directed toward creating cozy relationships with the ruling regimes, treating them as if they were long-standing allies such as the Europeans have been under NATO, forged by more than 50 years of the Cold War.

Conventional wisdom holds that the United States is dependent on oil, which requires close ties to regimes in the Middle East. But the realities of the economics of oil do not justify the U.S. obsession with Middle East oil and the need for special relationships with autocratic and oppressive regimes in the region (such as Saudi Arabia), which also highlights the hypocrisy of any U.S. policy based on promoting democracy. After the Gulf War of 1990, the United States maintained military bases in Saudi Arabia to help secure the kingdom and ensure stability and a continued flow of Saudi oil. The alliance between America and the Saudi royal family has generated enormous ill-will toward the United States on the part of thousands of Saudis who despise their government. The same can be said for America’s relationship with Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak. It is no wonder, then, that al-Qaeda exploited that hostility to murderous ends: 15 of the 19 suicide-hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001, were Saudi nationals, and their ringleader, Mohammed Atta, was an Egyptian.

When liberals talk about changing U.S. foreign policy, what they’re really talking about is changing how the U.S. conducts policy. If liberals want to win the war on terrorism, then they have to be willing to reevaluate their thinking on foreign policy. A kinder, gentler, more humanitarian liberal internationalist version of neoconservatism, however, is not real change. Promoting freedom and democracy via the military, even with UN sanction and the help of allies, is still unnecessary U.S. interventionism unrelated to U.S. security. The hard truth is that even before 9/11, the United States needed to readjust its foreign policy. The war on terrorism now demands making real changes. More than anything else, U.S. foreign policy is the cause of virulent anti-Americanism that is the basis for terrorism. Changing U.S. foreign policy may not guarantee victory in the war on terrorism, but not changing it will certainly spell defeat.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.