TCS Daily

Enemies of the Good

By Michael Vlahos - December 11, 2003 12:00 AM

The Administration is missing a strategic opportunity -- if it has not already lost it -- to change the way Muslims understand this war. This change would not move us to the outcome Americans desire, but it could promote what may be the best possible and only practical resolution of this war. The problem is that what is desired -- an all-American "triumph of democracy" -- makes the perfect the enemy of the good.

The President's 6 November speech was an eloquent summation of "why we fight" -- for an American and Western audience.[1] But its language sends a very different message to Muslims. We think of this language as universal, but its cherished meanings are very much culturally coded.


Culturally Coded


Americans immediately understand "terrorism" as "evil" that must be destroyed. Equally, Americans understand that in destroying this evil should also mean bringing "democracy" to the places terrorism comes from. We understand this because this is what we have tried to do in all the great American wars: the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. Destroy evil and then redeem those who both created evil and suffered under it.


The examples of Germany and Japan are used often to explain what we are attempting in Iraq. They get across what we want to do there, but the reconstruction of Germany and Japan also show how this war is different from the great wars of our nation's past.


When we fought Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan we fought both evil regimes and their people. Germans and Japanese -- almost to a man and a woman -- loyally supported their evil regimes. To defeat Germany and Japan we had to both defeat their armies in the field and break the spirit of the people and their will to fight. Thus we undertook to destroy both countries and decimate their people. When we occupied Germany and Japan we took over two very compliant societies.


In this war -- in contrast -- we have separated the people both from their regimes and the fighting groups that have attacked us. Thus we can talk about "tyrants" and "terrorists" as distinct from Muslims. We are not in a position to make war on both regimes and their Muslim peoples. We do not have the luxury of that elegant simplicity in this war. We must be against tyrannical regimes and terrorists, but for Muslims.


This means that -- of necessity -- the war must meet the needs of Muslims. By our definition they are oppressed by tyrannical regimes and innocent of complicity in terrorism. If we say (much of) what we are doing in this war is for them, then we have also foreclosed making them part of the enemy war effort or even part of the problem. If we are doing it for them and they are guiltless, then we are not in a position to righteously uplift them on our terms, and according to our preferences. We certainly do not have permission to impose our preferences on them. We have officially obligated ourselves to give Muslims what they want.


But we are not doing this. Our language in fact convinces Muslims every day that we have no intention of giving them what they want. Talking about "terrorism" and "democracy" actually alienates most Muslims. For example, even though most Muslims do not support radical Islamist groups, most Muslims do support the defense of Islam -- as they see it -- under attack. Thus many Iraqis and the majority of world Muslims do support the Jihadi fighters in Iraq because -- fairly or unfairly -- they see them as defending Islam against the unbeliever. The invasion of Iraq has galvanized Muslim opinion against the US and in favor of the Jihadis (as recent polling shows). Likewise most Muslims see Palestinian fighters as defending Islam against Israel. Thus when we talk about "terrorism" most Muslims hear an Israeli-ingrained code word for an armed struggle that most Muslims believe is right and true.


Likewise, when we talk about "democracy" most Muslims -- again, fair or not -- hear a code word for the destruction of Islam. To them, democracy is nothing more or less than the imposition of an anti-Islamic way of life on the Muslim World.


By anchoring our story in these two words - "terrorism" and "democracy" - we drive most Muslims from us and potentially into the arms of the radical Islamists. In addition, talking about the need for democratic reform among tyrannical regimes that we also call "friends and allies" makes us look like hypocrites. Most Muslims believe that we will do nothing risky to force the tyrants to stop being tyrannical. For example the President recently asserted in London that "we will expect a higher standard from our friends in the region." But this means little when the Saudis are at the same time complimented for fig-leaf local concessions, or when the US has nothing to say about the Russian-rigged election in Muslim Chechnya.


What Muslims Want


Truth is Muslims want the tyrants to go, and in their place they want pluralistic and democratic, but also authentically Muslim, governance. What does this mean? We can't know exactly until it happens. Would Arab Muslims go down the path of moderately Islamist Turkey? Perhaps. Or would they be more rigorous, like the democratically elected Algerian Islamists? Remember, they only became truly radical after the FLN tried to crush them. Or would they follow the Iranian model? Here we should not forget that Iran has come a long way since 1979. It may not be fully democratic, but arguably it is well on the road there.


The point is that we don't know what authentically Muslim governance would mean for Arabs. But we do know that pluralism is possible -- as well as democratic institutions -- within an Islamic context. And we should know what Muslim governance does not mean -- it does not mean the rigorously secular world of America today.


Muslims do not want American values -- as they see them. It is important for Americans to understand that Western values have been a disaster for Arab societies over the past half-century. It does little good to protest that these values most often came in the form of Stalin-style Socialism. They were still Western secular values, and they were an unmitigated disaster.


If we want to win this war we need at some level to be believed by Muslims. However much we discount one cliché, "The Muslim Street," we also earnestly invoke its Vietnam-era counterpart, "hearts and minds." Thus we admit we cannot defeat "terrorism" until we have the majority of the Ummah squarely on our side.


It is probably impossible now to actually gain their trust, but we can at least show ourselves to be sincerely committed to giving Muslims what Muslims want. Right now their opinion of us is so low that the only mind-altering venue now is that of the dramatic, unexpected, and wholly bravura gesture -- at one stroke to wipe away Muslim conviction that Americans are hypocritical and at heart anti-Islamic.


The President has yet to talk directly to the Ummah. Imagine a venue where he could talk to Muslims all across the world. What would he tell them?


  • He might tell them first that the United States understands what they want. In the next year or two America will deliver the opportunity for them to build communities on their terms. This means the US will begin to take real steps to withdraw its support for tyrannies in the region.


  • If Muslims want these to be Islamic republics, the US will support that. The US will not support Taliban-like governments that seek to attack America and the West. But the US will not dictate what sort of political system or constitution Muslims freely decide to create.


Does this mean the US will permit Iraq to become like Iran? Muslims do not want that. What they want to hear is that the US will not dictate a democratic outcome -- the people's choice. Everyone knows the US can ultimately insist only on an initial democratic environment in Iraq. If after that an Islamic republic is declared, with its constitution duly amended, what could the US do? Should it act like those Algerian generals and disallow elections, dismiss parliament, and imprison elected Imams?


In his presentation the President must show he really knows and understands Islam, much in the same way he showed how well he knew and understood British culture and traditions in his 19 November speech in the Royal Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace.[2] Just as he spoke easily of Wilberforce, Tyndale, Wesley, and Booth, so he must be able to range across Islamic thought from Ibn Taymiyya to Syed Qutb. Not only would such unexpected fluency catch Muslims off-guard, it would help setup his message that the America is committed to real Islamic change.


And what is the great risk in this? Understand: this would be no approval of radical Islam. Instead it would be demonstrating to all Islam that the radicals are no longer needed. Remember: the radicals have standing only because most Muslims believe that America is the real obstacle to change. The President can show that the US, far from being the obstacle to History, is committed to real change -- and change most wanted -- in Islam.


Naturally such a message could also set in train real historical consequences, like the eventual replacement of the Saudi Kingdom. But we need to recognize that having introduced change into the Islamic World, we cannot forever control it. The Saudis need to be succeeded by more pluralistic governance anyway, and if we succeed in Iraq we will have made such succession certain.


Who Will Change the Muslim World?


The US is in a race now with the radical Islamists over who will change the Muslim World. The radicals want to effect an Islamic revival on their terms, while the US wants to redeem the Muslim World through American-style democracy. The great paradox is that the two change-agents are actually working together: the longer they fight, the more passionate their contest, and the greater the momentum of change itself.


Moreover, however much we talk about "staying the course" until democracy is "up and running" in Iraq, the signals going out now sound like "Iraqification." -- a hasty handing over of the war to an interim Iraqi armed authority just as fast as we can. "Imperial" Washington is abuzz with the scent of "exit strategy," meaning, we might have to settle for less. Redefining our goal as authentic Muslim governance -- instead of maintaining expectations of American-style democracy -- could make an initial Iraqi government seem like more -- rather than less -- of a success.


But the bigger picture of History also needs to be kept in view. As the situation is developing now, the US is bringing change but ultimately may not benefit from it. That is because revolutionary change could begin to outstrip our vision of controlled democratic change. Already we have seen Muslim attitudes shift strongly against the United States, even in states that strongly supported us after 9-11, like Indonesia. We may still pull off our local goal of democratic government in Iraq, and we should be able to sustain it as long as American troops guarantee security.


Yet to fully guarantee controlled democratic change throughout Arab Islam would also mean an American readiness to do what we are doing right now in Iraq ... in Egypt, Arabia, Syria, Yemen, and others -- or when the time comes, be forced to accept revolutionary political changes there.


The only "third way" is to make a virtue of less-than-perfect change in the Muslim World in exchange for something acceptably good -- from the ideological as well as the practical perspective.



[1] "Every nation has learned, or should have learned, an important lesson: Freedom is worth fighting for, dying for, and standing for -- and the advance of freedom leads to peace.  And now we must apply that lesson in our own time. We've reached another great turning point -- and the resolve we show will shape the next stage of the world democratic movement."



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