The decision by President Obama to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and open a dialogue with the Muslim world is unlikely to achieve its principal objective, which is to undermine the appeal of al-Qaida. The reason for this is that attacks like Sept. 11, 2001, spring from deep spiritual causes and are not the result of American political behavior.
In his interview with the Arabic television station, al Arabiya, Obama missed the moral dimension of the struggle with terrorism completely. He said that the U.S. has “not been perfect” in its dealings with the Arab world (who has?) and all too often started off by dictating.
At times, he said, we did not know all the factors that were involved in the area’s conflicts. In other words, our actions have, in part, led to the hostility against us, but we are ready to improve. Why, as the victims of terrorism, it was up to us to improve was not explained.
Obama’s remarks may change the image of America in the Muslim world temporarily. In the long run, however, his approach is self-defeating. First, it concedes the question of moral legitimacy and so implicitly justifies the murderous behavior that we are trying to restrain.
At the same time, by concentrating on America’s image, it attaches far too much importance to the mood of the Arab street, rendering U.S. policy dependent on their judgment rather than ours. Finally, it disparages the achievements of the previous administration in strengthening American security, creating the dangerous impression that the Obama administration may not be committed to defending them.
It would have been much better if, in considering his approach to the Muslim world, Obama had taken into account the lessons of a hundred years of experience in combating totalitarianism, which show that fighting fanaticism with political concessions does not work but other methods can. Successful methods include military success and discrediting the school of thought of the fanatic at its most fundamental level.
All totalitarian movements treat their eventual triumph as inevitable. As a result, any military defeat fatally undermines their credibility. In 1983, the U.S. successfully invaded Grenada, an island of 100,000 people. The invasion was treated with ridicule by large sections of the Western public. But this was the first time that an established communist government had ever been overthrown. The communist defeat in Grenada was followed by defeats in Afghanistan and Eastern Europe and ultimately the collapse of the Soviet Union itself.
In recent months, we have witnessed major setbacks for al-Qaida in Iraq. Both the Bush administration and the terrorist leaders identified Iraq as the crucible of the world’s struggle against Islamic terrorism. The apparent defeat of al-Qaida in Iraq, if it is followed up with unrelenting pressure, may trigger the same type of ideological chain reaction that doomed the Soviet Union by undermining the self confidence of the terrorists and the coherence of their alternative world.
Beside military success, defeating al-Qaida means discrediting fanaticism as a system of thought. All terrorist movements, even those that pretend to be “religious” are based on the absolutization of political goals, which become the focus of an entire moral and intellectual universe. This sanctification of politics gives terrorist groups its single-minded determination and atrocious cruelty. But it makes it vulnerable because it is unnatural and dependent on fantasies to justify its existence. The experience of Nazism and communism, the deprogramming of European terrorists and even the de-jihadization of religious extremists in Muslim countries shows that the faith of terrorists will break down when they are confronted with the falseness of their core beliefs.
Obama is trying to open a new chapter in our relations with the Muslim world. He seeks to do so, however, by pandering to that world’s weaknesses rather than appealing to its strengths. There is nothing wrong with extending the hand of friendship but this should not be based on an effort to convince Muslims that the U.S. is not as bad as they think.
On the contrary, it should be done on the basis of complete frankness and the expectation that, in the final analysis, the Muslim world also has obligations to resist fanaticism and defend the benefits of civilization that we all share.
David Satter is a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He is the author of Age of Delirium: the Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union (Yale).