The War On Terror Six Years On

As we start the seventh year since the Sept. 11 attacks, many in the United States and other countries seem largely baffled and conflicted about the nature of the world in which we live.

In the Muslim fifth of the world, probably about a quarter of the population wishes to clash with America and the West. Probably more than half do not wish such conflict but wrongly suspect that America is out to divide and suppress Islam.

Meanwhile, much of the Muslim Westernized elite (no more than 5 percent of the total population) — who live in Muslim countries, America and the rest of the West — rather desperately hope radical Islam and the Western response it has induced would just go away. It would prefer to live and prosper peacefully in the globalized Western world.

Muslim governments in the Middle East and elsewhere are playing a dangerous double game — cooperating with Western intelligence and covert military efforts and jailing some of the terrorists, while at the same time giving rhetorical and financial support to the deranged paranoia about Americans and Jews that inflames the radical instincts of the Muslim masses.

In fairness, those governments, indeed most governments — West or East — focus on the short term. Moderate Muslim regimes realize that in the long term they would be overthrown if the radicals gain power, but in the short term they rhetorically support the madness of the radicals to avoid further inflaming them. So they risk losing tomorrow for the sake of staying alive today.

It might seem logical that Russia and China would have an interest in fighting radical Islam; instead they have decided that their strongest short-term self-interest lies in standing back and letting the U.S. get more deeply entangled in the struggle. Leaving America to carry the burden alone allows the Russian government to more effectively rebuild its influence over the former Soviet empire and enables China to strengthen its economy and regional hegemony.

Overwhelmingly in Europe, and to a lesser but still large extent in the United States, the vastly unpopular Iraq war has been conflated with the broader war against radical Islam. This regrettable fact has been compounded by the intense hatred of President Bush, who has prosecuted the war with such personal determination and whose own rhetoric has contributed to the confusion.

As a result, six years after 9/11, there is little consensus in the United States or Europe as to the nature and magnitude of the threat, and many — including government officials, experts and the general public — still believe there is little to fear from radical Islam and its terrorists. These people — perhaps two-thirds of Europeans and 30-40 percent of Americans — believe the terrorists can be dealt with merely with law enforcement, as previous 20th-century European terrorists had been. Those who hold this view are likely to wrongly see President Bush, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and others, such as me, who agree with them as exploiting the fear of Muslim terrorists for crass political advantage.

Thus, much of the ferocious controversy over electronic intercepts, Guantanamo, CIA renditions, semi-secret foreign-based CIA prisons, coerced interrogation methods, and the Patriot Act provisions is a product of not seeing a sufficient threat to national security to justify tough wartime intrusions into civil liberties.

If we in the United States can’t agree on the nature and magnitude of the threat, we aren’t likely to agree on the means of protecting ourselves from it. Until a majority can be convinced that we face real danger from radical Islam, virulent political strife in Washington will continue to delay the design and implementation of an effective, united national defense.

Europe’s large and growing Muslim population is inducing an ever-growing fear and distaste of Islam in the indigenous peoples. Several countries — those of the European Union generally; Britain, Holland and Sweden specifically — have responded with a politically correct concern for Muslims, at the expense of their own cultures. The failure of those governments to respond to justifiable anxieties is increasingly alienating their own citizens.

France and Denmark, however, are making tentative steps to deal firmly with the excesses of Muslim culture. And even the British are beginning to consider tougher immigration and deportation procedures.

With America’s smaller, less geographically concentrated, more prosperous and perhaps better-integrated Muslim population, we are not yet experiencing the same degree of culture clash Europe now suffers.

But we should not remain complacent. Europe is the canary in the mineshaft regarding cultural stress between Muslim and indigenous culture. If we permit unmanaged cultural drift, in five to 10 years we will be where Western Europe is today — in the throes of violent inter-cultural contention.

In the days following Sept. 11, I realized we were in for a test of our strength, will and capacity to persist for decades in a harrowing task. But I never imagined that six years into the ordeal, we would remain so utterly divided in the face of a unique and little understood enemy. That constitutes a collective act of abdication of duty without parallel in our long history. We live in greater jeopardy because of it.