The Left’s warped view of the war on terror

By John Lovejoy

Liberals want to put terrorism behind us, not by ending it, but by pretending it is no longer a concern. The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof argues that other matters are more important in the presidential race. John Kerry refuses to acknowledge the existence of a war on terror. Considering that liberals think the government can and should be used to end poverty, protect obsolete jobs, and manage healthcare, their uncharacteristic pessimism about the government’s capacity to end terrorism is amusing.

Minimizing the terrorist threat has not prevented liberals from savaging President Bush for his policies towards it. Their central claim is that liberating Iraq was unnecessary, and may lead to more terrorism. Since one cannot ever be sure where Kerry stands on this issue (“I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it”), I will leave it to the more serious foreign policy “realists” to make this case.

Madeline Albright suggests that the U.S. has enraged Arabs by putting troops in another Middle Eastern country, which will only create more terrorists from embittered Muslim populations. This argument assumes that American policies are the central grievance of al Qaeda and their ilk. If only we get out of the Middle East and force Israel to give the Palestinians a state, terrorism will start to recede.

This is not the case. The enemies in this war are extremist Muslims who seek to destroy what they believe is a decadent, secular Western culture that threatens to eliminate their traditional practices. Changes in U.S. policy will not mollify them, as long as they see their societies edge further away from Islamic fundamentalism. Pulling our troops out would not affect that phenomenon.

It is possible that terrorist groups gain some support among mainstream Muslims because of situations like America’s presence in Iraq. But that is beside the point. Terrorist groups’ hatred of the West runs far deeper than frustration with American policies. Their leaders are unlikely to give much responsibility to recruits who do not share their fundamentalist ideology but are merely resentful over specific American actions.

After all, if we changed those actions, it could drive the Johnny-come-lately terror recruits to return to their regular lives. Albright and others believe this is the best way to “fight” terrorism. In truth, it will have no effect. The hard-core terrorists are still going to be the true menace, and it does not take many of them to cause us trouble. Such extremists only complain about Iraq and Israel to distract people like Albright from realizing what really motivates them, and thus to sow dissension in the U.S.

Those terrorists who believe the U.S. is a murderous aggressor are blinded by an ideology that leads them to despise the U.S. regardless of its actions, since no country has done more than America to protect Muslims in the past decade. Hostility to the U.S. spreads not because we have troops in the Middle East, but because extremist clerics teach it to children in places like the Saudi-funded Wahabbi schools that are scattered throughout the Muslim world. Bush’s only major failure in the war so far has been his unwillingness to confront the Saudis on this problem.

Realists, who think nationalism is an idea so powerful that it will inevitably frustrate U.S. attempts to bring democracy to the Middle East, refuse to see the greater power of the idea of Islamic fundamentalism. Having their own countries is not enough for the fanatics. Destroying Western culture is more important to them, and until their strength is diminished—and spreading liberal democracy is the best means of doing that—the U.S. will be threatened by terrorism regardless of what its policies are. But surely removing Saddam, if it did no ill, did no good either, rejoin the realists. After all, even in the worst-case scenario—sanctions are lifted and Saddam builds nuclear weapons—Hussein could have been deterred. He was too rational to attack us, either himself or by giving weapons to terrorists, because he knew that either way we would annihilate his country. Thus, it was safe to allow him to proliferate. Recent revelations about the Pakistani nuclear program, where rogue scientists gave technology to other countries and perhaps to terrorists as well, reveals the danger of trusting to these sorts of comforting delusions.

These leaders do not have control over their own governments. Even Saddam was tricked by his underlings about his WMD program. Surely there are many closet Muslim extremists scattered throughout the governments of these “rational” states who would have no trouble salting away WMD to their friends in al Qaeda. They do not care about retaliation and cannot be deterred, so the only way to forestall a disaster is to ensure that they don’t get their hands on WMD in the first place.

Realists and liberals alike advocate a hands-off, light-touch approach to terrorism that relies on faulty, overly optimistic assumptions about the nature of the enemy. The power of ideology means that only by hastening the secularization of the Middle East, and acting to prevent countries from acquiring WMD, can we achieve long-term security. The potential danger of further attacks is too great for the U.S. to simply stick its head in the sand and pretend it will go away on its own.