The Key to Victory: Winning the War of Ideas
As US air assaults continue against Afghanistan, it remains possible that the United States will win the military contest against the Taliban fairly quickly, as was the case during the 1990-91 Gulf War. The Taliban regime, which the Afghan people have little reason to love, might soon collapse. Terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden himself could be captured or killed. But even if US military forces can accomplish these goals, the United States will have achieved little if it does not win the war of ideas now playing out across the Muslim world.
The danger is that the United States, in destroying the Taliban and bin Laden, will unwittingly foster the spread of radical Islamic ideas across the Muslim world. Bin Laden fervently believes that the Westespecially the United Statesis primarily responsible for all the ills currently faced by Muslims. He sees the expulsion of the West from the Muslim world as the key to solving its problems.
Bin Laden's true strength lies in the fact that his vision appeals to millions of Muslims not just the poor and uneducated, but many middle class, educated believers as well. Muslims harbor numerous grievances against the United States. As is well known, many believers perceive American support for Israel as a major factor behind the ongoing confrontation against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There are also several Muslim regions under non-Muslim occupation, including Chechnya in Russia, Kashmir in India, and Uighurstan (Xinjiang) in China. While the United States has no connections to developments in these regions, many Muslims blame Washington for not doing anything in these cases to alleviate human suffering.
Many Muslims also believe that American support props up a host of corrupt, repressive governments in the Muslim world, including those in Saudi Arabia and the other oil-rich Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and elsewhere. Since bin Laden's ideas appeal to a wide audience in the Muslim world, there exists a real danger that even if existing terrorism threats are completely eradicated a new generation of radicals will arise to threaten the United States in the future. To head off this threat, the United States needs to take action to address the Muslim world's grievances.
The United States can, and should, actively encourage the democratization of allied Muslim governments. Even if progress is slow, doing so could go a long way to showing ordinary Muslims that the United States is not an obstacle to this process in their countries. Also, Washington should act to accelerate the Arab-Israeli peace process, and should encourage peaceful settlements to the conflicts in Chechnya, Kashmir, and Uighurstan.
If the United States does not actively support democratization and conflict resolution, then moderate Muslims have a tough time refuting extremists' portrayal of America as the enemy of the Muslims. Americans may, then, win the military contest with bin Laden. But if they lose the war of ideas with bin Laden, the Americans are likely to find themselves in an unending series of confrontations with the Muslim world.
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.