The new watchword phrase for the war is "the way forward in Iraq."
To extricate himself from the quicksand of bad news from that conflict, President Bush came up with the theme just before his surprise June 13 visit to Baghdad. He told reporters days earlier that he was going to Camp David "with a lot of my Cabinet members to discuss the way forward in Iraq, to analyze the new government, to look carefully at what their blueprint for the future looks like, and to figure out how we can help."
Yet at a time when fewer than one-third of Americans believe that the Iraq war has made us more secure, how is a deeper commitment to winning the war going "the way forward"?
Isn't it possible that we would be more secure by trying to understand how Muslims think and feel?
One can see why our policy toward the Arab world doesn't include much trust. After U.S. bombing killed the infamous terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a newscast said that a sizable percentage of Sunni Muslims didn't believe that Mr. al-Zarqawi ever existed - they believe he was an American invention used to cover up the murder of Iraqi Sunnis.
Watching the news, one would think that all Muslims are either wildly fanatic or wildly irrational.
In John Updike's latest novel, The Terrorist, the hero is a suburban Muslim teenager from New Jersey bent on becoming a suicide bomber. His rationale? "These devils want to take away my God."
One-sided perspectives always are flawed, as this case proves. In the past year, the Gallup Poll has made a major effort to survey public opinion in 10 Muslim countries (Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia). It's no surprise to find out that there is a highly unfavorable view of the United States. But what about these findings?
• A majority of Muslims in all 10 countries had a favorable opinion of the European Union and thought the EU could serve as an agent of peace. This contradicts the mantra that Muslims hate the West and that a clash of civilizations is inevitable.
• A majority of Muslims supports freedoms of speech, assembly and religion.
• The same majority believes that women should have a right to vote, drive and work outside the home.
I doubt that even the Bush administration's highest-level advisers on the war know these facts. Isn't it time they did?
The Iraq war was founded on misinformation and lack of communication. We would be headed "the way forward" by correcting that as soon as possible.
For example, a basic question with regard to the war on terror is how many Muslims are religious extremists. The answer: far fewer than anyone tends to believe. According to the Gallup Poll, only 8 percent of Muslims hold extremist views (for example, they think the 9/11 attacks were justified). Fifty-five percent are "skeptical moderates" (they don't like the United States but don't believe that 9/11 was justified). Fully 35 percent are pro-American (they like the United States and also feel that 9/11 was unjustified).
These facts make me breathe a little easier. I see a ray of light, and we certainly need one. Democrats and Republicans alike use the global war on terror as a measure of their strength and patriotism, vying to prove who is tougher, angrier, stronger-willed in protecting Americans.
Of course, the Islamic world resents us, but not because it wants a clash of civilizations. If you bother to ask Muslims, as the Gallup Poll did, you'll find that what they resent is our lack of respect for their culture and our attempts to control the Muslim world by force. They are afraid we want their oil, and there's still the perennial opposition to our support of Israel.
When asked to critique their own societies, "extremism and fanaticism" are frequent responses.
If I had been invited to Camp David with Mr. Bush, I would have given my invitation to former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, the architect of the war in Vietnam. What doomed us in that conflict, Mr. McNamara now believes, is that we knew almost nothing about our enemy, the North Vietnamese.
We didn't know how they thought or what they wanted. The whole enterprise of the war was wrapped up in a monolithic idea - "defeating Communism around the world" - just as the present war is wrapped up in defeating global terrorism. Nobody looked closer and tried to understand the people on the other side.
I wasn't invited to Camp David, and neither was any other ordinary citizen, but we can still act on our own. We desperately need an international panel that will have as its only goal communicating with the Muslim world, asking it what it thinks and offering to talk about any grievance.
The Gallup Organization has made a major start, and it is willing, through Gallup University, to expand its efforts by inviting anyone who wants to participate in a dialogue. Since the No. 1 grievance among members of the Islamic world - and this cuts across all 10 countries where the poll was taken - is America's disrespect for Islam, what better way to show respect than to talk as equals?
It won't be difficult to find Americans willing to participate in this panel. I know, because for the past two years I've been working to set up grassroots communities throughout the country that are bound together as the Alliance for a New Humanity. They focus on promoting good deeds for people in need, reflection, understanding and dialogue. They seek new ways to reduce conflict and break down barriers among cultures.
The alliance is made up of civic, business, medical, cultural and political leaders. Their earnest good will is totally devoted to uniting people around the world through understanding and mutual benefit.
The administration has shown the first signs of listening to advice from a wider circle than the tight group of military and national security advisers, so it would be great if we could get the support and participation of Karen Hughes, a close friend of Mr. Bush's who heads the public diplomacy branch of the State Department. Ms. Hughes and her staff are working to improve America's reputation around the world. Let her collaborate with us as we start our process of listening and understanding.
I realize that millions of Americans either don't want to hear any more from the Arab world or have fixed negative opinions about those who practice Islam. But they also want to find a way to avoid a future full of endless battles such as Iraq.
The beauty of understanding is that it helps clear up one of the chief causes of war, which is misunderstanding. Frankly, I'm tired of seeing a billion Muslims as one bogeyman. Isn't it time we asked them who they really are?