How Bush's Policies in the Muslim World Played into Terrorists' Hands -- Can Obama Reverse Course?

What the Bush policy on terrorism ignored was that more than anything else people want a sense of meaning and identity -- and their corollary: respect.
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I just returned from Jordan where I attended a seminar on Islam and American Foreign Policy. What struck me most is that the more you talk to leaders from the Muslim world - the more you study the polling of Muslim attitudes - the clearer it is that George Bush didn't just get the "War on Terror" a little wrong. The basic thrust of the "War on Terror" was 100% wrong - 180 degrees off the mark.

In fact, you could argue, that if Osama Bin Laden himself had designed the strategy, it is hard to imagine how - in its essentials - it could have done more to play into the hands of the small fraction of Muslim extremists who resort to terror.

Bush's policy seemed to presume that if the military could just track down and kill enough Islamic radicals and terrorists, terrorism could be wiped out. But even the Bush administration understood that the small, hard core of Muslim terrorists depends upon support from a much broader group of radicalized Muslims - for new recruits, for money, for protection.

In 2007 John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed published Who Speaks for Islam?, a book based on Gallup's World Poll - the largest study of Muslim attitudes ever undertaken. Between 2001 and 2007 Gallup conducted tens of thousands of hour-long random interviews with the residents of 35 nations with majority or substantial Muslim populations.

Part of this study was devoted to examining the factors that created Muslim radicals. It found that only 7% of Muslims were "politically radicalized" and thought that the 9/11 attacks were "completely" justified.

The Bush administration argued on more than one occasion that what drove terrorists and Muslim radicals was their "hatred for our way of life, our freedom, democracy, and success." But it turns out that this view is completely wrong.

• When asked what they admired about the West, politically radicalized and moderate Muslims both mention: 1) technology, 2) the West's value system, hard work, self-responsibility, rule of law, cooperation; 3) fair political systems, democracy, respect for human rights, freedom of speech, gender equality.

• The politically radicalized are actually more prone than moderate Muslims to agree that "moving toward greater governmental democracy" will foster progress in the Arab/Muslim world (50%, vs 35% for moderates).

• Anti-Americanism is not a result of deep-seated hatred of the West in general, or emblematic of deep East-West religious or cultural differences. Unfavorable opinions of the United States and Britain do not preclude positive views of France or Germany. For example, while only 25% had unfavorable opinions of France and 26% of Germany, 68% had unfavorable opinions of Britain and 84% for the United States.

• It turns out that politically radicalized Muslims are not mainly poor or uninformed. 67% had secondary or higher education (compared to 52% of moderates) and 65% said they had higher than average incomes (compared with 55% of moderates).

The study concludes that: "A primary driver of radicalism, often seen as inseparable from the threat to Muslim religious and cultural identity, is the threat of political domination and occupation."

The findings of this survey are confirmed by a study by Robert Pape, the author of Dying to Win: The Logic of Suicide Terrorism. He investigated every suicide attack in the world form 1980 to 2004. He found that more than 95% of all incidents had as its central objective to compel the withdrawal of military forces from the territory that terrorists view as their homeland.

So what did Bush do? He invaded Iraq and confirmed Osama Bin Laden's narrative. He initiated policies of torture and detention without trial that called into question America's true commitment to democracy and reinforced the widely held view that "democracy" was only a cover for America's desire to occupy Muslim lands and steal their oil.

In the words of Esposito and Mogahed, "While terrorists must be fought aggressively, military occupation of Muslim lands increases Anti-American sentiment, diminishes American moral authority with allies and silences the voices of moderates who want better relations."

What the Bush policy on terrorism ignored was that more than anything else people want a sense of meaning and identity - and their corollary: respect. The polling shows that Muslims feel that their culture and the religious traditions, that in many ways define their sense of personal identity, have been disrespected by Americans and former American leadership.

Of course many neo-cons compounded that sense of disrespect by arguing that the "War on Terror" involved a clash of cultures and that terrorism was just a symptom and that Islam itself was the real problem. Esposito and Mogahed found that these arguments - which have no basis at all in reality - simply confirm radical beliefs, and fears. They alienate the Muslim majority and reinforce a belief "that the war against global terrorism is really a war against Islam."

With resentment of occupation, colonial domination and "disrespect" being the major factors that are shown empirically in the polling to politically radicalize Muslims, you can imagine the impact of the pictures of Muslim's being sexually humiliated by American guards at Abu Ghraib.

So what is the way forward for Barack Hussein Obama as he attempts to defuse Muslim anti-Americanism and prevent growth in the population of politically radicalized Muslims that are the true fuel for terrorism? It's not simple, but several steps seem clear:

Respect. The United States must communicate simple respect for Muslim culture. It must do away with the neo-colonial, neo-con sense that this must be "An American Century" - that we have the moral right to dominate others - that Muslim culture is "inferior." It was a great start that President Obama's first interview was given to the Al Arabiya television. Empathy - being able to put yourself in another's place - is the first requisite for showing respect. The fact that Obama spent time as child in a Muslim country; his name; the fact that life has equipped him with experiences that allow him to understand other cultures; are all huge personal assets that will have a big impact on our success.

Withdraw from Iraq. The Obama administration must follow through on its commitment to end the US occupation of Iraq. Iraq is the principal symbol in the Muslim world that the U.S. is using "democracy" as a pretense to occupy Muslim land.

Actively address the two major iconic conflicts that symbolize disrespect and domination of the Muslim world: the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and the conflict in Kashmir. As long as these conflicts continue they will be the frames through which much of the Muslim world views relations with the West. The appointment of George Mitchell and a sharp reversal of the Bush Administration's neglect of the Middle East conflict will help enormously.

Heavy focus on economic recovery and development. General Blair, the new National Director of Intelligence reported to Congress that the worldwide economic collapse is the country's most pressing security risk; that it may cause instability and violence around the world. The Administration's success in cushioning the deep Bush recession and returning worldwide economic expansion is critical to our security in general, and our relations with the Muslim world in particular. Hopelessness and economic dislocation that leads to political instability could be especially disastrous in countries like nuclear-armed Pakistan and India.

Stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan and the northwest tribal territories of Pakistan. This is the most difficult and complex aspect of the foreign policy disaster that George Bush left on Obama's doorstep. It appears that American (and NATO) military power will continue to be necessary for some time to root out the leaders of Al Qaeda, improve the security situation in Afghanistan, and help support the new, democratically-elected government of Pakistan from extremist elements. But this must be accomplished while doing as little as possible to inflame precisely the fears of foreign domination and occupation that create more politically radicalized Muslims.

That is a tall order. It will require enormous deftness. And it will require the development and execution of a campaign plan that sets clear, achievable security and economic development goals. Most importantly, it will require the close cooperation and involvement of our NATO allies, the Pakistani and Afghan leaderships - and Afghanistan's neighbor, Iran.

When confronted by the tragedy of 9/11, Bush and his neo-con advisers responded with policies they had wished to pursue for years. Their theories turned out to be dead wrong. In fact, they poured gasoline on the fire. Now Obama must put out the flames and rebuild America's relationship with the Muslim world.

Robert Creamer is a long time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on

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