The Earthling

Why the World’s Opinion of Us Matters

This is the third of a nine-part series on how America should fight its war on terrorism.

Yesterday we reached a conclusion that was grandly christened Proposition No. 4:The amount of discontent in the world is becoming a highly significant national-security variable. Of course, there’s never been a time when seething worldwide discontent was good for America’s security. But in the past, for the discontent to really hurt Americans, it had to first find expression via some national government. That’s why 50 years ago the basic goal of American foreign policy was simple: Make sure all national governments either like us or fear us. As we approach an age when a small group of free-lancers can traumatize a nation, the rules of foreign policy change.

The problem isn’t that Washington has been wholly oblivious to this development. On the contrary: For years it’s been hard to make it past the front desk of a foreign-policy think tank without noting the growing significance of “non-state actors.” But chanting the “non-state” mantra isn’t tantamount to getting the picture. The disconnect between mantra and picture lies with the phrase “non-state actors.” Though technically accurate, it suggests the image of a finite number of enemies, lurking in dark corners, whose elimination would spell lasting security. As President Bush puts it, we’ll “smoke out” the terrorists, hunt them down, and that will be that. “We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place until there is no refuge or no rest.”

This sort of rhetoric acknowledges one of the two technologically driven trends behind Proposition 1 but ignores the other. Bush sees that, thanks to advancing munitions technology, a few well-organized terrorists can now do lots of damage. But he gives short shrift to the fact that, thanks to advancing information technology, intense anti-Americanism is more and more likely to become clusters of well-organized terrorists.

Once you emphasize both trends, you see what a pickle we’re in. Many things you would do to “smoke out” terrorists could increase the amount and intensity of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world and elsewhere. Yes, it’s nice to hunt down the few remaining al-Qaida troops in Afghanistan. But if every once in a while you accidentally bomb a Muslim wedding and kill 50 civilians—providing Al Jazeera with a week’s worth of programming, fanning hatred of America across the Arab world—is the prize really worth the price?

From the beginning of the Afghanistan campaign, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dismissed reporters’ questions about civilian casualties: “When one is engaged militarily … there are going to be unintended loss of life. It has always been the case, it certainly will be the case in this instance.” In other words: Why make a big deal about what has been a feature of all past American wars? Answer: Because something basic has changed. Back during World War II, when Rumsfeld came of age, enemy civilian casualties had essentially no bearing on America’s national security. Now they increase the chances of American civilians dying in the future. (Obviously, military action that risks “collateral damage” can make sense even in light of this fact; the initial liberation of Afghanistan from Taliban control was extremely valuable from the standpoint of both the average American and the average Afghan—and, in fact, it was accomplished with fewer civilian casualties than many had feared, though arguably more than was necessary.)

Even when American foreign policy is concerned with old-fashioned political actors—prime ministers, presidents, kings—public opinion abroad matters as never before. The wave of democratization over the past few decades has made many foreign governments more responsive to their citizens. Even non-democratic governments—notably some in the Islamic world—have to pay more attention to public sentiment as the information revolution proceeds; their ability to shape that sentiment via centralized control of the media is fading, while the ability of dissidents to organize grows. More and more, how governments treat America—including how thoroughly they cooperate in the war on terrorism—will depend on how their people feel about America.

To the extent that people in Washington have, since Sept. 11, seen the growing significance of public sentiment abroad, they’ve tended to depict the problem as one of public relations. Congressman Henry Hyde asks, “How is it that the country that invented Hollywood and Madison Avenue has such trouble promoting a positive image of itself overseas?” In July the Bush administration replied to such concerns by announcing the creation of an “Office of Global Communications.” The office, an official explained, would do things like broadcast top-40 songs to Muslim youth and punctuate them with, for example, quotes from President Bush.

Well, I suppose it can’t hurt. Or at least it can’t hurt much. And certainly public relations matters. But it will have to be public relations of a subtle and creative sort, given the subzero credibility that information emanating from the American government carries in much of the Muslim world. And, anyway, image isn’t everything. In the end there will be no substitute for Policy Prescription No. 2: The substance of policies should be subjected to a new kind of appraisal, one that explicitly accounts for the discontent and hatred the policies arouse.

To put it another way: We have to understand that terrorism is fundamentally a “meme”—a kind of “virus of the mind,” a set of beliefs and attitudes that spreads from person to person. One way to squelch terrorism is to kill or arrest the people whose brains are infected with the meme, and the Bush administration has done some of that effectively. But some forms of killing and arresting—especially the kinds that get us bad publicity—do so much to spread the meme that our enterprise suffers a net loss. So, policy prescription No. 2, in some contexts, can be more precisely stated as Policy Prescription No. 3: The ultimate target is memes; killing or arresting people is useful only to the extent that it leads to a net reduction in terrorism memes.

Rephrased in these terms, the point I’ve been trying to drive home is that, for technological reasons, memes are getting faster and slipperier. The information age is doing for these “viruses of the mind” what dense urban living and interurban transport did for biological pathogens during the late Middle Ages. (The result of humankind’s failure to reckon with this was the Black Death.) And few things drive terrorism memes farther and faster over their new electronic conduits than doing an ill-thought-out job of neutralizing people already “infected.”

Seen in this light, some American anti-terrorism policies appear if not clearly wrongheaded, at least more dubious than before. After Sept. 11, we sent hundreds of troops to the Philippines to help the government fight Islamic guerrillas. Given that the Americans’ essential function was just to train and guide Philippine troops, one might ask why the Americans had to be uniformed and armed—and photographed and publicized. Mightn’t some locals resent this conspicuous intrusion by their former overlords, the Americans? Especially given that anti-American sentiment had already forced the government to kick Americans out of their Philippine military bases? Ensuing street demonstrations, in which thousands of Filipinos protested the new American presence and were subdued with water cannons, answered the question.

This particular mission—to confront a group known as Abu Sayyaf—had little relevance to the war on terrorism anyway. As the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof pointed out, Abu Sayyaf is basically a small group of thugs who kidnap for profit. And the assault on them was hardly an unalloyed success: One of the two Americans they had kidnapped was killed in the rescue attempt. Meanwhile, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a larger, more genuinely ideological Philippine guerrilla group that has clearer ties to al-Qaida, was unharmed by the operation—though its leaders presumably enjoyed the demonstrations and may have capitalized on the clumsy American presence to build support. (The dicey business of handling groups like the MILF—deeply ideological Islamic separatists with substantial constituencies—we’ll discuss next week. For now let me just assert that evolving information technology is going to make separatism a more and more powerful force in a manner strikingly analogous to the way the printing press eventually favored the carving of nation-states out of empires. So, sending troops in to quell other nations’ separatist uprisings is not a policy that should be pursued without discernment, unless our goal is to divert the hatred of all the world’s separatists toward America.)

The Philippines escapade resulted from taking the phrase “war on terrorism” literally and thinking of the enemy as a finite group of warriors, rather than a contagious mind-set that may spawn new warriors faster than you kill the old ones. We mounted a “show of force”—something that may work when you’re trying to intimidate a potentially aggressive nation but that may backfire when the enemy is, in part, Muslim resentment of American power and arrogance. This suggests Policy Prescription No. 4: In a war on terrorism, applying force inconspicuously makes sense more often than in regular wars.

The potential for the pursuit of enemies to backfire applies also within America’s borders. The surveillance of mosques, the interrogation of donors to Islamic charities, the detention of Muslim-American citizens for weeks without filing any charges—these things can definitely help prevent terrorist attacks. But to the extent that they make Muslim Americans feel persecuted, they also have a downside, such as making things like the July 4 airport shooting more common. My point isn’t that the downside is clearly outweighing the upside; the upside of the administration’s police work, both at home and abroad, has been considerable, and in most cases the net result is no doubt a gain. My point is just that administration deliberations and public debate should go beyond their present scope—the valid question of whether we’re “violating civil liberties” in a legal or moral sense—and raise the separate question of whether in some cases we’re planting the seeds of our own future suffering. It isn’t in America’s interest for the only check on Attorney General John Ashcroft’s zeal to be negative feedback from judges.

Though 9/11 made Americans aware that in some sense the attitude of the world’s Muslims toward America matters, this fact has yet to enter foreign-policy debate very explicitly. This summer, in a big policy shift, President Bush demanded that Yasser Arafat step aside as Palestinian leader, even if he is elected to office by a majority of Palestinians. Bush made no counterbalancing demand of Israel, even though there is one demand—ending the construction of new settlements in the West Bank—that has the support of roughly every American who thinks about these things. Bush caught some flak on this count, but I’m not aware of a single pundit who put the criticism in its most elemental terms: The speech’s conspicuous asymmetry had in some intangible but real sense reduced America’s national security.

Maybe this possibility never crossed Bush’s mind. Months after 9/11, remember, he was still sticking by his early commitment to avoid involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian mess altogether. He abandoned that pledge only when he realized that, absent some progress on this front, he couldn’t win the support of Arab leaders for a war in Iraq that he deemed vital to American security. He didn’t seem to see that helping to solve the Palestinian issue would inherently add to American security, by denying Islamic anti-Americanism one of its major sources of fuel.

And, likewise, Bush doesn’t seem preoccupied with the reaction of Arab Muslims to an Iraqi war. Has anyone pointed out to him one big difference between this war and his father’s war? Back in 1991 Arab television was largely controlled by Arab governments that didn’t want the war to incite their people. Now Al Jazeera and other alternative broadcasters exist, and I’ve got a feeling that Saddam Hussein will have liberal access policies for their cameramen.

In the past, one common test of a piece of foreign or defense policy was whether it could be sold to the relevant government. If the Saudi government would swallow an ongoing contingent of American troops, as it did after the Persian Gulf War, then the deal was done. Of course, Osama Bin Laden’s reaction to those American troops—undergoing a kind of conversion experience that seems to have led eventually to 9/11—is something no one could have predicted. Still, someone could have pointed out that for foreign troops to be stationed in Islam’s holy land is sacrilege—not just according to Bin Laden, but according to some mainstream clerics. If we had realized this, and had grasped the rapidly growing importance of public opinion abroad, that would have counted heavily against this policy.

After an early terrorist response to America’s presence in Saudi Arabia—the 1996 truck bombing that killed 19 U.S. troops—American elites responded in time-honored fashion. In assessing the implications of this anti-Americanism, they focused largely on whether it could seize control of an actual government. A New York Times analysis concluded, “The consensus among outside experts and American officials is that the royal family maintains a firm grip on power and that Saudi Arabia’s fundamental alignment with the United States is unlikely to change.” That turned out to be true—but 9/11 still happened. 

Remarkably, even after 9/11, conservative pundits were still dismissing concerns about the opinion of “the Arab Street” since the street, however angry, never seemed to boil over and topple a regime. But those 19 hijackers started out on “the Arab Street,” and if “the Arab Street” weren’t full of hatred of America, the Twin Towers would still be standing.

Of course, that hatred has been building for awhile. If you listed all the culturally and politically insensitive things America has done over the past two decades, you wouldn’t be close to accounting for all of it. Any good war-on-terror strategy must deal more deeply with “the roots of Muslim rage,” which we’ll turn to tomorrow.