War Stories

Winning the War for Muslim Minds

What Bush can learn from The Battle of Algiers DVD.

The Criterion Collection recently released a three-disc DVD of The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo’s astonishing 1966 political thriller about the Algerian uprising against French colonial rule. Among the set’s many “special features” is an interview with Richard Clarke and Michael Sheehan—the famous former White House counterterrorism chief and his ex-counterpart in the State Department—in which they discuss the film’s relevance for the war on terrorism today.

There are lots of differences between the two conflicts (their causes and ideals are completely different), but Clarke and Sheehan note one crucial and disturbing similarity: The French army defeated the Algerian insurgents on a tactical military level, but the insurgents won in the long run because the French lacked a “political strategy.” The two analysts worry that the United States might be following a similar pattern—military victories but ultimate defeat—in its approach to fighting al-Qaida.

Clarke tells us that—somewhat like Col. Mathieu, the movie’s methodical commander of the French forces in Algiers—President Bush asked for an organizational chart of al-Qaida’s leaders so he could cross out each of their names as they were captured or killed. (Whether Bush arranged the chart in triangles, like Mathieu, or whether he ever saw the movie, is left unstated.) This practice is apparently the source of the president’s claim that we’ve rolled up 75 percent of al-Qaida’s leadership. However, this calculation fails to account not only for new leaders replacing fallen ones, but also for an expanded rank-and-file, recruited in large part by impressions left by the Bush administration’s own policies.

It is worth recalling Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s wrenching internal memo of Oct. 16, 2003 (addressed to only three of his top aides, but nonetheless leaked to USA Today shortly afterward):

Today we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us? …Does the US need to fashion a broad integrated plan to stop the next generation of terrorists? The US is putting relatively little effort into a long-range plan, but we are putting a great deal of effort into trying to stop terrorists. The cost-benefit ratio is against us! Our cost is billions against the terrorists’ costs of millions.

At the time, I wrote that Rumsfeld’s memo was “pathetic” because it seemed to mark—two years after the attacks of 9/11—the first instance of a top U.S. official even raising such questions. They were the right questions—the sorts of questions that grapple with what Clarke and Sheehan call “political strategy”—but President Bush didn’t acknowledge their pertinence, much less seek answers. One year later, they’re still the right questions and they still stand unaddressed.

President Bush’s approach to terrorism, as stated over and over in speeches and policy documents, comes down to this: Stay on the offensive; kill or capture the terrorists; spread freedom throughout the world. This last plank is a political strategy, of sorts. Its premise is that free, democratic societies tend not to breed terrorists. Exceptions to this theory abound (the Baader-Meinhof gang, the Red Brigades, the provisional wing of the Irish Republican Army …), but there’s something to it. This said, Bush’s formula contains a deeper premise—that freedom is a universal gift from God, sure to gush forth like a geyser once the manhole cover of dictatorship gets blown off.

It’s a nice, even noble thought and, again, valid to a point. But the annals of history offer scant evidence that freedom is mankind’s default mode. Nor is it clear how freedom might spread across the Middle East—at least any time soon—without toppling the autocratic regimes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and who knows where else in its wake: in short, without leaving a vacuum into which Islamic fundamentalists might rush and thrive as never before. In other words, if Bush’s political strategy is to promote global freedom as the counterforce to terrorism, he a) has a long time to wait; and b) may unleash a fresh wave of terror in the interregnum between modern feudalism and true democracy.

For the moment, the combination of Bush’s war in Iraq and his disavowal of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process—which many Muslims see, however misleadingly, as two fronts of a broad U.S. war on Islam—has gravely diminished the very concepts of democracy. Gilles Kepel writes in his new book, The War for Muslim Minds:

The word “democracy,” preceded by the adjective “Western,” has negative connotations for a large swathe of the educated Muslim middle class—although that class was the potential beneficiary of democratization. The Arabic word damakatra, which designates the democratization process, is frequently used pejoratively, signifying a change imposed from without. This disillusionment is of course highly beneficial to the region’s authoritarian governments. Rulers go from one international venue to another, insisting that they are favorable to reforms but that change cannot be imposed externally. … Posing as the champions of nationalism, they wage facile battles against foreign imperialism while postponing any meaningful reform. … The Bush administration’s ineptness in the region could not have led to a more complete dead end.

NPR’s Deborah Amos recently returned from a tour of the Arab states with similar findings. Reform-minded figures in Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia told her that they don’t want Bush to endorse their goals or programs—that association with the United States these days, for any cause, is a kiss of death. (Amos’ five-part series runs next week on All Things Considered.)

So, what is to be done over the next few years? The military, of course, must be part of any counterterrorist strategy. Staying on the offensive, killing or capturing the leaders and the fighters, busting up their command structure, disrupting their financial networks—all these things are obvious. But the key to long-term success—one lesson of The Battle of Algiers—is to dry up the terrorists’ recruitment drive, pre-empt their sources of sympathy, and co-opt the next generation.

One way to do this is to deprive the Islamic militants of the propaganda that the West is waging a war on Islam—and that means, among other things, re-engaging in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Even if it’s true (and it may well be) that neither side of that conflict is much interested in comprehensive negotiations at the moment, it would be good for the United States’ reputation at least to appear to be interested and involved. (It is worth noting that in the last 100 pages of his otherwise highly influential book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, Kenneth Pollack outlined several steps the United States had to take before toppling Saddam Hussein by force; one was to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or at least to try, precisely in order to ward off charges of hostility to Islam.)

Along the same lines, extraordinary measures should be taken to distinguish Islamic terrorists from, say, nationalist insurgents. This is especially pertinent in Iraq, where recent developments suggest that U.S. commanders might finally be doing this, to some extent, in Fallujah. But the principle also applies more broadly. There are 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, 300 million in the Middle East alone. Only a small fraction of them are al-Qaida, or even disposed to joining up, and it’s a terrible mistake to treat them otherwise. The fraction might be smaller still if they sensed that they have a stake in joining the world and that they can do so on their own terms. The elections in Afghanistan might hold out an example, though, as Daniel Sneider notes, the underlying conditions of those elections don’t apply to many other places, including Iraq. Some semi-independent organizations are involved in democratizing enterprises—holding “civil society” forums, subsidizing micro-enterprise loans, and so forth. But these are for now token efforts; there are no huge, high-profile projects in the works, private or public, that vastly improve many people’s lives.

Gilles Kepel notes, “The most important battle in the war for Muslim minds during the next decade will be fought not in Palestine or Iraq but … on the outskirts of London, Paris, and other European cities, where Islam is already a growing part of the West.” Most of these Muslims emigrated to the West not to export terror, but to earn a living. If they’re given an opportunity, maybe Muslims everywhere will take notice and wonder if the West is really as bad as the Bin Ladens say.