Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Big Prize

In all the furor over the selectively leaked National Intelligence Estimate, one of the biggest issues raised by the report isn't getting much attention: the direct connection it draws between the growth of jihadist networks, and "pervasive anti-US sentiment among most Muslims." That's most Muslims, not most radical Muslims, or most Arab Muslims, or most Salafist Muslims, or any other troublesome subcategory.

Supposedly, most of us understand that the conflict that flared into disaster on 9/11 is preeminently an ideological war, in which the big prize is the allegiance of the vast majority of Muslims who are not predisposed to support jihadism in any form. Well, folks, we ain't doing so well on that most crucial front, are we?

I mention this because it appears the US Senate is going to enact legislation today on treatment of terrorist suspects--virtually all of them, of course, Muslims--that will give a fresh bit of ammunition to jihadist efforts to convince their co-religionists that the United States considers them unworthy of any significant legal or moral self-restraint. This "compromise" bill, apparently worked out on the back of an envelope, and motivated almost entirely by domestic political considerations, might theoretically do some good someday, in some hypothetical case of a terrorist suspect with knowledge of a catastrophic attack. Nobody really knows. But what we do know for a fact is that by officially sanctioning some forms of torture, and denial of judicial oversight, this legislation will have a real, tangible and continuing negative impact on how our country is viewed by many millions of people whose good opinion of us has become a major strategic objective.

Don't get me wrong: I don't think the United States should formulate its national security policies via poll results among Muslims. Yes, I understand that anti-American sentiment in the Middle East is partially the product of sentiments (e.g., hostility to Israel) that we either can't or shouldn't do anything about. And no, I do not believe terrorist suspects should be treated exactly like prisoners of war; indeed, I'm all for an international push to revise the Geneva Conventions to reflect the fact that terrorists, by deliberately targeting noncombatants, are guilty of crimes against humanity.

But none of these considerations can justify the casual abandonment of our own legal and moral traditions at a time when our own safety depends on the ultimate acceptance of the rule of law, and of our own good faith, throughout the Muslim world.

There is, of course, a school of thought, identifed most notably with Dick Cheney, that any self-imposed limitations on anti-terrorist actions represent a weak-minded "pre-9/11 framework." The corrolary of this radical concept is that the "new Middle East" we claim as our ultimate objective can be created, and can only be created, via fire and sword; non-jihadist Muslims will ultimately have to choose sides, and we shouldn't waste any time worrying about their opinions in the interim. The steady erosion of our prestige and influence in the region are in no small part attributable to this attitude, which has repeatedly trumped all the presidential rhetoric about our desire for a free and democratic Middle East that mirrors our values.

Those supporting the Bush-Cheney position on treatment of terrorist suspects no doubt think they are signalling a tough attitude towards our jihadist enemies. But I fear it may signal something very different: a defeatist attitude, bordering on complete surrender, in the wider war against terrorism that we are waging in the hearts and minds of many millions of Muslims. This is truly a war in which we dare not cut and run.
-- Posted at 9:11 AM | Link to this post | Email this post

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