A Response: Hassner's 'Friendly Questions' and the War on Terrorism

Pierre Hassner's "friendly questions" (In the National Interest, December 4, 2002) are indeed mostly friendly and reflect the sentiments of one of Europe's most preeminent defense intellectuals, but deserve a friendly rejoinder.

Pierre Hassner's "friendly questions" (In the National Interest, December 4, 2002) are indeed mostly friendly and reflect the sentiments of one of Europe's most preeminent defense intellectuals, who also happens to be a committed supporter of the Atlantic Alliance. They do, however, call for a friendly rejoinder; both because of the observations that they contain and of the points they do not raise. To begin with, are we really at war and, if so, with whom? Hassner seeks to provide a nuanced answer to the pivotal question, by pointing out that, while we are at war with Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, we are not yet at war with the Islamic civilization as a whole. It is this broader war that, in his view, can and should be averted. According to Hassner, one way to avert such a war is to recognize and, presumably, deal with the causes of the broader Islamic discontent--"feelings of humiliation, oppression and exclusion."

While his observations are factually sound, the implications he draws from them are more debatable. To begin with, it is indeed true that, we are not at war with the Islamic civilization as a whole. Yet, it is myopic to suggest that our fight is merely with a few terrorist organizations, which happen to be staffed by radical Islamists. In fact, we are at war against a segment of the Islamic world -- which have themselves declared war on the West. The belligerents arrayed against us include both pan-national terrorist organizations and a number of rogue states. With some of these states, e.g., Iraq, we are actually involved in combat; with others, the situation closely resembles a Cold War-type relationship. Significantly, all of these entities are either truly animated by radical Islamic ideology or at least pay lip service to it. Here, a brief Cold War analogy might be in order. During the Cold War, we also did not engage in an all-out existentialist conflict with the entire "communist world." Rather, our major strategic opponent was the Soviet Union, supported by a number of rather unwilling Central and East European allies; for a number of years, communist-run Vietnam was another major adversary. Yet, during most of this time, such communist countries as China and Yugoslavia were neutral and, occasionally, supportive of U.S. policies.

It is also the case that the question of the role of communist ideology as a motivating factor for the Soviet external conduct, as distinct from the impact of Russian history, culture or geography, used to preoccupy many a Sovietologist, including this one. However, I do not know of many experts, who argued that the communist ideology was irrelevant or that we should not acknowledge the broader doctrinal context in which the Cold War unfolded. In particular, it was essential to appreciate that we and the Soviet Union espoused a fundamentally different vision of how to organize human society and that, in the end, either one or the other system would triumph. A famous Soviet saying, describing the zero-sum nature of the conflict, put it well -- "Kto Kovo", who will beat whom. In my view, we would do well to appreciate that the same logic governs the struggle today between the radical Islam and the West. The forces who are fighting against us are opposed not merely to specific American or European policies, but to our entire way of life, to the way in which we organize our body polities. Sadly, this existentialist point seems to be appreciated much better in the United States than in Europe, just as, by the way, was the case during the Cold War.

The next big question is how do we prevail in this ongoing conflict. The typical European complaint, which Hassner at least partially endorses, is that we need to pay more attention to such underlying causes of Islamic anti-Western angst as poverty, oppression, sense of humiliation, and last, but not least, anger about what is perceived as the excessive U.S. support of Israel. It is commonly alleged that, without addressing these broader concerns, and relying excessively on military force, the U.S. cannot win its war against terrorism. Yet, the European criticism is a caricature of American policy. Leaving the issue of the U.S. policy towards Israel aside -- since one cannot do justice to this complex subject in a short letter -- I do not know of any U.S. policy pundit, journalist or government official, who either does not agree that poverty, democratic deficit and some oppressive cultural legacies, e.g., in particular, the treatment of women, are indeed the root causes of most of the problems in the Islamic world, or does not wish to pursue policies to ameliorate them. Indeed, the Bush Administration has greatly augmented its development and economic aid package, changed the ways in which aid eligibility is being determined and in which aid is being distributed to emphasize the so-called good governance criteria, and is pushing hard to promote democracy, with a particular emphasis on the advancement of women's political and economic rights. While all of these steps are being taken, it is important to recognize that success is not going to be easy and will take a long time.