What McCain said was not so bad as the “all Muslims are evil” statements Americans still hear. His statement was rather moderate by that comparison.
What troubled me was a bad comparison he drew, and I’m not talking about the Iraq-is-Vietnam meme that has recently become popular with the right. Rather, McCain made the rather odd assertion that we have to create something akin to Radio Free Europe, only using new technology, in order to communicate with what is commonly called the “Arab street.”
He offered that, as we did during the Cold War, the United States needs to make sure that we spread “hope and optimism” to people behind some poor analogy’s “iron curtain.” But then he went on, saying:
We have got to describe to them why our values are superior, why their’s [are] evil, and why this is a titanic struggle, and one that they can’t join on the side of evil.
Hearing this, my jaw dropped. I wondered if this was really the man that many independents had wanted in 2000, the so-called “sensible Republican candidate.” His statement is absurd. It represents thinking that would easily worsen the causes of terrorism.
The first problem with McCain’s statement is that it draws on a terrible analogy. By and large, the audience for Radio Free Europe was comprised of those convinced that their authoritarian government was wrong. They took the democratic message of the program to heart because they had been raised to believe in it.
However, ‘radicalizable’ Muslims (those who could become terrorists) do not generally believe in American or even democratic values. They may not know them, but it’s unlikely they would be swayed by hearing them on the radio, or reading them on internet. If such an organization, in the model of Radio Free Europe, set about proselytizing for “American” value, it would likely make it easier, not harder, for al-Queda to recruit alienated Arabs.
Secondly, McCain’s statement divides the world into only two types of ideologies, presumably the Muslims and the rest. Is McCain unaware that this is precisely what the terrorists use to sway the impressionable? That they convince young kids that the United States, with the rest of the non-Arab world, is waging systematic and ideological war against Islam? Did he miss that memo?
Further, his word are rife with cultural paternalism chauvanism that is at best short-sighted. What is not needed here is the belief that American values are the best values, or even that they are exceptionally good values, but to show the “Arab street” that civil interactions and diplomacy can and do win you willing cooperation from the outside world.
The Hoover Institution (yes, it’s a conservative think tank) recently published a piece in the bi-monthly Policy Review that helps explain what is needed to prevent the alienation and fear-mongering that leads many Islamic youths to terrorism.
In “Strong Society, Weak State” (an article far better and more expansive than this summary), Lawrence Chickering and P. Edward Haley discuss the need for the US government to bolster local civil-society organizations (CSOs, which promote basic freedoms and democracy) as a strategic initiative. In summary, the authors write:
In this paper, we argue that in dealing with weak states [like those across the Middle East], foreign-policymakers must expand their intellectual horizons and attempt to influence societies and cultures. This means formulating two separate policies, one for states and one for societies — with conventional foreign policy addressing the objective interests of states and the other addressing the largely subjective challenges of societies and cultures.
Chickering and Haley’s proposal for the forward movement in the “War on Terror,” which they rightly point out is more of accurately ‘policy and police actions for sustained security’ (admittedly less catchy), requires more than the use of force. It also requires local efforts to foster democratic values (which are not inherently American values). They make clear that this cannot be overtly tied to the United States, but must be done by local CSOs run by local citizen. And if this succeeds, it and only it can delegitimize radical clerics and political parties like Hamas and Hezbolluh.
What Mr. McCain is ignoring is this crucial element. America’s proselytizing the Arab world and the Islamic citizenry is not the solution to our problems; in fact, it is the cause of the problem of Islamic terrorism.
What is needed is a long-term policy effort to delegitimize government sponsors of terror, while acknowledging the cultural traditions and governments that many terrorists see themselves as defending.
We do need to foster civil society, as McCain endeavored to suggest, but we cannot do it in the way he suggested. We must allow this to occur slowly, and locally. And though the US can offer funding to organizations, it cannot openly flout it’s cash and it’s values. To do so would only create more terrorists, not less.
In the ongoing “War on Terror,”America must be strategic and humble, not brash and bold as Mr. McCain seems to desire.