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May 23, 2011


Eric Chen

Professor, in light of your post, what do you think of this report? http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jun/24/bin-laden-documents-alqaida-struggle?CMP=twt_iph

My take is that among President Bush's wisest decisions at the inception of the War on Terror were clearly establishing that the US was not at war with Islam and, to match substance to words, declaring the Freedom Agenda and having our military conduct liberal peace/nation-building. (Knowing the prospect of actually successful peace/nation-building was likelier in Iraq than Afghanistan.)

Immediately after 9/11, I recognized we could not beat al Qaeda on our own. al Qaeda had to be alienated from the Muslim mainstream for us to succeed:

Critically, President Bush set the frame at the outset with both rhetoric and implemented strategy that the US was not fighting a conventional red-v-blue war, but rather campaigning for a Muslim mainstream compatible with the West galvanized against al Qaeda and their allies as the common enemy. Bush apparently understood the fault line and cleavage point: The terrorists' categorization of who qualifies as an apostate threat is very different than the Muslim mainstream view of intolerable apostasy. Therefore, the contest was not over how much space was controlled on a map, but rather whether al Qaeda and their allies would impose their rigid extreme society. From that perspective, al Qaeda was threatened urgently by their co-religious enemy, apostates, rather than by the American invader that has limited influence and staying power.

The liberal American military-led peace/nation-building occupations, however successful or not in their actual building, have been critical to maintain the frame needed to exploit the apostasy fault line. For example, Bush was careful to make clear at the start of our Iraq occupation, in the "Mission Accomplished" speech, that we would leave Iraq when the new Iraq was rebuilt and stood up. We could assume most patriotic Iraqis wouldn't support a US occupation (anymore than patriotic Germans, Koreans, and Japanese support our continuing post-war presence in those nations), but most sided with a compatible vision for post-Saddam Iraq, a vision that was incompatible with al Qaeda's vision for Iraq. With the American occupation acting as peace/nation-builders, the Muslim mainstream witnessed al Qaeda slaughter patriotic Iraqis who were not collaborating but rather, with American help, building a national future freed from tyranny, either secular or religious. When we finally were able to develop effective peace/nation-building tactics - COIN - to empower the strategy for the "surge", Iraq became the central proxy and real battleground for the Muslim mainstream against al Qaeda.

In relation to your post, my point is that while the US role in the war has understandably been deeply unpopular among Muslims, US popularity is not a decisive factor in the War on Terror. Genuine leadership is not a popularity contest and fortunately, President Bush understood at the start (or at least made the correct decisions to the effect) that the War on Terror could not be won by America unilaterally or the West multilaterally. Our victory depends on Muslims opposing the terrorists; therefore, the American role was to intervene in ways, however unpopular, that would abet the Muslim mainstream turning against the terrorists as the intolerable apostates.

The Long War continues with much still in the balance (such as the Freedom Agenda's aspirations to reform the conditions that fostered religious extremism), but bin Laden's angst reveals that our leaders have made correct decisions, though those decisions have often been misunderstood and excoriated by impatient observers, and even exploited at home for cynical parochial political purposes.

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