Asked during World War II why the British continued to fight so ferociously, Churchill is said to have snorted, “If we stop, you’ll find out.”
The question arises in the war on terror: we know who the main enemy is, al-Qaeda, the men and movement responsible for 9/11, but what are they fighting for? What is their war all about?
A year ago, in Salt Lake City, President Bush, addressing the American Legion, sought to define the war from his perspective: “The war we fight today is more than a military conflict; it is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century. On one side are those who believe in the values of freedom and moderation—the right of all people to speak, and worship, and live in liberty. And on the other side are those driven by the values of tyranny and extremism—the right of a self-appointed few to impose their fanatical views on all the rest.”
Certainly terrorists who massacre innocents are fanatics. Certainly, the caliphate bin Laden’s acolytes would establish would be tyrannical. But if the enemy were only a cabal of terrorists, hell-bent on establishing a tyranny, they would not be on the verge of expelling us from Iraq and perhaps from Afghanistan.
Why are we losing the war if President Bush has correctly defined the stakes in this “ideological struggle”?
One reason is that the true goals of bin Laden, the insurgents in Iraq, and the Taliban are not so abstract as those of Mr. Bush. They are concrete, understandable, realizable, and appealing to millions.
In his declaration of war on the United States, bin Laden listed three goals: expel U.S. forces from the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia, stop the persecution of innocent Iraqis through U.S.-UN sanctions, and end the Israeli repression and dispossession of the Palestinian people.
Not only do these goals have broad appeal to Arab peoples, bin Laden has achieved victory in the first. After 9/11, U.S. forces were pulled out of Saudi Arabia at the request of the king.
And while Bush calls this an ideological struggle, the enemy has allied itself with some very powerful ideas. As did Mao and Ho Chi Minh, our enemy has captured the flag of nationalism: We fight to get your troops off our land! We fight to get your hooks out of our government! Leave us to rule ourselves!
More importantly, our enemy has rooted his cause in a 1,400-year-old religion that has 1.2 billion adherents, has survived crusades, invasions and occupations, and is growing again in militancy and converts
Our enemy, be it Shia or Sunni in Iraq or the Taliban in Afghanistan, claims to be fighting for a rule of law, Sharia, sanctioned by the Koran, and a form of government the Prophet mandates for Islamic peoples. And that is not some secular-liberal, do-your-own-thing democracy.
As for the tactics the enemy uses, decent Muslims the world over are said to be growing disgusted with the slaughter by suicide bombers of men, women, and children.
But are these not the tactics the French maquis and Italian and Yugoslav partisans used on the Nazis and their collaborators? Was this not the way Israelis expelled the British, the Algerians expelled the French, the Afghans expelled the Soviets, the ANC overthrew apartheid, and Hezbollah drove the IDF out of Lebanon?
Clausewitz would understand: terrorism is the extension of Islamist politics by other means.
If we know what al-Qaeda is fighting for, what exactly are we fighting for? Taking the president literally, we are fighting for the right of Islamic peoples “to speak, and worship, and live in liberty.”
Here we come to our dilemma. Devout Muslims in Islamic lands do not believe people should be free to blaspheme or insult the Prophet. They do not believe all religions are equal or should be treated equally. They do not believe Christians should be free to preach in their lands. The punishment for those who do, and for those who convert from Islam in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia as well as Iran, is death.
Moreover, in every Middle East country, Islamic parties have broadening support. In free elections in Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and Iran, Islamists made gains or racked up victories. In Turkey, a moderate Islamic party just won national power.
It is Western secularism that is in retreat. It is our friends in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, the Gulf states, and Israel who seem most apprehensive about any more elections among the Arab masses. The Islamists seem to welcome them—and to succeed in them.
Should U.S. soldiers die for democracy in the Islamic world, when democracy may produce victory for the political progeny of the Muslim Brotherhood? Is that worth the lives of America’s young?