The War on Terrorism: Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy

John L. Esposito

How should US policy against terrorism be evaluated 5 years 9/11?

Five years later, despite modest success, the world is a more dangerous place not safer. The human cost (most importantly) as well as the economic costs can hardly be justified. The Bush administration has failed to capture the top leadership of the Taliban and al-Qaeda; the governments in Iraq and Afghanistan remain weak; Iraq is on the edge of or in midst of a civil war and Hamid Karzai’s government in Afghanistan does not have control outside of Kabul; the violence and terror, death and casualty rates in Iraq have increased exponentially; the peoples of Iraq are less safe, less prosperous, have less access to everyday necessities like electricity, food and education than before the American led invasion. Although America is seen as part of the problem not the solution, the fear remains that without a strong Western presence, things will get even worse.

The flaunting of international law Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, rendition and torture of prisoners and the erosion of civil liberties at home have further affected America’s image and credibility. Anti-Americanism has increased not only across the Muslim world but also globally. The American-led war against global terrorism is regarded as a war against Islam and the Muslim world. Ironically, polls show that many in the world now see the U.S. as arrogant, ruthless and a danger to world peace.

Despite its promises, the administration has failed to deliver on its pledge (and excuse) at the time of the invasion of Iraq, to promote democracy in the Middle East and reinvigorate the Road Map in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If anything its failure to respond promptly and thus give free reign to the Israeli military during the Israeli wars in Lebanon and Gaza, the shipping of cluster bombs to Israel in the late days of the Lebanon war, and the cut off of aid in order to destabilize a democratically elected HAMAS has undermined U.S. credibility and moral authority.

What are the chances the US will succeed in preventing another 9/11?

Any chance will require a new administration and a President, whether Republican or Democrat, who is prepared to take bold short and long term foreign policies. A new president will have to do what no American president since Dwight Eisenhower, Republican or Democrat, has been willing to do pursue an even handed policy. This would mean not only support the existence and security of the state of Israel and the creation and security of a Palestinian state but also be even handed in its criticism of violence and terror whether committed by the Palestinians or the Israeli military. The administration and its party would have to transcend the fears of most politicians and the pressures of many groups supporting hard-line Israeli policies. Amb. Richard Haass, when a senior State Department official in the first George W. Bush administration, spoke of America’s policy of “Democratic Exceptionalism,” the failure of all administrations to promote democracy in the Middle East. He signaled the administration’s decision in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq to promote democracy in Iraq and in the region. The next administration would not only have to adopt a similar policy and actually follow it, but also be willing to depart from America’s policy of “Israeli Exceptionalism,” holding Israel to the same standards of other states in the region, insisting on compliance with UNSC resolutions. American policy has to be more critical, even handed and less driven by domestic lobbies and policy concerns. The sole criterion has to be what is best for America internationally as well as nationally.

Public Diplomacy

A new administration would have to take its cue from the Bush administration in employing a military, economic and public diplomacy strategy in fighting terrorism. However, unlike the administration, it would have to heed those military experts who counsel that while the military can kill, capture and contain terrorists, the military is not equipped to fight a war against global terrorism. The attempt to limit the growth of terrorism requires a strong public diplomacy program to win minds and hearts. This means both public affairs projects (exchange programs, education, etc) to foster mutual understanding but also requires a foreign policy component. The cause of anti-Americanism is not who we are but what we do! The administration will need to listen more carefully to the voices of 1.3 billion Muslims and not rely on militant ideologues (neocons, militant Christian right leaders, and Islamophobic experts and political commentators) or autocratic Muslim rulers/ allies who use the war as a smokescreen for greater control and repression of any and all opposition.

In responding to mainstream and extremist political Islam, US foreign policymakers require a better understanding of how global Muslim majorities see the world and, in particular, how they regard the United States. The Gallup World Poll and its groundbreaking, in-depth survey of Muslims from North Africa to Southeast Asia as well as other polls provide access to the voices Muslims globally, their issues and concerns. According to a recent Gallup World Poll, 7 percent think the 9/11 attacks were “completely” justified and are very critical of the United States. Among the 93% who believe that 9/11 was not justified 93%, whom we’ll call the moderates, a majority view the United States unfavorably. The 7 percent we can call “anti-US extremists,” not because all or even a significant number of them commit acts of violence, but because those with extremist views are a potential source for recruitment or support for terrorist groups. This group of potential extremists is also more likely to view other civilian attacks as justifiable. In contrast to 95 percent of moderates who said that “Other attacks in which civilians are the target were ‘mostly’ or ‘completely’ unjustified,” even 70 percent of the potential radicals agreed with this statement.

Is there a blind hatred of the United States?

The question “Why do they hate us?” raised in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 looms large following continued terrorist attacks and the dramatic growth of anti-Americanism. A common answer provided by some politicians and experts has been, “They hate our way of life, our freedom, democracy, and success.” Considering the broad based anti-Americanism, not only among extremists but also among a significant mainstream majority in the Muslim world (and indeed in many other parts of the world), this answer is not satisfactory. Although the Muslim world expresses many common grievances, do extremists and moderates differ in attitudes about the West?

While many believe anti-Americanism is tied to a basic hatred of the West and deep West-East religious and cultural differences, the data above contradicts these views. Focusing on the attitudes of those with radical views and comparing them with the moderate majority results in surprising findings. When asked what they admired most about the West, both extremists and moderates had the identical top three spontaneous responses: (1) technology; (2) the West’s value system, hard work, self-responsibility, rule of law, and cooperation; and (3) its fair political systems, democracy, respect for human rights, freedom of speech, and gender equality. A significantly higher percent of potential extremists than moderates (50 percent versus 35 percent) believe that “moving towards greater governmental democracy” will foster progress in the Arab/Muslim world. Potential extremists believe even more strongly than moderates (58 percent versus 45 percent) that Arab/Muslim nations are eager to have better relations with the West. Finally, no significant difference exists between the percentage of potential extremists and moderates who said “better relations with the West concerns me a lot.”

In addition, Muslim assessments of individual Western countries demonstrate that Muslim views do not paint all Western countries with the same brush. Unfavorable opinions of the United States or the United Kingdom do not preclude favorable attitudes towards other Western countries like France or Germany. Data shows that while moderates have very unfavorable opinions of the United States (42 percent) and Great Britain (34 percent), unfavorable opinions of France (15 percent) and Germany (13 percent) were far less and in fact comparable to the percent of Muslims who viewed Pakistan or Turkey unfavorably (both at 12 percent).


America will have to be more creative in its foreign policies: Promote real self-determination not a democracy that requires American-stamped approval; pressure autocratic rulers/allies in Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria and elsewhere to open up their systems and move more effectively down the path of greater power-sharing; respond and partner with our European and wealthy Arab and Muslim allies in providing massive economic and educational aid for development. At the same time, the US and its European allies must distinguish more clearly between moderate and extremist Islamists or Islamic activists, and be willing to deal with moderate Islamists. Finally, there can be no more double standards whether in the promotion of democracy, compliance with international law, or the use of diplomacy not threats of military action when dealing with an Iran or Syria as it has consistently with North Korea.

John L. Esposito is a University Professor and Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. The above text was originally given as a speech at Fares Center.