Winning and Losing

WINNING AND LOSING….Fareed Zakaria has a piece in the current issue of Newsweek that makes some valuable points about our successes against terrorism over the past few years:

In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which were Al Qaeda’s original bases and targets of attack, terrorist cells have been rounded up, and those still at large have been unable to launch any major new attacks in a couple of years. There, as elsewhere, the efforts of finance ministries — most especially the U.S. Department of the Treasury — have made life far more difficult for terrorists.

….In Iraq…Al Qaeda has morphed into a purist Sunni group that spends most of its time killing Shiites….As a result, an organization that had hoped to rally the entire Muslim world to jihad against the West has been dragged instead into a dirty internal war within Islam.

….The split between Sunnis and Shiites — which plays a role in Lebanon as well — is only one of the divisions within the world of Islam….Rather than speaking of a single worldwide movement — which absurdly lumps together Chechen separatists in Russia, Pakistani-backed militants in India, Shiite warlords in Lebanon and Sunni jihadists in Egypt — we should be emphasizing that all these groups are distinct, with differing agendas, enemies and friends. That robs them of their claim to represent Islam. It describes them as they often are — small local gangs of misfits, hoping to attract attention through nihilism and barbarism.

This is good as far as it goes, and its realistic look at the strength of al-Qaeda is a welcome antidote to the scaremongering favored by the Rudy Giuliani crowd. I also like Zakaria’s emphasis on the obvious divisions between different countries, sects, and movements, something we could use to our advantage if the Bush administration were bright enough to understand that it takes more than mere displays of stubbornness to win a war. (Stephen Holmes made a similar point in The Matador’s Cape, which I reviewed here.)

But there’s something big missing, namely that regardless of what you think motivates terrorists in the first place, they have a hard time surviving as a large-scale threat without support (or, at a minimum, tolerance) from a surrounding population. Zakaria gives this three sentences at the very end of his piece:

How to open up and modernize the Muslim world is a long, hard and complex challenge. But surely one key is to be seen by these societies and peoples as partners and friends, not as bullies and enemies. That is one battle we are not yet winning.

He’s right: we’re not winning that battle. We’re losing this part of the war pretty dramatically, and in the long run that’s a lot more important than the scattered successes we’ve racked up against individual jihadist groups here and there. In fact, in the long run it means we’re losing the war itself. If the Muslim world largely decides to turn against jihadism, then terrorists will find themselves unable to build the critical mass it takes to do serious damage. But if they don’t, and jihadists have safe havens in large numbers over long periods, we’ll find that we can’t kill them as fast as new ones are created.

This is by far the most important aspect of our broad fight in the Middle East, one that the Bush administration first ignored, then prosecuted ineptly, and now seems simply confused about. It doesn’t get nearly enough attention, and it’s something Zakaria would be smart to devote his next column to. After all, Bush won’t be president forever.