The war on terror isn't about ideas.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
July 29 2004 5:33 PM

OBL Wants O-I-L

The war on terror isn't about ideas.

How much have U.S. officials learned about 9/11 since 9/11? Last week, one of the 9/11 commission's co-chairs, Thomas Kean, said, "Al Qaida represents an ideology, not a finite group of people." Even Richard Clarke concurred that the threat is not "terrorism [but] Islamic jihadism, which must be defeated in a battle of ideas as well as in armed conflict." Remember that until very recently the former counterterrorism czar saw things differently. In his book, Clarke boasted that when Paul Wolfowitz asked why he was fixated on Bin Laden, he "answered as clearly and forcefully as I could: 'We are talking about a network of terrorist organizations called al-Qaeda, that happens to be led by bin Laden, and we are talking about that network because it and it alone poses an immediate and serious threat to the United States.' "

That's serious progress. We no longer think Bin Laden is our only concern, and we are coming to recognize that jihadism is not an extreme aberration but rather one of the hothouse flowers of a very cruel political culture. However, we are now on the verge of overemphasizing the ideological component of the war.

David Brooks, like a number of opinion-makers before him, calls for a Cold War-style "intellectual mobilization" that would introduce the Muslim world to Western ideas and political values. Maybe there are still some Muslim hearts and minds in the balance, and the United States should encourage Muslim students eager for an American education to come and get one. But as we know from the biographies of the 9/11 hijackers, many of the most radical Islamists spent time in the West, cashed Western paychecks, and went to Western universities. For better or worse, Muslims, like everyone else in the world, already know what the United States stands for. Muslims who hate the United States and those who genuinely prize American values are not waiting for Washington to broker a just peace between the Israelis and Palestinians before they decide where they fall.

In keeping with what we represent, we should demand liberal political, social, economic, and educational reforms throughout the Arab world; and compel those same states to eliminate the semiofficial anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism that's retailed in schools, mosques, and the press. But the fact is that the battle for Muslim hearts and minds has largely been decided, and the West never even really knew it was a battle.

The war of ideas started in the late 19th and early 20th century, when the Muslim reform movement looked at the West's achievements in science and technology and sought to explain why the Islamic world had fallen so far behind its historical rivals. When Western scholars asserted that the problem was Islam itself, the reformers argued that true Islam was a rational religion, entirely compatible with the modern world. So, there was no need for Muslims to abandon their faith and embrace Western values in order to enjoy the benefits of Western-style technology, science, and medicine. Indeed, the reformers went so far as to say that Muslims could not adopt Western habits and mores without sacrificing their own essential qualities as Muslims. Whether the reformers were right or not, for over a century now, schools, mosques, and the press have warned that Muslims will cease to be Muslims if they adopt Western values. It's unlikely that any American "soft power" diplomatic initiatives are going to put much of a dent in mainstream Muslim thought anytime soon.

Of course, the distinction between the values a culture holds dear and the material goods that society produces is hazy, to say the least. In this week's New Yorker, Lawrence Wright's article on jihadist Web sites illustrates the problem nicely. A technology promoting openness and the free exchange of information is being used to wage war against the society that designed it.

If the battle of ideas was really that important to the jihadists, Bin Laden might settle for a symbolic caliphate (or, given his Internet following, an e-caliphate) and thumb his nose at the West while his colleagues suicide-bombed us every once in while to remind us how crummy they think Western culture is. But it seems that Bin Laden has a very real military objective, which is why, says Princeton scholar Michael Doran, those jihadist Web sites are "appealing to Saudi security forces to turn against their infidel Muslim leaders and join them in the jihad." Bin Laden does not head a real state or lead a real army, but as a son of Saudi Arabia, the al-Qaida chief knows what power looks like, and it appears that he has an objective worthy of any great nation or military—to control the world's largest known reserves of oil.

During the Cold War, that's what U.S. policymakers feared the Soviets might try. But since U.S. foreign policy advertised itself as anti-imperialist—a position that helped us ruin the British empire in the Persian Gulf—we couldn't very well administer an empire ourselves in order to protect our economic interests. So, the twin pillars of our regional security were the Saudis and Iranians. It worked, for a while. The Soviets never really tested the arrangement, and U.S. arms manufacturers made a lot of money catering to the shah and the Saudis. The 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran was an obvious opportunity to rethink our Gulf policy. The fall of the Berlin Wall 10 years later was yet another: With the Soviets gone, who now threatens the oil that Western Europe and Japan depend on even more than we do? With his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein showed that we were lucky the Soviets never pushed on our house of cards, because the Saudis would've quickly folded. They had to call us in to hold off Iraq! But wait, it gets worse.

Analysts and academics have explained that the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia destabilized the royal family. It was, Paul Wolfowitz put it, "a source of enormous difficulty for a friendly government." Conventional wisdom, and eventually U.S. policy, insisted that withdrawing U.S. forces would shore up the regime. However, the stability of the House of Saud is important only insofar as they can guarantee the steady flow of oil. If they cannot, then as far as U.S. policy should be concerned, their health and prosperity are irrelevant. The proper conclusion should have been that if protecting the kingdom of Saudi Arabia threatened the legitimacy of the royal family, then the regime that Washington considered the cornerstone of its Gulf security was inherently unstable. The kingdom was most seriously threatened by elements in Saudi Arabia itself.

The most daunting prospect that followed 9/11, then, was not that Americans would continue to be threatened in their cities, nor even that major terrorist operations had the ability to affect the world economy. Rather, it was that if the United States was really at war—and Bin Laden and other top jihadists actually declared war against Americans and American interests in 1998—then our enemies' likely designs on Saudi oil might affect our capacity to wage war and protect U.S. citizens and American interests. After all, it's not just the U.S. economy that depends on oil, so does the U.S. military—both of which U.S. policy has made dependent on the stability of the Saudi royal family.

Many Americans are no doubt right to think it repugnant that oil plays such a large part in our foreign policy. It is definitely imperative that the development of energy alternatives become a national priority, but, in the meantime, Osama Bin Laden, like every Saudi billionaire, thinks that oil is a very powerful weapon. So, what does the United States do?

What I've just sketched are some of the questions asked, albeit quietly, by what we've come to call "neocon" thinkers. So, there really is an ideological war being waged, but it is not between American values and jihadism. It is a battle among Washington elites, and it is a very vicious conflict, because there's a lot at stake. More than a half a century's worth of U.S. foreign policy was based on the idea that the Saudis were our ace in the hole. Everyone across the board subscribed to that notion, which is why Republican advisers like Brent Scowcroft and Democrats like Zbigniew Brzezinski are making very similar criticisms of the White House right now. There are reputations at stake, and no one wants a place in history for what might most generously be described as dodging a bullet.

At some point, someone was going to have to rethink our policies in the Persian Gulf and throughout the Middle East. If Sept. 11 was what made such a re-evaluation necessary, it is also one of the circumstances that made it difficult for the current administration to sell it as a difficult, long-term commitment to a scared, angry, and generally emotional American public. And there were other major issues as well, namely, a president who came to office under dubious circumstances and had tapped a group of hard-charging ideologues not known for their diplomatic skills to drive his foreign policy—one that no one in the administration ever laid out clearly for the American people to weigh. At any rate, the neocons are probably wrong about many things, but they are not wrong that U.S. national security depends on challenging the assumptions that have guided five decades of foreign policy.

John Kerry says that as president he wouldn't withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. That's not the issue. What matters is whether or not the people who Kerry would bring in to run foreign policy understand all the reasons we are in Iraq. Whoever the next president of the United States is, he's going to have to explain, clearly, the reasoning behind his Middle East policies and sell it to the American people, finally.

Lee Smith is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.