July 31, 2008


A Truman for our times: The received wisdom is that President Bush has been a foreign policy disaster, and that America is threatened by the rise of Asia. Both claims are wrong—Bush has successfully rolled back jihadism, and the US will benefit from Asian growth (Edward Luttwak, August 2008, Prospect)

Until 9/11, Islamic militants, including violent jihadists of every sort, from al Qaeda to purely local outfits, enjoyed much public support—either overt or tacit—across most of the Muslim world. From Morocco to Indonesia, governments appeased militants at home while encouraging them to focus their violent activities abroad. Some, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) funded both militant preachers and armed jihadists. The Saudis financed extremist schools in many countries, including the US and Britain, and had thousands of militant preachers on the payroll in addition to writing cheques for jihadists in the Caucasus, Pakistan and a dozen other places (although not to Osama bin Laden himself, their declared enemy). The UAE rulers who now talk only of their airlines and banks are reliably reported to have handed over sackfuls of cash to Osama in person, meeting him at Kandahar's airfield when flying in to hunt endangered species. Saudi Arabia and the UAE were also the only countries that joined Pakistan in recognising the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan. Other Muslim governments, notably Sudan, Syria and Yemen, helped jihadists by giving them passports and safe havens, while others still, including Indonesia, simply turned a blind eye to Islamist indoctrination and jihadist recruitment.

Other than the Algerian and Egyptian governments, every Muslim state preferred at least to coexist with militant preachers and jihadis in some way. Pakistan did much more than that; its Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, funded, armed and trained both the Taliban in Afghanistan and thousands of jihadists dedicated to killing Indian civilians, policemen and soldiers in Kashmir and beyond.

All this came to an abrupt end after 9/11. Sophisticates everywhere ridiculed the uncompromising Bush stance, "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists," as a cowboy stunt, but it was swiftly successful. Governments across the Muslim world quickly changed their conduct. Some moved energetically to close down local jihadist groups they had long tolerated, to silence extremist preachers and to keep out foreign jihadis they had previously welcomed. Others were initially in denial. The Saudis, in the person of interior minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, started off by denying that the 9/11 terrorists were Arabs, let alone Saudis, while the UAE princes accused of giving cash to Bin Laden pretended they had never heard of him.

Denial did not last. As they saw American special forces and long-range bombers smashing the Taliban, the Saudis began to admit responsibility for having spread extremism through the thousands of schools and academies they financed at home and abroad. An agonising reappraisal of their own Wahhabi form of Islam continues. The Saudi king has convened an inter-faith conference of Muslims, Christians and Jews—a huge step given the Wahhabi prohibitions of any form of amity with non-Muslims. Inside the kingdom, only less extreme preachers now receive public support. Bin Laden had been the Saudis' enemy for years, but it was only after 9/11 that they began actively to hunt down his supporters and made their first moves to discourage rich Saudis from sending money to jihadists abroad. More than a thousand Saudis have been arrested, dozens have been killed while resisting arrest, and Saudi banks must now check if wire transfers are being sent to Muslim organisations on the terrorist list.

In different ways, other governments in Muslim countries all the way to Indonesia also took their stand with Bush and the US against the jihadists, even though jihad against the infidel is widely regarded as an Islamic duty. Suddenly, active Islamists and violent jihadists suffered a catastrophic loss of status. Instead of being admired, respected or at least tolerated, they had to hide, flee or give it up. Numbers started to shrink. The number of terrorist incidents outside the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq keeps going down, while madrassas almost everywhere have preferred toning down their teachings to being shut down. In Indonesia, the largest Muslim country, the dominant association of imams condemns all forms of violence without exception.

But it was in Pakistan that Bush forced the most dramatic reversal of policy. He had said that it was with us or against us, and he meant it. President Musharraf was given a stark choice: stand with the US to destroy the Taliban that Pakistan itself had created, or be destroyed. Musharraf made the right choice, shutting down the flow of arms to the Taliban, opening the Shahbaz airfield to US aircraft and giving blanket permission for US military overflights across Pakistan. Nothing will stop the North-West Frontier Province from being as violent as it has been since the days of Alexander the Great. Nothing can dissuade the Pashtuns from their twin passions for boys and guns. And naturally they approve of the Taliban on both counts. But at least the Pakistani state is no longer funding these pederasts. Musharraf also started to remove the bearded extremists who once practically ran Pakistan's ISI, starting with the chief, Mahmood Ahmed, who was replaced within a month of 11th September by the moderate Ehsanul Halqas. It has been less easy for Musharraf and his acolytes to identify and remove the more subtle smooth-shaven extremists in the ISI, who still support the renascent Taliban, but they tried hard enough to trigger at least one of the assassination attempts against Musharraf himself.

What happened in Pakistan within 24 hours of 9/11 was something the world had never seen before: the overnight transformation of the very core of a country's policy—the support of jihad—which derived from the national myth of Pakistan as the Muslim state par excellence. It was as if President Bush had sent an envoy to Italy to demand the outlawing of spaghetti al pomodoro—and succeeded.

Yet one hears well-informed people casually remark that Bush's war on terror has been a total failure. This is not just political prejudice; after all, the dog that does not bark is not heard. But one need not be Sherlock Holmes to recall that 11th September was meant to be the beginning of a global jihad, with a 12th September, 13th September, 14th September and so on.

Not that al Qaeda itself could do it—its one shot had been fired. But the destruction of the twin towers inspired thousands of young Muslims to go down to the local Islamist prayer hall to offer their services to jihadists. The Koran, after all, explicitly promises victory in all things to the believers, making Muslim weakness the source of agonising, if unspoken, doubts about the credibility of the faith itself. That is the true source of the resentment that no policy accommodations in the middle east could possibly assuage. And it was those doubts that induced not only the hapless Palestinians but even westernised, affluent, wine-drinking Tunisians to celebrate the television images of 9/11 with tears of joy, and that of course made Bin Laden the first pan-Islamic hero since Saladin.

The destruction of the twin towers was therefore the most powerful possible call to action. It was quite enough to trigger not just a Madrid, a London or a Glasgow attack, but many more in Europe alone. The main target, however, was bound to be the US itself, as well as American tourists, expatriates, business residents and, naturally, any troops anywhere.

Instead, the global jihadi mobilisation, triggered by post-9/11 enthusiasm for Osama bin Laden, was stopped before it could gain any momentum by all that Bush set in motion: the destruction of al Qaeda training bases in Afghanistan, the killing or capture of most of its operatives, and, most importantly, the conversion of Muslim governments from the support of jihad to its repression.

...but he gets the bigger argument right. For the comparison to be valid W would, of course, have had to accept al Qaeda control of several billion people.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 31, 2008 8:20 AM

If the "real" problem is Islam itself, rather than al Qaeda, then the comparison to Truman is closer to the truth than you think. Unfortunately Bush is not attempting to quarantine/contain Islam so the comparison means Bush is falling short of even Truman's pathetic efforts.

Posted by: h-man at July 31, 2008 10:04 AM

H-man, the hundreds of years of quiet we got out of the Islamic part of the world would argue against Islam being the problem. Things were pretty quiet in that part of the world before the Europeans starting mucking about with their empire building. And then getting bored with empire and leaving all their subjects to go hang after WWII.

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at July 31, 2008 10:32 AM

Mr. Mitchell: Actually, our current problems with the Islamic world stem from the botched end of WWI and the Western left teaching Arab intellectuals that they could benefit from blaming their problems on "colonialism" which is pure ahistorical twaddle.

Posted by: b at July 31, 2008 11:07 AM

Well, yes. All part of the botched attempt at "uplift". But not a problem with Islam is it? We're just cleaning up an another European mess....

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at July 31, 2008 11:20 AM

"Things were pretty quiet in that part of the world before the Europeans starting mucking about with their empire building"

Really? Which years would those be? Sometime after the rape of Constantinople? The seige of Vienna? The slave raids in the 18th century that caused Jefferson to found the Navy? Armenia?

When exactly?

Posted by: Jorge Curioso at July 31, 2008 12:20 PM

If Obama was president, then al Qaeda would have control of several billion people. President Obama would be negotiating oil tanker passage with Osama, and the first lady would be wearing a hajib.

Posted by: ic at July 31, 2008 12:35 PM

If Obama were president, as weak as he's perceived to be, he'd have ground forces bogged down in Waziristan. Obama is more likely to cause the next war, not less.

Posted by: oj at July 31, 2008 1:20 PM


It was FDR, not Truman, who believed all Germans had to be exterminated.

Truman was a bad president, but a decent man.

Posted by: oj at July 31, 2008 1:22 PM

It was Wilson's botch, when he elevated his transnational project above independence for the colonies.

Posted by: oj at July 31, 2008 1:23 PM
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