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January 15, 2008

Have You Heard? The Islamic Extremists Are Really Really Really Really Dangerous
Posted by David Shorr

If you're a Republican presidential candidate these days, it seems as if the foreign policy debate boils down to showing how threatened you feel by Islamic terrorists. Someone should do a content analysis: relative to other foreign policy issues how much are the candidates talking about terrorists? As for me, I want to highlight a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too dimension here.

For example, Gov. Mike Huckabee's Foreign Affairs piece starts out really strong:

The United States, as the world's only superpower, is less vulnerable to military defeat. But it is more vulnerable to the animosity of other countries. Much like a top high school student, if it is modest about its abilities and achievements, if it is generous in helping others, it is loved. But if it attempts to dominate others, it is despised.

American foreign policy needs to change its tone and attitude, open up, and reach out.

Hey, sign me up! I want to vote for this guy. But wait a minute, keep reading. Scroll down just a few sentences and you learn that our problem is a failure to grasp how badly they want to kill us. Gov. Huckabee reminds us of the importance of knowing your enemy, which in this case means the cold-blooded murderousness of the children of Qutb. From what I already knew about this, I wanted to stop these people from committing further attacks. If I really knew what "makes Islamic terrorists tick," what should I do then?

That was a rhetorical question. My real question is how this new appreciation for the extremism of the extremists represents a change in tone? Much of the rest of the Huckabee piece is fairly level-headed and pragmatic (though there is his reference to the menace of the Law of the Sea agreement, which is supported by everybody except Frank Gaffney).

But there is something tone-deaf about calling for a foreign policy that reaches out to the world without recognizing that our tunnel-vision with regard to terrorism is itself a major source of international resentment. Nor is Huckabee the only candidate caught in this contradiction. The New Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert points out that Mayor Rudy Giuliani's 12 Commitments include keeping America on the offense against terrorists and strengthening our reputation around the world. And then there was Sen. Fred Thompson's sly offer to serve as matchmaker between the Iranian Navy and 'those virgins,' which wasn't so much a campaign pledge as a play for the cheap laugh. And the audience reaction wasn't even so much a cheap laugh as another dose of smug righteousness.

DA readers have already been treated to multiple doses of my own bipartisan remedy, but I can't resist one more invocation of an alternative approach with prospects for broad political support. Here are a few select passages:

Because the United States has an ambitious vision about the spread of human rights, prosperity, and democracy, we must recognize that it will only be achieved over time. Such recognition points toward engagement in a steady and measured effort rather than the pursuit of precipitous revolutionary change. The latter, with its abrupt and convulsive action, can produce increased resistance and unintended consequences. The sustained approach is also more durable because it allows progress to emerge more organically and is less politically divisive, internationally and domestically.

The ultimate aim of the extended battle of ideas is to strengthen a global consensus around shared goals. Such a focus will help the US to better see beyond itself toward a strategic concept that takes in the fuller picture of the world—our interests in the world as a whole and the interests others share with us. Ultimately, the objective is to have more of the world feel stronger kinship with the United States, in part through a more concerted effort toward increased prosperity and peace.

As the US develops a stronger ability to connect with the national interests of others, we will become more effective in combating terrorism. For instance, it is important to see not just one terrorist threat, but many different threats. Not only will we understand better what confronts us, but we will see more clearly which different threats engage the different interests, and thereby support, of other nations. We have learned that when we look at the threat monolithically, it carries an implicit all-ornothing demand that can backfire. Focusing more on the distinct strategies and tactics among terrorists could create new opportunities to forge partnerships with a range of other nations.


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