Know the enemy

July 27, 2004

SINCE SEPTEMBER 2001, American leaders have talked about the war on "terror," which is so vague a notion as to be nearly meaningless. Sometimes President Bush suggests that America is at war with "evil," or with those who are "against us." Stirring words, perhaps, but not very illuminating. Americans, of course, understand that the conflict actually has to do with Muslim fanatics; some pessimists believe a "clash of civilizations" has begun.

Of the many useful services performed by the 9/11 commission, one is worth highlighting: the dispassionate reminder, in the report released last week, that the United States is engaged with a specific, and definable, foe. It is not Islam. The enemy is a jihadist movement within Islam that began gathering strength five decades ago and that, in the words of the commission, "does not distinguish politics from religion, thus distorting both." It is a movement solely bent on violence.

Over the years, grievances that have provoked the jihadists have included British and French colonialism in the Middle East, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the unending conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, and now American power in the region. The movement feeds on the humiliation felt by many Muslims, and is strongest in Egypt (where it took early root), Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It most likely has only opportunistic links to Shiite Iran.

Its appeal is spreading, though, eastward into Indonesia and northward into the former Soviet Union, particularly because of the brutal war in Chechnya and the repressive regimes in Uzbekistan and its Central Asian neighbors. In the 1990s in Europe, Serbs went to war against Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo -- and it is worth noting that the admittedly belated intervention of the West on the Muslim side in those conflicts had evident results. Neither Bosnia nor Kosovo could be called a success today, but in both places the rise of jihadism was forestalled.

This suggests a strategy: that the United States should stand up for the interests of ordinary people in the Islamic world. This is not, as the 9/11 commission notes, primarily a military job. The United States should object to Russia's abuse of Chechens; it should not allow itself to be identified with the regime of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan simply because he has allowed U.S. warplanes to be based there; it should rethink its close embrace of such thoroughly unpopular governments as the one in Egypt; and that in turn should lead to a reconsideration of its policy toward Israel and the Palestinians.

America can't solve all problems, but it should focus on isolating Osama bin Laden and his allies and alleviating the resentment on which they feed.

The war in Iraq presents a huge obstacle to that goal; it was the wrong war to fight in the wake of 9/11, and its conduct has been a botch.

The Bush administration may not understand where the danger lies, or what to do about it. Fortunately, the 9/11 commission has pointed out where to begin.

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