It took a while, but Republicans finally have turned back to their most successful strategy for keeping power since 9/11: Framing the upcoming election as a choice between confrontation and appeasement in the so-called “war on terror.” If Democrats are elected, the argument goes, the U.S. will surrender to the terrorists by leaving Iraq, and invite more attacks on our soil. Put another way: If our leaders deviate from their aggressive stance in their response to the terrorist attacks, they will be showing weakness that our enemies can exploit. Even suggesting that we exercised poor judgment in invading Iraq would “embolden our enemies.”
There are several fundamental questions worth exploring here. First, is the threat we face being accurately characterized? Second, how reliable is the assertion that those who threaten us will react in the way we are told?
From the Pulitzer Prize winning history of Al-Qaeda, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, it is clear that the preeminent motivation of the people who attacked the United States was the perception that Muslim culture (as they defined it) was being marginalized by Western culture. They were deeply insulted and felt that the core of their identity was mortally threatened. In physical terms, the infidels were in person or by proxy stealing and defiling their holy land and artifacts, as well as corrupting their people.
If there was an underlying reality being created unconsciously before the attacks, it became a conscious crusade (literally and figuratively) afterwards, with the overthrow of the Taliban and occupation of Iraq serving as clear confirmation of the disenfranchised Muslims' worst fears. Recruitment of terrorists has un-surprisingly benefited from this, effectively increasing the threat they pose as demonstrated by the dramatic increase in attacks around the world since the Iraq occupation began.
Given these facts, the Republican version of the terrorist threat is tragically incomplete by refusing to admit our role in creating and amplifying the threat. We are not fighting an enemy who can be beaten through force or cultural imperialism, because these approaches are the source of the enemy's numbers and resolve. The enemy is not an entity that can uniformly surrender in any case; it is far more diffuse than the easily recognized groups with common characteristics that we are used to fighting.
On the other hand, the people we've already alienated are unlikely to interpret a reversal of course in our most blatant aggression or an admission of poor judgment as a true change of character or intent (even the aggression could be restarted by a close presidential election or another attack). There is also no reason to believe that our increasing cultural domination will voluntarily stop in any case; the world is far too interconnected and dependent on key elements of our culture for the continued growth of material wealth, the pursuit of which is in direct contradiction to the ascetic and spiritually dominated way of life promoted by the people we are fighting.
Perhaps the best we might hope for is a reduction of hostilities: a focus on eliminating the use of deadly force (murder by any other name), regardless of its provocation. This may require more of a criminal justice model than a military one. At the same time, we can work to preserve, as much as possible, every cultural group (subject to limits on hurtful and deadly behavior), much as DNA carries the building blocks for many traits not manifested throughout an organism, and available for more total activation when conditions radically change.