The Guys Who Are Undecided

James Taranto in his Bloggie Award-winning “Best of the Web” feature yesterday mocked liberal writer Anne Applebaum for her inference that supporting the torture of radical Muslims would turn moderates against us. Taranto assumes that moderates will always be for us, just as radicals always oppose us. However, both of them are operating from the fundamental misunderstanding that two monolithic, static groups comprise Arab Muslim society.

This misunderstanding has been fostered by the media and the government, unfortunately. The reality is a lot more complex. Arab Muslim society, as I have experienced and studied it, is a bell curve continuum. If you compare people from opposite ends of this continuum, they appear radically different, but the majority of the society is not polarized around those extremes. Rather, most Muslims fall in the middle. As polls in Iraq indicated recently, more Iraqis want a secular democracy than want a theocracy. However, most Iraqis intend to vote for a religious party*. There's no neat "Red-Blue Divide" along which we can identify our friends and enemies.

Furthermore, the whole continuum tends to move as a group. When the U.S. does anti-Arab things (like dissing Arafat), everybody's opinion of the U.S. goes down a notch. If we try to attack the right wing of that spectrum, we'll unwittingly attack the whole of it (in their perception) and move the entire spectrum a step to the right. All of a sudden there are more terrorists, more terrorist sympathizers, more people willing to keep quiet about terrorists, and fewer people willing to stand against terrorists. Correspondingly, a move perceived as being pro-Arab shifts the spectrum to the left, with fewer terrorists, fewer terrorist sympathizers, and more people willing to work with Americans.

What the U.S. needs to do is find things it can do to win over the Arab populace without abandoning our principles or safety. Showing that we are serious about our rhetoric is vital. How well we protect and how we react to the Palestinian elections on January 9th is vital. Will we respect their choice of a leader? Do we want democracy, or do we just want pliable leaders? After decades of watching state-controlled television, Arabs are pretty cynical news consumers. They won't swallow our Wilsonian pablum if we don't show a willingness to put democracy ahead of our own power.

The popular wisdom in the Arab world holds - quite seriously - that the U.S. wants to create an empire or sphere of influence for herself and Israel from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. If we are slow about pulling our soldiers out of Iraq when they are no longer needed there, or if we or Israel invade Lebanon or Syria, then a large portion of the Arab bell curve will see the evidence and be forced to believe the conspiracy theorists. "Yabba ya!" they'll exclaim, "America really is out to conquer the Arab world. I guess they weren't serious about that whole democracy thing. Anyway, who wants a democracy if it's so belligerent? Ma sha' Allah, it's time to join the resistance."

Casey Stengel once said that the key to managing a baseball team is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided. George Bush needs to realize that the key to managing the Middle East is to keep Paul Wolfowitz away from the guys who are undecided.

* Source: Knight Ridder article, Dec. 22

Posted by Chops at January 6, 2005 3:17 PM