By Fouad Ajami
"We looked for peace, but no good came." -JEREMIAH 8:15
t was the fate of an American president raised in Midland, Texas, to come into a great burden, to prosecute the 21st century's first war in an Islamic world given to a malignant anti-Americanism. There would be no "isolationist" foreign policy for a nation violated on a clear September morning. There would be a war of necessity, a just war, and there would be that uneasy mix of American burden and the cover of "multilateralism."
In the year behind us, America has sought allies in unfamiliar, unfathomable lands. A country not particularly skilled in the ways of foreign chameleons and intriguers had no choice but to be pulled into the minefields and alleyways of strange places. A great, liberal country was pitted against foes in illiberal lands, an open society was pressed into a campaign in the shadows. It would be hard to know friends from foes; it would be hard to know who beyond America's shores truly sympathized with America's hurt and shared its righteous anger. For there are vast multitudes out there, even in "friendly" lands, who winked at the terror and said in sly, insinuating ways that America had finally gotten its comeuppance.
Who exactly were our friends, and who were our foes? We had an imperium, a "strategic relationship," with the rulers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But their peoples were openly, indecently gleeful that the mighty power had been humbled and punished. We had a new, demanding kind of war to prosecute that called for new laws and military tribunals, for a kind of unsentimentalism against merciless enemies, but we were second-guessed in European capitals about the death penalty we might hand out to mass killers bereft of mercy.
We started out with the sympathy that came from the shock of the attacks. Nous sommes tous Américains ("We are all Americans"), the French daily Le Monde declared in the immediate aftermath of the September attacks. But some foreign sympathies were not destined to last. Operation Enduring Freedom, it was claimed, had become an imperial warrant, a way of bending the world to our will. In fevered, ideological circles, in that overheated "Arab street," it was believed by perfectly educated men and women of the modern world that the whole thing, all the pain and the hurt of September 11, had been a conspiracy, a way of dealing America into the oil fields of the Caspian Sea and into Afghanistan.
Although the rulers were reasonable, moderate men in Pakistan and Jordan, their people were in the grip of a deep anti-Americanism. And what to make of Egypt's ruler? It was from his land that the deadliest of al Qaeda's leaders, physician Ayman al-Zawahiri, hailed; it was a chilling psychopath from his country, Mohamed Atta, who was the lead 9/11 hijacker. What place can be assigned the Saudi realm in this new war? You needed the assets of the Saudi state, the military facilities, and the bases, but the land and the people--and a militant band of radical religious preachers--were given to a dread of the "infidel" power.
In their politesse, our leaders keep saying that this is not a war against Islam. But there is a terrible new force in Islamic lands: a political radicalism dressed in religious garb, and this force will have to be thwarted just as America ground down communism. From Morocco to Indonesia, the people of Islam are 1.2 billion, a fifth of mankind. The preachers prey upon the gullible among them, and the faith is sharpened into a weapon.
Ideologically, the rehabilitation of modern Islam, its accommodation with modernity, is a matter for the Muslims themselves. But there is, alas, an unavoidable American burden and calling. This land that is so reluctant to engage in military adventures abroad is fated to do military duty and to stand sentry in hostile places. In the shadows, preachers and plotters tell the most brazen and vile lies about America. We are innocent, unimplicated in their histories and current maladies, but they tell their children different tales. We are their demons in a drawn-out, twilight war.