Jeffrey Herf: American Policy and Radical Islam

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jeffrey Herf is the author most recently of Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Yale University Press, 2009). He teaches modern European history at the University of Maryland in College Park.]

President Obama is in a tight spot. The 2010 elections have sharply contracted his ability to achieve legislative victories, while his room to maneuver on other issues will be limited by the intrusive investigations which are almost certainly coming his way. Progress will be harder to attain than ever. But, especially in light of the upheavals which are now spreading across northern Africa, there is one major policy change he could adopt right now, which would make a great deal of difference.

Engagement with various aspects of the Muslim world, from the Middle East to South Asia, to Muslims in Europe and the United States, has been one of the signatures of Obama’s foreign policy. Now, two years after he announced this policy of outreach, it is time for him to assess this experiment and conclude that it has failed. The failure is not due to a lack of effort, passion, or commitment on his part, nor to problems of implementation. It lies instead in the initial assumptions on which the approach was based, namely the idea that it was the policies and personality of his predecessor that were the driving force behind Islamist hatred of our country.

To Obama’s great credit, he has been fighting the Islamists far harder than his early supporters in the left wing of his party ever expected he would. Whatever illusions they may still have about Third-World virtue, he has left them far behind. His undeclared war on our enemies has included escalation of the Predator drone strikes in Pakistan, and he has appointed his predecessor’s favorite general, David Petraeus, to run and win the war in Afghanistan. Disappointing many liberal intellectuals, he extended the timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan from 2011 to 2014, in order to achieve some definition of victory. And judging by newspaper headlines about plots thwarted, he has pushed cooperation among intelligence services engaged in counterterrorism as aggressively as ever. However reluctant a warrior he may be, however much he did not run for president in order to fight this war, he is using the force of arms far more than most voters in 2008 anticipated.

In his inaugural address in 2009, he surprised me—I was 20 in 1967—by favorably mentioning the Battle of Khe Sanh, during the Vietnam war, among the moments of glory in American military history. I suspected then that he was more the commander-in-chief than he had let on. Since those euphoric early days, his actions indicate that he understands the seriousness of the threats that the Islamists pose to the United States and our allies. We do not need Julian Assange to reveal the extent of continuity between his policies and those of his predecessor. For both Obama and President Bush, actions did not fully coincide with words. In Bush’s case, it was partly because he could not find the words or because he thought the cause was so obviously just that more words were not needed. In Obama’s case, the gap between harsh actions and the uncertain trumpet of his public speech appears to have more to do with his initial conviction that words as harsh as his actions would be counterproductive in engaging the Muslim world. So he spoke softly and carried a big stick. Like his immediate predecessor, Obama has refused to use “Islamist” or “Islamism” to name the ideological tradition of the enemies that have declared war on the United States, our European allies, Israel, and many Arab states....

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