As soon as the pounding of targets in Afghanistan began, the voice of Osama bin Laden was heard all over the Middle East, calm, confident, eloquent and passionate.
In a pre-recorded tape, released just in time to counter the speech by President Bush, bin Laden addressed common grievances in the region—the suffering of Iraqi children, the pain of Palestinians, and the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia. His message was woven through with golden passages from the Koran and strengthened by staging designed to appeal to his audience—the austere setting, the rifle at the ready.
Above all, he reminded people of what they had grown to believe over the years: The United States and the West do not value Arab and Muslim lives in the same way that they value Israeli and Western lives, and are now tasting the kind of pain that people of the region have long endured. Attempting to inspire hope in those who desperately want to see change in the region at almost any cost, bin Laden spoke of the “winds of change” brought by the horror inflicted on America.
Effect of his message
For those few in the Middle East who support bin Laden’s aims and his means, the words were empowering. And for the majority of people who share the grievances he expressed but reject bin Laden’s terrorism and even fear his aims, his message was paralyzing. In the end, he is pitted, in their eyes, against the United States, whose policies they find hard to defend and whose actions they mistrust.
Whom will they choose to support? This is the battle for hearts and minds that the United States now faces.
Few as bin Laden’s true supporters in the region may be, they are on the offensive with the promise of change. They are mobilized to demonstrate in the streets of Pakistan and Gaza, and, more important, their voices dominate the airwaves.
The majority in the region is moderate. Even among Palestinians, 64 percent said in a recent poll that the attacks on the United States “violated Islamic law.” But the moderates, including leaders who are terrified by the prospect that the region could be dominated by militants or by the likes of the intolerant Taliban, find themselves on the defensive. They offer no alternative vision, beyond rejecting terrorism as a method. Rather than pitting themselves courageously against the militants, they allow the militants to define the discourse, as if bin Laden’s conflict is with only the West.
This is, in part, the legacy of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when the United States assembled an international coalition to dislodge Iraq from Kuwait. Then, as now, there was much popular anger toward the United States. Indeed, two months before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, I visited several states in the region, including Iraq, as a congressional staffer and wrote a report identifying the mood in the region as being the most anti-American since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
But Iraq’s blatant aggression in invading Kuwait propelled many to put aside their anger to face the bigger threat. The anger was not easy to contain; a Palestinian-Israeli confrontation in Jerusalem in September 1990 nearly derailed the coalition.
Three things were at work for the coalition partners then that do not exist today: a real threat from a powerful Iraq that had shaken the smaller Arab states in the gulf; a well-defined mission with a clear end-point, the liberation of Kuwait; and a near-monopoly of the media that allowed governments in the region to coordinate a public-opinion campaign and limit Iraqi access to their public.
This is in stark contrast to the current crisis. Today, many people in the region do not see bin Laden as an immediate threat to themselves. They do not see where the war on terrorism will end and believe that it is primarily aimed against Arabs and Muslims. And a large number of new and more independent media outlets—especially satellite TV—that have emerged in the past decade give militants prominent space and air time.
What vision do the moderates have to offer?
In 1990, the United States and its coalition partners understood the immediate need to put forth an alternate vision to win the hearts of the public and to change the course of regional politics. It was a vision of “a new world order” to follow the end of the Cold War, which would benefit the Middle East. The scheme was simple: a negotiated settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the promise of an economic dividend that would lead the region to prosperity. The vision inspired hope and kept the public patient.
But this paradigm crashed hard even before the collapse of Arab-Israeli negotiations last year. Now the public in the region asks what the moderates achieved by negotiating with Israel and courting the United States. The Palestinians remain under occupation after 34 years, Iraq’s population has suffered under sanctions while its government survived, and the economies of most states in the region went from bad to worse.
The promises made to them by their governments at the end of the gulf war now seem hollow. There are many factors to blame for the economic failure, including government mismanagement, the hard costs of the gulf war, the decline in oil revenues and rapidly growing populations. The failure to achieve Arab-Israeli peace also made financial investments in parts of the region more risky.
But this is not about the objective reality of where the blame lies, it is about entrenched perceptions: The public in the region blames the powers that be, and sees Israel as the most powerful state in the region, an occupier of Arab lands, and the United States as the anchor of that order. Conspiracy theories abound in the Middle East, the favorite explanation for every ill: Even the Sept. 11 attack is sometimes blamed on an Israeli conspiracy to discredit the Muslim world.
So what can be done to counter this message?
First, we must not be disheartened by some continuing images of hatred, because there will always be people in the region who will not be won over, no matter what the United States does.
Second, we must cultivate our natural allies in the governments and elite in the region, for whom bin Laden remains a threat.
Third, we must provide an inspiring vision for the majority of people in the middle who love much about the United States and aspire to its standard of living, but also mistrust it and dislike its policies. When moderates debate militants on television, they have no positive argument to offer, so they go on the defensive. They need ammunition to wage their war of ideas.
It is here that much can be done. Confronting the evil perpetrators of terror with military resolve is an important part of the campaign, and their demise will weaken the militants’ hand, but unlike the liberation of Kuwait, it will be hard to know when they are truly defeated. To succeed, the U.S.-led coalition must offer an alternate vision for addressing the genuine problems in the region. Launching a forum for fueling economic and political development with the promise of cooperation, and reviving serious Arab-Israeli negotiations must be integral to this vision.
To be sure, people in the region are tired of mere promises, and issues such as the Iraq problem will be difficult to resolve. But what is needed above all is a signal that the international community is serious about committing resources and working with states in the region to advance economic development, and that governments there are serious about undertaking badly needed political and economic reform. And the absence of Arab-Israeli peace remains a major cause of public resentment.
Although results will take time, what is needed is an infusion of hope in the midst of despair, a supply of ammunition for the war of ideas for those in the region who, deep in their hearts, reject the militants’ way, but are sickened even more by their own daily humiliation.