Time for Hard Choices: The Dilemmas Facing U.S. Relations with the Islamic World

Peter W. Singer

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the varied responses to them, both in the U.S. and in the Islamic world, raised a series of profound questions for American foreign policy. The challenges that have resulted—ranging from the war on terrorism, our role in the Mideast peace process, to crafting better public diplomacy—will be at the center of international affairs for years to come. Unfortunately, the hard decisions needed to come to terms with these questions are yet to be made, a full year later.

While the last year saw American military success in Afghanistan, it has also seen a deepening of tension between the U.S. and the wider Islamic world (this includes not only the founding hub in the Middle East, but also other Islamic countries and movements in Africa, Europe, the former Soviet states in Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and beyond). Polling has found anti-American sentiment to be fairly consistent in most Islamic countries, while the continuing violence in the Middle East has hardened attitudes. Suspicion and antipathy plagues relations, even while the two sides proffer to share common foes and common interests.

At the heart of this worsening dynamic are a series of dilemmas that arise again and again in American foreign policy towards Islamic states and movements. These challenges fall along certain layers:

  • The first set is primarily at the state level. How should the U.S. now deal with authoritarian regimes considered its traditional allies in the Islamic world, while still protecting for American strategic concerns and values in a changed threat environment?
  • The second dilemma, at the intra-state level, is a by-product of this above question. How then should the U.S. deal with civil society, opposition parties, and other Islamist groups, often within these friends and allies?
  • The third dilemma is one of balancing friendships and thus draws from both layers. How can the U.S. navigate maintaining a close alliance with Israel, while maintaining positive relations with Muslim states and movements?
  • The fourth dilemma occurs at the extra-regional level. How can the U.S. respond to the issues and concerns of Muslim minorities, often living within our allies?
  • Finally, the fifth dilemma occurs at the geo-political level. What is an appropriate paradigm for the war on terrorism, which can provides guidance without compromising other goals and values?