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The Islamist Threat Isn't Going Away

My latest column appeared in the Wall Street Journal. It's behind the pay wall and is reprinted here with permission.

President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney wrapped up their trilogy of presidential debates on Monday this week and spent most of the evening arguing foreign policy. Each demonstrated a reasonable grasp of how the world works and only sharply disagreed with his opponent on the margins and in the details. But they both seem to think, 11 years after 9/11, that calibrating just the right policy recipe will reduce Islamist extremism and anti-Americanism in the Middle East. They're wrong.

Mr. Romney said it first, early in the debate: "We're going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the world of Islam . . . reject this violent extremism." Later Mr. Obama spoke as though this objective is already on its way to being accomplished: "When Tunisians began to protest," he said, "this nation, me, my administration, stood with them earlier than just about any other country. In Egypt, we stood on the side of democracy. In Libya, we stood on the side of the people. And as a consequence, there is no doubt that attitudes about Americans have changed."

The Middle East desperately needs economic development, better education, the rule of law and gender equality, as Mr. Romney says. And Mr. Obama was right to take the side of citizens against dictators—especially in Libya, where Moammar Gadhafi ran one of the most thoroughly repressive police states in the world, and in Syria, where Bashar Assad has turned the country he inherited into a prison spattered with blood. But both presidential candidates are kidding themselves if they think anti-Americanism and the appeal of radical Islam will vanish any time soon.

First, it's simply not true that attitudes toward Americans have changed in the region. I've spent a lot of time in Tunisia and Egypt, both before and after the revolutions, and have yet to meet or interview a single person whose opinion of Americans has changed an iota.

Second, pace Mr. Romney, promoting better education, the rule of law and gender equality won't reduce the appeal of radical Islam. Egyptians voted for Islamist parties by a two-to-one margin. Two-thirds of those votes went to the Muslim Brotherhood, and the other third went to the totalitarian Salafists, the ideological brethren of Osama bin Laden. These people are not even remotely interested in the rule of law, better education or gender equality. They want Islamic law, Islamic education and gender apartheid. They will resist Mr. Romney's pressure for a more liberal alternative and denounce him as a meddling imperialist just for bringing it up.

Anti-Americanism has been a default political position in the Arab world for decades. Radical Islam is the principal vehicle through which it's expressed at the moment, but anti-Americanism specifically, and anti-Western "imperialism" generally, likewise lie at the molten core of secular Arab nationalism of every variety. The Islamists hate the U.S. because it's liberal and decadent. (The riots in September over a ludicrous Internet video ought to make that abundantly clear.) And both Islamists and secularists hate the U.S. because it's a superpower.

Everything the United States does is viewed with suspicion across the political spectrum. Gamal Abdel Gawad Soltan, the director of Egypt's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, admitted as much to me in Cairo last summer when I asked him about NATO's war against Gadhafi in Libya. "There is a general sympathy with the Libyan people," he said, "but also concern about the NATO intervention. The fact that the rebels in Libya are supported by NATO is why many people here are somewhat restrained from voicing support for the rebels." When I asked him what Egyptians would think if the U.S. sat the war out, he said, "They would criticize NATO for not helping. It's a lose-lose situation for you."

So we're damned if we do and we're damned if we don't. And not just on Libya. An enormous swath of the Arab world supported the Iraqi insurgency after an American-led coalition overthrew Saddam Hussein. Thousands of non-Iraqi Arabs even showed up to fight. Yet today the U.S. is roundly criticized all over the region for not taking Assad out in Syria.

The U.S. has decent relations with Tunisia's elected coalition government, yet nearly every liberal Tunisian I interviewed a few months ago looks at that and sees a big conspiracy between Americans and Islamists. The Islamists, of course, see U.S. plots against them. We can't win.

We can't even win when we stand against Israel. President Dwight D. Eisenhower tried that during the Suez Crisis in 1956. He backed Egypt, not Israel, and not Britain or France. How did Egypt and its ruler Gamal Abdel Nasser pay back the U.S.? By forging an alliance with Moscow and making Egypt a Soviet client state for two decades.

Libyans are the big exception. They're more pro-American than their neighbors, and they're less prone to extremism. American flags are a common sight there—absolutely unheard of everywhere else in the Arab world. The Islamists lost the post-Gadhafi elections. The only demonstrations there recently were against the terrorist cell that assassinated U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others at the American consulate in Benghazi. Just a few weeks later, another group of demonstrators forced an Islamist militia to flee town by overrunning their headquarters.

Here Mr. Obama deserves credit. After all, he helped get rid of Gadhafi. But Libyans were already something of an exception. They were force-fed anti-American propaganda daily for decades, but it came from a lunatic and malevolent tyrant they hated. Libyans and Americans were quietly on the same side longer than most people there have been alive. Libya has at least that much in common with Eastern Europe during the communist period. Unfortunately, that just isn't true of anywhere else.

When he was elected president in 2008, Mr. Obama thought he could improve America's relations with the Arab world by not being George W. Bush, by creating some distance between himself and Israel, and by delivering a friendly speech in Cairo. He was naïve. He should know better by now, especially after the unpleasantness last month in the countries where he thinks we're popular.

It's not his fault that the Middle East is immature and unhinged politically. Nobody can change that right now. This should be equally obvious to Mr. Romney even though he isn't president. No American president since Eisenhower could change it, nor can Mr. Romney. We may be able to help out here and there, and I wholeheartedly agree with him that we should. But Arab countries will mostly have to work this out on their own.

It will take a long time.

Mr. Totten is a contributing editor at World Affairs and City Journal, and is the prize-winning author of Where the West Ends (Belmont Estate, 2012) and The Road to Fatima Gate (Encounter, 2011).

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