Obama Outsmarts the Terrorists

President Obama isn't nearly as scared of the terrorists as Bush was--and that’s precisely why al Qaeda is falling apart.

02.05.10 7:05 AM ET

President Obama isn't nearly as scared of the terrorists as Bush was—and that’s precisely why al Qaeda is falling apart.

Republicans think about terrorism the way Democrats think about poverty. Democrats know their anti-poverty policies don’t always work. But they tell themselves that at least their hearts are in the right place, at least they care about the problem.

That’s the way Republicans think about terrorism. In unguarded moments, honest Republicans will admit that not all of the Bush administration’s anti-terror policies worked. But they tell themselves that at least they know America is at war; at least they know the terrorists are evil; at least they really care about the problem.

It’s precisely because Obama doesn’t see the terrorist threat as quite so epic that al Qaeda is falling apart.

In a sense, the Republicans are right: they do worry more about terrorism than Democrats. You can see it in the polls. Democrats--especially liberal Democrats—focus part of their foreign policy anxiety on things like climate change, global pandemics and financial collapse. For many Republicans, by contrast, the terrorists are today’s equivalent of the Nazis and the communists: they’re the only threat that really matters. Everything else is an afterthought.

But as conservatives used to say during the poverty debates of the 1960s and 1970s, intentions and outcomes are not the same thing. Sometimes, ironically enough, not worrying quite so much can produce better results.

Which brings us to Barack Obama’s “war on terror.” Conservatives keep saying that Obama doesn’t really believe we’re at war; that he sees terrorists as mere criminals, not the epic evil-doers that they really are. But here’s the irony: It’s precisely because he doesn’t see the terrorist threat as quite so epic that al Qaeda is falling apart.

To understand why, it helps to understand that al Qaeda is one of the weakest enemies America has ever faced. In their day, the Nazis and communists each ran a great power. (In the case of the communists, two). What’s more, during the Depression, vast numbers of people across the globe—including some of the most famous intellectuals in the United States and Europe—believed the fascists and communists could build societies that were more prosperous and dynamic than their democratic competitors. Barely anyone has ever believed that about al Qaeda. Not only have the jihadists never controlled a powerful country, but no one really believes that if they did it would be anything other than a basket case. To millions of people, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia once offered compelling visions of modernity; Taliban Afghanistan never did.

At the end of the day, all jihadist terrorists can really do is kill. But the more they kill, the more they alienate their fellow Muslims. As the French scholar Gilles Kepel has pointed out, the reason jihadists turned their attention to the United States in the first place was because they utterly failed in the 1990s to overthrow the governments of Algeria and Egypt. They failed because the more people they killed, the more hated they became. And when they lost popular support, they were easily crushed.

In recent years, the dynamic has been playing itself out again. In countries like Pakistan and Jordan, where al Qaeda keeps slaughtering innocent Muslims, its public support has fallen off a cliff. During the Bush years, the only thing that kept al Qaeda from complete ideological collapse was Muslim hatred of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our unblinking support for Muslim dictatorships and for Israel, and our use of torture at places like Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay.

Now Obama, by pledging to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and close Gitmo, and by eschewing torture—in other words, by not overreacting to the terrorist threat—is cutting al Qaeda’s throat. Although the U.S. government is still not exactly loved in Muslim nations, it is hated less. Between 2008 and 2009, according to Gallup, approval of U.S. policies rose 23 points in Tunisia, 22 points in Algeria, 19 points in Egypt, 17 points in Saudi Arabia and 13 points in Kuwait. In Indonesia, according to the Pew Research Center, approval of the U.S. rose 26 points. And not coincidentally, al Qaeda’s slide seems to be accelerating. Between 2003 and 2009, according to Pew, support for Osama bin Laden has dropped 34 points in Indonesia, 28 points in Pakistan, 28 points in Jordan, 20 points in the Palestinian territories, 16 points in Lebanon and 13 points in Turkey. In Indonesia and Pakistan, much of the decline has occurred in the last year alone. Bin Laden is having so much trouble demonizing the United States that his last audio tape focused on climate change.

Even the Christmas bombing attack testifies to al Qaeda’s decline. On 9/11, al Qaeda deployed 19 highly trained terrorists in a successful bid to kill thousands of Americans. On 12/25, it deployed one poorly trained terrorist in an unsuccessful bid to kill hundreds. Once upon a time, al Qaeda’s modus operandi was multiple, simultaneous attacks so at least one of them would succeed. Now the organization seems unable to achieve that. As Rand’s Brian Jenkins has put it—echoing many other terrorism experts—-“Al Qaeda is no longer capable of carrying out a big attack. Its capability appears to have been degraded.”

None of this is to say there won’t be future strikes, or that the U.S. government shouldn’t be working diligently to ferret them out. But the key is to ferret them out without committing the kinds of abuses that remind Muslims why they hate the U.S., and which distract them from their hatred of al Qaeda.

The dirty little secret of the “war on terror” is that America is winning. We began winning during George W. Bush’s second term, when al Qaeda’s violence began corroding its support among Muslims, and we’re doing even better under Barack Obama, because the U.S. now presents a less menacing face. The best chance al Qaeda has is another American overreaction of the kind the GOP demands: reckless military attacks by the United States or Israel, mass profiling of Muslims, a return to torture. Perhaps Obama’s Republican critics do take the terrorist threat more seriously than he does. I’d rather take it less seriously, and win.

Peter Beinart, Senior Political Writer for The Daily Beast, is Associate Professor of Journalism and Political Science at City University of New York and a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, will be published by HarperCollins in June.