Daniel W. Drezner

You know what? Let the terrorists win.

You know what?  Let the terrorists win.

You wouldn’t know it from the blog, but for the past week I have been astonishingly productive.  I’ve written long-overdue papers, copy-edited long-overdue page proofs, prepped long-overdue syllabi, refereed long-overdue manuscripts… you get the drift. 

Why the burst of productivity?  Well, one reason is that I’ve been avoiding the two Big Questions haunting the foreign policy blogosphere for the past week or so:  

1)  Jeffrey Goldberg’s lead essay in The Atlantic on Iran; and

2)  The whole mosque-in-lower-Manhattan imbroglio. 

Sooooooo…. now that I’ve fully caught up in my day job, I guess it’s time to wade in.  Let’s start with the hallowed ground of the former Burlington Coat Factory Ground Zero Mosque Cordoba House Park51.  I have only two (printable) thoughts on the matter, so let’s get them out of the way:

1)  Of course the mosque should be built.  There is no, repeat, no  ground for government at any level to prevent the construction of this structure on private property.  The political and moral arguments against this mosque appear to require those making the arguments to fall back on the moral equivalency between the United States and Saudi Arabia.  The other objections I’ve heard/seen on this issue have been either inane or curiously uninformed about the geography about Manhattan (note to smart conservatives:  now would be an excellent moment to point out that there is some rough equivalency to these Ground Zero Mosque criticisms and arguments against opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling). 

2)  I’m getting really sick of “the terrorists will win” line of criticism being levied against those wishing to prevent construction of the mosque.  Over the past few days, I’ve seen bipartisan criticism of the mosque criticism along the lines of, “this line of argumentation is the best way to help Al Qaeda.”  Exhibit A of this is Mark Halperin’s plea to the GOP to drop this issue

[W]]hat is happening now — the misinformation about the center and its supporters; the open declarations of war on Islam on talk radio, the Internet and other forums; the painful divisions propelled by all the overheated rhetoric — is not worth whatever political gain your party might achieve….

[A] national political fight conducted on the terms we have seen in the past few days will lead to a chain reaction at home and abroad that will have one winner — the very extreme and violent jihadists we all can claim as our true enemy. 

Similar sentiments have been expessed by Steve Benen, Will Saletan, Jeff Goldberg, and FP’s own Marc Lynch, among many others

You know, I remember oh so many years ago the constant use of “if you say X, or criticize policy Y, or challenge official Z, then the terrorists win” kind of discourse.  It was horses**t then, and it’s horses**t now.  I’ll be damned if I’m going to see debate in the United States circumscribed because of fears of how Al Qaeda will react.  [But it’s an inane debate!–ed.  Really?  More inane than death panels?  Ha!!] 

The truth is that Al Qaeda has been seriously weakened, and that the effect of this kind of debate on the attitude of possible AQ sympathizers is marginal.  It is important for presidents and other responsible policy officials to expose Newt Gingrich’s vapidity articulate a clear message, but airheads commentators like Sarah Palin should be encouraged to bloviate articulate their side of the debate freely and fully. 

To his credit, this is a distinction that Michael Gerson gets in his Washington Post column today: 

Though columnists are loath to admit it, there is a difference between being a commentator and being president. Pundits have every right to raise questions about the construction of an Islamic center near Ground Zero. Where is the funding coming from? What are the motives of its supporters? Is the symbolism insensitive?

But the view from the Oval Office differs from the view from a keyboard. A president does not merely have opinions; he has duties to the Constitution and to the citizens he serves — including millions of Muslim citizens. His primary concern is not the sifting of sensitivities but the protection of the American people and the vindication of their rights.

By this standard, Obama had no choice but the general path he took. No president, of any party or ideology, could tell millions of Americans that their sacred building desecrates American holy ground. This would understandably be taken as a presidential assault on the deepest beliefs of his fellow citizens. It would be an unprecedented act of sectarianism, alienating an entire faith tradition from the American experiment. If a church or synagogue can be built on a commercial street in Lower Manhattan, declaring a mosque off-limits would officially equate Islam with violence and terrorism. No president would consider making such a statement. And those commentators who urge the president to do so fundamentally misunderstand the presidency itself.

An inclusive rhetoric toward Islam is sometimes dismissed as mere political correctness. Having spent some time crafting such rhetoric for a president, I can attest that it is actually a matter of national interest. It is appropriate — in my view, required — for a president to draw a clear line between “us” and “them” in the global conflict with Muslim militants.

Should Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Abe Foxman et al be criticized for making ill-informed, incoherent, and idiotic arguments?  Sure, and as loudly as possible, please.  But quit bringing Al Qaeda into it.  Silencing debate on national security grounds is so very 2002.