The White House’s approach to the world’s second largest religion isn’t just bigoted – it’s a strategic disaster.
- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Donald Trump took up so bandwidth during the 2016 election cycle that we all paid insufficient attention to the people lurking within his campaign operation who have now moved into key policymaking positions. Foremost among these worrisome characters is White House political strategist Stephen Bannon, the former Goldman Sachs employee, Hollywood producer, and Breitbart chairman who appears to be behind much of Trump’s chaotic approach to foreign policy. But you could add oddballs like self-promoting national security “experts” like Sebastian Gorka (who falsely claimed to have been an expert witness at the Boston Marathon bombing trial) and nutcase Islamophobe Frank Gaffney, whose extreme views are apparently taken seriously by short-lived National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. To give you a sense of just how out-there Gaffney is, his think tank, the Center for Security Policy, has been identified as an “extremist group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center and criticized by the Anti-Defamation League for promulgating “anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.”
What unites these people — and seems to drive Bannon in particular — is a belief that the United States, and, indeed, the entire Judeo-Christian West, is under siege from an insidious and powerful foe: “radical Islam.” See this article here, or this one. For the most extreme of them (that is, Gaffney), there’s no real distinction between jihadi terrorists and the entire Muslim religion. In this view, a hardened Islamic State killer is no different from that nice Muslim family who lives downstairs, next door, or across the street.
As many of us have already noted, this worldview depicts a Huntingtonian “clash of civilizations” on steroids, and it helps explain why people like Bannon are so fond of right-wing xenophobes like Marine Le Pen in France and autocrats like Vladimir Putin in Russia. If the entire Muslim world threatens us all, then these otherwise unsavory leaders can be defended as useful allies in the struggle to defend “Western” civilization against the oncoming Muslim hordes.
There’s only one thing wrong with this view as a template for U.S. foreign policy: It’s completely at odds with reality. Specifically, it ignores the true balance of power, overlooks the deep divisions within Islam itself, exaggerates the danger of terrorism and relies on assorted myths Islamophobes have been ceaselessly spouting for decades. If this view became the primary organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy, it would commit the United States and its allies to a costly, self-fulfilling and counterproductive crusade that will play right into the hands of the handful of genuine extremists that do exist. Needless to say, a conflict of this sort could also be used to justify further extensions of executive power here in the United States and further erode our democratic freedoms.
As a public service, therefore, I offer the Top Five Reasons Steve Bannon is Dead Wrong About the “Islamic Threat.”
1: The Balance of Power Is Overwhelmingly in Our Favor. Let’s start with some good old-fashioned power politics. Imagine for the moment that all of Islam was in fact united in an effort to overwhelm the United States and the rest of the West. If they really were united, do the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims have the capacity to do so? Hardly.
There are 47 Muslim-majority countries in the world. If you add all of their economies together, they have a combined GDP of slightly more than $5 trillion. That sounds like a lot, but remember that the United States has a GDP of more than $17 trillion all by itself and so does the European Union. In terms of raw economic power, in short, the “West” has this fictitious coalition of Muslim states out-matched from the start.
The imbalance is even more striking when it comes to military capability. This same imaginary coalition of Muslim-majority countries spent roughly $270 billion on defense last year, and if you take out U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia ($87 billion) and the United Arab Emirates ($22 billion), the number drops to less than $200 billion. By contrast, the United States alone spent roughly $600 billion — more than twice as much — and that’s not counting its various allies like the United Kingdom, Japan, Israel, or others.
But these raw figures on defense spending greatly understate the West’s advantage. The entire Muslim world produces no indigenous advanced combat aircraft (though Turkey produces some U.S.-designed F-16s under license) and no indigenously designed modern battle tanks (though Pakistan makes a modified Chinese tank and Turkey is working on one of its own). The navies of the Muslim world have no major surface combatants larger than a frigate (though Iran is reportedly building a single destroyer), no aircraft carriers, no long-range bombers, and no nuclear submarines. Indeed, the power projection capabilities of all of these states are extremely limited. And to the extent that these states have much modern military power, it is because the United States, France, the U.K., China and others have been willing to sell or license advanced weaponry, for various strategic reasons of their own. Yet Saudi Arabia’s unimpressive performance in its recent intervention in Yemen suggests that the Muslim world’s capacity to project power even short distances is quite modest.
Thus, even if one started with the wholly unrealistic assumption that the Muslim world is a single unified movement, it’s much, much, much weaker than we are. Maybe that explains why foreign powers have intervened in Muslim-majority countries repeatedly over the past couple of centuries, while the reverse hasn’t occurred since the siege of Vienna in 1529. Not once. It wasn’t Egypt that invaded France in 1798; Saddam Hussein didn’t send a mighty expeditionary force around the world and up the Potomac to occupy Washington and depose George W. Bush in 2003; and Muammar al-Qaddafi didn’t order his air force to bomb Paris in order to oust Nicolas Sarkozy in 2011. Surely this one-sided history tells you something about the relative power of Western states and those from the Islamic world.
2. Islam Is, in Fact, Deeply Divided. From time immemorial, threat inflators like Bannon & Co. have portrayed adversaries as part of some grand unified coalition. Remember the “communist monolith” or the “axis of evil?” Today, fearmongers use phrases like “Islamofascism” or “radical Islam” to imply that our enemies form a tightly integrated and centrally directed movement working tirelessly to bring us to our knees.
But in reality, the Islamic world is more disunited today than at any time in recent memory. It is divided among many different states, of course, and many of those states (e.g., Iran and Saudi Arabia, or Turkey and Syria) don’t get along. There are vast geographic and cultural differences between Indonesia and countries like Yemen or Morocco or Saudi Arabia. There’s also the core division between the Sunnis and the Shiites, not to mention a number of other minor schisms between various Islamic offshoots. And let’s not forget the sometimes-bitter rivalries within the jihadi movement itself, both across the globe and within particular countries. Just look at all the radical groups who hate the Islamic State, and all the jihadis whom the Islamic State regards as heretics because they don’t embrace its full ideology.
These divisions do not mean extremists pose no danger at all, of course, but Bannon’s specter of a rising Islamic tide that threatens to overwhelm us is pure fantasy. Instead of treating all of Islam as a threat — which might eventually unite more of them against us — the smart move is to play “divide-and-conquer.” But that means recognizing that the danger we face is not a hostile “civilization” or an entire religion, but rather just a small number of extremists who are unrepresentative of the larger cultural category (and opposed by most of it). To beat them, we want the rest of the Muslim world on our side.
3: Terrorism Is Just Not That Big a Threat. Really. We live in a world where lots of bad things can happen. You might get into a car accident. You could get cancer. You could mishandle a power tool and injure yourself severely. You may fall off a ladder, slip in a bathtub, or be in the wrong place at the wrong time and end up stopping a stray bullet. Or maybe, just maybe, you might find yourself imperiled by a radical Islamic extremist.
You wouldn’t know it if you listened to Trump, to CNN, to Fox News, or to most of our politicians, but that last danger is miniscule. Not zero, but really, really small. We’ve been obsessed with terrorism ever since 9/11 but the reality is that the risk it poses is way, way, way down the list of possible harms that might befall us.
For example, based on the evidence since 9/11 (and including that attack), the likelihood an American will be killed by a terrorist is less than 1 in 3 million per year, and the lifetime risk is about 1 in 45,000. That’s pretty damn good odds: You are much more likely to die from being struck by lightning, falling out of bed, a heat wave, or accidentally choking on food. But don’t expect Trump, Bannon, Flynn, Gorka, Gaffney, or any of the well-compensated “terrorism experts” to highlight this fact, because their livelihoods and their ability to seize more and more power depends on keeping you very, very scared. And don’t expect the media to downplay the danger either, because hyping terrorism whenever it does occur is a good way to get your eyeballs glued to the screen. (Among other things, this is why Trump’s recent statements suggesting terrorism was being “underreported” are so absurd.)
In some ways, in fact, terrorism remains the perfect bogeyman. It’s easy to hype the threat, and to convince people to worry about random dangers over which they have little or no control. Unscrupulous politicians have long understood that you can get a lot of leeway when the people are scared and craving protection, and it’s pretty clear that Trump and Bannon see this tactic as the ideal way to retain public support (and to consolidate more presidential power), and the specter of terrorism serves well because it scares people but isn’t actually an existential threat that might require a serious, sensible, strategic, and well-thought response. For would-be authoritarians, “terrorism” is a gift that just keeps giving.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying the danger is zero or that sensible precautionary measures should not be taken. But to believe that ragtag radicals like al Qaeda or the Islamic State constitute a threat on a par with Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, or some of the serious opponents the United States has faced in the past is silly. Frankly, it makes me question the guts, steadiness, and judgment of some of our present leaders, if they are so easily spooked by such weak adversaries. Let’s hope these fraidy-cats never have to deal with a truly formidable foe.
4: “Creeping Sharia” Is a Fairy Tale. Die-hard Islamophobes have a fallback argument: The danger isn’t an actual military attack or a Muslim invasion of America or Europe. Rather, the danger is the slow infiltration of our society by “foreigners” who refuse to assimilate and who will eventually try to impose their weird and alien values on us. One sees this argument in the right-wing myth of “creeping Sharia,” based on trumped-up (pun intended) stories about “Sharia courts” and other alleged incidents where diabolical Muslim infiltrators have tried to pollute our pristine Constitution with their religiously inspired dogma. If we’re not ceaselessly vigilant, we are told, someday our daughters will be wearing hijabs and we’ll all be praying to Mecca.
Seriously, this anxiety almost sounds right out of Dr. Strangelove, and especially Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper’s rants about fluoridation and the need to protect our “precious bodily fluids.” To repeat: There is simply no evidence of “creeping Sharia” here in the United States, and no risk of it occurring in the future. Not only do we still have formal separation of church and state here (at least so far!), the number of Muslims in the United States remains tiny. According to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, there are only 3.3 million Muslims living in the United States, a mere 1 percent of the population. That percentage might double by 2050 to a vast, enormous, dangerous, and overwhelming 2 percent. Being a tiny minority makes them ideal victims for ambitious power-seekers, but hardly a threat to our way of life.
5: The “Clash of Civilizations” Is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. The final reason to reject Bannon and company’s depiction of a vast and looming Muslim threat to us is that this worldview encourages us to act in ways that make the problem worse instead of better. As George Kennan wisely observed in 1947, “It is an undeniable privilege of every man to prove himself right in the thesis that the world is his enemy; for if he reiterates it frequently enough and makes it the background of his conduct he is bound eventually to be right.” If U.S. leaders keep demonizing an entire religion, impose ill-considered bans on Muslim refugees, and most important of all, continue to intervene throughout the Arab and Islamic world with military force, they will convince more and more people that Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Muhammed and Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were right when they claimed the West had “declared war” on their religion.
Despite the mountain of evidence that shows that anti-Americanism in the Muslim world is overwhelmingly a response to U.S. policy (and not because they “hate our freedoms”), people like Bannon, Gaffney, and their ilk want us to double down on the same policies that have inspired extremists since the 1950s and especially since the formation of al Qaeda. Frankly, given how often we’ve used our superior power to interfere in these countries, it’s somewhat surprising the reaction has been as modest and manageable as it is. Ask yourself how Americans might react if a powerful foreign country had repeatedly bombed the continental United States with aircraft and drones, or invaded, toppled our government, and then left chaos in their wake. Do you think a few patriotic Americans might be tempted to try for some payback?
My point is not to defend terrorism — far from it, in fact — but rather to remind us that it didn’t just come out of nowhere, and it isn’t solely a reaction to the political and social problems of the Muslim world itself. But if you’d like to encourage more of it, then by all means embrace the Bannon playbook.
Perhaps the most important task for any strategist is to figure out what the main threats and opportunities are, and then to devise policies that can defuse the former and exploit the latter. Making all of Islam our enemy and viewing the world through the lens of a vast “civilizational clash” fails on both criteria. If followed, it will bog us down in more interminable conflicts in places that are not vital U.S. interests, distract us from other foreign-policy issues, and sap the wealth and strength that we may need to deal with more serious challenges, including long-neglected problems here at home. I’m sure plenty of anti-Americans are hoping that we take the bait and do just that; what scares me is that there are now people in the White House who agree with them.
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