When it comes to terrorism, what are you afraid of? In a 2002 episode of The West Wing, Leo, the President’s Chief of Staff, gave this answer:
It’s that I don’t know what winning looks like. What does it look like? Is it . . . I mean, is it honestly the U.S. flag flying over Mecca? Is that what’s going to straighten this out? And if that’s the case, why are we postponing that? What are we hoping is gonna happen in the meantime?
Leo’s fear strikes at the heart of what might be the most perplexing foreign policy question the United States has ever faced: how do we stop terrorism by Al Qaeda and its affiliates? Now, there are some obvious (though not easy) measures that can be taken, including ramping up security at borders and airports, destroying terrorist camps and freezing assets that fund terrorism. However, those merely treat the symptoms of the problem. The real answer is that we have to find a way to make them hate us less.
There are many Americans who would scoff at that suggestion and make the following argument:
We can’t make would-be terrorists hate us less. Moderate Muslims (the vast majority) are not terrorists. Those are the only ones that we could possibly convince to like us. The extremists are not rational. They will want to kill us regardless of what we do. Thus, any effort to try to make them like us is a waste of time.
The problem with that argument is that it relies on the premise that terrorists are completely irrational. That seems unlikely. The complete lack of rationality is insanity. Insane people do not inspire large groups of people. Al Qaeda has inspired quite a large number of people so much that they are willing to strap bombs to themselves. That cannot be based on a completely irrational argument.
It is much more likely that the terrorists believe that they are fighters on behalf of the Muslim world and that, deep down, the majority of Muslims support them. That may be unlikely (polls and elections tend to say the opposite), but it’s not completely irrational.
However, if that is true, suddenly the majority of Muslims do matter. Over the past couple of decades, public opinion of America in most of the Muslim world has been quite negative. The majority of Muslims are not terrorists, but they do often see America as a nation that started a war in Iraq to ensure access to oil, as a nation that supports brutal dictators in the region and as a nation that is a blind supporter of Israel (who in their eyes has and continues to commit atrocities against the Palestinians). These views don’t make the Muslim majority terrorists, but they do lead to an overall negative view of America in the Muslim world.
Al Qaeda is well aware of this negative view, and that negative view is what makes its members believe that their brutal tactics are supported by the majority of Muslims. But that negative view can change. In fact, it is changing.
The Muslim world largely reacted to the killing of bin Laden with indifference. The Arab league essentially asked the US (via the UN) to get involved in Libya. To be sure, America isn’t exactly beloved in the region. But it’s not disliked quite as much as it used to be.
If we can keep clawing back public opinion in the region, it will become ever more likely that Pakistanis will insist that their government root out terrorist cells and ever less likely that groups of extremists will be able to take control in unstable areas.
So, to answer the original question, what does winning look like? Indifference. The majority will probably never like us. But if the majority in the Muslim world becomes indifferent to us, that will mean victory.