The art of not scoring own goals

by | May 20, 2008

I’ve been at the Brookings Institution in Washington today for its conference on the transatlantic relationship.

In the chair, Daniel Benjamin, who runs Brookings’ Center on the United States and Europe, and who wrote The Age of Sacred Terror and The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting it Right with the Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven Simon.

In The Next Attack, Benjamin and Simon argued that:

It is unlikely that even in his feverish reveries, Usama bin Laden could have imagined that America would stumble so badly and wound itself so grievously. By occupying Iraq, the United States has played into the hands of its opponents, affirming the story they have been telling to the Muslim world and adding to their aura as true warriors in defence of Islam…

There is, as has so often been said, a war of ideas going on, a battle for hearts and minds. Unfortunately, America has wound up on the wrong side.

Of course, this was pretty predictable. Every effective terror movement in history has been fuelled by the adverse reaction of its host society. The Bush administration has simply proved particularly obtuse and self-destructive- a fact for which Al Qaeda is appropriately grateful. In 2004, bin Laden mischievously quoted an unnamed British diplomat speaking at Chatham House (!) to support his assertion that ‘it seems as if we and the White House are on the same team shooting at the United States’ own goal’.

Benjamin and Simon’s policy prescription for the US can be summed simply as: stop scoring own goals. They call for a ‘deep and dramatic’ engagement with the Islamic world and point to Turkey’s relationship with the EU as a model. It has moved from military repression to relative liberalism, they suggest, albeit a liberalism that has an Islamic hue.

‘These changes, as well as the speed with which they have taken hold, are nothing short of remarkable,’ they write. ‘That they have happened at all is due to one thing: the prospect of membership in the European Union. The transformative potential this prospect has held has been clear to American policy makers for years, and, wisely, they have supported Turkey’s bid consistently and vocally.’

Of course, US support for Turkish accession to the EU is somewhat problematic. George Bush pushed this line in 2004 despite attempts from the French and others to warn him off. ‘Including Turkey in the E.U. would prove that Europe is not the exclusive club of a single religion, and it would expose the clash of civilizations as a passing myth in history,’ he said.

It’s hard for Europeans to be lectured on this issue by a man who believes that the US is in the midst of a Christian revival prompted by the ‘confrontation between good and evil’ (his words) that America finds itself in. Or from a guy who said this in 2001:

Oh, I know there’s some voices who want to wall us off from Mexico. They want to build a wall. I say to them, they want to condemn our neighbours to the south in poverty, and I refuse to accept that type of isolationist and protectionist attitude.

And then signed a bill to build a 700 mile fence along the Mexican border in 2006 – part of a desperate attempt to shore up his approval rating with the shrinking portion of Americans who represent his base.

But I digress.

Benjamin and Simon recognise the difficulty that the EU will have in accepting Turkey. Europe is poised between embracing Islam and choking on it. One possible outcome is escalating tension between Muslims and non-Muslims across Europe, as young and excluded populations of second and third generation immigrants turn to crime or Jihad:

“The challenge this will pose for a continent that has struggled nobly over half a century to build for its citizens a ‘paradise’ as Robert Kagan half-ironically put it,” they write, “will likely be as great as any Europe will face in the coming century.”

The big question is whether the US will join Europe is facing this challenge or whether it will leave the EU to respond alone. One striking feature of Marc Sageman’s recent book, Leaderless Jihad (eviscerated by Bruce Hoffman in his review for Foreign Affairs, but still worth a read) was his rock solid certainty that the European model for dealing with ethnic minorities was an unmitigated disaster; the American way a paragon in comparison.

Extrapolate Sageman’s instinctive feeling of superiority and one can quickly think ones way into a scary place. How many terror attacks would Europe need to suffer before Americans came to believe that its erstwhile partner was no longer to be trusted? What hope would the visa waiver scheme have if terrorists continue to cross the Atlantic from a European base?

Indeed, ‘uniting Europe in chaos; dividing the EU from America’ is part of Al Qaeda’s strategy. Again, this relies on the stupidity of the darker reaches of the American right to act as a force multiplier. Think of how a populist thug like Mark Steyn, whose columns appear in newspapers across the Anglosphere, will react if Islamist pressure on Europe continues to increase.

If you don’t know Steyn’s work, here’s a quick primer. He has quite a following on both sides of the Atlantic. His book America Alone was recommended by Bush to his staff and reviewed enthusiastically by Michael Gove, the Times’ columnist who is now a member of David Cameron’s shadow cabinet. But his views are bracing, to say the least. He argues that democracy has failed in ‘almost every country apart from the US’ and the world is now being ‘re-primitivized by darker forces’ [my emphasis].

Europe is a lost cause, he says. Bosnia was the first strike in a new ‘civilizational struggle’. Outbred by Muslims, Bosnian Serbs ‘concluded that if you can’t buck demography the old fashioned way by having babies, all you can do is start a civil war and try and reclaim your strength by culling your enemy.’

‘Native Europeans’ now face a similar demographic destiny. Already, the Muslim youth has fused Western licentious with Eastern fanaticism. According to Steyn, Muslim ‘rape gangs’ run amok in Scandinavia, France and Belgium, while on 911, taxis were hard to find in Northern England, ‘because the Muslim taxi drivers were all partying that night.’

Steyn says Europeans will soon face three choices. Fight, which means turning to neo-fascism and inter-ethnic warfare (his description, not mine). Surrender, by converting to Islam and falling on the mercy of new masters. Or flee, if there is any Christian nation still accepting refugees (Steyn, who is Canadian born but British raised, has already taken refuge in New Hampshire).

Shake your head at the overwrought nature of this vision if you like. But don’t be too sure that it won’t slowly inch its way into the US mainstream if the right provocation is combined with a failure to present an alternative vision. And at the moment, that vision is not there.

Whether we look at Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria or Muslim populations in the West, America and Europe are still miles apart in their analysis and proposed solutions. As Benjamin argued at the conference today, there may be tactical agreement in some areas, but we lack a strategic concept or the dialogue from which that concept could be developed.

Will things get better under President McCain or Obama? Probably yes – at least in the short-term and especially if, as I expect, Obama wins in the Autumn. But it shouldn’t be taken for granted. The West’s post-911 record is abysmal – truly appalling.

Shared awareness, as Alex and I argued in our paper for the Progressive Governance Summit, takes time and resources to develop. Our favourite example is the IPCC, which has taken twenty years to build a foundation on which action to stabilise the world’s climate can be built.

Can we now deliver something equally serious to bring together Europe, America and the Islamic world?


  • David Steven is a senior fellow at the UN Foundation and at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

More from Global Dashboard

Justice for All and the Economic Crisis

Justice for All and the Economic Crisis

As COVID-19 plunges the world into its most serious economic crisis for a century, a surge in demand for justice is inevitable. Businesses face bankruptcy – and whole industries may be insolvent. Similar pain is being felt in the public and non-profit sectors....

Who Speaks for the Global South Recipients of Aid?

Who Speaks for the Global South Recipients of Aid?

The murder of George Floyd and the resurfacing of the Black Lives Matter movement has led to heightened discussions on race in the international development sector. Aid practitioners in the North have not only condemned the systemic racism that they (suddenly) now see...