By Barry Jagoda
President-elect Donald Trump plans to name to his top national security post a retired general who is quoted as warning that the United States is failing to adequately address the threat posed by what he calls “a diseased component” of Islam. More explicitly, earlier in 2016, the adviser, retired General Michael Flynn, wrote, “Fear of Muslims is rational.”
This strong language, with a corollary crusading call for a “War on Terrorism,” is apparently shared by the President-elect, but such a policy may backfire in the Middle East.
Leading scholars and many U.S. diplomats contend that almost all of the leaders of the 22 Arab states — and most of the people who are loosely described as comprising the “Arab street” — think when they hear the phrase “U.S. War on Terrorism” that this is action aimed directly at them.
Of course our great country is simply trying to root out the murderers and radicals who aim to harm the United States and our people. When the U.S. government — and our freedom loving people — use this term we mean it to apply to those who would do us harm, here at home and around the world.
There is no disputing that the 19 murderers who flew the planes into our buildings, killing many thousands of innocents, were terrorists. Similarly those who wage war against the United States and other defenders of our values and the lives of our people should be described as “terrorists.” This criminal action–in San Bernadino, in Paris and around the world–must be stopped, and our country is doing the best we can to counter their murdering.
According, however, to Eugene Rogan, distinguished American historian and our leading student of the Arab world, we are actually making more enemies every day when we use the term “War on Terrorism.” Rogan’s views are clearly documented in his carefully written, academic new volume, “The Arabs: A History — Second Edition.” There he writes that the term is universally seen as plans by the United States to attack these Arab nations, their people and certainly their leaders.
A reasonable American analyst may point out that this is a deadly misconception by the leaders and citizens of the Arab nations, and their Muslim allies. In fact the best of our efforts must now be dedicated to influencing public opinion in the Arab world. There is no reason that these potential allies should think we are waging war on them, when the truth is quite the opposite.
American diplomats—particularly senior foreign service officers who specialize in the Middle East—confirm that our strongest efforts toward those who would harm our interests, and kill our people, are clearly backfiring. All of those most in the know recommend a reduced American military profile and a much more vigorous public diplomacy effort.
The public diplomacy can be waged in the Arab language press and particularly on Arab language social media. In the process we must not overlook the legacy media produced in Arabic. Already a main unit of American foreign policy, the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs is hard at work in countering the terribly negative impressions being constantly created by our well-intentioned but tragically misunderstood profile in the Middle East.
Those who share this perspective—or others who may disagree—are invited to contact the under secretary of state, specified above, for more information. This counter-intuitive tragedy can and will be turned around as more American citizens become aware of the damage being done. At the very least, our foreign policy goals should include efforts to make sure other countries do not oppose our most idealistic and potentially beneficially actions. Presently, though, the “War on Terrorism” is widely thought by our potential allies as “War on Them!”
Barry Jagoda is a San Diego-based journalist and international consultant. He was an award-winning writer and producer at NBC News and CBS News, and a founding contributing editor of the highly regarded Texas Monthly magazine.