Confrontation vs. Wishful Thinking

"Arguing in My Spare Time," No. 4.30

by Arnold Kling

October 2, 2001

However, unlike the Bobos who automatically avoid all moral confrontations, we should occasionally make conscious decisions to take a stand.
--Trouble in Bobos' Paradise, July 2001

There is a fundamental policy divide concerning the war on terrorism. The divide is between confrontation on the one hand and wishful thinking on the other. Unfortunately, there is a lot of inertia favoring the wishful-thinking approach.

Consider the following question:

Does much of the Islamic world desire a war against America?

It strikes me that the answer to this question is ambiguous, at best. We do not want to hear that the answer is "yes." However, that does not mean that we should just shrink back and hope that the answer is "no." To assume that the answer is "no" is to engage in wishful thinking.

The most common form of wishful thinking about this question is to focus on its reverse. That is, people think that if we reassure the world that we do not wish war with a large segment of the Muslim world, then that desire will be automatically reciprocated. Unfortunately, that is wishful thinking.

If you want to see the logical end result of wishful thinking, look at Israel today. Throughout the Oslo "peace process," the Palestinian authority engaged in a policy of deliberate ambiguity. At times, their officials spoke of peace and recognition of Israel. At other times, they spoke of "struggle" and "liberation" and training their young people to fight.

The peaceful rhetoric was delivered primarily in English, primarily in venues thousands of miles from the Middle East, and primarily to Western audiences. The hate rhetoric was delivered to the Palestinian people.

The wishful thinkers chose to believe the peace rhetoric. However, when the Barak government made a reasonable peace offer, the Palestinian response reflected the war rhetoric.

We are not Ambiguous

It is ironic that the United States diplomatic effort is geared primarily toward reassuring the world that we do not desire a war with a large segment of Islam. That question was never in doubt. We are not ambiguous.

When an American vigilante attacks a mosque, he is condemned without reservation by every respectable segment of our society. We do not ask Muslims to "understand the anger" behind the attack. We do not express "regret" in a press release and then turn around and pay tribute to the vigilante.

It is the Muslim world that shrouds its beliefs about America in ambiguity. Any denunciation of terrorism tends to be hedged or qualified. The hatred behind the terrorism is excused, or even praised.

In the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, spontaneous pro-American demonstrations took place in Iran and Pakistan. The demonstrators expressed sentiment of condolence to Americans and antagonism toward the terrorists. However, in both countries, the governments broke up these demonstrations and arrested the instigators.

What message were these governments sending to "the street?" Certainly, it was not a message of unambiguous opposition to terrorism.

The state-controlled media in Egypt and elsewhere is unrelentingly anti-American. Should we absolve these governments of any responsibility for the hate that they foster?

Nonconfrontation Policies

Wishful thinking has real consequences for policy. For example, we wish that we could reduce Muslim anger by distancing ourselves from Israel. So, for example, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher recently was forced to go to Orwellian lengths to deny any equivalence between terror against Israel and terror against the United States. Instead, he said that "But, essentially, there are, on some planes, two different things."

The thinking is that if we apply the terrorist label to suicide bombers in Israel, we will open up a can of worms, because so many groups and governments support those bombers. But is it not wishful thinking to believe that winking at anti-Israeli terrorism will build a useful coaltion against anti-American terrorism?

Another example of wishful thinking is the view that the United States should act with restraint with respect to Iraq. If Iraq is determined to build weapons of mass destruction, and Iraq takes sides with the terrorists, then what other than wishful thinking would lead you to think that we can leave Iraq alone and be safe?

Assertive Diplomacy

In recent years, for the United States the meaning of diplomacy has been to show sensitivity and understanding for others. Think of President Clinton's "apology missions," for example.

The World Trade Center attacks should lead us to change our focus and our approach. It is time for foreign governments to show us some sensitivity and understanding for a change--or at least to show us some respect. For example,


Perhaps much of the Muslim world really does desire war against the United States. If so, then the way to change their minds is to articulate our values and to demonstrate our willingness to defeat people who threaten those values.

The question of whether much of the Muslim world desires war against the United States must be addressed sooner or later. To paraphrase Winston Churchill's epitaph for appeasement,

We must choose between wishful thinking and confrontation. Some of us want to choose wishful thinking. They shall have confrontation.