Anti-American Posturing: The Root of All Our Problems

Hamid Karzai Microphones

In his New Atlanticist post, "Is Hamid Karzai Crazy?," James Joyner argues that the Afghan president’s recent statements about the presence of “foreigners” is just about Karzai bolstering his standing at home. This assessment is probably right, but the implied U.S. response — that we ought to do just slough it off — is problematic, even if it closely mirrors conventional wisdom in U.S. strategic circles.

The reality is that our willingness to allow our “allies” to demonize the United States in order to placate their domestic audience is a significant reason for the current U.S. challenge with radical Islam.  For over a generation — since at least the Iranian Revolution in 1979 — the United States has been willing to serve a “safety valve” for domestic discontent in the Muslim world.  We have routinely assumed that the stability of our local allies served American strategic interests, and that a consequence allowing our local allies to redirect anger from themselves onto the United States was a good tradeoff.

In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for instance, the governments have routinely blamed unpopular policies, whether vis-a-vis Israel or the basing of American troops, on U.S. pressure.  It is not a surprise, as a result, that al Qaeda — a radical Islamist group focused on attacking the United States — has been able to recruit so heavily in those two countries.  Egypt and Saudi Arabia remained stable, U.S. allies, but the cost has been the creation of an implacable trans-national enemy determined to strike at the United States homeland.  On the whole, this is probably not a positive tradeoff from a U.S. perspective.

We may be continuing this strategic blunder in Afghanistan.  We have become so convinced of the need for stability in Afghanistan, that we may now accept Karzai deliberately fomenting anti-American sentiment in order to bolster his domestic legitimacy.  But the reality is that the United States would be better off with a weak Karzai forced to share power with a locally-focused Taliban, than we would the reverse — a strong Karzai, with the Taliban transformed into an internationally-oriented anti-American jihadist organization.  If all the Afghan insurgents abandoned the local fight and joined al Qaeda in order to plot attacks on the American homeland, Afghanistan would be stabilized and America’s security jeopardized.  Karzai’s strategic interests and ours are not aligned on that score.

Allowing local elites in the Muslim to trade on anti-Americanism domestically while maintaining American support internationally is, without hyperbole, the single most significant factor in explaining the rise of “far-enemy” jihadism.  In our desire to prevent “another 9/11″ we may, paradoxically, be contributing to the very movement we are hoping to suppress.

Dr. Bernard I. Finel, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the American Security Project.  This essay previously appeared at ASP’s Flash Point Blog as "The Root of All Our Problems." Photo credit: Reuters Pictures.

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