Fact Check

Lady Gaga vs. the Occupation

A moderate suggestion: Palestine isn't the only driver of violent anti-American extremism. But it sure does matter.

In recent weeks, U.S. Gen. David Petraeus and others have made headlines by suggesting that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict increases anti-Americanism in the Muslim world. The Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens takes issue with this claim, arguing that cultural Westernization -- in the form of Lady Gaga and other imports that scandalize Muslim conservatives -- is a more important cause of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world than the Palestinian conflict. Stephens notes that Islamists resented American culture well before the Palestinian issue became prominent. As key evidence, he cites Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb's rants on American culture following the latter's stay in the United States in the late 1940s.

Stephens is absolutely right that Islamism as a general phenomenon is partly a reaction to cultural Westernization and modernization. Islamists are indeed defined by their rejection of secularism, and like religious activists from other faiths, they dislike consumerism and sexual promiscuity. However, Stephens is wrong when he asserts that Westernization is a major driver of anti-American terrorism and that what happens in Palestine does not matter for the fight against al Qaeda.

Islamism and anti-American militancy are not the same thing. There are millions of Islamists out there, but only some engage in violence and only a tiny fraction fight America. The available evidence suggests the latter care more about Palestine than Lady Gaga.

By citing Qutb at length, Stephens proves my point and undermines his own. Qutb was indeed disgusted by aspects of American culture, but he neither waged nor advocated violence against the United States. Qutb's jihad was against the Egyptian regime, not America.

To the extent that Westernization causes militancy, the violence it inspires is nearly always directed at other Muslims, typically against regimes in Arab countries, because these legislate over matters of public morality. Jihadists are idealists, but they are not so utopian as to think they can stop Westernization by attacking America. However, they do think that by installing Islamist local governments, those governments can take measures to limit social liberalization.

Militants who attack the West, such as al Qaeda members, represent a different phenomenon. They argue that the fight against secular Muslim regimes (and by extension Westernization) is less urgent than attacking non-Muslims who kill Muslims and occupy Muslim territory.

How do we know that Palestine is more important than Westernization for the anti-American jihadists? First, al Qaeda's leaders have spoken more often about Palestine and other political issues (pdf) than about moral corruption. Second, when al Qaeda recruits cite their reasons for joining, they more often mention Palestine, Chechnya, and other political issues (pdf) than they do examples of Westernization. Third, incidents of anti-American violence and vandalism in the Middle East have tended to increase during or shortly after dramatic events in Palestine. Fourth, recruitment to al Qaeda has tended to expand during or shortly after escalation of hostilities in Palestine. Fifth, al Qaeda militants are happy to embrace aspects of Western culture when it suits them -- witness the use of videos and music in jihadi propaganda -- and they are arguably more pragmatic about matters moral and ritual than many other Islamists.

One could of course argue that declared motivations are not the same as underlying causes and that the correlation between hostilities in Palestine and recruitment to al Qaeda does not imply causation. It is indeed difficult, for methodological reasons, to measure or quantify the precise effect of single issues such as Palestine on anti-American militancy. But the same problem applies to any other hypothesis, including Stephens's Westernization argument. In any case, to argue that Palestine does not matter at all is an extreme conclusion.

My claim is a moderate one: Palestine matters and should be taken into consideration by counterterrorism strategists. I am not saying that Palestine is the only cause of anti-Western jihadism or even the most important one. However, of all the causes over which Western policymakers have influence, Palestine is probably among the most significant.

I am also not suggesting that active militants will lay down their arms if a peace agreement is signed. What I am saying is that in such an event, recruitment will likely be reduced. The available evidence suggests that images of dead Palestinians facilitate recruitment to anti-American jihadi organizations.

Academics and practitioners who study jihadi radicalization up close have long been debating the role of the Palestinian issue. There is no clear consensus on the extent of its influence on global jihadism, but few if any professionals disagree that it is a factor. By dismissing the issue completely, Bret Stephens and others are putting their heads in the sand.

BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

Fact Check

A False Nuclear Alarm

Debunking the Wall Street Journal's radioactive scaremongering.

With its latest editorial calling for more nuclear weapons and more weapons spending, the Wall Street Journal has gone over a journalistic cliff. The serious factual errors in its Jan. 5 screed, "A False Nuclear Start," raise serious questions about the newspaper's credibility and integrity.

By claiming that U.S. nuclear weapons are in serious disrepair and that removing any of the 9,400 nuclear weapons in the arsenal would threaten national security, the Journal's editors help create public fear of changing obsolete Cold War nuclear policies. That fear could motivate senators to oppose U.S.-Russian efforts to decrease the number of weapons, convince them to increase from $54 billion a year the amount spent on nuclear weapons-related programs, and persuade voters that the U.S. president is weak, naive, and untrustworthy.

But to make their case, the editors have to make up their own facts. It's hard to find a provably true statement anywhere in the editorial, but here are the three most blatant falsehoods.

First, the Journal claims: "The deteriorating U.S. nuclear arsenal is emerging as a big security problem." Not true. U.S. weapons are safe, secure, and effective. No science-based study has found otherwise. The most recent report from JASON -- a premier U.S. defense advisory panel of scientists -- found no evidence that aging posed any threat to the usability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The JASON report said, "Lifetimes of today's nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence." In an earlier study, JASON scientists found that the plutonium cores of these weapons are reliable for at least 100 years. In other words: The nukes are alright.

The U.S. government spends almost $6 billion a year on stockpile stewardship programs that maintain the massive nuclear arsenal. Some, like the Journal, want new facilities and new bomb production plants, but the Government Accountability Office has found that such plans would cost $150 billion. This is overkill.

Second, the editors say a letter from 41 senators promoting more spending on nuclear weapons programs means "Without modernization, it's unlikely that Senators will vote for the significant and probably unwise reductions in U.S. nuclear delivery vehicles that Mr. Obama is negotiating with the Russians."

The letter says no such thing. It never says the senators will vote against the new START treaty. It simply expresses their concern that they do not believe "further reductions can be in the national security interest of the U.S. in the absence of a significant program to modernize our nuclear deterrent."

Policy experts, however, expect the new budget to be released in February to fully fund the nuclear weapons complex and support both the United States' science-and-engineering base and its nuclear stockpile. Vice President Joe Biden -- pilloried in the Journal's editorial -- is personally leading this effort, meeting with the leaders of U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories, military chiefs, and top experts to forge a budget and strategic consensus. This is hardly a secret. The facts could have been obtained with a simple phone call.

Third, to push for the production of brand-new nuclear weapons, the editors claim that the recent commission on U.S. strategic posture co-chaired by former defense secretaries William Perry and James Schlesinger said "the U.S. needs new warheads" and that the National Defense Authorization Act of 2010 requires the president to present a budget with funds for modernizing new nuclear forces.

Neither is true. I was a member of the expert  group that advised the Perry-Schlesinger commission. I have read each of the more than 100 recommendations. Nowhere does the commission say the United States needs new warheads. On the contrary, while the commission recommended an array of initiatives to maintain the nuclear arsenal under current U.S. policies, it found that, "The Life Extension Program has to date been effective in dealing with the problem of modernizing the arsenal."

Moreover, the commission strongly supported a new START treaty:

The moment appears ripe for a renewal of arms control with Russia, and this bodes well for a continued reduction in the nuclear arsenal. The United States and Russia should pursue a step-by-step approach and take a modest first step to ensure that there is a successor to START I when it expires at the end of 2009.

The Journal is wrong to frame this issue as a liberal-conservative divide. There is, in fact, a broad, bipartisan consensus on a new nuclear security strategy that would prevent nuclear terrorism, prevent new nuclear-armed nations, and steadily reduce Cold War nuclear weapons stockpiles. Many conservatives support an approach that would maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal for as long as nuclear weapons are needed.

The current policy is to do exactly this, but the Journal's editors are pushing a far-right strategy to build and test new nuclear weapons. This would break U.S. commitments, bring down the global nonproliferation regime, and increase the threats to America.

There is one thing the Journal got right: It is time to choose.

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