U.S. military policies have not stopped the rising wave of extremism in the Muslim world. The reason has not been lack of effort, or lack of bipartisan support for aggressive military policies, or lack of funding, or lack of genuine patriotism.
No. Something else is creating the mismatch between America's effort and the results.
For nearly a decade, Americans have been waging a long war against terrorism without much serious public debate about what is truly motivating terrorists to kill them. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, this was perfectly explicable -- the need to destroy al Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan was too urgent to await sober analyses of root causes.
But, the absence of public debate did not stop the great need to know or, perhaps better to say, to "understand" the events of that terrible day. In the years before 9/11, few Americans gave much thought to what drives terrorism -- a subject long relegated to the fringes of the media, government, and universities. And few were willing to wait for new studies, the collection of facts, and the dispassionate assessment of alternative causes. Terrorism produces fear and anger, and these emotions are not patient.
A simple narrative was readily available, and a powerful conventional wisdom began to exert its grip. Because the 9/11 hijackers were all Muslims, it was easy to presume that Islamic fundamentalism was the central motivating force driving the 19 hijackers to kill themselves in order to kill Americans. Within weeks after the 9/11 attacks, surveys of American attitudes show that this presumption was fast congealing into a hard reality in the public mind. Americans immediately wondered, "Why do they hate us?" and almost as immediately came to the conclusion that it was because of "who we are, not what we do." As President George W. Bush said in his first address to Congress after the 9/11 attacks: "They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."
Thus was unleashed the "war on terror."
The narrative of Islamic fundamentalism did more than explain why America was attacked and encourage war against Iraq. It also pointed toward a simple, grand solution. If Islamic fundamentalism was driving the threat and if its roots grew from the culture of the Arab world, then America had a clear mission: To transform Arab societies -- with Western political institutions and social norms as the ultimate antidote to the virus of Islamic extremism.
This narrative had a powerful effect on support for the invasion of Iraq. Opinion polls show that for years before the invasion, more than 90 percent of the U.S. public believed that Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But this belief alone was not enough to push significant numbers to support war.
What really changed after 9/11 was the fear that anti-American Muslims desperately wanted to kill Americans and so any risk that such extremists would get weapons of mass destruction suddenly seemed too great. Although few Americans feared Islam before 9/11, by the spring of 2003, a near majority -- 49 percent -- strongly perceived that half or more of the world's 1.4 billion Muslims were deeply anti-American, and a similar fraction also believed that Islam itself promoted violence. No wonder there was little demand by congressional committees or the public at large for a detailed review of intelligence on Iraq's WMD prior to the invasion.