Hey everybody, my wife and I are back from Hawaii, and to get started again here, I thought I’d post a rather long letter I wrote to the president back in June. The president asked, “why does the rest of the world seem to hate America, or is it just me they hate?” That’s a tough question to answer, but here’s my attempt…
Dear Mr. President,
I recently saw an article in the Washington Post that said you were summoning “leading authors, historians, philosophers and theologians” looking for answers to questions like:
What is the nature of good and evil in the post-Sept. 11 world? What lessons does history have for a president facing the turmoil I’m facing? How will history judge what we’ve done? Why does the rest of the world seem to hate America? Or is it just me they hate?
In the spirit of Daniel who brought “light, understanding and wisdom” to king Nebuchadnezzar, I would like to attempt to answer your questions.
First, I am glad that you are asking questions like these and seeking wisdom, because I firmly believe that those who seek understanding will gain it. Unfortunately, while the complexities of these issues have made decisions difficult, many decisions seem to have only made matters worse.
Enhancing security through the Patriot Act raised civil liberty fears. Detaining unlawful combatants raised due process concerns. Enhanced interrogation techniques raised torture issues. Overthrowing a ruthless dictator raised occupation issues. And on and on.
Naturally, every decision has consequences but these issues have been compounded by a lack of consensus in many areas, especially on the nature of the enemy we are fighting.
Now, everyone agrees that al Qaeda launched a horrendous attack on 911 and should be pursued, captured and prevented from carrying out further attacks. Everyone agrees that the Taliban was complicit in providing sanctuary to al Qaeda and needed to be overthrown. Everyone agrees that the world needs to cooperate in policing and preventing these attacks from happening again.
However, we don’t all agree that al Qaeda (and other terrorists) present an existential threat to our nation and the free world. We don’t all agree that there are governments willing to materially support al Qaeda to a significant degree. And, we don’t all agree on how much our policies have (or are) contributing to the reasons for the terrorist threats.
When the threats are immediate and specific, everybody can agree. When the threats are long-term and nebulous, then we lose consensus. Why? Because many have difficulty believing in evil itself, and would rather make sense of why an enemy threatens us, assuming that ultimately everyone can be reasoned with and all disputes eventually bridged.
We need to be clear here. We not only lack a consensus on the degree of the threat and the nature of the threat we face, but we also lack a consensus on the cause of that threat, our ability to appease that threat, and even who is the greatest threat.
In fact, it’s so hard for some to believe that evil is real, that they would rather explain or excuse it away (saying it’s caused by poverty, or our support of autocratic rulers, or our policies with Israel, etc). Or they would rather say it has limited scope (saying only al Qaeda is the real problem). Or they would rather say it has limited power (saying al Qaeda hides in caves or is only a small fraction of the fighters in Iraq).
You see, if evil can’t be explained away or seen to be limited in scope or power, then that evil threatens something many hold quite dear, and that’s their hope for an ideal world.
Consider what they would say is holding back that ideal world right now. They would say it’s because we are using more than our fair share of resources. They would say it’s because we base national decisions on economic greed. They would say it’s because we don’t care sufficiently for the disadvantaged. And on and on.
In other words, not only has the principle threat to their ideal world come from internal ideological opposition (conservatives), but they also view that opposition as having significantly contributed to whatever external threats there are. If only America worked more for this ideal world, they imagine, then we wouldn’t be facing significant external threats because the world would work so much better together.
So why does the world hate us?
They hate us ultimately because we are not behaving as they imagine we would in an ideal world, and therefore they believe we are destroying whatever chance we have for that world.
They hate us because they honestly think we are causing more problems than we are solving. They hate us because we don’t appear to care about what they have to say and we do whatever we want regardless. They hate us because they don’t want to believe the threat is as great as we allege. They hate us because they fear what we might do. They hate us because they have no way to stop us or control what we do. They hate us because they believe we’re the ones that have stirred up hatreds in the world.
From our perspective, we had to do the things we’ve done. We’ve had to protect ourselves. We’ve had to move against a very real threat. We’ve had to protect the free world.
From their perspective, we are arrogant Rambo’s who blast away without considering the repercussions of our actions and who fail to think through the ramifications of our policy changes. They see us as more interested in protecting our own riches and prosperity than in protecting innocent people around the world and their civil rights. They see us as more eager to keep exporting our vacuous culture than to make changes and try to appreciate other cultures. They see us as more interested in greed than reaching global consensus on issues like Global Warming and International courts.
As you are a religious conservative oil-man from Texas who has a penchant for miss-speaking, you just happen to embody more of their stereotypes of what is wrong with America than most presidents would. Ignorance and mistrust fuel these stereotypes, and the stereotypes fuel fears, anger and even hate and outright bigotry.
Much of the world today is secular and liberal (especially in the elite institutions), and they not only don’t understand religious people (or conservative people, or oil businessmen, or Texans, or those who can’t speak with a silver tongue), but they also fear that such people have agendas and motives that increasingly conflict with their own ideals. Religious people appear to them as rigid and intolerant. Conservatives appear racist and bigoted. Oilmen appear greedy and unconcerned about the environment. Texans appear arrogant and unconcerned about international consensus. Poor communicators appear to be less educated and less sophisticated — attributes they value much more than integrity or perseverance.
They are more concerned with tolerance, fairness and conforming to elite opinion. You are more concerned with freedom, liberty and the responsibilities you have to your office. But because they believe they have the fair and tolerant views, they don’t even think they need to defend their ideas and they inherently assume they are the “good” people, as compared to others who apparently only do what they do out of intolerant and bigoted motives, and thus must be “bad”.
But history won’t care about their ignorance. It will care about what you did to overcome their ignorance. It will care not just about how well you held radical Islamists in check, but it will care about how well you set the stage for the permanent demise of the Islamists. It will care not only about how you overthrew a dictator and brought freedom into a region of the world, it will also care about the long-term repercussions that have been set into motion by that invasion — including the widening political divide in our own nation.
Right now, history not only hinges on how the Iraq war goes during the remainder of your presidency. It also hinges on whether you are able to reshape the world’s perceptions of America’s intentions, ambitions, goals and motives.
It is not enough to sign up other governments to cooperate with us here and there. Is is not enough to win the war in Iraq. It is not enough even to capture bin Laden or his lieutenants. History takes a long-term view of things and rightly so, because even if we do all these things but leave a world that is against America, what have we really achieved?
As I see things now, history will speak well of you in regards to how accurately you saw the threat from radical Islamists. It will speak well of you on how comprehensively you went after stopping it. It will speak well of you on how deeply you took your responsibilities and didn’t let politics alter what you knew to be in the bests interests of this nation and the free world.
But it won’t speak well of you for taking too long to correct notable mistakes or for failing to convince the free world of why America needed to act the way it has.
You cannot depend on history or success in Iraq to justify you, for you will fail in the long-term if the world grudgingly accepts a democratic Iraq while continuing to blame us for our allegedly hard-handed response in the “war on terror” or for our supposed indifference to their concerns of fairness and tolerance.
Does that mean we must conform to world opinion on these matters? No. But we must try much harder to change world opinion.
Unfortunately, you don’t have many allies or much political capital left to spend. Liberal groups appear to prefer defeat in Iraq over success. Democrats cooperate on very little at the national level. People around the world seem unwilling to listen let alone trust you or take you at your word.
So what can be done?
One, your administration must be considerably more out front making the case for what you are doing. We need to see administration spokesmen more frequently and in many more venues (talk-radio, cable news, public radio, op-eds, etc). You cannot depend on the people understanding what you are doing unless they are able to hear directly from you.
Two, your administration must always be brutally frank and honest, but also passionate about why you are doing what you are doing. People are tired of clever phrases and spin — no matter who they come from. Worse, the media constantly picks up and points out anything they consider misleading. You cannot depend on people agreeing with you unless their hear the unvarnished truth and sense your passion.
Three, you need to lay out in concise terms what you believe about the war on terror and how that has shaped the decisions you have made. These need to be debated at all levels (inside and outside of government) so that people at least have clarity about what you believe in compared to what other people believe. You cannot depend on people trusting you unless they can make sense of your decisions.
Four, you need to take this “statement of principles” and get governments around the world to publicly state which parts they can fully agree to, which parts they have issues with and what changes they would make. In other words, we need to be clear where our agreements are and where our disagreements are. You cannot depend on people supporting you unless they see that you are able to win over other leaders — at least in part.
Five, where there is agreement, you need to get as many congressmen as possible, and the world community at large, to specifically agree to support those items and stop undermining our efforts in those areas. You cannot depend on people arguing on your behalf until they see how things can be so easily undermined.
Six, we need to start tackling the issue of reforming Islam itself. While this is best done within Islam itself, clearly they have failed to do so, and thus they need to be helped, encouraged and pushed to do so. You cannot depend on people having real hope, unless they see that Islam itself is on the road to reformation.
Seven, we need to reform our own culture. We cannot continue to remain silent while America pollutes the world with filth, destroying family and cultures worldwide. While we cannot impose reform, we can set better ideals and implore communities of every type to join in reforming in their own ways with their own members. You cannot depend on Islam reforming unless it sees that we are serious about our own reform.
You are already strong in several areas. You’re strong in seeing our threats clearly. You’re strong in reaching out across the isle. You’re strong in staying the course and sticking to principles.
But now we need something more. We need clarity of vision and as much consensus as is possible on the essential elements of that vision.
In the same way that we needed a new strategy in Iraq and you sent over general Petraus to execute a comprehensive solution to a complex problem, we need you to recognize that we have not won over the hearts and minds of people to your vision of what the threats are or how we will tackle them. In the same way that we could no longer wait for Iraq to come up to speed and handle problems on its own, we can no longer depend on people eventually understanding and agreeing with that vision.
We must be more proactive and actively seek to win a battle for the common understanding of what threats we face and how we will tackle them.
We need more than a surge in our efforts. We need a surge that is planned and calculated and therefore has a chance for success.
It doesn’t matter if no administration has ever taken on such an effort to make its vision, understanding and rationale clear. It doesn’t matter if your administration is not structured for such a task. It doesn’t matter if some of your people aren’t prepared to execute such a task.
What matters is that you make whatever changes are needed to achieve real success. Not just on the battlefields in Iraq. But in the hearts of minds of the American people and the world in general.
Dean Cooper (July 20, 2007)