Thursday, December 17, 2009

Islam's Cyberwar

Well-respected New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has an Op-Ed column in Wednesday's edition of the paper which he titled "" It's an interesting -- if controversial -- piece, drawing 232 readers' comments in a matter of hours (and the comments section is now closed).

Friedman's basic thesis is that the cyberwar Islamic extremists are waging is more important than the "real" war in Afghanistan, and countless terrorist groups use the Internet to spread their poisonous ideas and to recruit new members. He then goes a step further and says this is about a war of ideas within Islam and as such can be waged only internally.

I am surprised at this column, coming, as it does, from a columnist I respect and often agree with. But he's dropped the ball to considerable degree this time, a view shared by many of the other readers commenting on the column.

First, he reduces the situation to a simplistic "us-against-them" construction. One need not be a scholar of Islam to recognize that not only is this simplistic, but dangerously overly so.

Second, he ignores the fact that there have been numerous calls by moderate Islamic religious leaders to resist extremists.

Third, he omits reference to the role we in the non-Islamic West have played in fanning the flames of extreme Islam.

On the plus side, I think he's right that there needs to be more leadership from leaders in Islam, and not just religious ones but also secular ones, such as Afghanistan's President Karzai. He needs to clean up his government's act -- and his own. In other words, Islamic religious leaders' words will fall on deaf ears if their secular counterparts don't strive more to provide whatever it is their populous want -- and that will vary from place to place, though the underlying principles are the same everywhere: food, clothing, shelter, some measure of individual freedom (if not necessarily democracy per se), peace and stability, and opportunity.

Does that mean the West, particularly the U.S., has no role to play, as Friedman seems to be saying? I believe he has missed the mark and that it does have an important role to play.

For starters, while President Obama is as constrained as any President by diplomatic demands, perhaps he could speak a little more than he apparently has been, maybe speak behind closed doors.

Second, we have some capability to wage our own cyberwar aimed at those extremist web sites. Because of alleged excesses committed in the fairly recent past by our intelligence agencies, this is a rather hard sell, but that doesn't mean it isn't necessary.

I'm not forgetting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But I'm not sure what more we can do there. After all, we and others have brought pressure to bear for decades, with little to show for it. But I have an idea that isn't popular: make two points crystal-clear to everyone in the Middle East, namely, (1.) that a direct attack on Israel by another nation (Syria, Iran, etc.) will ensure that we give Israel full backing, including militarily, and, (2.) make clear to Israel that if it doesn't make an accommodation with the Palestinians they can swallow, it risks seeing us reduce our support, both materially and diplomatically. (This second includes making clear to the Israeli leaders that attacks on the Palestinians that aren't clearly warranted will also carry a heavy price for their country, though not an attack by us.)

Friedman doesn't discuss that, either. It's an extraordinary omission.

A point about some of the readers comments: they call for us to withdraw to our own shores and, in essence, shut out the world. That would be an unmitigated disaster. I don't want to live in a "Fortress America." That would be about the same as living in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Mao's China, and the like.

Friedman got a lot of criticism over this particular column, and much of it is thoughtful and, I believe, correct.

But read it for yourself: