The Magazine

What's the Matter with Gitmo?

From the July 4 / July 11, 2005 issue: Detention, torture, and other illiberal things.

Jul 4, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 40 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Rabid pan-Arab nationalism died and Islamic fundamentalism grew after the crushing Israeli victory in 1967, but I have not yet seen Muslim holy warriors using the Six Day War as a recruitment banner. Could Israeli prison camps, which the Arab street and press have depicted for decades as degrading and brutal, have helped create the young men and women who became, quite suddenly, the Palestinian suicide bombers of the 21st century? Sure. It's possible. Although one would have thought that such perceived mistreatment, if it had been so provocative for Palestinians, would have provoked suicide-bombers years ago. Much more causative was surely the sense of victory created by Israel's flight from Lebanon in 2000 while diehard Shiite Hezbollah militants continued killing Israeli soldiers. That hasty and ill-planned withdrawal from Lebanon was seen at the time by most Western observers as sensible, destined to improve Israel's standing with the Arabs, and the Palestinians in particular. Yasser Arafat and friends, however, smelled fatigue, preached holy war, and unleashed hell. What is noteworthy about the Guantanamo Koran controversy (other than the pleading and defensive way Pentagon spokesmen initially responded to the affair) is how few protests there were in the Greater Middle East, and how palpably the protests that drew attention, in Afghanistan, were the product of Taliban-sympathetic, antigovernment Pashtun forces.

The decisive, defining event for Islamic holy warriors today is the Sunni-led insurgency in Iraq. And the defining psychological factor of that struggle is the open question of whether the Americans will endure. If we do not do so--and it is becoming ever more worrisome that the Democratic party in the main does not share the staunch determination of Joseph Biden, Joseph Lieberman, and Hillary Clinton to win--then we will surely give birth to a radical Sunni movement more inspired, vicious, and seductive than was al Qaeda in the early 1990s, after the Red Army's retreat from Afghanistan and the collapse of the Soviet empire. If we win in Iraq, however, the prisons of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo will remain vivid memories for the United States--and, with regard to any vile and cowardly practices of sexual intimidation in either prison, shameful ones. But for the jihadists and the jihadist-wannabes, those two places will simply become part of the depressing, awful, and awesome story of democracy's triumph in the Middle East. For some militants, democratic Iraq may become a recruitment poster for holy war against the United States. We should welcome such a tocsin call, of course, and see how many recruits al Qaeda can generate as Muslims increasingly vote.

AND CONCERNING DEMOCRACY, there is no more prideful, America-centric, liberal reflex than to believe that the United States must be virtuous--more virtuous than, say, France--for democracy to spread. From columnists, newspaper editors, congressmen, senators, and especially our European "allies," who've mostly disparaged the project of expanding representative government in the Muslim world, we hear lectures about how our moral failings compromise democracy's chances and appeal. But the chief sense in which this is true is the one President Bush acknowledged in his revolutionary speech at the National Endowment for Democracy in November 2003--the speech where he confessed that "sixty years of Western nations' excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe."

From Casablanca to Tashkent, Muslims have lived under dictatorship for decades. Many of these Muslims, from the most liberal secularist to the most traditional believer, dislike, even hate, the United States for real and imaginary reasons. But probably the most concrete cause for their animosity has been America's reflexive support of the rulers above them--the men American presidents until George W. Bush have called "our friends." First the Cold War, then the "realist" mania for stability and Saudi oil and the liberal fear of anti-female, anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic, and anti-American Islamic militants' gaining power through the ballot box, froze America behind increasingly detested autocrats. Even before the coming of George W. Bush and the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq, however, democratic aspirations were gaining ground among intellectuals and ordinary people.