Michael Widlanski, a former journalist and Middle East negotiator, is out with a new book, “Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat.” His basic premise is that we have failed to fully appreciate the nature of our enemies, and therefore have set back our own security and opportunities for success in the war against Islamic terror. This is not just an academic exercise. In a lengthy Q and A with Right Turn he explained that, for example, in an effort not to give offense we curtail surveillance of certain mosques that may provide critical intelligence. Here is our Q and A:
Why did you write the book now — was the killing of Osama bin Laden the impetus?
This book has been building up inside me for years, like a visceral volcanic anger. Bin Laden’s death caused me to sharpen the opening sentence, because his richly deserved death came much too late. From three different angles, I watched how our best and brightest, our intellectual elites, the anti-terror forces in many countries, failed to face, much less defeat, terror — for years.
I studied and worked in America, Egypt and Israel on both sides of the fence — as a reporter, as an academic trained in Arabic and Islam and as a security official. I studied Arab terror and politics and even Jewish terror inside Israel. I looked at what moved terrorists and at what caused officials not to move. I could not escape my own anger and frustration watching how terrorists repeatedly made fools of the United States, Britain, France, Russia and even Israel. For me, there were several milestones — the 1993 World Trade Center attack, the terror escalation in the 1990’s, Israel’s deals with the PLO, the huge blow to America on 9/11, of course, and then the return to the pre-9/11 mindset, the politically correct environment in academia, in the press and most recently in the Obama administration, where even talking about Arab-Islamic terror is deemed a hate crime.
Has the U.S. gotten smarter in the fight against jihadist terror?
The Obama administration has totally confused terror and crime: Terror is a crime, but like treason it is a special crime that deserves a special treatment. Terrorists aim to up-end or destroy society, and that is why their crime must not be prosecuted but prevented. Terror is often the preferred way to defeat a modern Western democracy. To fight this terror, we must realize that we are in a war, and we need to devote the resources to win, because we cannot afford to lose. . . . Treating bin Laden and his people like “combatants” in any sense is also legally wrong, because they are non-uniformed fighters who obey no code, and therefore they have no rights under civilian or military codes, not least of which the Geneva Accords. The same is true for other non-uniformed terrorists like PLO-Tanzim, Hezbollah, Hamas. They do not deserve Miranda rights or a cushy jail cell with canteen privileges.
We use drones, Guantanamo is open and the administration seems to have given up on civilian trials for terrorists. Isn’t that progress?
Using drones is good, and the Israelis pioneered the use of stand-off platforms like drones, UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles], helicopters and even fighter jets to liquidate terrorists. I remember how the New York Times screamed bloody murder when Israel dispatched leaders of Hamas and stopped a terror wave. Some of the same people who applaud this approach today are those who said that it leads to innocent victims being killed. I have several answers to this: The family and friends of the terrorist are not innocent. They know the danger, and they have only themselves to blame. Second, sometimes there is no choice but to use stand-off platforms to kill a terrorist because sending in a commando team is just too dangerous for the team or for diplomatic relations. But using drones is often just a seemingly low-cost approach adopted by weak-minded politicians with no knowledge of military or counter-terror affairs. They see it as a quick clean solution. But a real victory over terror means people on the ground to gather intelligence and to make immediate decisions. This means language and cultural training and supporting real counter-terror forces, not running wars only like video games and with remote control devices. Drones are only one tool, and wars are not won from BlackBerries.
And what about Guantanamo?
Gitmo is open, and there are no trials in New York, but not because Obama and Eric Holder did not want to close Gitmo and move trials to New York. Here again, Obama was lucky he was opposed by most of the public and Congress. Still, we have released many people from Gitmo who have returned to terror — this was confirmed by several congressional reports that were largely ignored or slanted by the news media. Some of the best intelligence comes from captured terrorists, such as those in Guantanamo base in Cuba — apparently including data used to get bin Laden. Obama opposed Gitmo and promised to close it, but did not offer a workable alternative to this Bush-Cheney-era formula.
Obama and his aides like to berate Bush for his policies, but they really resent that so many proved correct. Gitmo helped the U.S. gain intelligence and combat terror. A U.S. intelligence study released by Congress shows 25 percent of men freed from Gitmo are known or believed to have returned to terror.
You’re critical of the soft power/public diplomacy we have done in Muslim countries. What can we do better?
What we call the Arab-Islamic sphere respects strong leaders and people who believe in something. We need to speak regularly to the Arabs and to the Muslims about our goals and our faith. We need to speak by our actions, but also with our mouths. We need to do this with our presidents, our senators, our representatives, our diplomats and our under-funded foreign libraries and embassies. We must say consistently that we will not try to impose our faith or our political ideas on them but that we will not tolerate those who try to impose their will on us. That is what I have learned from living in the Middle East for 30-plus years. God helps those who help themselves, and Muslims respect those who respect themselves.