Americans are frequently told that the Iraq war has "inflamed the Muslim world." Just a few months after the conflict began, Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, used this exact phrase to describe the war's effect on global Muslim opinion. Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the continued occupation of Iraq has led to "an increase in anti-Americanism in the Muslim world." New York Times columnist Bob Herbert complains about the "bitter anger that [the Iraq war] has provoked among Muslims around the world." And on and on it goes.
Indeed, it is this consequence of the Iraq war -- negative public opinion among Muslims -- that its critics believe to be the most devastating for America's global standing. The major lesson that many have taken from our Iraq experience is that we should place much greater stock in worldwide public opinion -- particularly Muslim opinion -- when deciding foreign policy.
Yet there could not be worse criteria on which to determine our foreign policy. This is starkly illustrated by the controversy about how to help stop the genocide in Darfur.
On Jan. 1, a 26,000-man United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force will deploy in Darfur -- with the approval of the Sudanese government -- to protect civilians from the nearly 5-year-old genocide that already has claimed upward of 200,000 lives.
The Darfur peacekeeping operation, known as UNAMID, is not terribly controversial. It will be almost entirely made up of African troops, commanded by a Nigerian who will report to a Congolese diplomat, with but a handful of European engineers and support staff.
It's hard to find a less-convincing example of imperialism than the ragtag African soldiers on this mission. UNAMID is the most innocuous of proposals, broadly supported by all the major U.S. presidential candidates, human rights activists and international bureaucrats. It pales in comparison to the NATO mission to protect Kosovar Albanians, which entailed bombing the Serbian nationalist regime of Slobodan Milosevic. UNAMID is the antithesis of the "reckless unilateralism" of which Bush administration critics frequently complain.
Nevertheless, Osama bin Laden last month issued a barely noticed message calling for "holy war" against U.N. personnel in Darfur. The peacekeeping force has been a long-held and dear proposal of the very same liberal internationalists who have so vehemently opposed the Iraq war, but Bin Laden has failed to recognize their good intentions. He sees UNAMID as "a brazen occupation, and only an infidel apostate seeks it or agrees to it." Indeed, he has called not only for war against the peacekeepers but even against the Arab Islamic government in Khartoum for agreeing to allow the peacekeepers entry.
Bin Laden's pronouncement is quite portentous for those who believe that our foreign policy ought to be swayed by "Muslim public opinion." It makes perfect sense, at least to those who do not have a myopic understanding of militant Islam's basic ideology. In Bin Laden's view (and the view of radical Muslims generally), Islam is at war not just with the United States and Israel but with the West as a whole, along with any and all Muslims who do not subscribe to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. Anyone who tries to intervene, like the inoffensive Scandinaviansfunding UNAMID, earns the Bin-Ladenesque moniker of "Crusader invaders."
But wait, you say. Bin Laden doesn't speak for the entire Muslim world. And of course, that's true. A Pew poll conducted earlier this year found dramatic declines in popularity for Bin Laden among Muslims around the world (although 57% of Palestinian Muslims, 41% of Indonesian Muslims and 38% of Pakistani Muslims still say they have "some" or "a lot" of confidence in him, according to a Pew poll). But even though his popularity may be falling because of declining support for suicide bombings and other terror attacks, that does not mean that his fellow Muslims don't agree with him on the subject of international intervention in a Muslim country, a course of action that is extraordinarily unpopular throughout the Arab and Islamic world, especially after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
But here's the even more serious problem. The UNAMID mission, controversial as it is among Bin Laden and his ilk, will almost certainly be too weak and insubstantial to truly stop the genocide in Darfur. The reality is that only the U.S. military has the power to bring Khartoum to its knees. After more than four years of fruitless diplomacy, threadbare peacekeeping operations and Arab solidarity behind the Sudanese government, this should be clear. The African Union troops deployed in Darfur are incapable of defending themselves -- never mind civilians -- as was evidenced by an attack launched by Darfur rebel groups last month that killed 10 peacekeepers. To solve the problems facing Darfur, American involvement is necessary -- even if that means incurring more and deeper hostility from the Muslim world. That's just the way it is.
America's firebombing of Dresden during World War II surely "angered" many Germans, and our bombing of Belgrade during the Kosovo war perturbed Serbians. Did the fact that we (and our allies) antagonized people during these military actions make those interventions unjust? And while it's true that the overthrow of the Baathist regime in Baghdad has angered Muslims around the world (many of whom, it ought to be noted, cheered Saddam Hussein and ignored his crimes against their fellow Muslims out of a cruelly misplaced sense of Arab nationalism), it has also delighted the Kurds, the Marsh Arabs, Iraqi trade unionists and the many other victims of Hussein's regime.
There are lots of things that "anger" the "Muslim street:" Women not wearing burkas. Adults drinking alcohol. Homosexuals. But virtually no one seriously suggests that we make America less free in order to suit the tastes of the Muslim world. So why should we let something as nebulous and reactionary as "Muslim opinion" get in the way of preventing genocide in Sudan?
This question is especially pertinent considering that the United States is enormously popular in Africa. A Pew Global Attitudes poll released during the summer revealed that the majority of people in eight out of 10 African countries believe that the United States is their "most dependable ally." More important, the poll found that most Africans fault the United States for not taking a more active role in Darfur. Continuing to avoid intervention there to please the "Muslim street," therefore, will make us less popular with Africans. You cannot please everybody all the time, and in the case of Darfur, intervening will endear us to the people actually living in the region.
To be sure, global public opinion should play some role in shaping our foreign policy. But at the end of the day, the value of U.S. action abroad is not determined by the opinions of those most likely to "take offense," but rather by the inherent rightness or wrongness of the action. Especially where genocide is concerned, the opinions of various "streets" are totally superseded by the moral imperative of putting an end to the killing. And if we're going to judge our interventions based on the criteria of "public opinion" at all, we should first and foremost consider the views of the intended beneficiaries.
Doing what's needed to "Save Darfur" -- ultimately, the deployment of NATO, if not U.S. military forces -- is going to anger a lot of Muslims. At the very least, we should acknowledge this reality -- and not let it bother us.
James Kirchick is an assistant editor of the New Republic.