“What if they gave a war and no one came?” read a bumper sticker popular during the Vietnam War. Today’s version might ask, What if they gave a war on terror and no one came?

President George W. Bush first used the fateful phrase “war on terror” in an address to Congress on September 20, 2001, identifying what he later called “the defining struggle of our time.” And though initially the 9/11 attacks united the West while embarrassing and dividing the Muslim world, in time the rhetoric of a “war on terror” reversed those terms. With just three words, the president managed to transform Osama bin Laden from a criminal fugitive into a historic military commander, the head of a new, potentially world-changing army of fanatics. The subsequent invasion of Iraq, centerpiece of the Bush war on terror, only confirmed bin Laden in many Muslim eyes as a Saladin rather than a mass murderer.

Against this background, the disappearance of “war on terror” from the diplomatic lexicon of Barack Obama’s administration—neither the president nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nor Defense Secretary Robert Gates has used the phrase even once—is significant. In just a few months’ time, the administration has replaced a grandiose, counterproductive fantasy with realistic attention to a set of grievous but real problems. There is a new awareness in American diplomacy that international relations are now complicated by intercultural relations, including strange new culture-to-religion-to-government hybrids; and that the U.S. government ignores these realities at its own peril.

This awareness was catalyzed by the 9/11 attacks themselves, whose agents invoked Islam (however illegitimately) and operated on behalf of no government. The unprecedented lack of a national sponsor vastly complicated the American reaction. To respond with a religion-to-religion counterattack—a neo-crusade—was out of the question. But to define this new kind of enemy as “terror” seemed patently disingenuous to Muslims-since no non-Muslim terrorists were the object of any comparably intense American attention. Given the history of Arab-Christian warfare over the centuries, it was perhaps inevitable that Muslims would view the war on terror as actually a war against Islam. A more astute response to Al Qaeda’s invocation of Islam was clearly called for, one that would separate the attackers from the body of the world’s Muslims and would diminish, rather than inflate, their claims.

Helping the United States rise to this challenge, however belatedly, has been Obama’s most important move to date. When his candidacy was first announced, Obama’s personal history, with its links to Muslim Indonesia and religiously mixed Kenya, struck many as rich with new possibilities. In an August 2007 speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., the candidate laid out his view of “the world’s trouble spots,” describing them as “disaffected communities” full of “desperate faces…where extremists thrive.” If people in these communities see America as “just an occupying army in Muslim lands, the shadow of a shrouded figure standing on a box at Abu Ghraib, [or] the power behind the throne of a repressive leader,” Obama predicted, then the hatemongering extremists would prevail. But he pledged a better outcome:

As president, I will make it a focus of my foreign policy to roll back the tide of hopelessness that gives rise to hate…. We will open “America Houses” in cities across the Islamic world, with Internet, libraries, English lessons, stories of America’s Muslims and the strength they add to our country, and vocational programs. Through a new “America’s Voice Corps” we will recruit, train, and send out into the field talented young Americans who can speak with-and listen to-the people who today hear about us only from our enemies. (More)


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