February 10, 2004 | Wall Street Journal

A Cure for the Clash?

Early in the final decade of the last century, Harvard professor Samuel Huntington offered what seemed an eccentric prediction. While others saw economic, political and ideological tempests ahead, he glimpsed different and darker clouds on the horizon.

“The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural,” he forecast. “The principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”

It is for scholars such as Dr. Huntington to warn of the storms ahead. It is for statesman to guide their nations – and their civilizations — through them.

But in the afterglow of the Cold War, most politicians – on the left and right alike – ignored Dr. Huntington's prophesy. The year he wrote the words quoted above, 1993, the World Trade Center was attacked — for the first time. President Clinton did not visit the site. Government prosecutors pursued the perpetrators but made no serious attempt to discover which regimes or terrorist organizations were responsible. (Among the key figures were Ramzi Yousef, who had entered the United States on an Iraqi passport, and Abdul Rahman Yasin, who came to New York from Baghdad and returned to Baghdad afterwards. Were those two working for Osama bin Laden or for Saddam Hussein? Or both? Intelligence analysts are still not certain.)

The inattention of the political class was shared by ordinary Americans more interested in spending their “peace dividend” than worrying about some strange extremists blowing up buildings to make a statement.

Today, we are at least attempting to figure out what is happening, and why, and what to do about it. Not all of our efforts will be successful.

Take France, for example. A growing and increasingly assertive Muslim minority is seen to threaten traditional, secular French culture. In response, on Tuesday, the French parliament voted to bar Muslim headscarves from French schools. (Jewish skullcaps and the wearing of large crosses also are to be banned.)

Protests against the ban are rising. But almost unnoticed is this: Those who argue – persuasively, I think – that a ban on wearing such religious attire restricts freedom of religion and expression have not a word to say when it comes to the mandatory wearing of such garb by women in Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Is that hypocritical of them? Of course, but that misses the point. For most of those protesting, the issue is not really freedom. For most, the issue is which religion is true and which religions are false. The issue is which culture is superior, and who is going to win a war that began centuries ago.

This same mentality can be found in the Saudi view that their religious authorities can and should control the mosques of America, but that no church or synagogue can ever again be built on Arabian soil.

On the face of it, the French response seems doomed to failure. It may even be counterproductive: If it prompts Muslim parents to transfer their children from public schools to private religious schools the chances for those children integrating into French society diminish.

The Bush administration hopes it is formulating a better, broader and more thoughtful approach to the clash of civilizations. The outlines are to be presented to French and other European diplomats in the weeks ahead. A formal announcement is planned for the G-8 summit to be held in June at Sea Island, Ga.

In November, in his speech to the National Endowment for Democracy, President Bush previewed this initiative, calling for a new “forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.” Vice President Dick Cheney took the idea a step further at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland last month, saying: “Our forward strategy for freedom commits us to support those who work and sacrifice for reform across the greater Middle East. We call upon our democratic friends and allies everywhere, and in Europe in particular, to join us in this effort.”

The idea, essentially, is to recreate something akin to the 1975 Helsinki framework that helped bring political, economic, human rights and security reform to the Soviet bloc. Support would be increased for individuals and groups in the Arab and Muslim worlds who genuinely favor democracy and freedom – and who genuinely oppose terrorism, totalitarianism and radical Islamism. Incentives would be offered to rulers willing to take meaningful steps toward liberalization.

Such an approach harkens back to the policies of two Democratic presidents: Woodrow Wilson, who sought to “make the world safe for democracy,” and Harry Truman who used force (e.g. in North Korea) but also rebuilt shattered economies (e.g. the Marshall Plan) to stem the spread of Communism. On that basis, the initiative should garner bipartisan support.

None of which ensures that it will succeed. Certainly, it won't work unless the U.S. stays seriously engaged – which implies that diplomacy must continue to be backed by the credible threat of military action against those whose oppress, aggress and terrorize. Saddam Hussein should serve as the poster child for this aspect of the campaign, but that requires agreeing that the “war of enforcement” against him was necessary and just — not regrettable, misguided or possibly even criminal.

Yes, civilizations clash. But they also may co-exist and even converge. The truth is that the diverse civilizations that comprise the Free World would be eager to make room for the Islamic World. It's hard to believe there aren't millions of Muslims who would be just as eager to be included.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.