Politics & Policy

Got Leaders?

There's a threat -- and we're still not fully confronting it.

Six years after the September 11 attacks on the United States, what do Americans think about the threat posed by radical Islam? There’s good news and bad news.

The good news — from a new Public Opinion Strategies poll — is that despite a political environment that is extremely hostile to President Bush and his foreign policy, a plurality of Americans believe the threat from Islamic fundamentalism is greater than Soviet Communism was in the 1960s, and than Nazism was in the 1930s. The poll shows general agreement that the U.S. is facing a larger and more significant threat than one defined by the Iraq war, or indeed by the presidency of George W. Bush. That the Iraq campaign is increasingly seen as part of the broader war against Islamic fundamentalism — including Iran, al Qaeda, and other groups funded by radical Islamists — is encouraging. There seems to be recognition that because radical Islam is a long-term threat, America’s fight against it will constitute a long-term war.

The poll’s bad news is that Americans are generally unaware of the strategic partnerships being developed between radical Islamic regimes and governments in Latin America — particularly, Venezuela’s. While people were aware that Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has made harsh and over-the top anti-U.S. assertions (e.g., calling President Bush the “devil” at the United Nations), very few voters knew about the strategic anti-American partnership he is building with Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

These poll results suggest three things U.S. political leaders need to do. First, our leadership has to listen to what the informed American public is saying. Americans have a good instinct about the enemy’s identity — indeed, they seem to have a deeper appreciation of the threat from radical Islam than do many of our politicians.

Second, our leaders must be more effective in raising public awareness in cases where it is still lacking. Many Americans are still skeptical of the genuine security threat coming from Chávez, Bolivia’s president Evo Morales, and others in Latin America — discounting them as irrational dictators. That the U.S. government has refused to highlight Chávez’s strategic conniving with Tehran only encourages this complacency.

The presidential campaign is the perfect opportunity to begin educating the American people on the Iran-Venezuela alliance. Up to this point the presidential debates on Latin America have not been impressive, with few new and constructive policy proposals and only vague promises to “pay more attention to Latin America.” Among the Republicans, Mitt Romney has pledged to “rebuild relationships of trust,” while John McCain said Latin American nations are “natural partners of the United States.” Democrat Bill Richardson wants to resurrect the Kennedy-era Alliance for Progress, while Barack Obama promised a listening tour, starting with a visit to Bolivia’s Evo Morales. If national security does trump all other issues in the upcoming election, Latin America and its strengthening ties with Iran should be a central topic of discussion.

Third, U.S. leaders must define the enemy appropriately — and that means we must stop referring to our effort as a “war on terror.” This is no more a “war on terror” than the early days of World War II were a war against “blitzkrieg” or a war against “dive bombers.” Whether we call it a war against Islamic extremism, or Islamofascism, or radical Islam, we must clearly communicate and understand that we are engaged in a war of ideas against an enemy with firmly held religious convictions. We recognize that this war of ideas also rages in the Islamic world, in a debate over whether the Islamism of Osama bin Laden or the radical mullahs in Iran is a part of “authentic Islam.” We must also recognize that our enemies themselves believe that they are embracing authentic Islam — and we have to take their own ideas and words seriously. For good reasons and bad, our political leadership has not adequately acknowledged this and therefore has not communicated effectively the nature or extent of the threat to the American people.

To a considerable extent, though, the people already understand the threat. Now it’s time for leaders to lead.

— Rick Santorum, a former United States senator from Pennsylvania, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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