All the wrong gestures

Managing minority groups through gestures has become a political art form in this country, thanks to Democratic politicians. Instead of offering African-Americans a real seat at the table of power or major new subtantive programs such as reparations for slavery or (heaven help us) school choice, the Democrats give them the Secretary of HUD job, formal apologies for slavery, and black history month (plus, and this cuts slightly against my narrative, affirmative action). African-Americans generally respond with mild gratitude, mild resentment over tokenism, or a mixture of the two. They seldom, I think, see these gestures as a sign of their power. Rather, they are more likely to regard them as denoting a relative lack of power — an indicator of how cheaply they can be bought off.

I sense that, in the war on terrorism, we are trying to employ something like the “politics of gesture” model described above in an effort to manage the foreign “other” (to borrow a leftist academic term). Unwilling to pull out of the Middle East or to sink Israel, we try to buy the good will of Arabs by calling Islam the religion of peace, by standing against the publication of certain cartoon, and now (in the case of the Pope) by apologizing for unobjectionable speech.

Unfortunately, unlike our domestic “other,” the “Arab street” doesn’t regard these gestures with mild gratitude or mild resentment, and it doesn’t see them as a sign that the Islamists are weak. Rather, I believe, Arabs see these gestures as a sign of weakness on our part. After all, in Arab lands strong governments don’t appease or apologize to their citizens. This kind of homage (or dhimmi) is instead characteristic of the way people conquered in the course of jihad behave. Indeed, campaigns like the one that resulted in submissive behavior by the West with respect to the Danish cartoons arguably are designed to extract this sort of response in order to provide the Islamists with cheap victories.

It’s perhaps understandable that, in the early going of the war on terror, our politicians would apply models of persuasion that have worked domestically. But with five years of experience under our belt (plus eight years of Clinton’s gesture-laden foreign policy), we now should understand that the gesture model is persuading Arabs of things we shouldn’t want them to believe and which we should hope are not true.


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