Editor’s Note: For nearly eight years, George W. Bush was the perfect foil for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, an American President swaggering around the world with vows to crush Islamic evil-doers and demanding regime change in countries that hadn’t earned an approved-in-Washington gold star.

With a more subtle approach to the complex Middle East, Barack Obama presents a trickier challenge for al Qaeda’s leaders, but the Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland says the real test for Obama is what he does, not what he says:

Unlike Bush — who made little effort to understand the Islamic world and whom al Qaeda could easily bait into reckless acts that raised its stature among Muslims — Obama is more thoughtful and empathetic to Muslims and consulted many experts, including scholars on the Islamic world and actual Muslims, before delivering his much-promoted speech on U.S.-Islamic relations in Cairo, Egypt.

The twin audiotapes indicate that Osama bin Laden and his sidekick, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are worried about Obama.

Instead of blundering into talk of spreading democracy in the lands of “evil-doers” through “crusades” as Bush did, Obama, being the son and grandson of Muslims and growing up in Islamic Indonesia, gets the benefit of the doubt, at least initially, from many Muslims.

Unfortunately, I don’t think bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri need be as worried as they appear to be. In the Islamic world, talk is cheap and actions do matter.

Although Obama presents a more reasonable, less scary, and more empathetic image towards Muslims, the actual policy disagreements between the Bush and Obama administrations have been overstated. In any presidential campaign, to win votes, Democrats and Republicans magnify their differences in approach.

Al Qaeda successfully baited George W. Bush into overreacting to the 9/11 attacks — a typical ploy by guerrillas and terrorists vis-à-vis a more powerful enemy to win more money and support within their own communities.

George W. Bush not only launched a very public “war on terror” centered in Afghanistan — instead of using more effective and lower-profile intelligence, law enforcement, and occasional secret Special Forces activities — he also invaded and occupied another unrelated Muslim country.

The bonus of a U.S. occupation of Iraq must have made bin Laden and al-Zawahri ecstatic.

Given his more sober inclinations, Obama, in the same situation as Bush after 9/11, might very well have avoided this trap. Yet Obama’s problem is that he inherited the twin occupations from Bush and is attempting, as many operatives in Washington do, to spin his way out of the difficulty using a public relations campaign.

And obviously, Obama is a much more skilled P.R. man than Bush was. Yet feeling Muslims’ pain rhetorically does nothing about the primary reasons for radical Islamist militancy and terrorism toward the United States — U.S. (that is, non-Muslim) occupation of and meddling in Islamic lands.

Bin Laden originally went to war against the United States for this reason and mentions it yet again in his most recent threatening audiotape:

“Obama has followed the footsteps of his predecessor in increasing animosity toward Muslims and increasing enemy fighters and establishing long-term wars. So the American people should get ready to reap the fruits of what the leaders of the White House have planted throughout the coming years and decades.”

Obama has pledged to fulfill the Bush administration’s agreement with Iraq that the United States will withdraw all U.S. forces from there by the end of 2011. However, because the United States has had difficulty leaving the Persian Gulf, Korean peninsula, and Europe after conflict or Cold War ended, the Islamic world cannot be blamed for taking a “seeing is believing” attitude toward this promise.

In addition, instead of winding down Bush’s nation-building quagmire in Afghanistan and focusing on neutralizing al Qaeda, Obama is escalating this un-winnable war. The war in Afghanistan has already fueled dangerous Islamist militancy in Pakistan and had helped al Qaeda find more recruits.

Unfortunately, Obama is not the only person in the United States who fails to understand this key cause of anti-U.S. terrorism originating from the Islamic world. The foreign policy establishment — both Democratic and Republican elements — believes that the United States must solve all of the Islamic/Arab world’s problems to turn things around there.

For example, the establishment New York Times, in a news article on Obama’s Cairo speech, pontificated:

“For Mr. Obama to win favor, … he needs to address the challenges facing the Arab world, from poverty and inadequate education systems to limits on democracy and human rights.”

That is exactly wrong and a complete misunderstanding of the roots of the basic problem.

The imperial mentality of solving all such problems got the United States into its current riff with the Islamic world. To get rid of this dangerous source of friction, the United States should just stop meddling in that part of the world.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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