President George W. Bush was rightly condemned last week when he implied that Democrats want to “negotiate with terrorists” because they are driven by “the false comfort of appeasement,” while Republicans are committed to fighting terrorism. But in his speech before Israel’s Knesset, Bush made another dangerous statement that got far less attention: He lumped together Al Qaeda with the Islamist groups Hamas and Hezbollah.
It is yet another example of the Bush Administration’s flawed understanding of basic forces in the Middle East: conflating disparate groups with opposing ideologies to suggest that they have a single-minded focus in attacking the United States. Bush has done this before, most notably in his State of the Union speech in January 2007, when he presented a misleading description of “the enemy” that the United States faces abroad. “The Shiite and Sunni extremists are different faces of the same totalitarian threat. But whatever slogans they chant, when they slaughter the innocent, they have the same wicked purposes,” Bush said. “They want to kill Americans, kill democracy in the Middle East and gain the weapons to kill on an even more horrific scale.”
Led by Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda is the terrorist group responsible for the September 11 attacks. It has no geographical base, no realistic political platform and its main objective is to kill civilians–both in the Muslim world and the West. But Hamas and Hezbollah are traditional Islamist and nationalist movements based in specific countries. Each group has a military wing that committed acts of terrorism during its history. They also have an important social base, provide services to their communities and are active in the political process.
This might seem like another example of Bush’s ignorance. But it is dangerous because the Administration could be laying the groundwork for attacks against Hamas or Hezbollah–more likely by Israel than directly by the United States–in the same vein as the false intelligence that led to the invasion of Iraq. Bush’s repeated portrayal of Hezbollah and Hamas as terrorist groups that want to kill Americans, in the same way that Al Qaeda does, conflates Sunni and Shiite extremism–an approach that obscures and underestimates the resilience of both.
Hezbollah (“Party of God”) is a Shiite movement, while Hamas and Al Qaeda are Sunni. In lumping together Shiite and Sunni militants, the Administration fails to grasp that these groups have disparate ideologies and, in many cases, hate one another. Al Qaeda and other extremist Sunni groups label the Shiites as heretics who should be killed. It is stunning that even after five years of occupying Iraq, the Bush Administration still does not understand basic facts about militant Islam.
In his May 15 speech before Israel’s Knesset, Bush portrayed the battle between militant Islam and the West in his usual messianic terms, as a struggle between pure good and ultimate evil. “They accept no God before themselves. And they reserve a special hatred for the most ardent defenders of liberty, including Americans and Israelis,” he said. “And that is why the founding charter of Hamas calls for the ‘elimination’ of Israel. And that is why the followers of Hezbollah chant ‘Death to Israel, Death to America!’ That is why Osama bin Laden teaches that ‘the killing of Jews and Americans is one of the biggest duties.’ ”