Twenty years have passed since Fareed Zakaria got nearly everything wrong about Islamism, Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda in the pages of Newsweek. With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 behind us, it's now time to reflect on the damage inflicted by two decades of Zakaria's obsession with discovering how to change America to prevent future attacks.
Zakaria's influence on foreign policy is undeniable. In 1992, he was named managing editor of Foreign Affairs. By 2001, he was editor of Newsweek International and later went on to edit Time magazine. He has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic Monthly, Slate, and many others. In 2009, Forbes put him on its list of the most influential liberals in the media . . . and in 2011, the New Republic put him on its list of the most "over-rated thinkers." Currently, he is a columnist for the Washington Post and host of a CNN television show, where he dispenses bad policy advice heeded by far too many decision-makers and voters.
On October 14, 2001, with fires still burning at Ground Zero and everyone waiting for "the next shoe to drop," Zakaria published a nearly 7,000-word manifesto in Newsweek that fingered U.S. policy as the root cause of al-Qaeda's attacks, sending many on a redemptive odyssey in search of a way to make "them" stop hating "us."
Zakaria helped mainstream the rush to incriminate America for the sins of others.
It didn't take a month and three days for the Left to blame the U.S. for 9/11. I saw it happen on the campus where I teach within an hour of American Airlines Flight 175 hitting the South Tower. And of course Zakaria has never been an original thinker. Politico's Dylan Byers once said of Zakaria that he "has made a habit of borrowing facts, language and style from other sources without attributing the work to its original authors, and he has presented such material as if it were his own." But in 2001, his influence helped mainstream the rush to incriminate America for the crimes and sins of others.
Let's start with the question in Zakaria's title: "Why Do They Hate Us?" It's true that some individual jihadists do in fact hate "us." But Islamists are motivated as much (or more) by confidence that their way, the Islamic way, is the right way, as they are by hate. Many Islamists insist that they are obligated to free non-Muslims from a state of ignorance (jahiliya). As Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966), the Muslim Brotherhood's most influential strategist, put it, "Islam is a declaration which liberates mankind throughout the earth from submission to human beings." Qutb explained that "jihad seeks to guarantee the freedom of belief."
As part of the "hearts and minds" punditry, Zakaria wanted the U.S. to earn the admiration of the world's Islamists rather than making them quake with fear of crossing us. Our foreign policy was too mean and too selfish, he believed, and Americans in general were too confident. We needed humility to make "them" stop hating "us." He sneered that it was time to "mask our power in — sorry work with — institutions like the United Nations Security Council."
"We have no option but to get back into the nation-building business," wrote Zakaria.
In light of the ignominious fall of Afghanistan, perhaps Zakaria's worst policy prescription was this ultimatum: "We have no option but to get back into the nation-building business." Two decades worth of nation-building yielded very little in Afghanistan, where the very concept of the nation-state is widely rejected as un-Islamic.
Zakaria was also extremely soft on the Taliban in 2001. He smugly admonished the country that "not a single Afghan has been tied to a terrorist attack against the United States," a misplaced confidence given that no one then knew the full extent of Taliban involvement in bin Laden's plans. Everyone knew, however, that the Taliban had harbored and protected al-Qaeda since 1996, so his eagerness to treat them as innocent until proven guilty was puzzling. We would later learn from Osama bin Laden's son Omar that, when al-Qaeda leaders landed in Afghanistan after fleeing Sudan, the Taliban's Mullah Nourallah gave Osama "a very large tract of land in the city of Jalalabad . . . [and] an entire mountain in Tora Bora," and then declared bin Laden an "honorary Pashtun."
Zakaria also misrepresented the Muslim Brotherhood to his readers, many of whom had probably never even heard of the group. He portrayed it more as an altruistic, democratic club rather than an organization founded to reconstitute the defunct Islamic Caliphate. He enthused that "the Muslim Brotherhood and organizations like it at least tried to give people a sense of meaning and purpose in a changing world." That sense of meaning is Islamic supremacism, and the Muslim Brotherhood is still at it.
Zakaria argued that the decades of Western influence in the Muslim world had instilled "disproportionate feelings of grievances directed at America," which led Muslims to feel a "sense of humiliation." This is an argument one might expect from a fiery Osama bin Laden tirade, but not from an article in Newsweek. Bin Laden mentions "humiliation" three times in his brief 1998 "Declaration of War Against Americans" and dozens of times in the videotaped recordings he sent to Al-Jazeera for years after 9/11.
Zakaria foresaw a future in which some countries that "have clearly supported terrorism in the past, like Iran, seem interested in re-entering the world community and reforming their ways." As he wrote those words, Iran was harboring dozens of al-Qaeda operatives, including bin Laden's son Sa'ad.
In another gem, Zakaria advised Americans "to give up some cold-war reflexes, such as an allergy to multilateralism, and stop insisting that China is about to rival us militarily or that Russia is likely to re-emerge as a new military threat." I'd say his crystal ball was cracked.
Zakaria's support for the "Arab Spring" included an argument for "Contra-like funding" to the Islamists trying to depose Moammar Qaddafi. He has consistently underestimated the threats of Islamist terrorists and advocated negotiating with terrorists — especially the Taliban.
Evidence of Zakaria's thinking persists. Praise for the Taliban as "very pragmatic and very businesslike" from the Department of Defense and as "professional and businesslike" from the National Security Council are examples. Opposition to designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization is another. And whenever there is a terrorist attack by Islamists, the propensity to ask "why do they hate us?" is ever-present.
Perhaps Zakaria's most damaging influence is his one-sided reporting on Israel. On September 19 of this year, he blamed Israel's "assault" on Hamas for the continued conflict. In June, he accused Israel of "killing [the] two-state solution for 15 years."
Zakaria recently apologized to Dore Gold for misattributing words and ideas to the former ambassador that he neither spoke nor advocates. Getting him to apologize for 20 years of bad policy advice will be much more difficult. Until then, every American can take three measures to inoculate themselves against the bad advice we have endured since 9/11: Stop blaming the U.S. for Islamist terrorism, stop asking the dumb question "Why do they hate us?" and, most of all, stop listening to Fareed Zakaria.
A.J. Caschetta is a Ginsberg-Milstein fellow at the Middle East Forum and a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.