I am a regular reader of The Economist. I like it because it has news from around the world, given with a liberal (small-L) bent. When I say ‘liberal’ here, I do not mean ‘the left wing of the Democratic party’; I mean liberal in the sense of believing in free enterprise, generally small government, and the protection of individual rights. In the States, the best synonym would probably be ‘libertarian’ though I haven’t really signed on to that label yet.

Anyway, The Economist has a nice leader this week looking at the world 5 years after 9/11, and, as usual, I think they hit the nail on the head. What they basically say is that a response was necessary. The war in Afghanistan was necessary and well-implemented initially, but we’ve dropped the ball since then. The Iraq war was less necessary but the case can be made that getting rid of Saddam Hussein was a good thing. (The Economist supported the war, as did I at first.) Unfortunately, it’s been so bungled that it’s hurt us badly in the Islamic world rather than helped us, and has probably contributed to the growth of ‘fundamentalist Islam.’.

They note that the arguments have changed since before ousting Saddam: we are no longer protecting ourselves, but ‘supporting Islam’s moderates against its reactionaries and bolstering democracy against dictatorship.’ But this just comes off as hypocrisy:

Such arguments no longer sell in the West, let alone the Muslim world. If it was all about dictatorship, what about the dictatorship the West continues to embrace in Saudi Arabia, and the quasi-dictatorship in Pakistan? If it was about helping Islam’s moderates against its reactionaries, what is so clever about stepping in to someone else’s civil war?

Besides, the horrors of pre-invasion Iraq had nothing to do with Islam’s inner demons. Mr Hussein’s was a secular dictatorship in which Islamists of all stripes kept their heads down. It is true, and it is commendable, that once America and Britain had toppled Mr Hussein, they helped to organize free elections. They are right to support Iraq’s new government and to make the argument for democracy elsewhere in the Arab world. But portraying the whole enterprise as if it had from the start been all about an experiment in democracy just makes Muslims crosser. By what right do you invade someone else’s country in order to impose a pattern of government?

And we are not even supporting this supposed goal very well. And in the process, we’re hurting ourselves and our world image badly:

One vast mistake has been [Bush’s] neglect of Mr Blair’s advice to push seriously for the creation of a Palestinian state, instead of just saying that this was his “vision”. But worse has been his administration’s wanton disregard for civil liberties. Some curtailing of freedoms was inevitable. Yet Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, the torture memos and extraordinary rendition have not just been unAmerican and morally wrong but also hugely counter-productive. In a battle that is largely about ideas, America seems to many to have abandoned the moral high ground and so won more recruits for the jihadists.

They go on to point out that fundamentalist Islam and Al Qaeda have not had a lot of success in converting the Muslim world to their idea of Islam. None-the-less, the Bush response has simply been to exaggerate differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ rather than trying to address real issues between the two cultures, and this has just worsened things:

To the secular mind, the jihadists’ notion that the faith is everywhere under attack looks absurd. How can conflicts as different as those in Palestine, the Caucasus, Kashmir and the Balkans, even East Timor, be interpreted as parts of a seamless conspiracy against Islam? In Kosovo, for goodness sake, NATO intervened to protect Muslims from Christians, not the other way round. And yet a troubling recent development is the emergence in America of an equal and opposite distortion. This is the idea that it is the West and its values that are everywhere under attack, and everywhere by the same seamless front of what Mr Bush has taken to calling “Islamic fascism”, as if this conflict is akin to the second world war or the cold war against communism. “We are in the early stages of what I would describe as the third world war,” Newt Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, said in July.

It is wrong to look at the post-September 11th world this way, as if every local conflict is part of a civilisational clash. Mr Gingrich was speaking about the Lebanon war. But not every Islamist movement is inspired by the ideas that animate al-Qaeda. In Palestine Hamas is a pious (and vicious) version of a national-liberation movement with local goals, not another front in a global fight. Ditto, more or less, Hizbullah, except that it is also a tool of Iran. And Iran itself is better understood as an assertive rising (and dangerous) power that happens to have a theocratic constitution than as an ally of al-Qaeda, whose ideas come from a separate strand of Islam.

We would do ourselves much good if we would actually recognize the complexities that exist in world affairs, rather than defining everything in terms of ‘democracy’ and ‘the terrorists who hate freedom’.

Anyway, the other thing I love about the Economist is how well it’s written. Just check out that writing!