THE WARNING by the Department of Homeland Security that al-Qaida may be preparing to disrupt the presidential election has been sounded with little assessment of the terrorist organization's aims.
Some have questioned the extent to which the Bush administration may be using such warnings for political reasons, but few have challenged the notion that al-Qaida seeks to replicate its Madrid attack on the eve of the Spanish election for the presumed goal of defeating President Bush.
In fact, while al-Qaida is constantly trying to prepare massive acts of horror on U.S. soil, replacing the Bush administration is not likely to be one of its objectives. Broadly, there are two possible goals for al-Qaida as an organization:
Al-Qaida aims not so much to change U.S. policy on specific issues but to rally Muslims worldwide against the United States to create a sense of a clash of civilizations and to isolate Washington in the international community. Ultimately, it would hope to create a puritanical Islamic order in the Muslim world. This is the most plausible of the two objectives and is one believed by the Bush administration.
Al-Qaida seeks to change U.S. foreign policy on issues that many Muslims care about, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, the presence of U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf region and support for authoritarian governments in the Middle East. This objective has been put forth in a book by an anonymous CIA official and, if true, it would mean that current policy must be reassessed
But the first and more plausible aim also means that the policy issues that al-Qaida seeks to exploit are central - that the majority of Muslims are not moved by al-Qaida's real agenda but by the issues it exploits. U.S. policy is thus essential in affecting the extent to which Muslims resent the United States more than they hate al-Qaida.
By this measure, it is difficult to imagine that al-Qaida would view the record of the past three years as having been anything but successful. Public opinion today in every Muslim country is far more resentful of the United States than it was three years ago.
Four years ago, over 60 percent of Saudi citizens expressed confidence in the United States. Today, less than 4 percent expressed a favorable view of the United States in a recent survey I conducted.
The hope immediately after 9/11 that a country such as Turkey, a secular Islamic democracy and a long-term ally of the United States, would provide the alternative to the puritanical Taliban model has not completely died. But today, instead of pictures demonizing Osama bin Laden on Turkish walls, the streets are filled with posters aimed instead at President Bush.
In Western Europe, which has much to be concerned about from the threat of al-Qaida, there is an unparalleled rising tide of anti-Americanism. And instead of the war in Afghanistan being the end of al-Qaida, the terror group appears to have regained the capacity to plan massive attacks with a presence in over 60 countries; Iraq can be added as a new hospitable base of operations.
It's true that many in the Middle East often have criticized U.S. foreign policy in the past 30 years. But in general, their notion of U.S. aims largely has been focused not on profound animosity but on a sense of conflict in strategic interests and domestic politics over oil and Israel. Today, an increasing number of Muslims and Arabs believe that the United States is simply aiming to attack Muslims.
In fact, in my public opinion survey (with Zogby International) last month in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, more than three-fourths of respondents said they believe that U.S. aims in Iraq were intended in part "to weaken the Muslim world."
Bin Laden is the second-most-admired leader in Egypt (after French President Jacques Chirac) and UAE (after the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser). Mr. Bush is the second-most-disliked leader in almost every one of those six countries, behind only Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Why would al-Qaida want to change this or seek a U.S. policy that would close the gap with the Muslim world in which al-Qaida thrives?
There can be only two plausible aims that al-Qaida has in attacking the United States:
To the extent that it may want to influence the November election, it would expect what our conventional wisdom would expect - that unlike the Spanish, Americans would rally behind their commander in chief. The result: widening the gap between the United States and the Muslim world.
That, most likely, al-Qaida would continue to plan attacks on U.S. soil with little regard for the election or its outcome.
Above all, al-Qaida cannot possibly seek change in the current U.S. policy that has only widened the gap with the Muslim world.
Shibley Telhami is professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park, and senior fellow at the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution.