The notion that public diplomacy and strategic communication would address these problems also proved false. Ultimately it does not matter whether the perceptions of the United States which are common in the Islamic world – that Washington is in the thrall of Israel, deliberately seeks to keep Islamic nations weak by any means available, and wants to politically dominate the Islamic world so as to exploit its resources – are accurate. The naive American trust in the power of objective truth does not work in a deadly struggle with extremism. Beliefs matter more than reality. Hostility, anti-Americanism, and misperception are simply parts of the strategic terrain, as immutable as mountains or swamps. Changing deep set perceptions and attitudes is like changing physical terrain: it may be possible over an extended period of time and at great cost and effort, but is normally not the wisest course of action. Yet the United States continued to rumble along with a strategy based on wishful thinking rather than cold reality.
Yet for a few years after September 11, the fissures and faulty assumptions in America’s global strategy were papered over and held in check. Islamic partners were willing to cooperate to a point given the benefits involved. This gave Americans the impression of progress. But cooperation was fragile and thin, based more on an expectation of material gain than shared priorities and perspectives. And the United States was able to teeter along with a flawed strategy because opposition from the element of the American public most likely to oppose the partnerships in the Islamic world – the political right – was held in check by Republican control of the White House. As long as it was George W. Bush and his administration arguing that extremists were not representative of Islam – something that President Bush stated often – the right muted its anger and hostility. Criticism would only strengthen Bush’s critics. But with a Democratic president, the gloves came off. Politicians and pundits on the right found that public anger and hostility toward Islam was a useful tool to mobilize their constituency and attack a president whom a significant portion of Americans believed to be a secret Muslim. Just as Iraq was President Bush’s vulnerability, Islam is President Obama’s.