Mark Bowden’s “Jihadists in Paradise” (March Atlantic) was a superb read, but the author does his readers a disservice by labeling Aldam Tilao (aka “Abu Sabaya”) a “terrorist.” As a journalist who covered the Philippines from 1978 to 2000, I can assure you that Tilao was neither a terrorist nor a jihadist. He was simply a garden- variety thug of the type that has plagued this part of the Philippines for generations. Tilao was a murderous man to be sure, and probably a psychopath, but his only motives were money and media attention, not politics. Bowden mentions that Tilao spent time in the Middle East, but that fact needs to be put in context: At any one time, there are close to 500,000 Filipino men working in the Middle East, where they go to work on construction projects because there are no jobs for them in their own country.
During the 333 years that Catholic Spain ruled the Philippines, the Muslims of Mindanao Island and the Sulu Sea were generally held in contempt and often persecuted by the colonial government. That attitude largely continued under American rule and even after Philippine independence.
As discouraging as this local history is, it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the current situation in the Middle East, with Osama bin Laden, or with 9/11. And to suggest such a link allows common criminals such as Tilao to opportunistically cloak themselves in some vague “cause” or grievance, which only makes fighting genuine terrorists all that much more difficult.
Mark Bowden replies:
I am in substantial agreement with Steven Knipp about the nature of Aldam Tilao, as I hope the story makes clear, but there is no doubt that Tilao styled himself a religious terrorist, and recruited money and support on that basis. I suspect that in that sense he was not untypical of garden-variety jihadists worldwide.
Ross Douthat could not be more wrong in his contention that George W. Bush’s political legacy will unite the Republican Party for years to come (“It’s His Party,” March Atlantic). First off, Bush never tried to “appeal to the broad electorate”; he won elections by turning out passionate minorities in huge numbers while alienating moderate voters in the hope that they would stay home. This approach worked in 2002 and ’04, but in ’06 the wheels came off. I also don’t see the same motivations in the current crop of GOP presidential contenders that Douthat does. All of them of course “support the troops” (just as all are in favor of breathing oxygen), but none call themselves neoconservatives, just as no aspiring brain surgeon today would claim to be a phrenologist. The battle for the future of GOP foreign policy will be waged by the realists and the isolationists, and Bush’s “idealistic” neoconservatism has been relegated to the dustbin.
Douthat asserts that what has “made the last six years so polarizing isn’t the president’s ideology” but his personality. I am not one to deny that Bush’s personality is abrasive, but the real problem for the GOP is that the ideological menu that Karl Rove crafted to win the elections of 2002 and ’04 has lost its appeal. It wasn’t shared ideology that got libertarians, Christian conservatives, and business moguls into bed together; it was the champagne buzz of winning elections. Now, as they wake up and face the consequences of waging a disastrous war and enacting huge tax cuts, the coalition partners will quietly slip their pants on and slink back home.
The “successes” that Ross Douthat attributes to George W. Bush seem to have taken place entirely at the polls. Let’s review: 2000? Stolen, and Al Gore won the popular vote anyway. 2002? Public paralysis in the aftermath of 9/11. 2004? John Kerry’s fecklessness, Swift Boat lies, and Ohio voting abuses. And overlaying all three elections was the complicity of the media, which dutifully regurgitated the talking points of the Right Wing Noise Machine (a decisive advantage that Bush can’t take credit for). Some successes!
Meanwhile, Douthat’s article doesn’t devote a single word to the one really big Bush “success”: the president’s abject sellout to corporate America’s interests. Billions of dollars in subsidies for oil companies already earning record profits. Bankruptcy-law “reform” that was a boon to credit-card companies. Tax cuts for CEOs earning 400 times as much as their line workers. A massive handout to Big Pharma in the guise of a benefit for seniors.
By pretending that, despite Bush’s disastrous leadership, nothing is fundamentally wrong with the Republican program, Douthat attempts to lend an air of inevitability to the party’s continued domination of American politics. It’s a transparent ploy by an ideologue anxious to convince himself that last year’s drubbing at the polls was only a temporary aberration.