Losers able to hang on in Mideast

JALOZAI CAMP, Pakistan -- After spending a week traveling the frontline of the "war on terrorism" -- from the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in the seas off Iran, to northern Iraq, to Afghanistan and into northwest Pakistan -- I comfortably can report the following: The bad guys are losing.

Yes, the dominos you see falling in the Muslim world today are the extremist Islamist groups and governments. They have failed to convince people by either their arguments or their performances in power that their puritanical versions of Islam are the answer.

Having lost the argument, though, the radicals still hang on, thanks to gun barrels and oil barrels -- and they can for a while. Because, while the radicals have failed miserably, our allies -- the pro-Americans, the Muslim modernists, the Arab moderates -- have not really filled the void with reform and good government of their own. They are winning by default. More on that later.

For now, though, it is obvious that everywhere they have won or seized power, the Islamists -- in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon or Gaza -- have overplayed their hands, dragged their societies into useless wars or engaged in nihilistic violence that today is producing a backlash from mainstream Muslims.

Think of this: In the late-1970s, two leaders made historic trips -- President Anwar Sadat flew from Egypt to Israel, and Ayatollah Khomeini flew from Paris to Tehran. For the last 30 years, politics in the Middle East and the Muslim world has, in many ways, been a struggle between their competing visions.

Sadat argued that the future should bury the past and that Arabs and Muslims should build their future based on peace with Israel, integration with the West and embracing modernity. Khomeini argued that the past should bury the future and that Persians and Muslims should build their future on hostility to Israel, isolation from the West and subordinating modernity to a puritanical Islam.

In 2009, the struggle between those two trends tipped toward the Sadatists. The fact that Iran's ruling theocrats had to steal their election to stay in power and forcibly suppress dissent by millions of Iranians is the most visible sign of this. The Taliban's burning down of secular schools that compete with its mosques, and its peddling of heroin to raise cash, are also not exactly signs of intellectual triumph.

The same day that President Barack Obama spoke to the Muslim world from Cairo University, Osama bin Laden released a long statement on Islamic Web sites and Al-Jazeera. As the Egyptian Middle East expert Mamoun Fandy noted: "Obama beat Osama hands down. Ask anyone about the content of Obama's speech, and they will tell you. Ask them what Osama said, and most people will say, 'Did he give a speech?' " In Iraq's elections last January, nationalist and moderate Muslim parties defeated the sectarian, radical religious parties, while in Lebanon, a pro-Western coalition defeated one led by Hezbollah.

Here in Pakistan, the backlash against the Taliban has been building among the rising middle class. It started in March when a mobile-phone video of a teenage girl being held down and beaten outside her home by a Taliban commander spread virally across this country. In May, the Pakistani army began an offensive against Taliban militants who had taken control of key towns and appeared to be moving toward the capital, Islamabad.

To the extent that the radical Islamists have any energy today, it comes not from the power of their ideas or examples of good governance, but by stoking sectarian feuds.

The only way to really dry up their support is for Arab and Muslim modernists to actually implement better ideas with better schools, economic opportunities and a vision of Islam that is perceived as authentic yet embracing of modernity. That is where "our" allies in Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have so consistently failed. Until that happens, the Islamist radicals will be bankrupt, but not out of business.