Iraq 10 Years Later (3): Why the Neocon Theory behind the War Failed


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My first post on the Iraq War asked if academic IR had any responsibility to slow the march to war.

The second tried to formulate what the   neoconservative theory of the war was, because many of us, in retrospect of a conflict gone so badly, desperately want to un-remember that there really was a logic to the war, that it was at least somewhat intellectually defensible, and that a lot of us believed it. We may want to retroactively exculpate ourselves by suggesting it was just W the cowboy acting ridiculous, or a neocon hijacking of the policy process, or Halliburton oil imperialism, and all the other reasons so popular on the left. And some of that is true of course.

But it ducks the crucial point that the war was popular until it flew wildly off-the-rails, which in turn revealed the staggering incompetence of the Bush administration to act on the neocon logic the country had embraced by March 2003. In short, I argued that the Iraq invasion was not about WMD, preemption, or democracy, although that rationale was played up in the wake of the failure to find WMD. The real neocon goal was to scare the daylights out of the Arabs and their elites by punching one of their worst regimes in the face, thereby showing what was coming to rest of the region unless it cleaned up its act, i.e., crack down on salafism and liberalize so as to defuse the cultural extremism that lead to 9/11. (Read Ajami saying in January 2003 that the war is ‘to modernize the Arabs;’ that’s about as a good a pre-war summary of this logic as you’ll get.)

So what went wrong?

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Iraq 10 Years Later (2): What was the Neocon Theory behind the War?


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My first thoughts on the war’s ten year anniversary are here. There I asked if there was any defensible theory behind the war, anything that might explain what why we launched the war, because weapons of mass destruction were not really the reason. Paul Wolfowitz notoriously admitted they were just a pretext to rally the country behind the invasion. And it wasn’t really about pre-emption either; Iraq was hardly a looming military threat in 2003. So here’s my guess of the real neoconservative logic. I should say up front, I do not endorse this rationale. I’m just trying to lay it out what I think neocons were saying to each other in 2002:

The Iraq invasion was to serve two purposes. 1) It was to be a demonstration strike against the Arabs. Gulf anti-western pathologies lead to 9/11, so the Iraq invasion was a warning to Arabs, and Muslims generally, to never to attack the US like that again. As Cheney put it in the film W, ‘don’t ever f— with us again.’ 2) It was to be a hammer strike to break the frozen, horribly dysfunctional Arab political status quo which generated those pathologies; this would force the region toward democracy it would never attain on its own. This thinking was summarized in the widely used expression at the time, ‘drain the swamp.’

A lot of people will (and did) accuse the neocons of orientalism, racism, and US hegemonic arrogance. Nevertheless I’ve always thought this neocon argument was somewhat convincing to most Americans, especially the GOP. I’ve always thought it was the horribly botched execution of the war (‘fiasco’), not the idea itself of ‘draining the swamp,’ that cost the invasion American public opinion support. I also don’t think the neocon argument was ever properly made to the US public, probably because it sounds both orientalist and hubristic. This is not the sort of argument the Bush administration could make out loud; WMD was much easier to sell and far more direct, as Wolfowitz noted. But I think if you read neocons like Kristol, Krauthammer, Gerecht, or Podhoretz, as well as high profile area experts like Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, or Bernard Lewis, or the right-wing thinks-tanks that supported the war (AEI, Heritage, Foundation for Defense of Democracies), this is what you heard. (For example: this, this, this, this, or this). I once participated in the FDDs’ terrorism fellowship program, and this was pretty much the line we got.

So you may not like the argument, but at least there is one. The war cannot just be dismissed as US imperialism, an oil grab, or a PNAC/neocon cabal, which I think was too often the default position on the left, especially in Europe, during the war. Opponents should rebut this and not just stick to deriding W the swaggering cowboy, fun as that may be.

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Ranking US Allies: A Response to Stephen Walt, Andrew Sullivan & all those Canadians…


Who knew Canada could be so controversial…

 

Ok, this has gotta be my last response to the many comments from this sprawling series  (one, two, three, four, five) of posts on ranking US allies. Thanks for all the interest. Who knew Canada was so interesting or Canadians so passionate?

I’d like to thank Stephen Walt (whose blog I think is the best in IR) for linking this debate, and Andrew Sullivan for linking me twice. If you aren’t reading Sullivan yet, you’re at the wrong website. Thanks too to all those Canadians who came out of the woodwork to defend its boring relevance. Finally, who could fail to thank a website disturbingly entitled  f—-dgaijin.com?! (Yes, that’s the actual name; check it out for yourself; at least these guys know where we resident-foreigners stand in the East Asian racial food-chain – at the bottom.)

So here are some final thoughts on the many comments, but especially Walt and Sullivan:

1. I accept the arguments from several commenters that Turkey should be on the list. So here is a final list, a ‘top 12’ of US allies in order: Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, India, Indonesia, Israel, South Korea, Japan, EU/NATO, Egypt, and Turkey.

2. I was please to see that Sullivan flagged – not necessarily approved, but just noted – my argument for Indonesia as America’s most important bridge to the Muslim world. I realize this is kinda off-beat, given that the ME is what dominates our perceptions of Islam and where Islamist pathologies are worst. (Here is a critic, a neocon perhaps, calling me ‘delusional’ for ranking Indonesia this way.) So here is a quick defense, more or less along the lines of what Secretary Clinton said a few years.

Indonesia is a syncretic model of pluralist Islam and politics; I think this is pretty widely accepted. No, it’s not as modern and liberal as we might like, but by the standards of the region, other developing countries, and the OIC, it is a paragon. Let’s be honest about that. It could easily be far, far worse (think Pakistan), which is why I find it unfortunate that we don’t pay attention much. We should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and a friendship with Indonesia doesn’t mean avoiding tough issues, just like engaging China doesn’t mean we should ignore human rights and other similar issues.

So in its own imperfect, struggling way, Indonesia represents the future of political Islam (speaking very broadly to be sure), not the past, which is a lot of what the ME represents and what Arab Spring is trying to break. If the flat-earth religious elites of places like Iran, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia are allowed to dominate the global conversation on Islam, more conflict is likely. By contrast, Indonesia offers a possible model for Islam to live with both democratic politics and religious pluralism. That we should vigorously support such an effort, through some kind of alignment, strikes me as so self-evident, that I am amazed that we never talk about this.

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9/11 a Decade Later (1): The Apocalypse that Wasn’t…


wtc-plane

Part two of this post is here.

The 9/11 anniversary commentary will be endless, so here are a few I thought were good.

First, a few thoughts on what to avoid:

I am increasingly suspicious of stuff from the mainstream foreign affairs crowd: Council on Foreign Relations, CSIS, Brookings, and (especially) the conservative think-tank set. They are so Washington, predictable, and establishmentarian (because the all want gigs in the next administration of their choice), that you already know what you will read: no suggestion that the 20-year US massive presence in the Gulf infuriates Muslims and Arabs and helped catalyze 9/11; laundry lists of expensive ideas for the US to ‘do more in the region’ rather than to let locals be themselves; little hint that America’s relations with Muslims would improve dramatically if we were more even-handed on the Palestinians; no suggestion that America might have been better off doing much, much less in response to 9/11; full endorsement of the liberal internationalist-neocon position that 9/11 is a once-in-a-generation justification for continuing America’s massive globocop presence after the Cold War; minimal criticism of the massive Bush national security state overkill in response; shameless exploitation of 9/11 to prevent reductions in America’s gargantuan national security budget, etc. Stick with Foreign Policy, the American Review, the Atlantic, Slate or the New Republic (sometimes) for views that at least challenge the status quo and don’t just recycle what Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, and the rest of the DC pundit class will tell you.

Next, avoid the emotional manipulative 9/11 retrospectives. This may sound callous – it was an awful day for everyone, and a truly horrible day for some. But far too often since 9/11, politicians, especially W, played to our emotions from that day, and used and manipulated them to support policy we would almost certainly not have agreed to otherwise, and which we will regret with shame in the future. Here’s the Wall Street Journal telling you that ‘Old Glory’ waved on 9/11 (you’re a patriot and love America, right?), and that’s why they called it the Patriot Act. But then the ACLU and Democrats sabotaged the GWoT, cause they hated W over the Florida recount. So the American left, completely out of power from 2000 to 2006, nonetheless made us ‘less safe’ – for a personal vendetta no less. This is Rovism, wrapped in the flag, but still manipulative and hardball. Further, I have little doubt that, just as we look back today in shame at the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during WWII, we will do the same in 20-30 years when look at how we tortured people in the GWoT. Don’t let torture’s defenders – Yoo, Cheney, Thiessen – emotionally roll you by telling you they stopped the next 9/11 and more grieving widows by ‘legalizing’ waterboarding, ‘walling,’ and generally beating the s— out of people in the name of ‘America.’ Keep your wits (and it ain’t true anyway).

In line with this resistance to inevitable grandstanding, posturing, and macho heroics, my own sense is that 9/11’s importance is wildly over-exaggerated – perhaps because I live in Asia, and I increasingly see the Chinese challenge looming for decades to come. But know this – as just about any American living in Asia can tell you – the Chinese sure are happy that we got lost in the Middle East for a decade.

There are a million possible ‘lessons’ from 9/11, but the big one is actually a non-lesson – 9/11 actually changed very little (beyond the changes we made for ourselves, like Iraq and torture). As early as 2006, we were starting to realize just how much we had over-hyped 9/11. The tectonic plates of international relations change slowly. Al Qaeda could not in fact dent unipolarity. (China can, but that is another story.) The stock market didn’t crash. The US military didn’t suddenly collapse. The actual material loss on 9/11 was ‘only’ about $100B out of a $12T economy, and 2700 people from a citizenry of 300M+. (I don’t intend to sound cold; every life is ontologically unique and valuable. But from a national point of view, these numbers are small. Recall that almost 38,000 Americans died in car accidents in 2001.) 9/11 did not unravel NATO or US alliances. US GDP in the proximate quarters continued to expand. China and Russia did not suddenly become nice or nasty. Bin Laden’s much hoped-for Islamic revolution did not occur (one goal of the attack was to spark a global Muslim revolution with al Qaeda in a leninist ‘vanguard party’ role). The much-predicted ‘wave’ of terrorist attacks and plots against the US did not occur, at home or abroad. (Bush defenders will say this is because Bush improved US security at home, but what about the roughly 6M Americans living outside the US? If there really was a global Islamist conspiracy to kill us, there’d be kidnappings and assassinations of US businessmen, students, and tourists all over Eurasia. It never happened.) In the end, well over 99% of the population went to work the next day; unipolarity rolled on.

In short, from a national power perspective, 9/11 is more like Hurricane Katrina – an awful yet manageable one-time disaster – than Hiroshima – a city-breaking catastrophe that promised to be the first in a pattern leading to national collapse. 9/11 was a sucker-punch – a cheap shot al Qaeda managed to slip in because the US wasn’t paying attention (even though the CIA warned Rice and Bush a month earlier). 9/11 did not galvanize the Muslim world, nor provoke a fiery revolt. And given even reasonable homeland security measures (far less draconian than what we choose), repeat attacks at that magnitude are unlikely. In the end, the real reason 9/11 is seared into everyone’s mind is not its catalyst effect toward a global war or clash of civilizations – it is because it was a surprise attack, and because it targeted civilians.

That we permitted that one-shot sucker-punch to drive into us hysterics, to capture our dark imagination, zealous vengeance, and righteous fury is where 9/11 really changed things. American psychology – perhaps insulated too long from the world by US power and distance from Eurasia’s problems – is what changed, not the world.

Continue to part two.

Egyptian Revolution (1):We should Support the Uprising


Good lord, Beck really is insane…

 

Part 2 is here.

Like all of you in the last few weeks, I have been glued to CNN regarding Egypt. It is pretty inspiring, and I can only hope that Mubarak leaves and something more genuinely liberal and democratic takes his places. Here are a few thoughts.

1. Regarding the video selected above, I did plan to post a good pic from Egypt, but you’ve seen that a lot already, so that would not have added much new value. This you probably haven’t seen though, and it is ‘important’ for the sheer insanity about US conservatives’ foreign policy concerns in the ME it reveals. Apparently the Egyptian revolution is an islamist plot that will turn the Mediterranean into an Islamic lake, allow Russia to control Northern Europe, and China to control India and Pakistan. Don’t believe me? Beck’s sweeping hand movements will explain all…    h/t: Center for a New American Security.

2. This is one of those critical junctures when observers should to go on the record about what to do. If all this somehow goes wrong, everyone will blame Obama in 20/20 hindsight. That will inevitably be partisan and unfair, because the Obama administration is making decisions under huge uncertainty. Credibility requires one to go on record now, when information is limited and we all have to make our best guess.

That US conservatives are badly split signals this huge uncertainty. Absolute moral certainty is a central pose of the American right’s self-image (tax hikes are always bad, Iraq 2 was a good idea no matter what), so if even the Right –  which IMO takes foreign policy more seriously than domestic-focused US liberals – is divided, that tells you just how confused everyone really is. For the neo-con take that this really is about democracy, try Gerecht (excellent); for the gloomy realism that we should hew to the Egyptian military, try Krauthammer (depressing, but also good). And for the downright bizarre conspiratorial stuff, watch the above vid.

So here’s my line: I’ll say that Krauthammer and the realists are wrong. The Iran parallel is inaccurate; this will not lead to a Muslim Brothers’ dictatorship. Further, the support of democracy is, in itself, an important value. Even if there was a serious risk of an islamist takeover, we should still pressure Mubarak to get out, nor support a military oligarchy (Krauthammer). Who wants to look back in 10 years and say we supported yet another authoritarian in one of the worst governed places on earth, that we didn’t take the chance to push for something better, even if it was risky? How awful and embarrassing for the US; what a betrayal of all those heroic people we’ve seen on TV. And if they want islamists in the government, well, it is ultimately their country. So long as it remains a democracy (the difference between Turkey’s islamists’ participation, and Hamas’ budding oligarchy), then we have to allow them to disagree with us as is their right. Risking fanatics in government is part of democracy (witness, ahem, Sarah Palin). If we believe in it for ourselves, then we must be true to it for them. So, no, this is not a result of George Bush’s foreign policy, but we should support it anyway.

3. Israel should not drive our policy toward Egypt. Has anyone else noticed how much of this discussion has gotten hijacked by the ‘what-will-happen-to-Israel’ externality? (Try here, here, here, here, and here.) This is embarrassing and almost sycophantic. You can’t blame the Arabs for disbelieving we’re an honest broker when the fate of 6 million people in a different country outweighs the 85 million of the country that is actually the center of the story. Really? Should the US point of origin for yet another Middle East event be Israel’s benefit? We are two separate countries, right? Maybe we should care about the Egyptians themselves, right? Israel does have the finest military in the region, nuclear weapons, and a take-no-prisoners lobby in the US Congress, right? Don’t misunderstand me. I realize that Israel’s security is important for the US and that it is the only democracy in the region (although that is increasingly under question). I want Israel to be secure too; I’ve traveled there 3 times and unconditionally support its right to exist. If it would help, usher them into NATO or the EU, or extend formal US deterrence guarantees, even nuclear. But it’s long-overdue time that we break the habit looking over our shoulder to Israel on ME issues, and it’s extremely immoral to support continued Egyptian authoritarianism on the (likely correct) premise that a democratic Egypt will push Israel harder. That sells out the admirable sacrifice of 85 million for 6 million who voted for an openly provocative right-wing government.

American Dual Containment in Asia


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Last month I published an article in Geopolitics entitled “American Dual Containment in Asia.” In brief, I argued that a double containment of both Islamic fundamentalism and of China is the likely US strategy in Asia in the coming decades. The containment of salafism in the Middle East is bound to be hard and violent (as it already is), because Al Qaeda and associated movements are so genuinely revolutionary and dangerous. The containment of China is likely to be soft until the Chinese decide just how much they wish to challenge the reigning liberal democratic order. In the last year, many seem to fear that China is ramping up in this direction. Hence my prediction that India will be a pivot in this containment line. It is a unique ally for the US, because it is worried about both China and Islamic fundamentalism, and because it is democratic. In this way, it is unique among American alliance choices. Here is abstract:

“US grand strategy after 9/11 turned from post-containment drift to preemption. But the costs are high – suspicion of American power, hedging by traditional allies, expensive, go-it-alone ventures like Iraq. Tried-and-true containment better reflects American values. While forward in the world, containment is also defensive. It reassures skittish partners and reflects liberal, anti-imperial US preferences. In Asia, containment would deter the primary contemporary challengers of US power – radical Islam and Chinese nationalism – without encouraging a Bush-style global backlash. In a reductive analysis of US alliance choices, this article predicts a medium-term Indo-American alliance. India uniquely shares both US liberal democratic values and the same two challengers; it is the likely pivot in a US-backed neo-containment architecture in Asia.”

Here are the relevant graphs that, I hope, make the argument clearer:

Graph 1. Contemporary Revisionists to the ‘American System’

 

 

 

 

Power

High

Low

Commitment

 

High

(Revolutionary)

 

Islamist-Jihadist Networks,

Iran ?

Low

(Dissatisfied)

China ?

Rogues (Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela)

 

 

The good news above is that just about everyone accepts the international status quo – roughly, the liberal international political economy led by the US (what Ikenberry calls “the American system”). While al Qaeda is clearly a scary revisionist – i.e., the they want to dramatically rewrite the international order by refounding the caliphate, e.g. – they are also pretty weak. The only powerful revisionist is China, and no one knows yet just how much she seeks to change things. This is good for the US, insofar as it backstops the international order, and it is also good for the many states in Asia and Europe that function within that order. Although the internal challenges to the liberal order are growing (i.e, the Great Recession), there is currently no powerful and revolutionary external challenger like the Nazis or USSR were.

 

 Graph 2. Contemporary US Alliance Picks

 

 

Competitors

Values

 

China

Islamist-

Jihadist

Networks

Great Britain/NATO

 

         X

               X

Russia

          X

          X

 

Japan/East Asia

          X

 

                X

Israel/Arab clients

 

           X

               X?

India

          X

           X

               X

 

This graph tries to reductively explain the appeal of India as an alliance partner. It uniquely shares the both the geopolitical interests of the US in Asia; that is, it is worried about both Islamism and China. And it shares our liberal democratic values. Russia is an obvious point on shared interests – the ultimate driver of alliances of course – but it is so erratic and semi-dictatorial, that is still distasteful despite the ‘reset.’

The most controversial part of this analysis is certainly my open claim that China will be a target of US soft containment, and maybe hard in the future. I should say here that I do not want this. I am very aware of the self-fulfilling prophecy problem; i.e., if we openly come out and say China is an enemy or threat, then by doing so, we make it into one. And certainly articles like mine are exactly what the Chinese declaim – a not-so-secret effort by US analysts to keep China down and such. And see Barnett on why I am completely wrong, if not dangerous, about China. But as an empirical prediction, I do think it holds. China’s growth and current values (populist nationalism, deep historical grievance, residual communism) are just too rapidly destabilizing, and I think Barnett doesn’t give nearly the necessary attention to the security dilemma problems China creates on its periphery. (IMO, Barnett overfocuses on China and G-2 coziness, while missing the nervousness in places like Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Indonesia.)   For my own writing on why I think the ‘China threat’ school is likely to win this debate, try here.

Finally, I should say in fairness that my own perception of China-as-threat has declined somewhat, in part because I visited the place. This strikes me as natural; closeness and exposure frequently breed understanding, and I like to think that all the nice Chinese scholars and hospitality I experience were in fact real. But the liberal values of academics exposed to new ideas and travel as a professional requirement hardly apply to populations and elites, especially those as nationalist as China and the US. The misperception likelihood is huge here; remember the Bush 2 administration came in ready to take on China until 9/11 happened. This will likely reassert itself as American dependence on Chinese financing grows and as the GWoT (hopefully) winds down. (Another problem here is the peer-review process. Articles take years to between the first inspired write-up and the end-point of publication. Reviewers send you back to the drawing board, and the pipeline effect means that even after final acceptance you may wait a year or more to see it in print.)

Ground Zero Mosque & Koran-Burning: the Xian Right Learns ID Politics


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Just about anyone with a website has already commented on this. There is no doubt the Christian right has responded as predictably and disturbingly as one might expect. I have only a few thoughts.

1. The Ground Zero ‘Mosque’ is probably a bridge too far at this point. In his fumbling way, I think Obama got it right. The community center should be permitted legally as an expression of religious freedom, but so many Americans, especially Christians, find it uncomfortable at minimum, terrifying at worst, that it is probably not a good idea at the moment. It is clear misstep in a country still trying to come to grips with 9/11, Iraq, the GWoT, etc. And the hysterical reaction from the US right over it should be an obvious red-flag to Islam generally that it desperately needs to conciliate the rest of the world rather than insist maximally on its rights – an obvious lesson that should have been learned in Europe, India, or after Durban II. To many Americans, Ground Zero is practically holy ground (rightly or wrongly), and it is indisputable that its perpetrators acted in Islam’s name. It is also clear that the US is spending a great deal of blood and treasure pushing back on radical Islam, and that many Americans want to see a pleasant, conciliatory face on Islam before they can swallow something like this. So long as global Islam’s image is dominated by this guy, Muslims in American should really be working bottom-up outreach, demonstrating on 9/11 in solidarity with the victims rather than openly testing the patience of the majority culture, by blaming it on a few bad apples and dismissing the rest of the discussion as islamophobia.

American Muslims need to pick their battles just like any minority; civil rights movements for blacks and homosexuals have showed us that Americans will accommodate. Acceptance will come, but not by pursuing CAIR-style grievance politics that sees racism everywhere. I think most Americans are still waiting for the debate inside Islam on what caused 9/11; this would really prove that Islam accepts pluralism in its heart, not just when some firestorm occurs on CNN. But you only get that from americanized Muslims like Foud Ajami or Fareed Zakaria who are effectively isolated from the discussion. It is outsiders like Olivier Roy, Bernard Lewis, R M Gerecht, Ann Applebaum, or  Christopher Caldwell who have really exposed the pathologies behind 9/11 with no clear response from folks like Tariq Ramadan or Feisal Abdul Rauf, much less the reactionary clerical elites in Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc. Instead, the critiques are just ignored, as were the Arab Human Development reports earlier this decade. Just like Germany had to examine the Holocaust eventually, Islam needs to look inside 9/11 for a good house-cleaning before westerners will really be comfortable. Consider this counterfactual: if CAIR had organized a ‘Solidarity with America’ march on 9/11 every year or some analogously Oprah-style outreach, then I can’t imagine anyone would care now. But instead of introspection and an admission that pathologies deeply rooted in Islam created 9/11, the response of the US Muslim community has been quiescence or CAIR-style identity politics. I criticize America’s Christian right paranoia regularly on this site, but it is also willful ignorance to pretend the US is not a Christian-majority country, and as the Koran-burners show, they have learned identity politics too. How ‘bout everyone cool it on the religion for awhile?

2. The Koran-burning is the revenge of identity politics on the left. They are loopy and dangerous, but they also teach you just how dangerous stoking identity politics is. And for this you must blame the Left in the end. Starting in 1970s, civil rights-era equality was out, and identity politics was in. Non-white minorities in America were trained in multiculturalism by US universities and told to press group-fashioned political claims built around race or gender. The result was political correctness, in which free speech was assailed as permitting ‘disrespect.’ And no concept is more abused by ethnic ideologues than ‘respect.’ What better way to embarrass and delegitimize your critics than to easily cast them as ignorantly disrespectful of your culture, which you can casually invoke by just your last name. If they are racist, then you hardly need to listen to them, a tactic first rolled out against Daniel Moynihan’s famous DoL report 45 years ago. ‘Respect’ is wonderfully indefinable and elastic, its lack implies racist, vulgar stupidity, and it provides an easy out from the hard criticism liberal free speech permits. Pretty quickly, Israel’s defenders learned this; there is no better way to discredit Israel critics than anti-semitism charges. And Islam learned this too at Durban II. Now at last, white Christian Americans are learning this language as well. Regularly assailed as redneck racists, the easy answer is to adopt the pose of the opponent and ‘discover’ prejudice in the liberal anti-Christian media, e.g. This is why Fox News has such a siege mentality tone to its reporting, like the ‘war’ on Christmas. Here is a nice summary of how religious groups get trained to frame their demands as ‘rights’ they deserve as ‘victims’ of never-ending ‘prejudice’,’ i.e., free speech. But to be fair to the US right, it only went down this route after the ‘ethnicization’ of left-wing politics in the US in the last three decades. And for that blame the explosion of ethnic identity studies on US campuses.