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  • Us versus Them: The United States, Radical Islam, and the Rise of the Green Threat by Douglas Little
  • Glenn L. Carle (bio)
Us versus Them: The United States, Radical Islam, and the Rise of the Green Threat, by Douglas Little. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016. 328 pages. $30 cloth; $20.99 e-book.

Red menace, green menace; Soviets, or jihadists — the United States over the decades has found itself reflexively locked into a polarized, Manichaean approach to foreign policy, according to Douglas Little, author of the compelling Us versus Them. Little, a professor of history and international relations at Clark University, argues that since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, American leaders have simply traded an existentially threatening red “Other” — the Communist Soviet Union — for a green one, that of radical Islam, and have been consistently unable to factor local or regional cultural or event-specific complexities into the formulation of US perception, doctrine, and policy. Sadly, Little is right.

Little takes the reader through a brisk history of US relations with, and usually ignorance of, the Muslim world since World War II, in chapters on the Cold War and its conclusion, on Presidents Bill Clinton’s and George H. W. Bush’s ultimately unsuccessful efforts to move past the Cold War’s polarized approach to US foreign policy, to George W. Bush’s and the neoconservatives’ deeply ideological reversion to a polarized us-versus–them intellectual construct, and finally to President Barack Obama’s often misunderstood, and as yet only partially successful efforts to implement a more nuanced, multilayered foreign policy. This is one of the sad lessons Little offers: No administration, or president, has succeeded. A reductionist us-versus-them paradigm has shaped American perceptions and foreign policy for more than 70 years. As Greek heroes, American leaders have been unable to escape this fate, even when they have perceived the flaws in the us-versus-them framework.

Little’s story starts at the birth of the Cold War, and shows the dynamic that would shape American policy toward the red menace, and now toward its focal replacement, the green menace. [End Page 172]

Red or green is the same color

In 1947, Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee told President Harry Truman that to win enough support to parry the threat of Soviet Communism he would have to appear before Congress “and scare the hell out of the country,” by painting the issues in the starkest bipolar, moral terms (p. 20). Truman did and succeeded, and thus came the Cold War, containment, and a polarized paradigm for US policy.

Forty years later the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), where I spent my career, still defined the world in bipolar terms. I lived this reality from the time I entered on duty early in the 1980s, during President Ronald Reagan’s ramped up effort to roll back Communism, to the present day in my role as writer and pundit on the threat of “radical Islam.” Little’s us-versus-them construct was simply the paradigm in which my colleagues and I operated. There was the “free world” and “international Communism,” and from the US perspective all people, and every nation had to choose sides. Early in my career, to challenge this reality would endanger one’s career. The prestige assignments were those working on the Soviet Union.

Even with the Soviet Union vanquished, however, we all continued to view the world through the same lens. In the second half of my career, the green menace replaced the red one. As a senior counterterrorism officer, I once tried to explain the conflicting social and cultural pressures at work on a particular Muslim country, part of my explanation of the threat from a certain terrorist group. “Carle,” my boss told me, “sociology is all very nice. Save it for grad school. Just find me the terrorists.” Our hallway vocabulary almost invariably referred to “good guys” and “bad guys.” Nuance, certainly during the War on Terror, came to be viewed all too often as weakness, as naïveté, as not clear-eyed. Little cites Susan Faludi on this dynamic: America...


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pp. 172-174
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