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A World Neglected | The Nation

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A World Neglected

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The "war on terrorism" thus has created a much larger and more difficult foreign policy challenge. That challenge is not how to militarily eliminate the growing number of local Al Qaeda-inspired terrorist groups but how to damp down the flames of Islamic revolution that US policy has unwittingly helped stoke before they engulf the region. This calls not just for a smarter war on terrorism, as the Kerry campaign at times has suggested, or a better PR campaign to win hearts and minds, as the Administration seems to think, but a more radical shift in US policy.

About the Author

Sherle R. Schwenninger
Sherle R. Schwenninger is director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation and a senior fellow at...

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The logical alternative to the Administration's forward-based military offensive would be expanded police, intelligence and special-forces cooperation. After all, much of the success we have had with respect to breaking up Al Qaeda has come as the result of arrests and sting operations by allied governments, not military operations. This strategy would be combined with an effort to address the legitimate grievances that have led many people in Islamic societies either to support bin Laden's agenda or to hesitate to join the fight against Al Qaeda. Among these are Israel's occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, the stationing of US forces in the Gulf and now the American war in Iraq, which is viewed by many as an attempt to further secure US-Israeli hegemony in the region, including the oil-producing Persian Gulf. Such perceptions cannot be altered by fine words about our support for democracy and freedom but only by real changes in US policy.

Iraq and America's Regional Role

The issue of what American policy toward Iraq should be goes directly to the question of how best to halt the fusion of Islamic radicalism with anti-American nationalism. There is a legitimate argument that a US withdrawal would not only embolden the radicals but leave Iraq a failed state and a haven for terrorists, and that therefore the United States has no choice but to continue to keep substantial military forces in Iraq until stability is assured. This, with minor differences, is the position of both the Bush Administration and the Kerry campaign.

There is an equally legitimate, and in my view stronger, argument, that a continued US military presence will only further radicalize the population and help Islamist extremists by handing them the cause of Iraqi nationalism. This position recognizes that there is no military solution to the insurgency, and that there cannot be a political solution either as long as the US occupation remains the issue. Therefore, we have little choice but to begin to withdraw our troops and renounce any interest in basing rights and oil concessions. Moreover, as we learned from our withdrawal from Lebanon after the bombing of the Marine barracks there in 1983, withdrawing US forces can actually have a beneficial effect, because it removes one of the rallying cries of jihadist movements.

We must also discuss a different role for the United States in the region. Our only choice should not be between two forms of maintaining American hegemony--one with the help of Bush's "coalition of the willing" and the other by asking our traditional allies for money and troops--if for no other reason than that neither is likely to succeed. Bush's crusade to transform the Middle East has been a disaster, and his coalition of the willing is unraveling. The Kerry campaign promises to internationalize the burden of stabilizing Iraq. But it is unrealistic to expect other countries to commit substantial forces and more money in Iraq without an internationalization of other elements of US Middle East policy.

At a minimum, that means giving Europe and the leading powers of the UN Security Council more say in regional affairs, and that in turn means moving our policy closer to the international mainstream position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on Syria and Iran. In other words, true internationalization means not only giving up American dominance but also ending our special treatment of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and normalizing relations with Syria and Iran. We must do so not simply for the sake of world order but because it is not in our interest, and for that matter Israel's, for Washington to support unconditionally the Likud's policies in the West Bank and Gaza and to turn a blind eye to Israel's violations of international law, particularly its illegal expropriation of Palestinian land. And it is not in our interest to pursue a state of belligerence toward Syria and Iran when we need their help in stabilizing Iraq and in curbing Al Qaeda-inspired terrorist groups.

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