News and Features
New types of violence are on the rise, and the only exit route is political.
Whoever controls Saudi Arabia's oil wields great power over the world economy.
Since September 11, Thomas Friedman has been in fine form. In his New York Times column, he has composed a letter for George W. Bush to send to Osama bin Laden, urged Vladimir Putin to enlist the Russian mafia to rub him out and berated those who would use the Trade Center and Pentagon attacks to raise questions about US foreign policy. In an October 5 column headlined, "Yes, but What?" Friedman wrote, "One can only be amazed at the ease with which some people abroad and at campus teach-ins now tell us what motivated the terrorists. Guess what? The terrorists didn't leave an explanatory note. Because their deed was their note: We want to destroy America, starting with its military and financial centers." Friedman reserved special scorn for those seeking to use the attacks to renew the Israeli-Palestinian peace process: "Have you ever seen Osama bin Laden say, 'I just want to see a smaller Israel in its pre-1967 borders,' or 'I have no problem with America, it just needs to have a lower cultural and military profile in the Muslim world'? These terrorists aren't out for a new kind of coexistence with us. They are out for our nonexistence. None of this seems to have seeped into the 'Yes, but...' crowd, whose most prominent 'Yes, but' states: This terrorist act would never have happened if America hadn't been so supportive of Israel."
Friedman is hardly alone in pushing this line. In Newsweek, for instance, Jonathan Alter blasted "Blame America Firsters" who have "repeatedly breached" the line "between explaining terrorism and rationalizing it." Jim Hoagland, in the Washington Post, warned that the United States should not be inhibited from using "coercive power" in the Middle East by "excessive fear of reaction in the so-called 'Arab street.'" The New Republic has repeatedly inveighed against what it sees as the capitulationism of the Yes, but-ers, and Christopher Hitchens in these pages kicked up a storm by arguing against "rationalization" of terror. "Does anyone suppose that an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza would have forestalled the slaughter in Manhattan?" he asked.
Against this backdrop, I was fascinated to read "Why Do They Hate Us?" Fareed Zakaria's cover story in the October 15 Newsweek. Zakaria is a blue-chip member of the foreign policy establishment. A native of India who earned a BA from Yale and a PhD from Harvard, he served from 1993 to 2000 as managing editor of Foreign Affairs. A sort of junior Kissinger, Zakaria has never hidden his disdain for those naïve souls who do not share his hardheaded balance-of-power worldview. I recall attending a discussion group several years ago, when the Clinton Administration was still debating whether to intervene in Bosnia; Zakaria expressed world-weary impatience with those who argued for humanitarian intervention and nation-building.
I was thus surprised by his 7,000-word take on the current crisis. Zakaria devotes the first part of his article to an astute dissection of the failures of the Arab world. Today, he observed, almost every Arab country "is less free than it was 30 years ago." Analyzing the causes of that decline, Zakaria described how young Arab men, often better educated than their parents, leave their villages in search of work and "arrive in noisy, crowded cities like Cairo, Beirut and Damascus." Here, "they see great disparities of wealth and the disorienting effects of modernity; most unsettlingly, they see women, unveiled and in public places, taking buses, eating in cafes and working alongside them." Surrounded by the shiny products of globalization but unable to consume them, and denied all outlets for venting their frustrations, these alienated young men have fed a resurgence of Islam.
That, in turn, has sparked a wave of what he calls "raw anti-Americanism." In exploring the roots of this, Zakaria harshly scrutinizes US policies in the region. As recently as the 1960s, he writes, America was widely admired in the Arab world. Since then, however, "the daily exposure to Israel's iron-fisted rule over the occupied territories has turned this into the great cause of the Arab--and indeed the broader Islamic--world. Elsewhere, they look at American policy in the region as cynically geared to America's oil interests, supporting thugs and tyrants without any hesitation. Finally, the bombing and isolation of Iraq have become fodder for daily attacks on the United States." Zakaria especially faults the United States for its "sins of omission," including its failure to press Arab regimes to open up. In response to the current crisis, he goes on, the United States should adopt a long-term strategy on three fronts--a military effort, aimed at the "total destruction of Al Qaeda"; a political effort, stressing multilateralism, cooperation with the United Nations and a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and a cultural strategy seeking to help Islam "enter the modern world," in part by pressing Muslim nations to reform.
This seems a far cry from Henry Kissinger. And, toward the end of his piece, Zakaria acknowledges his changing views: "I have myself been skeptical of nation-building in places where our interests were unclear and it seemed unlikely that we would stay the course." In the current instance, he added, "stable political development is the key to reducing our single greatest security threat. We have no option but to get back into the nation-building business."
Zakaria's interest in nation-building and a peace settlement in the Middle East does not mean he's rationalizing terrorism. On the contrary, he fully supports the current campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. His position shows that re-examining the US role in the region does not preclude taking a tough stand on terrorism. In fact, it can be argued that adjusting US policies in the Middle East--for instance, by resolving the Palestinian problem--could further the campaign against bin Laden by making it easier for Washington to keep its coalition together.
At least one other conservative has made an about-face similar to Zakaria's. George Bush's recent endorsement of nation-building in Afghanistan and his expressions of support for a Palestinian state show that he readily accepts the need to reassess US policies in the Islamic world. To the extent that there is a "Yes, but..." crowd, the President seems to be its leading member.
How depressing was the October 13 peace rally in Washington Square? Well, the Bread and Puppet Theater performed--that should give you an idea. "It's the sixties all over again," murmured the portly graybeard standing next to me as the funereal drum thudded and the players, holding their papier mâché body masks, paraded glumly through the crowd of perhaps 500 people--most, by the look of them, veterans of either the peace and justice or sectarian left. Look on the bright side, I thought: At least we don't have to sing "Down by the Riverside," as happened at the peace rally in Union Square on October 7, a few hours after bombs started falling on Afghanistan.
I don't like to criticize the activists who put together what little resistance to the bombing there is. But the 2000s aren't the 1960s, and whatever else Afghanistan is, it isn't Vietnam, any more than international terrorism or Islamic extremism is the new communism. Essential to the movement against the war in Vietnam was the pointlessness of our involvement: What had Ho Chi Minh ever done to us? The Vietcong never blew up American office buildings and murdered 5,000 ordinary American working people. You didn't have to be a pacifist or an opponent of all intervention everywhere to favor getting out of Vietnam--there were dozens of reasons, principled, pragmatic, humanitarian, self-serving, to be against the war. This time, our own country has been attacked, and the enemies are deranged fanatics. No amount of military force short of nuclear weapons would have defeated the North Vietnamese and Vietcong, who really did swim like fish in the sea of the people and had plenty of help from the Soviet Union besides; the Taliban, by contrast, are widely, although not universally, hated in Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden's men, known as the Arab-Afghans, are viewed there by many as a hostile foreign presence.
Faced with a popular air war conducted, at least on paper, in such a way as to minimize civilian casualties, the peace movement falls back on boilerplate: All war everywhere is wrong, no matter what evils pertain; any use of force merely perpetuates the "cycle of violence"; the war is "racist," whatever that means; it's a corporate plot. The most rousing and focused speech at Washington Square was physicist Michio Kaku's denunciation of Star Wars--but no one I heard (I missed the noted foreign policy experts Al Sharpton and Patti Smith) grappled with the central question: If not war, what? Realistically, some of the alternatives that have been proposed would also involve military action. Osama bin Laden is not likely to mail himself to the International Criminal Court to be tried for crimes against humanity; the disarming of both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance by United Nations peacekeepers, followed by free and democratic elections--the course favored by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan--is not likely to happen peacefully either.
The attack on the World Trade Center, an unspeakable and unjustifiable crime, created a sense of urgency and feelings of fear and anger that do not easily accord with calls for a deeper understanding of America's role in the Muslim world. It's hard to care that the US government armed and bankrolled the fundamentalist mujahedeen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets, or that it supports clerical-fascist Islamic governments like the one in Saudi Arabia, when you're afraid to fly in an airplane or open your mail. Say for the sake of argument that the "chickens" of American foreign policy "are coming home to roost": You can see why many would answer, Well, so what? Why not just kill the chickens and be done with it? That may prove much more difficult than today's pro-war pundits acknowledge--what if one only hatches more chickens?--but it's not totally off the wall, like Alice Walker's embarrassing and oft-cited proposal that bin Laden be showered with love and "reminded of all the good, nonviolent things he has done."
Right now, the argument that the war will have unforeseen and disastrous consequences may sound like handwringing, but it is doubtless true. Given the millions who are starving in Afghanistan, the 37,500 mini-meals that have fallen from the sky are a cruel joke. And even if the Al Qaeda network is destroyed and the Taliban overthrown, the circumstances that created them will remain. This is the case whether one sees the attack on the WTC as inspired by religiously motivated hatred of modernity and Enlightenment values, like Christopher Hitchens, or as a response to particular American policies in Israel, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, as Noam Chomsky argues. Experts can debate the precise amount of motivation this or that factor contributes to terrorism--but unless the Muslim world is transformed on many levels, it is hard to see how the bombing of Afghanistan will keep Americans safe or prevent new Al Qaedas and Talibans from forming. For that, we would have to be able to look down the road ten years and see a peaceful, well-governed, rebuilt Afghanistan; a Pakistan in which the best chance for a poor boy or girl is public school, not a madrassah for him and nothing for her; a Saudi Arabia with a democratic, secular government; an Egypt without millions living in abject poverty and a hugely frustrated middle class. This is all the more true if militant Islam is relatively independent of concrete grievances like Israel and Iraq.
Unfortunately, anyone who tries to talk about the WTC attack in this way--as Susan Sontag did in her entirely reasonable but now infamous New Yorker piece--is likely to find themselves labeled a traitor, a coward, anti-American or worse. (I found this out myself when I made the mistake of going on the radio with mad Andrew Sullivan, who has said the "decadent left...may well mount a fifth column," and who accused me of objectively supporting the Taliban and likened me to someone who refuses to help a rape victim and blames her for wearing a short skirt.) But a war can be "just" in the sense that it is a response to aggression--as Vietnam was not--and also be the wrong way to solve a problem.
Liza Featherstone will be reporting periodically on the antiwar movement for The Nation. This article is part of the Haywood Burns Community Activist Journalism series, sponsored by the New World Foundation and the Nation Institute.
After weeks of evasion and deflection, reminiscent of two illicit lovers keen to avoid scandal, the United States and Uzbekistan announced on October 12 that they had made a deal.
What do we bomb next? Saudi Arabia? The Saudis would be a logical target if President Bush were serious about his stated goal of punishing nations that support terrorism.
Afghanistan. By Angus Hamilton. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. $5 net.
The Green Party is in the throes of a crisis that threatens its very existence.
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