War and peace

Our fight against terrorism gives the U.S. a historic opportunity to become a kinder, gentler force in the world

Published October 8, 2001 7:03PM (EDT)

As the first missiles struck Afghanistan Sunday night, it was hard not to feel that America had just jumped off a cliff in the dark. In his speech to the nation, President Bush told American troops, "Your mission is defined. The objectives are clear. Your goal is just." The goal -- destroying Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, al-Qaida, and bringing down the loathsome Taliban regime -- is indeed just. But the mission, the battle against world terrorism, is neither defined nor clear. In fact, it is one of the most ill-defined and potentially dangerous campaigns we have ever embarked upon.

This does not mean we should not undertake it. We should. There can be no serious argument that the destruction of al-Qaida and the removal of the Taliban are not morally justified. Six thousand innocent people lie dead at the hands of bin Laden and his associates, victims of one of the most monstrous crimes in history. Not to seek to bring those responsible to justice is unthinkable. As for the grotesque Taliban regime that shelters al-Qaida and refuses to hand over its leader, neither the Afghan people nor the world will weep when their bloody reign comes to an end.

Beyond justified retribution, there is the urgent need to prevent future attacks. The very existence of bin Laden and his network is a threat. As long as dedicated fanatics with the will and means to strike devastating blows exist, no country or individual that does not subscribe to their rigid belief system is safe.

The only argument against military action worth taking seriously (the knee-jerk anti-Americanism of some ossified thinkers on the Left is not worth refuting) is that the cure will be worse than the disease. If we strike at the Taliban, so this argument goes, we may create thousands of bin Ladens where now there are hundreds. Since ultimately an open society cannot defend itself against suicidal terrorists, it is rash to risk creating a whole generation of new ones. Since al-Qaida and its shadowy associates are so dispersed, with operatives in dozens of countries, even destroying terrorists in Afghanistan will not significantly affect global terror operations. A gaudy American strike may satisfy the public's desire for revenge, but it's strategically shortsighted and ultimately irresponsible.

This argument cannot be dismissed out of hand, and the bellicose commentators who accuse its adherents of being some kind of "Fifth Column" are doing their country no service. However, I believe that in the end it is not convincing. The urgent need to destroy the threat posed by bin Laden's Afghanistan-based network trumps the possibility of excessive "blowback" (spy-speak for unintended consequences, i.e., the creation of an unacceptable number of new terrorists) from a military operation. In any case, there is no guarantee that potential terrorists would not strike against the United States even if we did not attack al-Qaida.

Without being able to look into the mind of the actual and potential Islamic terrorists in the world, all judgments about the consequences of American military action are speculative. Bin Laden's chilling videotape, which was quickly disseminated all over the Muslim world on Sunday, will play well in some quarters, with its popular appeals to the Palestinian cause and the human costs of the U.S. embargo on Iraq. (Many Palestinians in the West Bank Gaza welcomed bin Laden's support for their cause, leading to violent confrontations with the Palestinian Authority Monday.) Combined with rage at America for attacking a Muslim state, perhaps it will breed a few new terrorists. But without the resources and command and control functions offered by a network, terrorists are severely handicapped. And in a larger sense, it seems reasonable to conclude that even the more fundamentalist and anti-American Muslims will give the U.S. a pass -- if we confine ourselves to a short-term and highly specific military action against bin Laden and the Taliban, limit civilian casualties as much as possible, help Afghanistan get back on its feet again and take tangible and visible steps to address the root causes of Islamic anger at America.

Even more daunting than the military campaign against bin Laden's forces is the long-term challenge of establishing peace and security in the world. In this struggle, the plowshare must play a far greater role than the sword.

The fact is that our national tragedy has given us -- as tragedies sometimes do -- an extraordinary opportunity to both lead and join the world. If we join the world -- if we continue to treat the rest of the world with the same respect with which we are treating it now -- we can help create a new era of international cooperation, in which the entire civilized community is brought closer together by a shared struggle against barbarism. If we do not, if we revert to a policy of short-sighted realpolitik, or worse, aggressive military adventurism against states like Iraq or Syria, we run the risk of turning what is still merely an infection of hatred into a cancer. And we will lose a unique chance to make the world a more just place.

In the days, months and years ahead, America has the opportunity -- and the necessity -- to begin winning the hearts and minds not merely of the Islamic world, but the world as a whole. To do so, we must commit to a humanitarian policy that is not merely situational. We must undertake a fundamental reappraisal of our morally flawed and strategically disastrous Mideast policy. And, above all, we must reconsider our entire shortsighted, me-first approach to foreign affairs.

A month ago, the latter proposal would have sounded utopian, if not laughable. Today no one is laughing, because cooperation and communication -- the "feminine" virtues, always derided by the male "realists" who have brought us world history -- is so evidently in our self-interest. The danger is that the moment will pass and the Hobbesian arrogance that has generally driven our policies hitherto (we join the rest of the world in this, but as the world's only superpower, our selfishness breeds more ire) will return. The crucial test, as the war against terrorism unfolds, will be whether the Bush administration has the wisdom to understand that at this historical moment doing what is right, and doing what is right for America, happen to coincide.

The actions of the Bush administration since Sept. 11 have been a kind of preview of the kinder, gentler America that could emerge from this crisis. Bush has consulted the rest of the world, paying attention to nations whose concerns he ignored just weeks ago. He has grasped the vital necessity of helping the Afghan people, whom we abandoned when the Soviet threat vanished. He has finally leaned on the Israelis to address the plight of the Palestinians. He has moved deliberately, resisting the temptation to lash out in indiscriminate rage.

This newfound American humility is not dictated by some sudden impulse to altruism, some Christian epiphany about the Golden Rule. It is dictated, to put it bluntly, by fear. As the world's only superpower, and a nation given to regarding itself as operating with the express blessing of the Almighty, the United States is not accustomed to moving cautiously. But we are suddenly confronting an enemy that we cannot defeat by conventional means.

Fear focuses the mind, but when fear passes, old jingoist habits return. In the new world, those habits are dangerous. What is vital is for America to recognize that the world has changed: It is infinitely more interconnected now. Like the Internet, money and violence move at warp speed and know no boundaries. Imperialistic actions, support for corrupt client states or nakedly greedy corporate gambits that could be kept invisible a few decades ago are felt around the world instantly. The world has suddenly become far more transparent.

This makes the international arena more dangerous, but it also makes it potentially more unified. And this moment holds out a singular opportunity. The world has rarely spoken as one, thought as one, wept as one, as it did after the terror attacks. The moments of silence observed around the world to commemorate the tragedy, for example, are more than deeply moving: They are actually significant. They represent one of those extraordinary and all-too-infrequent moments when humanity itself steps quietly forward and asserts its primacy -- over nationalism, over politics, over everything. Yes, that empathy will fade -- but if a wounded and suddenly vulnerable America shows that it can respond to hatred not just with hatred but with nobler emotions, it is something real to build on.

And there is much to build on now. Most critically, Russia has thrown its lot in with us against terror in an unprecedented way -- and although Chechnya is clearly a motivation, this is not merely a marriage of convenience. Putin's opening to the West signals a major shift in geopolitics. Europe, led by Great Britain, is solidly behind the United States, as long as we don't overplay our hand against Islam. China remains ominous, but is staying out of the way. The Islamic world, in particular the Arab world, alone is hanging back. But a powerful U.S.-led peace initiative in the Middle East, one that corrects our no longer strategically justifiable tilt toward Israel while protecting the Jewish state's existence, would address that problem -- as would a timely opening toward Iran.

The United States could also seize this moment to let some of our more corrupt and undemocratic allies and clients -- including Saudi Arabia and Egypt -- know that we are no longer as inclined to turn a blind eye to their habit of suppressing dissent with an iron hand. Of course, there are no easy solutions to the problems posed by states like Saudi Arabia, in which autocratic regimes friendly to us -- and vital to our economy -- are threatened not by democratic movements but by Islamic extremists. But the example of Iran, now the most democratic of all Middle Eastern Islamic states, suggests that in the long run, it's better to allow states to actually go through the fundamentalist stage: In the age of MTV, it's hard to stay in the year 1100 for long. (Similarly, continuing to move away from our misguided support for "authoritarian" regimes in Central America and elsewhere is clearly indicated.)

In short, the United States should begin practicing what we might call enlightened globalism. We would continue to be a capitalist country, acting out of self-interest, but we would no longer define our self-interest so narrowly. In one of the campaign debates, Bush derided "nation-building," but in an interconnected world nation-building, with all its uncertainties, often lays the most solid foundation for peace. Toward that end, the concept of the Marshall Plan should be dusted off and updated for the new millennium. Today, Pakistan's standard of living and its government matters a great deal to us: We should begin to conduct ourselves in such a way that it would matter in the future, too. Outreach to Muslim moderates is vitally needed. A revived Peace Corps, in which members of the world's underclasses come face to face with actual Americans, would protect our borders in the long run better than a thousand electric fences.

Not all of the changes would be dramatic, and in some areas we wouldn't make progress at all. We would face paradoxes and challenges that defy easy solutions. But in the long run, a shift in American foreign policy away from classic realism and toward cooperation would both "drain the swamp" of potential terrorists and make the world a more equitable place.

After Sept. 11, such dreams have some urgency.

There is nothing in President Bush's track record to suggest that he will take this road. In the first nine months of his term, his administration spurned international treaties (including one aimed at controlling bioweapons), walked out of problematic but important international conferences like the one on racial justice and generally swaggered through the world like a Texan. And if the campaign against the Taliban succeeds, he will be lobbied by ultra-hawks like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, who will try to convince him to take out Saddam Hussein and pro-Palestinian groups like Hezbollah and Hamas as well. It is arguable that Bush Sr.'s failure to topple Saddam was a mistake, but these maximalist proposals now have the whiff of lunacy. They commit the United States to a future in which we govern the Arab world with a whip -- always a recipe for instability -- and dangerously assume that America's unquestioned superiority in conventional warfare can prevent domestic terrorism. If America wants to become Israel -- hated by millions and under constant threat of violence -- the fastest way is to embrace these proposals, which in fact are being aggressively advanced by the Israel lobby in the U.S. media, including New York Times columnist William Safire, New Republic publisher Martin Peretz and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol. It's become increasingly clear that if America's and Israel's security is to be ensured, the Palestinians must have a secure homeland as well.

Bush has not heeded these apocalyptic voices. Indeed, he and his team have performed far better than many of his critics thought he would so far. And he may surprise again.

Even the most appalling acts can have positive consequences. After Sept. 11, we no longer write the rules of the game. Our illusion of invulnerability has been shattered, and we must define our place in the world in a radically new way. Our safety, prosperity and way of life will increasingly depend on befriending the world, not overpowering it. If we learn this lesson, the points of distant light that flashed on CNN Sunday night could be beacons of hope. If we do not, they could be harbingers of a future more dreadful than any we have ever imagined.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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Afghanistan Osama Bin Laden Terrorism