"The American Bully Strikes Back"

By David Alford


Salon Staff
October 15, 2001 11:35PM (UTC)

Read the letter.

Like many who blame U.S. foreign policy for the events of Sept. 11, David Alford's spirited if misguided criticism of Gary Kamiya's "War Without End" contains many false assumptions that do his own cause disservice. This is a pity, as Alford makes some valid points about the great chasm that separates how America behaves and how it should behave on the world stage. He should also be commended for lamenting how contrary views on U.S. action are, at least for now, being ignored or silenced. Nevertheless, the hip cynicism, weak arguments and lack of understanding of world politics on display in Alford's article make it all too easy to dismiss his call for the U.S. to review its foreign policy. The world has changed after Sept. 11, and so must the debate.

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It is clear that the events of Sept. 11 have proven the failure of U.S. foreign policy in the region. It is also clear, as Kamiya suggests, that the threat of more attacks will create an opportunity for the U.S. to change how the U.S. interacts with other nations. What makes it a significant opportunity is the seriousness of the threat and the increased level of public scrutiny now directed at U.S. foreign policy. Still, whatever changes that will be made won't be guided by moral principle, but by the simply necessity to implement policies that will reduce the likelihood of another catastrophe such as we saw on Sept. 11. Forcing the U.S. to act more responsibly will ultimately be up to Americans.

Still, U.S. foreign policy didn't get us into this mess. In fact, the view that the U.S. is responsible for the sorrow and grief in the Middle East is, to use Alford's own words, "ethnocentric and self-indulgent in the extreme." Those who hold this view are suggesting, in effect, that the people in the region can only see themselves in relationship to U.S. foreign policy and therefore cannot be held responsible for how they feel or how they act. This would come as a surprise to the founders who form the basis of the Islamic movement, spanning from the radical 18th-century cleric Ibn Abdul Wahhab to the controversial 20th-century scholar Sayyid Qtub. Other forces, including the state-controlled press in Saudi Arabia who actively encourage anti-U.S. sentiment to deflect attention from their brutal and incompetent regimes and the radical clerics who use anti-U.S. propaganda to recruit martyrs to further their cause, may feel they haven't been given enough credit.

Bin Laden also may feel left out. Bin Laden's stated objective, shared by the Taliban, is to create a fundamentalist Islamic state, based on rigid interpretations of Islamic law, stretching across Central Asia to the Gulf States. Three forces stand in his way: the U.S., the oligarchies that control the Gulf States and, to a lesser extent, Israel. To succeed, he must chase the U.S. out of the region. As he learned from the Gulf War, no one can defeat U.S. armed forces in the field, so he must resort to terrorism. By staging a horrific terrorist attack, he knows the U.S. will retaliate in the battle field of his choice -- Afghanistan. This will serve two purposes: First, he hopes to inflict casualties to weaken support for the war in the U.S.. Second, he hopes that retaliation will so enrage Muslims the world over that they will rise up -- starting in Pakistan.

If he is successful in drawing the U.S. into defending Musharraf in a civil war in Pakistan, he hopes America will tire of the war and, bit by bit, withdraw from the region. And once he's rid of the U.S., he can turn on Israel, and finally, overthrow the Gulf State oligarchies, leaving him in control of the global oil supply, and enough nuclear, chemical and biological weapons to defend it. Seen in this light, the U.S. is a pawn in his game for domination of the region. His mission isn't strictly anti-U.S., it's pro-Islam. Bin Laden is simply using hatred of the U.S. to unite the millions of disaffected Muslims around the world to rise up to form an Islamic state. Surely, U.S. foreign policy in the region has made this effort easier, but a "kinder, gentler America" in the Middle East won't deter him from his ultimate objectives.

In short, to ignore the intellectual and reasoning capacities of Muslims while at the same time accusing the U.S. of being arrogant and ethnocentric is a neat trick. Indeed, to argue that bad U.S. foreign policy in the region created this mess is as simplistic and misleading as holding bad European economic policy after WWI accountable for Hitler and the Holocaust. Remember, our foreign policy has been every bit as bad, if not worse, in Central and South America (see: Pinochet, Noriega), yet we enjoy cordial, if not warm, relations with the people and governments in these regions.

As Alford's essay contains many false assumptions shared by those who hold U.S. foreign policy to blame for the events of Sept. 11, it is useful to address them point-by-point.

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Alford writes, "But these lofty ideals are almost always used as camouflage for oil interests and other corporate access to resources and labor markets, strategic national interests, support for regimes that further these interests and the destabilization of regimes that oppose them." Quite by accident, Alford has stumbled upon a fairly cogent summary that, with a few slight adjustments, could accurately describe how all nations throughout history have conducted their foreign policy. Wars, all wars, are fought to expand or defend strategic interests. Ideas, whether or not they are notions of freedom and liberty, Islam or jihad, may form the basis of any given civilization, but in warfare, they are used as war rhetoric to mobilize populations for war.

In addition, it should be noted that the U.S. didn't invent the rules of the international power game, which are particularly harsh in the Middle East (for example, Syria's 1982 leveling of the town of Hama, an alleged fundamentalist Islamic rebel stronghold, where, according to Amnesty International, between 10,000 to 25,000 civilians were slaughtered). Clearly, these rules are contrary to the ideas on which America was established, but these ideas aren't universally embraced or adhered to throughout the world. And while I agree America should take a leadership role in changing how nations resolve conflicts, we cannot do it alone.

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Alford is right to point out that America has behaved poorly overseas. But the mere fact that the U.S. at least pays lip service to "lofty ideals" should be acknowledged. After all, what other country even tries to align its foreign policy with ideals or morality? And sometimes, the U.S. is successful in marrying a good cause with its strategic interests. Whatever nefarious motives her critics may assign to America, it should be noted that the U.S. played a major role in defeating some of the most murderous regimes the world has ever known (e.g., Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union). Today, many may be enraged by how the U.S. behaves, but on balance, most would agree that living in a world dominated by an "arrogant imperialist bully" is better than living with Hitler. I would argue the same is true of living with bin Laden.

Alford writes, "So let's drop the cloak that justifies waging war against Afghanistan as somehow a justifiable cleansing that prepares the way for a more humane world." No, let's keep that cloak on. Before I explain why, it is important to clarify some points. First, we are not waging war against Afghanistan, but against the al-Qaida network and those that support it. Second, America is waging war to protect its national interests (i.e., reducing the likelihood of another Sept. 11), not to seek vengeance on what Alford calls "nervy attackers."

The U.S. and its allies will attempt to destroy bin Laden and al-Qaida because they are a threat to global stability, not, as Alford suggests, to sate the American public's blood lust. Besides, whatever Alford's suspicions regarding America's motivations in the region, bringing a measure of stability to Afghanistan, even via a "puppet regime," can only be an improvement over the Taliban. As for the "cloak that justifies waging war," let's keep it wrapped tightly around our shoulders. For if the U.S. fails to convince moderate Muslims that we are indeed "preparing the way for a more humane world," the U.S. risks losing what little support it has in the Arab world. And without that support, chaos will certainly follow.

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Alford may argue that a war on terrorism is actually a war to preserve the status quo (as in a world dominated by the U.S.), and because such a war fails to account for alternate cultures and forms of government, it is not justifiable. To be fair, why shouldn't the region be controlled by Muslims free to choose their own form of government instead of living under the heel of brutal, U.S.-supported dictators? Why should the U.S. profit from Gulf oil reserves while most Muslims live in poverty? These are vital questions that should have been addressed years ago and must be addressed in the future.

But before these issues can be addressed, America must act to eliminate the immediate threat. For if we do nothing, no amount of diplomacy or aid will save the region from violent conflict. Consider that, even if the U.S. were willing to surrender access to Gulf oil and withdrew from the region, there is the matter of Israel, which would have no place in bin Laden's harsh vision of the Middle East, to say nothing of all the moderate Muslims who would suffer under a fundamentalist Islamic rule, as they have under the Taliban. Once you remove the U.S. from the Middle East equation, you are left with a genuine threat of violent conflict, as the twin forces of Islam, with Israel in the middle, battle for the future of the region. The U.S. must remain engaged, fight the radical elements of Islamic fundamentalism and provide stability, if only for a chance to encourage peaceful settlement of the larger issues.

Alford writes, "The only justification for such a policy [i.e., replacing the Taliban to install a Western-style government in Afghanistan] is retribution. It is certainly not justice." I am not sure exactly how encouraging representational government that will surely include elements of the Taliban and organizing massive relief aid in Afghanistan can be perceived as retribution, but I agree with Alford that it is not justice. Rather, it is an effort to both reduce the likelihood of another Sept. 11 and to stabilize a region torn by 20 years of war. It may not be successful, but when one considers the alternatives, it is worth a determined effort.

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Alford writes, "The Taliban regime in Afghanistan, however unenlightened that regime may seem by Western liberal standards ..." Alford should be aware that Muslims and Afghans share the view of Westerners that the Taliban regime is unenlightened. In fact, save for the Taliban and its few sympathizers, I would challenge Alford to find anyone who would argue that their regime is anything but brutal and repressive. The U.S. and "Western liberal standards" may well be guilty of cultural arrogance and imperialism, but that wrong doesn't vindicate the Taliban.

In a similar vein, Alford writes, "The hegemonic mentality sees the Chinese as, in Gary Kamiya's word, 'ominous,' and the Arabic/Muslim as pre-modern or worse. How dare anybody not share the worldview of the U.S. and the West. Certainly how dare anybody lift a hand actively to resist the U.S. vision of the world." First, I would argue that Kamiya is right: China, or at least its rulers, are "ominous." I refer to China's threats on the emerging separatist movement in Taiwan, treatment of Buddhists in Tibet, the jailing and summary execution of religious and political figures that "dare to resist" China's "vision" of the world. Does respect for Chinese culture and sovereignty mean these acts should be forgiven or ignored? And if so, can we forgive and ignore the crimes of U.S. foreign policy?

Second, Alford suggest that a tenet of our hegemonic mentality holds that Arabic/Muslims are pre-modern. I'm not sure who he's been talking to, but anyone who believes this can safely be ignored. By contrast, it is safe to say that the Taliban are pre-modern. In fact, you don't have to have a hegemonic mentality to believe that the Taliban are pre-modern -- they will volunteer that point themselves.

Finally, I would describe piloting passenger jets into the WTC, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania as more than actively "lifting a hand" to resist the U.S. vision of the world. In an effort to explain bin Laden's motivation, Alford uses the following analogy: "A husband beats his wife, denies her dignity. She rebels and hurts him. He kills her. Can we say that justice was done, that somehow she deserved it? Of course not." If I follow him correctly, Alford is saying that the U.S. (the husband) "beats" Islam (his wife) and "denies her dignity," so Islam (bin Laden) "rebels and hurts him" (the events of Sept. 11), leading the husband to "kill her" (the U.S. bombs al-Qaida/Taliban targets in Afghanistan).

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Analogies can be useful to clarify complex issues, but in this case, the analogy is misleading. Even if one accepts that U.S. policy in the Middle East is directly responsible for death and sorrow in the Middle East and Central Asia, comparing our involvement in the Middle East to spousal abuse requires that we ignore the complexity of the region. To make a fair or useful analogy, Alford would have to find room in his domestic drama for Palestinian terrorist groups, the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein and the sincere efforts made by every administration since Nixon to work out a peace agreement in the Middle East.

In the end, the "U.S. foreign policy is to blame" argument absolves the perpetrators of their moral responsibility. To quote Salman Rushdie in the Oct. 6 issue of the Guardian, "Let's be clear about why this bien-pensant anti-American onslaught is such appalling rubbish. Terrorism is the murder of the innocent; this time, it was mass murder. To excuse such an atrocity by blaming U.S. government policies is to deny the basic idea of all morality: that individuals are responsible for their actions."

What is most remarkable about Alford's critique, and many who share his views, is how angry he is at the U.S. Upon reflection, I would suggest that his moral outrage is not so much a display of anti-U.S. sentiment, but genuine patriotism. By heaping contempt on the U.S., Alford has shown how dearly he holds the ideals and values on which the country was founded. Furthermore, Alford quite rightly believes these principles have been betrayed by our actions overseas. And like a doting father who learns his son is not the loving child he once knew, but a criminal and a bully, it breaks his heart. I admire Alford's passion, and encourage him to remain engaged and to continue sharing his views. However, contrary views such as his can only be valuable if they are fair and make sense.

Finally, I hope Alford, and all those who lay the blame for the events of Sept. 11 on a pattern of bad U.S. foreign policy decisions, will do their homework and realize that we live in a complex and dangerous world. And the rest of us, who may share his criticism of U.S. foreign policy but are not willing to accept that America is to blame for such an outrageous attack, should remember that what makes America great is not her military or economic power, but the revolutionary ideas that are so marvelously laid out in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. These ideas form America's greatest contribution to the world, and as Alford suggests, should find more expression in our foreign policy.

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-- Alexander Wardwell

It can be a very admirable thing to live in your own head. It is very human, and indeed has edged us inexorably along our biological and cultural evolutionary path.

However, David Alford's response to Gary Kamiya's article cannot go unchallenged -- if only on a deeper level than the much-vaunted "rational."

I am someone who has identified with the politics of the so-called Left, ever since I could consider these issues, locally and globally, in a United Kingdom context. I championed socialism, and refused to succumb to Western anti-Communist propaganda during the Cold War, preferring to think for myself wherever possible. I grew up in fear of the Bomb, marched against neo-fascism and racism, urged the end of the disease called Thatcherism, fought for women's causes, children's rights, animals, the weak, the voiceless, the disenfranchised.

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However, when I read such insensitive intellectual rhetoric and shaky analogy as "A husband beats his wife, denies her dignity. She rebels and hurts him. He kills her," I am appalled. The monstrous attacks on the World Trade Center cannot be reduced to such an arid metaphor. Can "hurts him" be a sufficient encapsulation of a crime that, arguably, is one of the most heinous in history? To reduce this to a domestic incident is incredibly hurtful to anyone who may have lost a loved one in that massive crime scene.

I am not, nor have I ever been, an apologist for America. I live in Canada for very good reasons. But this kind of knee-jerk Leftism is as damaging as the right-wing equivalent, the hawkish need to lay waste to the homes of American "enemies." For the most part, the "left" has been a source of pride in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. Let's try to remain balanced, and move toward a less rhetorical, less ideological, less strident form of humanitarianism from here on in.

In other words, let's mine our hearts for gems, not just our minds.

-- David Antrobus

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Mr. Alford's argument seems to have two prongs. First, the Sept. 11 attacks were carried out by, or on behalf of, those "bullied" by U.S. policies and actions. The attacks -- and presumably the barbarity and propensity to barbarity of the perpetrators and their supporters -- are thus a response to U.S. policy. Second, the U.S. response to the attacks -- attacking bin Laden and the Taliban that supports him -- is simply more "bullying" that is not only morally wrong, but will breed more strikes by the bullied (here, presumably, bin Laden, the Taliban, those who support either of the first two, and those that they purport to represent).

The flaw in Alford's argument is that there is little support for the notion that bin Laden and the Taliban (assuming them to be the culprits) have anything but the most passing interest -- indeed, an interest of convenience -- in the plight of those admittedly victimized by U.S. policies: e.g., the Palestinians, the Iraqis or even the Afghans.

It is only the victims of U.S. policies affecting life-and-death interests who might conceivably have a moral claim to the use of deadly force against U.S. civilians -- on the premise that the U.S. itself used close to force resulting in or threatening death against those victims. Thus the Palestinians (by Israel as the U.S. proxy), the Iraqis (bombing of Baghdad, sanctions, continuing bombing), the Afghans (pre-Sept. 11 sanctions) and the Sudanese (destruction of critical pharmaceutical factory) might have a claim for the use of force against the U.S. -- perhaps even against U.S. civilians given these victims' inability to take on the U.S. military, and U.S. policies that injured civilians.

These victims might have a moral claim to the use of force against U.S. civilians. Arguably, those who took up the cause of such victims might have the similar moral claim to use of force, as proxy for the victims. Moreover, cessation of U.S. policies that victimize the victims might cure the victims' and their proxies' need and desire to use such force.

Neither bin Laden nor al-Qaida are such victims, however. It is fanciful, moreover, to claim that they have legitimately taken up the cause of legitimate victims, because only recently have they begun to include, for example, the Palestinians or the Iraqis in their rhetoric. Even the Taliban does not seem to have taken up the cause of its own Afghan victims, although it might have and probably should have. Rather, the Taliban itself terrorizes and oppresses its people, administering one of the most brutal and repressive regimes in history. Any claim the Taliban makes to representing the Afghans must be viewed in light of its abuse of the Afghan population.

Because none of the current targets of the U.S. response are either legitimate, prior victims of U.S. policy, or have even the minimum moral claim to the use of deadly force against civilians, Alford's depiction of the U.S. response as simply "more bullying" cannot be accepted. Until and unless the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 atrocities can be shown to be actual victims (or their legitimate champions) of U.S. policies with life-or-death implications, the U.S. retaliation against those perpetrators is morally justified. To put it in Alford's metaphor, we do not have here the case of an abusive husband killing the beaten wife who dared hit back. Neither bin Laden, al-Qaida nor the Taliban are beaten wives, but rather at most insulted and belittled wives. We should no sooner accept as payback the Sept. 11 atrocities than we should accept as justifiable the shooting of a domineering, but not physically threatening, husband by an insulted wife.

Bin Laden and al-Qaida, after all, had until just this week as their primary concern the stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. This complaint hardly rises to the level of those of the Palestinians, the Iraqis or the Afghans -- no matter how many coats of cultural relativism are applied! Moreover, the Taliban, which should be championing the Afghan people, is just plain psychotic, as many Afghans themselves declare.

Alford is correct that U.S. policies victimize far too many in the Islamic world (as doubtless elsewhere). Correcting those policies would be the right thing to do, and likely reduce the level of "enemy-of-my-enemy" for the bin Ladens, among the truly victimized. There is not, however, any moral equivalence between the Sept. 11 attacks and any U.S. policies toward the actual perpetrators, their direct supporters, or any people whose causes the perpetrators had actually taken up. The U.S. response, therefore, insofar as it is limited to retaliation against the perpetrators and their direct supporters, is both morally justified, and perhaps the only route to exercise of the self-defense imperative.

-- Michael Zara

Thanks, David Alford, whoever you are. I agree with all you said (well, maybe I don't think we're going to invade Cuba, but I could be wrong). I was appalled and frightened that Gary Kamiya, executive editor of Salon, a magazine I cherish, would write such an article. Of course Salon should have many points of view (they print Horowitz for one) but when a top editor has such warlike views it's chilling. I hope your letter causes him to rethink some of his attitudes. A brief refresher course on recent American history (I'm talking the last 50 years or so) would be a start. He could begin by reviewing our treatment of our Central and South American neighbors and then move on to the Middle East and Asia and Africa.

-- R. Moss

David Alford's willingness to excuse Osama bin Laden's murderous rampage against the United States is moral relativism at its most repugnant.

But let's focus on this concluding statement. Alford says: There would be no anti-Americanism, whether "knee-jerk" or otherwise, if U.S. foreign policy were conducted on the basis of deep respect for the cultures and values that prevail in other parts of the world and a genuine "humility" in the implementation of its economic interests.

Putting aside the "humility," I have a few questions for Alford. Which values shall we substitute for our own? On which cultures, exactly, shall we base our deep respect?

On the culture in Africa that allowed the Hutu majority to slaughter hundreds of thousands of Tutsis?

On the culture in the former Yugoslavia that created "ethnic cleansing" and the systemic rape of women from those "other" cultures?

On the culture in present-day China that still allows the murder/exposure of female infants on mountainsides so that the family can try for a son because culture dictates that only a son can properly care for his ancestors?

On the culture in parts of Africa that forces female circumcision, thereby irreparably harming and often killing teenaged girls, who have to be taken, screaming, and held down for the operation?

On the culture of the Taliban itself and its oppression of women and refusal to allow for their education or contribution to the nation in any way other than childrearing and homemaking? What of the rest of the Arab world, that hotbed of theocracy, monarchy and dictatorships?

How about the values in the Subcontinent where, when an Indian woman refuses marriage to a prospective suitor, he returns with a bottle of acid to fling in her face so that no one else will want to marry her? It's all the rage there right now, I hear.

Are we supposed to deeply respect the culture in Thailand and other parts of Asia that sells children into slavery and prostitution?

Should we deeply respect the South American nations that allow husbands to murder their wives for adultery freely and without prosecution, while allowing husbands to be open philanderers?

Shall we respect posthumously Pol Pot and his million countrymen that lie moldering in their graves? Yes, we were certainly wrong to intervene in that culture.

It seems the values that prevail in many other parts of the world are those of murder (especially of women), oppression (especially of women), suppression of civil rights (especially of women) and no universal suffrage.

Tell me something, Mr. Alford: Which of these cultures deserves our deep respect? Which of these practices shall we hold up as a shining light of otherness? In what way are they superior to the culture and value system that gave the world the Bill of Rights? That fought a war to eliminate slavery within its own borders? That continues to make amends for and repair its mistakes as they are pointed out, including the ones we are no doubt making today?

Moral relativism is rubbish. There are some things that are always wrong, and the murder of nearly 6,000 civilians is one of them. Osama bin Laden is no victim. He is educated and wealthy. He could easily have used his fortune to set up organizations to legally change the things he doesn't like. His hundreds of millions would have gone a long way toward lobbying for his cause with Congress, for instance. Spare us the "Poor Osama" references. He is a psychopath and a mass murderer, and nothing can excuse what he has done.

Apologists like Alford sicken me. My knee-jerk response: Go and immerse yourself in one of those other cultures, and see how fast you find yourself wishing you were here.

-- Meryl Yourish


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