SAM SMITH, 2004 – It is now almost three years since the World Trade Center attack. During this period we have invaded two Muslim countries and moved far closer to the apartheid regime of Ariel Sharon. We have not taken a single important step to reduce hatred of the U.S., respond to justified complaints of the Muslim world, or create forums where current conflicts can be explored instead of explode.
In short, with psychotic consistency, our leaders have made matter worse, more dangerous, and more complicated to resolve.
To reduce the constituency of the most extreme one must respond to the concerns of the most rational. Our refusal to do so has left us in grave and unnecessary danger.
This is not poor policy, it is madness. It is criminally reckless and negligent and threatens not only those we blame but those we profess to protect.
Our leaders in both parties have condemned Americans to live in perpetual fear in no small part because they are unwilling to make amends for a foreign policy that for more half a century has regarded Arabs and other Muslims much as our south once regarded black Americans.
In the end there are two primary ways to deal with conflict: fight about it or talk about it. It is long past time for the latter. If you fight about it you are going to win, lose, just keep fighting, or grow tired of the whole business. There is no chance, given our current policies, that we can win the war we have chosen to fight and while we may not lose it, we have, in our reaction to 9/11, already lost much of what we are or strove to be as Americans.
The most likely outcome is that we will continue the war at ever increasing cost until we just can’t take it any more. At which point, as in Vietnam, we will do what we should have done years earlier, namely to talk and work our way of the situation.
Some might call such a result appeasement, but was it appeasement when Henry Kissinger negotiated with the Vietcong? Today’s appeasement is tomorrow’s settlement.
Howard Zinn has pointed out that despite all the talk about Muslims hating America for its belief in democracy, Osama bin Laden managed to tolerate it well enough as long as he was getting American funds for his battle against the Soviet Union. It was the change in our foreign policy he couldn’t stand.
Usually in a hostage situation – and we are the hostage in this situation – there is considerable curiosity as to the hostage-takers’ demands. In this case, however, the media and politicians have blithely ignored the issue almost entirely. Thus many have forgotten what Al-Queda’s early anger was about including, most prominently, the Israeli-Palestine situation, the American presence in Saudi Arabia, and the brutal sanctions against Iraq that had cost somewhere in the neighborhood of one million lives.
Looked at out of the context of 9/11 but within the context of the history of international disputes, these are not insurmountable crises. What was insurmountable was the unwillingness of either side to sit down honestly and deal with them.
The cost of our reaction since 9/11, including planetary endangerment as well as damage to our constitution, safety, and economy, bears little relationship to the underlying disputes. What gives them their awesome power is not their intrinsic nature but what they have perversely nurtured in the souls of the antagonists. This includes, in the case of bin Laden, seeing oneself no longer as a mere guerilla but as a holy emperor in waiting.
Shibley Telhami, who teaches peace and development at the University of Maryland, wrote in the Baltimore Sun:
“It’s true that many in the Middle East have often criticized US foreign policy in the past 30 years. But in general, their notion of US aims has been largely focused not on profound animosity but on a sense of conflict in strategic interests and domestic politics over oil and Israel. Today, an increasing number of Muslims and Arabs believe that the United States is simply aiming to attack Muslims.”
America is not only destroying itself but is destroying its ability to work its way of the situation. The contempt that the elite, including the media, have for this country’s anti-war minority – despite its concordance with the views of much of the rest of the world – illustrates the miasma into which America’s leaders have fallen.
Finding the right forums and solutions will be extremely difficult but the choice is either to discover some way to reduce the hatred of others in the world or to live in fear and danger all our lives. The progressive movement, in particular, needs to turn its sights from past wrongs to future possibilities.
And it may not be as hopeless as it seems. Of a Zogby survey, the Post wrote: “Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden tied for fourth place on a list of most admired world leaders. Jacques Chirac of France was first on that list. . .”
One way of putting it, therefore, is that the metaphorical distance we have to travel is only that from George Bush and John Kerry to that of Jacque Chirac. With the will, spirit, and patience, it is not an insurmountable trip and at the end we will be and feel far better for it.