A New War

Geopolitical, Social and Financial Consequences

September 16, 2001 (with updates Sept – Oct)

The new War on Terrorism

Last week was the week from hell. What we’ve been warned of so many times finally occurred: on a scale far larger and in a fashion much more sophisticated than any of us could dream.

My heart goes out to the victims and their families and to the tens of thousands who ended up having to deal with the mess that’s left. I’m impressed by the tenacity shown by New Yorkers and the solidarity displayed by Americans everywhere. I’m also deeply disturbed by the potential for further attacks—in the air, on the ground, in public installations and at places of work.

People talk about little else than what happened on September 11 and why. One reader suggests that Americans should make it their business to learn a lot more about Islam and what it stands for. While learning about the world’s religions is always a smart idea, I’m afraid the key to last Tuesday’s riddle doesn’t lie in the Koran. The people who perpetrated the attacks on innocent lives are no more representative of the teachings of Islam than those who administered over the Inquisition were legitimate spokesmen for Christianity.

The US administration and Congress has put a different spin on what’s happened. We’re told that the terrorists have struck the US because it is the beacon of freedom and the cradle of opportunity. It feels good to say that and few would argue that the freedoms and opportunities Americans enjoy are rivaled anywhere. But that is not the only reason why the United States is the target of so much condemnation.

I’ve been warned that criticizing the government at this time is unpatriotic and won’t gain me any friends. But this should not only be a time of grieving, but also one of soul- searching. And one of the privileges in a free society is the ability to discuss things that are on our minds; things pleasant or disagreeable, complimentary or disapproving.

Pursuing economic interests

So here’s what’s on my mind: would someone, anyone, in the US government or the media please stand up and acknowledge why it is that the US is disliked by millions of disenfranchised people in dozens of nations of the third world? By the way, many of those who hate the US aren’t Muslim; they live in places like Guatemala and Chile, the Congo and Mozambique, Vietnam and the Philippines. The reason they hate the US is that it’s a world power that has, in pursuit of its economic objectives, interfered in the lives of generations in countless corners of the world.

I suppose any world power does that, because without projecting your power to the most distant places and without protecting your interests you don’t become a world power, nor can you stay one. Roman troops imposed their will in half the world, often saddling their colonies with dictators who brutally suppressed the native populations. And Rome was disliked almost everywhere.

America is this era’s Rome. There are no colonies, of course; America’s imperialism is economic. The rest is the way it always was. In the interest of America’s economic prosperity, many resource rich countries have been equipped with brutal oppressors, in most cases overtly sponsored by the US. Manuel Noriega, Ferdinand Marcos and Saddam Hussein were all helped to power by America. Similar tales of US imperialism gone tragically wrong abound in Central and South America and throughout Asia and Africa. The bottom line: we must understand that the advancement of the freedoms and prosperity the past few generations of Americans have been able to enjoy has often come at a horrendous price to millions of others, who were cruelly exploited.

This is not the time to blame the US for past wrongs, but it is as good a time as any to ask ourselves what the real reason behind the vicious attack of last week are. I am shocked and distressed that I haven’t heard a single representative of the US government or administration refer to errors that are, in hindsight, so apparent. President Bush has vowed to smoke the terrorists out of the holes in which they’re hiding and to free the world of evil. If the US can find a way to do that, all the better. While they’re at it, I wish the US would also smoke out the corrupt and oppressive Saudi and Kuwaiti royal families, and a few others I can think of.

Daunting challenges

The foreign policy challenges facing America today are daunting. Chances that the US will blunder again are high, partly because each possible move has the potential of unleashing new waves of resentment and partly because our leaders are hiding themselves behind a series of sound bytes when they should consider the lessons of history.

The most important thing for America now is to prevent the mistakes of the past. Hunting down the terrorists is good; associating itself with whatever regime promises to take part in the hunt is bad. There is talk of a joint task force with Russia that may go after the Taliban. We should remember that Russia’s motives vis-a-vis Afghanistan are, at best, dubious. Iran and Lybia have made conciliatory gestures towards the US; flattering as this may be, America should remember what those regimes stand for.

As President Bush has repeatedly said, sorting through the options available and making the right decisions will take a lot of time. Once military action starts, it’s likely that there will be failures as well as successes. That’s when the question of how committed Americans are to a protracted campaign will come up.

And all along, innocent civilians throughout America and other Western countries will be at risk from further terrorist attacks. May God help us! £

Update September 21, 2001

Last week’s article, in which I talked about past blunders in US foreign policy and the need to be cautious, touched a raw nerve. Within two days of publication, I received some 30 letters. Some readers were outraged at my opinion, while others expressed support.

Let me first deal with the negative responses. It seems a number of you feel that it’s unpatriotic, at least at a time like this, to mention anything about the United States that is not unequivocally complimentary. What surprised me most was that not only American readers expressed this sentiment, but a couple of foreigners, as well. I couldn’t disagree more. Like I said in my article, if the disaster that befell the United States on September 11 will not give rise to profound soul-searching, what can? This is a time of decision-making, and making decisions over a nation’s future should involve an investigation of its past. It’s an approach that is neither unpatriotic, nor does it lack compassion. It is merely prudent.

One English reader writes that it is naïve to expect American leaders to admit that some foreign policy decisions of the past were poor. Why? What is leadership about if not an honest assessment of one’s strengths and weaknesses? Another subscriber accuses me of being anti-American, which is a ridiculous notion. Anyone who’s familiar with Perspectives knows that I believe the world is in much debt to the United States. During the past years, I’ve written numerous articles in which I’ve held forth America for its free ways, its ability to reinvent itself, to innovate and to be decisive. Quite frankly, if anyone can pull off the challenge at hand, it’s America!

The big chip

Then there’s the reader who agrees that US foreign policy has caused serious harm, but wonders why much of the third world, even in the former Soviet orbit, has such a chip on its shoulder. That’s a question worth pondering. For one, I guess, colonialism left its deep scars. Later, in the post-war era, as the world economy was rebuilt and the US and the Soviet Union competed for world dominance, reliance on inexpensive raw materials became a cornerstone of economic policy. Colonies or “client states” were no longer that in name, but the principles remained unchanged.

In the Cold War years and beyond, Washington and Moscow relied on whoever could best protect their existing interests and further advance their agenda. The stakes were high and the operational realities extreme, which is why many of the rising stars in the third world were repressive toughs. Men like Marcos and Mobutu did the West’s bidding; others, like Honecker and Kim Il Song, were Moscow’s henchmen.

Culture the biggest obstacle

But the biggest obstacle the West faces in the third world is cultural. Those living under Soviet domination were for decades forced to hear of our errant and decadent ways. Finally, when a few years ago they got to see the real West, what were they treated to? Precisely what had been promised by Communism’s ideologues: self-indulgence, decadence, hypocrisy and greed. CNN, Michael Jackson, millionaire television evangelists and Donald Trump.

To be sure, there were unimaginable new opportunities, as well. Many of the younger generation embraced these but, tragically, a large portion of those over 40 weren’t able to adjust and resented the new system. This is not only true of the former Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact satellites, but of numerous former command economies in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

In the Middle East, things are worse. Many of those who are doing well in the region’s mostly dictatorial regimes are critical of Western values, while the vast majority of the oppressed blame the West for supporting illegitimate and corrupt regimes. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Dubai and the United Arab Emirates are all cases in point.

None of which is to suggest that we, the West, should blame ourselves for the tragedy that occurred last week. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were carried out by lunatics who’d use any means to serve their purpose. Still, the questions remain why there are people who resent the West so much and what the terrorists’ eventual goal is. I tried to answer the first question in last week’s article and hope to have further clarified the issue in these lines.

What’s their objective?

What about the second question? Some of the comments I’ve received from readers address it very eloquently. A friend in Switzerland sent me a letter written by an Afghani living in the US. One of his key messages is that the likes of Osama Bin Laden would like nothing more than to draw the West into a confrontation against all of Islam. “Read his speeches and statements”, he urges us, suggesting that the terrorists’ objective is a protracted, broad war. A war that would last for years and cost many lives.

He also makes reference to the rednecks calling for his country to be bombed back into the Stone Age and dryly notes that that’s already been done. “New bombs would only stir the rubble of earlier bombs,” he says. “Make the Afghans suffer? They’re suffering already. Level their houses? Done. Turn their schools into piles of rubble? Done. Eradicate their hospitals? Done. Destroy their infrastructure? Cut them off from medicine and health care? Too late. Someone already did all that.”

One thing about the US response so far that really bothers me is that it’s going to hurt ordinary Afghanis. I’m not even talking about the collateral damage that will inevitable accompany air strikes against either Osama Bin Laden, or the Taliban government that shelters him. I’m talking about the demand that Pakistan close its border with its northern neighbor. Effectively, it will terminate all food and humanitarian supplies that are keeping Afghanistan’s starving population alive. Hundreds of thousands without any connection to terrorism will likely die if that’s done. Regrettably, it’s a mere side issue in the conflict that looms.

The nuclear threat

In his recent address to his nation, Pakistani leader General Pervez Musharraf said that if the decision at hand turned out to be the wrong one, the consequences would be very bad. What he meant was that Pakistan’s decision to assist the US could result in civil war. A large portion of the country’s armed forces is devoutly Muslim and may not back their commander-in- chief’s decision. US military analysts dismiss this notion, but it nevertheless should be considered: if Musharraf’s regime is overthrown, we’ll have the Muslim fundamentalists in control of a nuclear arsenal.

I find it unfortunate that, given such grave circumstances, several voices from the right call upon us to dismiss “sentimental leftist” notions. This is hardly the time to stifle an honest debate of what the right response to last week’s tragedy may be. On the contrary, every viewpoint should be considered or, as one reader writing to me said, the only way to do this right is “to think outside the box”.

Perhaps US leaders understand that. President Bush has an extraordinarily experienced cabinet, especially in the field of foreign policy and military action. That enhances the chances for success, but it’s not to say that we can’t fail. If things go well, the Muslim world may be split into those who support terrorism and those who practice the true Koran and abhor violence. That would be a nightmare for Bin Laden. On the other hand, if the US blunders, Muslims in countless new places will rally to the terrorists’ cause. Going to war is like that. £

Update October 07, 2001

So far, so good. President Bush has failed to fall into the trap of massive retaliatory strikes. Three months ago, the American media (and even more so, its European counterparts) fell all over each other portraying the US president as intellectually inferior. Now, his judgment is applauded, his restraint universally admired and the attention he pays to his extraordinarily experienced advisers viewed as statesman-like. Even a few dyed-in-the-wool Democrats admit that it may be a good thing George W. Bush won the election.

It’s likely that Osama Bin Laden and his cohorts are disappointed. Instead of an invasion, Afghanistan is getting humanitarian relief. And instead of a Muslim world united against the West, Islamic nations are split.

A formidable task

None of which is to say that the US can’t fail. The task at hand remains formidable, not just because the enemy is faceless and country-less, but also because it’s impossible to get into the enemy’s mind and because the terrorists are so deeply entrenched in our society. Depending on the source, between 12,000 and 14,000 operatives have so far graduated from various terrorist training camps. Many of them are biding their time in Paris, Frankfurt, London and Los Angeles as “sleepers”, awaiting final orders.

To their credit, the authorities have been open about the many dangers that face our free society: in the air, in our subways, at shopping malls and in theme parks. The next target, we are told, may be a football stadium or a nuclear reactor. Biological and chemical attacks have been a possibility for some time; we’re now being told that they weren’t just possible, but expected. It seems that, in the face of adversity, information flows more freely.

That also manifests itself in the level of cooperation between governments. It’s amazing what can happen when a large enough threat is introduced. In the short time span since the tragedy of September 11, people connected to terrorism have been arrested in some twenty countries. Previously secret information is now readily shared.

Good things are happening

At the individual level, good things have been born out of last month’s disaster, as well. I’ve heard about isolated racial backlashes, but in my recent encounters in the US and Canada I’ve been struck by how much friendlier people are. Suddenly, we feel a need to reach out and share our emotions. Perhaps it’s fear we want to share, or anger or grief. No matter what the reason, reaching out to others is good.

To deal with what’s ahead, we have to get closer. Nations who agree on a basic standard of civilized behavior need to do that, and individuals as well. If we don’t, it’s hard to imagine how we can win or, for that matter, survive as a civilization.

A friend of mine just reminded me of one of the final scenes in the movie “Apocalypse Now”, which is based on Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Colonel Kurtz is feverish, delirious, and behind him is a row of books: the books that distill the values of Western civilization into a few thousand pages. He’s long learned that by adopting the enemy’s inhuman methods, he’s abandoned the civilization of which he’s part. Yet he also knows that if he doesn’t summon his will to win at any cost, his civilization may be defeated. Contemplating the choices, he utters his final words: “The horror. The horror.” This is the dilemma our leaders now face.

What can they do? A reader in Bermuda sent me an article written by a Westerner who’s spent considerable time in Afghanistan. The advice he has for America is invaluable. Pointing out that this showdown is about will and character, he counsels that “Towards our enemies, we must show a level of ruthlessness that has not been part of our military character for a long time. But to those who are not our enemies we must show a level of compassion probably unheard of during war.”

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