National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  September 12, 2003

Post-9/11, U.S. makes enemies faster than it can kill them


Two years after the horrific terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, we must ask ourselves: Are we safer now than we were?

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, the United States had unprecedented support and sympathy from the international community. Now, however, the United States is faced with unprecedented hostility and resentment.

Some limited and targeted use of force may be necessary to eliminate dangerous terrorist cells. Most of the world would support such action. However, the military overkill pursued by the Bush administration -- particularly the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq -- does not just raise serious moral and legal questions, it has created a dangerous anti-American backlash that only increases the ranks of the extremists.

Indeed, the more the United States has militarized the Middle East, the less secure the American people have become.

All the sophisticated weaponry, brave soldiers and brilliant military leadership the United States may possess will do little good if there are hundreds of millions of people in the Middle East and beyond who hate us. Even though only a small percentage of the population supports Osama bin Laden’s methods, there will still be enough people to maintain dangerous terrorist networks as long as his grievances resonate with large numbers.

Terrorists whose political grievances have little popular support -- such as those on the far left and far right that have periodically arisen in relatively open societies like those in Western Europe and the United States -- can be suppressed relatively easily. By contrast, terrorist groups whose agendas reflect those of systematically op-pressed populations -- such as Palestinian Arabs, Sri Lankan Tamils or Northern Ireland Catholics -- are far more difficult to control without also addressing their underlying political grievances. Bin Laden and his network appear to be more like the latter, only on a global scale.

As most Muslims recognize, bin Laden is not an authority on Islam. He is, however, a businessman who -- like any shrewd businessman -- has been able to take a popular fear or desire and use it to sell a product: in this case, anti-American terrorism. The grievances expressed in his manifestoes -- the ongoing U.S. military presence in the Gulf, the humanitarian consequences of U.S policy toward Iraq, U.S. support for the Israeli government and U.S. backing of autocratic Arab regimes -- have widespread appeal in that part of the world.

We are not hated because of our freedom and democracy but because our policies in the Middle East have had little to do with freedom and democracy. Indeed, our closest allies in the region engage in widespread and systematic human rights abuses, often using American weapons and ordnance.

In so decisively defeating the Iraqi military, we only reinforce the message that since no government can stop American hegemonic designs, the only path to resistance is through irregular asymmetrical warfare -- including terrorism.

Middle Easterners have long known of our military strength. Where they see us vulnerable is in our moral weakness, illustrated by our conquest of oil-rich Iraq, support for corrupt family dictatorships, and massive shipments of armaments to this already overmilitarized region.

During the Cold War, successive U.S. administrations chose to back repressive right-wing military dictatorships in the name of anticommunism. Such policies only served to create more communists, as moderates desiring badly needed reforms were forced into the arms of Marxist-Leninist guerrillas.

Today, the Bush administration is doing the same in its support for Arab dictatorships and Israeli occupation forces. As President John F. Kennedy warned us, “Those who make peaceful evolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”

On the day of the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, CNN decided to repeatedly show video clips of a small number of Palestinians celebrating. Though their sentiments represented only a tiny minority of Palestinians and other Arabs, these West Bank residents were probably not alone in the Third World in feeling a perverse sense of satisfaction: Finally, the United States knows what it is like to lose thousands of civilians in an act of political violence, getting a taste of what it has been like for those who have been the victims of U.S. foreign policy.

Such massive loss of civilian lives is not new to the Palestinians, nor is it to the people of Vietnam, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Angola, East Timor, Lebanon or Iraq who know the feeling all too well, not in small part due to the policies of the United States. The heart-rending scenes in the days following the 9/11 tragedy of anguished New Yorkers holding up pictures of their missing loved ones bore a striking resemblance to similar scenes in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s of the relatives of los desaparecidos, the thousands of “disappeared,” victims kidnapped and murdered by military regimes backed by the U.S. government.

While the United States has been responsible, both directly and indirectly, for inflicting enormous violence throughout the globe, that fact can never justify violence against American civilians. The unfortunate reality, however, is that such a terrorist backlash is likely to continue unless there is a change in U.S. policy.

Our nation’s leaders must recognize that a foreign policy based on support for human rights, international law and sustainable development is more likely to curb the terrorist threat than bombing and invading Muslim countries, and supporting dictatorships and occupation armies.

Otherwise, we will continue to make enemies faster than we can kill them.

Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program and the University of San Francisco. He is Middle East editor for the Foreign Policy in Focus Project and the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism.

National Catholic Reporter, September 12, 2003

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