Terrorism, like communism was for so many years, is now the key threat facing America. Because America now finds itself confronted with this different and never before experienced enemy of terrorism, it must undertake new efforts to develop a long-run working policy to deal with this threat just as it developed a policy to deal with communisim. This task is one which is extremely difficult, and it is the challenge of this generation.
How this policy will take shape over the years depends on the view and perception taken of the post-Cold War world. Several proposals have been made by political thinkers regarding this issue, three of the most prominet of which are Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations, Jean Bethke Elshtian's book Just War Against Terror, and Barber's book Jihad vs. McWorld.
I think that the visions of today's world proposed by each of these works are all in some way flawed. One of Just War Against Terror's most central claims is that we were attacked on September 11th for who we are and not what our policies were. Islamic extremists and Arab militants, the book says, hate America because of its values and thus will not cease being hostile to America no matter how it may change its policy. Elshtain also claims that it is America's duty and America's duty alone to shape nations it sees as a threat to global security into democratic states. Elshtain's view is flawed in that it attempts to lump all Islamic extremists into the same group to which to 9/11 hijackers belonged to. Yes, the terrorists who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks did claim to be attacking American values, as expressed in Osama Bin Laden's Fatwa, but are these the same militants we are fighting today? There are in fact many Islamic militants who are hostile to America because of its policies rather than its principals. Such groups include those fighting in Palestine against Israel, an often oppressive government which America greatly supports. Islamic terrorists in Iraq are hostile to the fact that we are fighting a war there. It is likely that a great deal of these terrorists became what they are because they opposed the way America was acting in Iraq, not the fact that America is a free country. Secondly, Elshtain's theory of the post Cold War world is extremely unrealistic in calling on America to be the sole power that takes up arms against undemocratic and tyrannical nations all over the world. The American military is already spread thin in Iraq alone, how can it possibly handle even one other similar nation building operation?
Barber's outlook also has its problems. Barber claims that modern world conflict is between global capitalism and the traditions of tribalism. In other words the terrorists attacked us because of the way our society spreads a mass consumerism mentality around the world by saturating virtually every foreign country with American brand names like McDonalds, I-pod, or Nike. Barber claims that such uniform global capitalism threatens the culture and way of life of Muslim societies and other societies with long standing traditions and values. I, however, find it hard to believe that McDonalds can have so great an impact on angry traditionalists that it caused them to fly planes into buildings. Yes, the world is rife with mass consumerism, but nobody is forced to buy into it at gunpoint. In Saudi Arabia, where I have lived for nearly 15 years, devout Muslims go to McDonalds, Starbucks, and American clothing stores every day. Saudi society maintains its Islamic values while at the same time experiencing American culture as it sees fit. Yes, a conflict between Islam and the global market does exist, but it is not nearly as intensified as Barber makes it out to be.
Huntington's idea of the clash of civilizations is slightly too simplistic, but it does however make an important point. The important thing Huntington recognizes is that there is no one uniform moral system and set of values that all cultures recognize. Although Jean Bethke Elshtain does not wish to acknowledge this fact, it is true. Nations of the world are each different from America in their own way. American culture and values cannot simply be spread through the world. In my opinion, if America goes on assuming that what it wants is what every other nation wants and begins forcing change under the threat of force in countries it does not approve of, it will create more enemies than it started out with on 9/11. It is from this fundamental idea that I articulate my position.
It is important to remember that western democracy and liberty did not come with the snap of a finger. Our principals of government in the west were hundreds of years in the making. Despite what several people say, many Eastern countries are in the midst of internal reform efforts. Such countries include Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and others. These nations are fragile as they work through the controversies and internal conflicts that arise within them. Such controversies are made up the fundamental questions the west once asked itself over and over again as it was coming into being. Such questions deal with things like the role of religion in society, the rights of woman, family values, and a wide variety of other defining characteristics of a society. These societies have to work through compromises on these issues essentially on their own. In many cases, aggressive American rhetoric urging reform overshadows those inside the country in question who are trying to push reform through the system established in that country. One example of this occurred in Iran in 2003 when Bush sided vocally with Iranian protesters against the Islamic Republic. Because America got involved, The Islamic clerics were able to easily dismiss reform efforts as American sympathy, which made them less likely to take the wishes of reform minded Iranians seriously.1
Like Elshtain, I agree that, within Muslim societies like Saudi Arabia, there are groups of religious fundamentalists that will refuse to negotiate with America no matter what. However, if America were to threaten regime change in Saudi Arabia or go and try to undertake regime change in Saudi Arabia with military force under the claim that Saudi government is not clamping down on fundamentalist groups, this would only feed the fire of such Islamic fundamentalist districts. The minute the American military has one misunderstanding, raids a civilian house by accident, or unintentionally kills an innocent Saudi, fundamentalist districts will begin spreading anti-American propaganda in an attempt to recruit young Arabs into their mentality. Now Islamic hatred for America is likely to grow because American military presence will create discomfort and uncomfortable changes for many people in the society. These uncomfortable changes will make people look for an outlet to express their grief. For many such an outlet will be joining a terrorist group. I think this is the reason America is now dealing with so many insurgents in Iraq. American military mishaps such as Abu Gharib angered people of the Arab world and caused them to join with Islamic extremists, which gave the extremist groups greater momentum.
Islamic fundamentalist districts like those in Saudi Arabia are more likely to loose their influence on their societies if America seems sympathetic and friendly to the culture and traditions of such societies. Islamic fundamentalism is far more easily condemned by moderate Muslims, who share the same culture and language as extremists, than it is by far off American hawks. America needs to put trust in Muslim societies to realize themselves that Islamic fundamentalism is not healthy. The reform efforts going on in Saudi Arabia and other places right now, even if they are moving slower than America wants them to, can eventually create societies where people have no need for the hatred and radicalism associated with Islamic fundamentalism they see around them.
America's policy in the post-Cold War world must be one that allows reforms of non-democratic states to occur from within. This does not mean America should withdraw from the world completely. One thing President Bush should do is tone down aggressive American rhetoric and eschew unilateralism. It is extremely important that America works with other nations in dealing with the problems facing it. Although we would all like to believe that American power is unlimited, this is not the case. Our allies are extremely important. Furthermore, America needs to be seen in the world as a wise nation that listens and is willing to compromise rather than one the uses its power to override nations that disagree with its policy. America should not have gone into Iraq in the first place, but it did, so now it must stay there and work things through. Once a new government is established on terms of the Iraqis, America should begin to withdraw to the largest degree possible. America needs to continue encouraging peace talks between Israel and Palestine. In doing this, America must condemn things like the Israeli destruction of Palestinian homes just as much as it condemns the suicide attacks by Palestinian militants. As far as Iran, North Korea, and China, America would not fare well in a war with any of these countries. These nations are simply more likely to accelerate their nuclear development programs if they feel threatened by America. The best thing America can do is provide incentives to these countries to limit their nuclear efforts. America is more likely to improve its relationship over time with these countries with such a policy. The European Union has begun doing this with Iran, and it seems to be working well. Most importantly, America needs to reach out more to the Arab world. In every affair the Bush administration undertakes, weather it be nation building in Iraq or peace talks with Palestine and Israel, it must keep in mind an understanding of Arab and Muslim society and how it is different from American society. The United States should focus on internal reforms that are occurring in Arab and Islamic countries and encourage them to flourish while at the same time giving them room to happen in their own ways.2 If America does this, it is more likely to see more friends in the Muslim world. This means that Islamic extremism will have less and less to blame America for, and will thus ultimately become virtually extinguished by the reforms that will take place in the societies around it.
1 Christopher de Ballaigue, "Iran," Foreign Policy (May, 2005), 18.
2 This overall idea was influenced by the following source: BBC News. US 'Could win over Muslim world' 2005. [Online]. Available: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/4563601.stm; accessed 21 May 2005.
© Michael James Fares 2005 / Kaftoun.com [5/19/2005]