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Avoiding a New Cold War

by Rahul Mahajan And Robert Jensen

This is a different kind of war. That much of what we are being told, at least, is true. And because of that, a different kind of analysis is required.

The single most common question antiwar activists are confronted with is, “What’s your solution?”

Although many elements of a sensible solution have been offered, the antiwar movement has reached no general consensus on the fundamentals.

In the past, activists who critiqued and/or resisted unjust U.S. foreign policy and militarism faced three main scenarios in which U.S. actions were blatantly unjust and the raw exercise of U.S. power was obviously wrong:

U.S. attempts to overthrow democratically elected governments, such as Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, and Chile in 1973. U.S. wars against national liberation movements, such as Vietnam in the 1960s, or against attempts to consolidate national liberation, such as Nicaragua throughout the 1980s. U.S. wars in response to clearly illegal acts, but where the U.S. short-circuited negotiations and used indiscriminate, gratuitous violence that killed huge numbers of civilians (directly and indirectly), such as in the Gulf War in 1991.

In all those cases, there was no threat to the people of the United States, even though many of the interventions were carried out in the context of the Cold War project of making people afraid of threats-that-might-come. The solutions were simple — in the first two cases, no intervention by the United States, and in the third, diplomacy and negotiations within the framework of international law while keeping the United States from unilateral military action.

But this war was sparked by attacks on U.S. soil, and people feel threatened and afraid, for understandable reasons.

In a climate of fear, it doesn’t matter to many that the military strategy being pursued by the United States is immoral (the civilian death toll from bombing and starvation resulting from the attack will no doubt reach into the tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands without immediate action) and ineffective (it will most likely breed more terrorism, not end it). Americans are confronted with a genuine threat and want to feel safe again.

As a result, proposals offered by some in the antiwar movement have been difficult for the public to take seriously. It is clear that pacifism is of interest to virtually no one in the United States. That is not said out of disrespect for principled pacifists who consistently reject violence, but simply to point out that any political argument that sounds like “turn the other cheek” will be ignored. It is also hard to imagine how it would have an impact on the kind of people who committed the crime against humanity on Sept. 11.

The only public display of pacifism that would be meaningful now would be for pacifists to put their bodies on the line, to put themselves somewhere between the weapons of their government and the innocent victims in Afghanistan. Short of that, statements evoking pacifism will be worse than ineffective; they will paint all the antiwar movement as out of touch with reality.

Also inadequate are calls for terrorism to be treated solely as a police matter in which law enforcement agencies pursue the perpetrators and bring them to justice through courts, domestic or international. That is clearly central to the task but is insufficient and unrealistic; the problem of terrorist networks is a combined political and criminal matter and requires a combined solution.

So, what should those who see the futility of the current military strategy be calling for?

First, we must support the call made by UN-affiliated and private aid agencies for an immediate bombing halt to allow a resumption of the serious food distribution efforts needed to avoid a catastrophe.

There will need to be a transitional government, which should be — as has been suggested for the past decade — ethnically broad-based with a commitment to allowing international aid and basic human rights. It must, however, be under UN auspices, with the United States playing a minimal role because of its history of “covert” action in the region. It should also be one that does not sell off Afghanistan’s natural resources and desirable location for pipelines on the cheap to multinational corporations.

While all that goes forward, the United States should do what is most obviously within its power to do to lower the risk of further terrorist attacks: Begin to change U.S. foreign policy in a way that could win over the people of the Islamic world by acknowledging that many of their grievances — such as the sanctions on Iraq, the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, Israel’s occupation of and aggression against Palestine — are legitimate and must be addressed.

This shouldn’t be confused with “giving in to the terrorists” or “negotiating with bin Laden.” It is neither. It is a practical strategy that demonstrates that a powerful nation can choose to correct policies that were rooted in a desire to extend its dominance over a region and its resources and are now not only unjust but untenable. It is a sign of strength, and it is the right thing to do.

Some have argued against any change in U.S. foreign policy in the near term. International law expert Richard Falk wrote in The Nation, “Whatever the global role of the United States–and it is certainly responsible for much global suffering and injustice, giving rise to widespread resentment that at its inner core fuels the terrorist impulse–it cannot be addressed so long as this movement of global terrorism is at large and prepared to carry on with its demonic work.”

In fact, the opposite is true: Now is precisely the time to address these long-term issues.

Here we can actually take a page from “liberal” counterinsurgency experts who saw that the best way to defeat movements of national liberation was to win the hearts and minds of people rather than try to defeat them militarily. In those situations, as in this one, military force simply drives more people into resistance. Measures designed to ease the pressure toward insurgency, such as land reform then and changing U.S. Middle East policy now, are far more likely to be effective. The alternative in Vietnam was a wholesale attempt to destroy civilian society — “draining the swamp” in Donald Rumsfeld’s phrase. The alternative now would be unending global war.

In the past, such strategies were part of a foreign policy “debate” in which the end goal of U.S. economic domination of Third World countries was shared by all parties, and so they were entirely illegitimate. Now, it is different — these terrorists are not the voice of the dispossessed and they are not a national liberation movement. Their vision for their own societies is grotesque.

But they do share something with the wider populace of their countries.

There is tremendous justified anger in the Islamic world at U.S. foreign policy. For the vast majority of the populace, it has not translated to anger at the United States as a nation or at Americans as a people. For groups like al-Qaeda, it has. Their aims and methods are rejected by that majority, but the shared anger at U.S. domination provides these terror networks their only cover. A strategy to successfully “root out” those networks must isolate them from the populace by eliminating what they hold in common. It is necessary to get the cooperation not just of governments of Islamic nations but of their people as well. The only way is to remove their sources of grievance.

These changes in policy must be preliminary to a larger change. The United States must drop its posture of the unilateralist, interventionist superpower. In lieu of its current policy of invoking the rule of law and the international community when convenient and ignoring them when it wishes, it must demonstrate a genuine commitment to being bound by that law and the will of the international community in matters of war and peace.

Many have said of the Afghans, and perhaps by extension of many other deprived peoples, “Feed them and you’ll win them over.” This attitude dehumanizes those people. Nobody will accept bombs with one hand and food with the other. Nor will anyone feel gratitude over food doled out by an arrogant superpower that insists on a constant double standard in international relations and makes peremptory demands of other nations on a regular basis. To win the support of Afghans and others for the long term, which will be necessary to substantially reduce the danger of terrorism, the United States must treat other peoples with dignity and respect. We must recognize we are simply one nation among many.

This strategy will not win over bin Laden or other committed terrorists to our side; that’s not the objective. Instead, we have to win over the people.

The choice we face as a nation is similar to that faced at the end of World War II. The capitalist West, the Communist world, and many of the colonies had united to defeat fascism. That could have been the basis of building an equitable world order, with the United States helping to equalize levels of wealth and consumption around the world. Had that path been taken, the world would be a far safer place today, for Americans and others.

Instead, U.S. leaders chose the path of the Cold War, which was not so much an attempt to contain Soviet-style communism as it was to destroy any example of independent development in the Third World, to extend and entrench our economic superiority. That effort harmed democracy in our country and in others, killed millions, and has led in the end to the creation new and terrifying threats to all our safety.

Government officials are already speaking as if we are fighting a new Cold War, with President Bush calling the war on Afghanistan “the first battle of the war of the 21st century.”

We cannot let history repeat itself.

Rahul Mahajan serves on the National Board of Peace Action. Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas. Both are members of the Nowar Collective. They can be reached at rahul@tao.ca

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