Don’t let the heady poll numbers in support of Bush and his war mandate fool you. There are plenty of Americans who nurture a healthy suspicion regarding the motives of U.S. foreign policy and the wisdom of waging endless war on untold fronts, a suspicion bred by memories of Vietnam, however dim, and by the manifest mess the U.S. has already made of things in trying to manipulate affairs in the Middle East. The inescapable fact of America’s role in creating the Saddams and the al-Qaidas of the world may be a faint footnote in the torrent of media chat surrounding America’s New War, but it’s there all the same, and it’s made an impression on a lot of people.
I’m not talking about the various left-pwog organizations that have elected to tuck and run in the face of the New York and Washington attacks; I’m talking about average people-citizens, quaint as that concept has been made to seem-who sit home watching television and go to work the next day to share their agonized confusion with co-workers. There’s no point in pretending the skeptics are anything but an embattled minority amid the rush to war. Even so, I suspect their ranks are substantial, and they are bound to grow if U.S. military casualties begin to accrue in Afghanistan or elsewhere. “It’s been too long since Vietnam,” my friend Jeff St. Clair noted in a post this morning. “Nobody remembers what a real war looks like.” They may yet be reminded, and they will not like what they see.
In trolling round left-liberal Internet chat rooms and mail lists and talking to friends, one question predominates. What to do? Given the horrific frontal assaults of September 11, is there any alternative to signing on for whatever war or wars the Bush gang sees fit to wage?
The short answer is yes, but it needs elaboration. You can start with the two Big Lies of the Bush administration’s propaganda offensive.
1) The enemy is religious zealotry, and the zealots hate the U.S. because it is a free society.
This is the line daily repeated in government briefings and the dutiful offerings of the opinion pages. There’s no question that the Wahabbi variant of Islam espoused by bin Laden and the Taliban is an ugly beast, but the official U.S. line turns the real point on its head. Fundamentalist Islam is the vessel of revolt among the discontented masses; that’s because practically every other political/secular avenue of resistance has been quashed in many countries. Religion is the last available rallying point. In this respect it resembles the Catholic liberation theology that swept up the peasantry of Central America in the 1980s and ’90s.
This doesn’t mean that fundamentalist Islam is the cause of anti-West outrage. The prime causes of the reaction are political, and entirely understandable. Since the British turned the fruits of Middle East imperialism over to the U.S. for administering after World War II, we have manipulated the governments of the region to ensure regimes to our liking, and helped to suppress anything resembling democracy when it reared its head; backed the ruthless depredations of an Israeli government that is forever seeking to shrink Palestinian territories; waged a war in Iraq that ultimately resulted in hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of civilian deaths; and lobbed additional missiles at targets in Iraq and the Sudan, often for transparently opportunistic reasons. (Here we pause to remember the Monica-spawned bombing of the Sudanese pharmaceutical plant in 1998, undertaken by the Clinton administration against the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and later compounded by the U.S.’s refusal to allow shipments of medical supplies to the Sudan.)
2) With sufficient military resolve, the United States can smother terrorism in its cradle.
Set aside the matter of bin Laden’s direct involvement, which remains an open question. Suppose he’s guilty and that the U.S. succeeds in doing him in, along with his key lieutenants. They will have accomplished very little toward the end of blunting anti-American energies and making U.S. citizens safer at home; it may even be a move backward. All along the American mindset has been to approach the “bin Laden network” as though it were a small entrepreneurial company that broke through to the big time, and can be put down by getting rid of a few executives and money people. The reality is not remotely like this; it’s in no wise a top-down system, but rather a loose and shifting confederation of small groups that originate in the grassroots and draw funding from a rich variety of sources. Bin Laden is hardly the only scion of privilege willing to put his money where his religious and nationalist convictions are. What this means is that the U.S. can’t “crush terror networks” by military means, because they are not really built or controlled by the few select masterminds the U.S. wants to take out. The countless anti-Western guerrilla cells in the Middle East and around the world are not al-Qaida franchisees to be pre-empted by taking out corporate headquarters; they are foliage destined to sprout wherever the soil is fertile. The harder we try to shape events in the Muslim world by hot or cold war, the more anti-U.S. martyrs-and soldiers, and financiers-we will create. To those who say we bear a white man’s burden for ameliorating the repressive conditions of Taliban rule in Afghanistan and bin Laden’s broader vision for a pan-Islamic future, I would pose two questions: When has the United States ever created more palatable social circumstances through its Middle East interventions? And have you examined the record of our latest proxies, the Northern Alliance? It is equally as horrendous as the Taliban’s.
The main question still lingers. As a friend put it to me the other day, you’re very avid about pointing out what the U.S. should not do; what should we do? My modest proposal is as follows. If the U.S. wants to ensure the safety of its domestic populace and more workable accommodations to the emerging powers of the Middle East, it should proceed along two lines. First bin Laden. Directly guilty or not, his elimination is a foregone conclusion. So genuflect to his pursuit by a clumsy spy satellite game of Where’s Waldo? and cheer his eventual demise. Grunt a lot in public about the evils of terrorism, but meanwhile take steps in the background to retool U.S. Mideast policy. Take a step back from sponsorship of Israeli aggressions against the Palestinians. The Israelis will balk but considering the amount of U.S. aid at stake-$2 billion annually in military aid, and nearly a billion in non-military support-they will make their peace soon enough. Likewise, back away from the unconditional support of Arab client regimes that repress their own people in the name of continuing U.S. control of the region’s oil supply. Be prepared to deal flexibly with regimes ambivalent toward traditional American domination of the Middle East. The first Cold War is over, after all, and there is no countervailing power to foil American access to the area’s oil reserves.
This way, and only this way, points to greater security against future horrors like the September 11 attacks. CP
Steve Perry writes frequently for CounterPunch and is a contributor to the excellent cursor.org website, which offers incisive coverage of the current crisis. He lives in Minneapolis, MN.