For the past 43 years I have made a career of teaching and studying the Middle East. For this reason, friends, family and acquaintances regularly ask me, “How is the war against terrorism going? Are we safer now?” I usually tell them, “You don’t want to hear what I have to say.” But they always want to hear anyway and so I assume that there are others who want to hear also. This is what I tell them, straight out, with no sugarcoating:
The war against terror is a disaster of monumental proportions. I fear for this country and for us all. I am dismayed as I have never been in my whole adult life. Moreover, all indications are that the vast majority of my colleagues and independent experts on the Middle East share my dismay. Among the reasons for our concern are these:
Terrorism — or more exactly the terrorism of a fanatical Islamic revivalist fringe — does not have a country or location; it has no army that can be fought “over there” where we are not. Terrorists are a dozen people in an Internet cafe in Hamburg, some guys in a flight-school in Florida, 20 or 100 armed men training in the wilds of Pakistan or the forests of Oregon. Finding and neutralizing them means isolating them, making their cause unpopular and drying up their stream of recruits, encouraging the people among whom they live to report them to the authorities, diligently following money trails, gossip and rumor. There is absolutely no spectacular or simple military solution to the problem of terrorism.
Our international situation is a disaster. In a stunning turn-around, huge majorities in countries that have been or should be our friends and allies now consider the United States to be bumbling, arrogant, irresponsible and a major danger to the world. Leaders who know that every country has a stake in combating terrorism cannot risk political suicide by supporting us. Ordinary people are suspicious of us and far more likely to overlook or condone terrorist groups and plots.
The war in Iraq is a disaster. Forget all the talk of bad information and WMD and whether or not Saddam Hussein posed a credible threat. Once we invaded, we failed in every respect to do what needed to be done, with terrible consequences.
In the Middle East the one major thing that legitimizes a ruler or regime is the ability to provide stability and security. There is a venerable saying in Arabic that goes something like this, “Better a hundred years of tyranny than one day of fitna (civil chaos).” This is how a Saddam Hussein can be seen by many as an acceptable ruler.
There was no doubt in the minds of those who know Iraq that once the lid of Saddam’s brutal regime had been lifted, the country would descend into chaos without an overwhelming commitment of U.S. forces. Yet, caught up in a fantasy, we sent too few troops, with too little planning, and, to Middle Easterners, proved ourselves incapable of governing or providing security. Our standing in the Middle East has hit an all-time low and the standing of anti-American terrorists has risen accordingly.
The situation of our troops is a disaster. They are in an impossible, no-win situation. Even their victories are defeats. Urban warfare involving air support brings collateral casualties — civilians, children. We have killed at least as many Iraqi and Afghani children by accident as the Chechen and 9/11 terrorists killed on purpose. To the families, friends and neighbors of dead children the distinction between collateral damage and intentional murder is meaningless. Ending Shiite insurgency by fighting in their holiest shrines enrages many millions of believers in Iraq and around the world. Every death, every incident supports the notion that terrorism is a legitimate response to our perceived misuse of overwhelming power.
Abu Ghraib is a disaster. The atrocities at Abu Ghraib have given credence to the most paranoid fantasies of angry anti-Western fanatics. We raped Iraqi women, our women sexually humiliated Iraqi men and we murdered helpless prisoners. This is no trivial matter and it will not be soon or easily forgotten.
The overall situation in the Middle East is a disaster. Our bungled occupation of Iraq has rescued a failing Islamic revivalist regime in Iran. We disbanded the secularist, socialist Baath party and now, Iraqi “elections” will undoubtedly result in a more or less theocratic Shiite state aligned with Iran. The Kurds in the north will attempt to break away and set up their own state, bringing untold trouble to our Turkish allies. We are not bringing democracy to the Middle East. We are stripping legitimacy from local democrats, secularists and moderates, leaving the fanatics and would-be tyrants in control.
No, we are not safer. We have hugely increased the danger. Whoever wins the next election will either make a dramatic change in our course and attitude toward the rest of the world or lead us into a long nightmare cycle of death and reprisal.
WALTER ANDREWS has been a professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at the University of Washington since 1968.
This essay originally appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.