It is of paramount importance that US policymakers begin to dispassionately inquire about the sources of anti-US Arab rage incarnated in militant Islamic terror. Military operations alone, no matter how extensive and destructive they might be, cannot achieve victory without new, broadly based political thinking. US officials and mass-media analyses seem to have been satisfied with describing the tragic events of 11 September as a declaration of war on the country, as well as a gross manifestation of hate for the way of life and value system upheld so dearly by the American people. The drive to create national consensus on the motives of the suicide terrorists and to provide for long-term public support for sustained retaliatory strikes against the hideouts of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism appear to have engendered a conventional wisdom predicated on faulty foundations. Grounding the motives of the 11 September attackers on sheer hatred for the USA’s values and way of life fails to satisfy the intellectual curiosity of the human mind, including those individuals at the extreme left of the intelligence curve.
The roots of Arab–Islamic disaffection with the West go back to the last years of the 18th century, when Napoleon’s armies landed in Egypt and showed Muslims, in a spectacular display of force, the extent of their cultural, scientific, and military backwardness vis-à-vis the West. The inception of Western colonialism awakened Arabs and Muslims to a bitter reality, which they found difficult to tackle. They became increasingly defensive as Europe threateningly closed on them. Religious reform, vigorously under consideration since the early 1830s, became the most unfortunate casualty of the century; Arabs and Muslims unquestioningly returned to medieval Islam in the hope that it would come to their rescue. It did not!
Arabs’ defining grievance against the USA pertains, no doubt, to the repercussions of its orchestrated 1991 Gulf War to evict the Iraqi army from Kuwait. The arrival of about half a million US troops and hundreds of combat aircraft literally transformed Saudi Arabia – the country whose ruling elite derives political legitimacy from its custodianship of Islam’s two holiest shrines – into a US colony. The often-neglected truth is that the implications of Desert Storm meant a virtual US conquest of the Middle East. The USA’s dream of controlling the Gulf’s oilfields (in a way reminiscent of tsarist Russia’s yearning to gain access to the warm waters of the Black Sea) ultimately came true. The USA enjoyed its moment in the region, as did Israel in its dealings with Arabs on issues of land and peace.
Indicators suggest, nevertheless, that the USA operates in the Gulf, and in the rest of the Middle East, on a daily basis. Examples abound: In response to the Iraqi army’s onslaught against the peshmergas of the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in April 1991, which caused millions of Kurds to flee to Iran and Turkey, the US government responded – in addition to declaring a no-fly zone in the north – by hastily assembling Operation Provide Comfort and establishing a safe haven in northern Iraq. The USA acted primarily in order to appease Turkey, which has consistently objected to the creation of a Kurdish state and did not want to deal with the burden of Kurdish refugees; Washington neither had plans for nor envisioned dealing with the roots of the Kurdish question. Similarly, in response to Saddam Hussein’s unabated military campaign against Shi’ite militants in the south, in August 1992 the USA imposed a no-fly zone in the southern part of Iraq, though it never enforced the 1994 no-drive zone. Short of a strategic policy on Iraq, the US government appeared not to object to Saddam Hussein’s control of the south (the thought of a Shi’ite state there is anathema to Saudi Arabia’s ever-phobic royals) as long as Iraqi gunships did not make the headlines. The US position on the thorny final status talks between Israel and the Palestinians has been equally noncommittal. From Dennis Ross to Anthony Zinni, US peace envoys have appeared to be more focused on checking uncontrollable outbursts of violence than on achieving enduring peace. Working from the assumption that the USA has no serious threat to its vital national interests in the region (oil and Israel), policymakers in Washington have shunned acting on any of the area’s burning issues. In the meantime, the future of Iraq remains on hold, and the suffering of its people fails to awaken the slumbering conscience of Washington’s policy formulators.
The USA has also failed to honor the 1990 promise of former president Bush to bring about a peaceful settlement to the Arab–Israeli conflict, including its Palestinian core. In a bid to encourage reluctant Arab and Muslim states to join his hastily assembled anti-Iraq coalition, Bush pledged to turn his full attention to the Arab–Israeli conflict immediately after the liberation of Kuwait. But the US president reneged on his promise; nothing came out of the October 1991 Madrid Peace Conference. Instead of pursuing peace, Bush focused his attention on a losing bid to secure a second term in the White House. His successor, President Bill Clinton, eased himself out of his predecessor’s commitment. Clinton, himself a strong supporter of Israel, spent his White House years trying to shore up his presidency against the vagaries of his personal conduct. The Palestinians, in despair over Israel’s disinclination towards peace and ostracized because, in their desperation, they applauded Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, found no recourse but to engage in Oslo’s secret negotiations. For the Palestinians, direct negotiations with the Israelis, in the absence of a major power acting as an impartial arbiter, effectively meant dealing with the wolf in sheep’s clothing.
The United States has indefatigably shrugged off Arab requests for a balanced regional policy. Recent years saw an alarming increase in US support for Israel, as well as blatant endorsement of unpopular Arab dictatorships. This seemed symptomatic of Washington’s assessment that Arabs no longer posed a credible threat to its policies in the region. Such an inauspicious development stunned the USA’s Arab allies, who reached the conclusion that the USA treats both its Arab friends and enemies alike – by showing distaste for the former and contempt for the latter.
Poor judgement has caused the failure of US foreign policy in the Middle East, especially since the mid-1960s. Conversely, the powerful Zionist lobby has been astonishingly successful in linking US national interests to staunch support for the Jewish state. The Zionists created a virtual creed stating that US and Israeli interests are inseparable. They successfully tied Judaism and Christianity together and put this contrived linkage on a par with the West’s much-valued Greco-Roman tradition. Narrow electoral interests necessitating constituency appeasement have effectively transformed the US Congress into an assembly of defective and self-serving legislation on Middle Eastern matters.
The USA can no longer afford to ignore the need to reformulate its policy approach towards the Middle East. Preference for harmony and balance is particularly compelling in the pluralist nature of US political processes. On the national level, pluralism invites compromise, but the invasive encroachment of national components of the political process on foreign policy matters tends to facilitate arbitrary choices. The subservience of foreign policy options to the pluralist requirements of domestic politics seemed desirable to US administrations, inasmuch as they did not cause any backlash. Globalization, or the so-called transformation of the globe into a small village, appears to have nullified the concept of immunity from backlash. Globalization does not just mean the elimination of barriers on trade, but on terror as well. The communication revolution has certainly gone beyond the spread of capitalism and notions of democracy to the promotion of religious fanaticism and obscurantism. The genius of the US political system goes way beyond ardent democratic orientation: it reveals its strength through outstanding maintenance and adaptive capacities in reaction to manifest crises, and in anticipation of latent ones. The events of 11 September have strikingly demonstrated the extent to which external variables, hitherto uncontrollable, can affect the deeper fibers of the American way of life.
There are unmistakable indicators that the USA’s powerful Zionist lobby is seeking to broaden the scope of the campaign against terror. It points to Iraq as a possible source of the anthrax scare and campaigns aggressively to include the militant movements of Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian Territory’s Hamas among the sources of global terror.
As the world’s lone superpower, the USA can no longer afford to surrender the making of its consequential foreign policy decisions to frenzied domestic lobbying. For years, the US approach to the Middle East’s problems has been utilitarian. The USA has inexcusably neglected the dues that go with its pre-eminence in the region. Washington led the West in providing for Israel’s military superiority against the Arabs’ combined forces, then called on the belligerents to resolve the century-old conflict on their own. Its support for Saudi Arabia’s anachronistic ruling elite has stifled the kingdom’s social and political evolution and invited the wrath of the country’s austere religious pundits. The great influence of the USA in the region is the product of its paramount power: influence and power go together. In order for Washington to maintain its preponderance in the region, it must use its influence discreetly and its power fairly, across the board. For Arabs, special US–Israeli relations simply mean policies detrimental to their interests, whereas the concept of vital interests implies the sanctioning of traditional authoritarian leaderships.
Washington has the power and influence needed to resolve the thorny, final-status components of the Palestinian question. Similarly, it controls the key to ending Iraq’s misery: the time has arrived for a new, post-Saddam Hussein, sanction-free Iraq. The USA should neither support Saudi royals, nor meddle in the country’s political ecology by obstructing the forces of change to ensure that the production and supply of oil are not endangered. Peace and stability in the region can best be fostered through the promotion of a community of Middle Eastern countries brought together by mutual bonds of economic interest.
Military action alone does not eradicate militant terror, and the experiences of the countries of the Middle East and North Africa attest to that. Those countries failed mainly because they reduced militant Islamic terror to a security problem. The USA, in its war against global terror, can – and should – go to the political and economic roots of the problem. Globalization has facilitated the transfer of technology, including instruments of mass destruction. Failure to act on the underlying sources of global terror emanating from this region, which is mired in a deep malaise, runs the risk of widening the recruitment base of technologically equipped suicidal terrorism. Global terror originating from the Middle East is stoppable. The means are available, but the USA’s political resolve is still wanting.
Prof. Hilal Khashan
Department of Government and Foreign Affairs
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, VA, USA