Posted on August 24, 1998 in Washington Watch

In the most recent round fought between the United States and those shadowy murderers who bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the winner, tragically, may well have been the terrorists. The surprise U.S. retaliatory bombings of targets in Sudan and Afghanistan has played into the hands of those who are waging this ugly war.

Throughout the Arab world, the U.S. action has been roundly condemned, with our strongest allies remaining ominously silent. The United States is criticized principally for taking the law into its own hands, without consideration for international law. By undercutting its claim to be the upholder of international law and by resorting to what some have termed as the “law of the jungle”, the U.S.’s actions are now decried as no different than those of the terrorists it condemns.

If Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is right and this is the beginning of “the unfortunate war of the future” in which “we are to be engaged for the long-haul”, than it is imperative that the United States understand the nature of this battle and what is required to win it.

For starts, the United States should recognize that this struggle must be fought on many fronts. It is only partly a military conflict.

Terrorism has political, psychological and military objectives. Not only do its practitioners seek to take lives in horrendous acts of murder, they also seek to promote fear and insecurity. It is also vitally important to terrorists that they provoke a response, a violent repressive response, which they hope will expose the weaknesses of their adversary and cause a negative political reaction, winning support for their cause.

As the dust settles in the aftermath of the U.S. cruise missile strikes, it appears that this is exactly what has occurred.

While the United States had the moral high ground on which to stand following the brutal assault on its two African embassies, all that ended with the attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan.

Arabs and Muslims were horrified at the outrages committed by the terrorists, and they continue to be angered by those who use religion to justify their murderous deeds, thus harming the meaning and image of religion itself. But the Arab world also understandably harbors deep fears and mistrust of the United States. There is an alienation from the United States born of a double standard, which the United States applies to the Middle East, and to Muslims in general. While the United States insists that Arab countries adhere to international law, Israel has for decades been allowed to get away with murder in Lebanon and in the Occupied Territories. There is also growing anger over the severe economic sanctions that continue to be applied disproportionately to Arab and Muslim countries, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands.

As a result of these deeply felt grievances, Arabs are unwilling to give the U.S. “carte blanche” to operate in their region. If the current Administration has a credibility problem domestically, it would be fair to say that its credibility problem in the Arab world is twice as serious.

Of course the United States can, if it chooses, ignore these Arab concerns and act to defend itself at will. It is, after all the word’s superpower and it can do whatever it wants to do whenever it wants to do it. But it does so at great risk–especially if it seeks to wage a war against an enemy which, while using repugnant means, claims to be fighting in the name of those very injustices and inequities that have produced the alienation of the Arab world from the United States.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright may very will believe it when she says that “we stand for freedom and rule of law and democracy and that’s what [the terrorists] don’t believe in and so [they] have decided that we are the enemy.” But her words ring hollow and produce anger in the Arab world.

By ignoring the reality of Arab grievances and by failing to address them, the United States has ignored the political and psychological fronts of the battle it is waging. Just as military planners learn the physical terrain of a potential battlefield, it is imperative that the political and psychological terrain of this battlefield against terrorism be understood as well.

By ignoring them and acting violently and unilaterally last week, the United States has created a Middle East that is more hostile and dangerous then it was even one week ago. Whether or not Osama bin Ladin was, in fact, the culprit behind the attacks on the U.S. embassies, he has emerged, in the wake of the U.S. strikes, having won significant support from an angry Arab street. What the United States has won for itself is only outrage and condemnation. U.S. interests and allies are now more vulnerable and more at risk.

If the purpose of this struggle is to “eradicate terrorism” and “dry up its well-springs of support,” clearly another strategy is needed. What is required is a new U.S. policy that establishes U.S. credibility as the upholder of the rule of law and the promoter of justice throughout the Middle East. The U.S. must work with Arab and Muslim allies to isolate extremists and to address the long-festering grievances that feed these movements.

Decades ago, the United States faced an internal crisis of widespread urban violence. There were those who advocated that overwhelming force be used to “crush the violence.” But more sober minds prevailed. A commission was convened to study the root causes of this unrest. It’s conclusion was that there were social and political issues that had to be addressed to stem the violence and dry up support for those who advocated its use.

Today’s situation in the Middle East is no different. What is required will be difficult–but less difficult than the current course on which the United States has embarked.

If the United States does not develop a new and more sophisticated approach to this evolving confrontation, it will only further aggravate an already volatile and enflamed situation, resulting in more rounds of ugly and deadly violence.

In the end, if the United States fails to address this conflict in its many dimensions, it may very well foster conditions in which Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” becomes a reality–an outcome desired only by extremist ideologues in the West and those in the Arab world who use terror in order to drive America out of the region.

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