Column: Declaring war on terror is a big mistake
I have long thought that declaring a war on terror was just as big a mistake as the war on drugs, though for different reasons. But never having studied either terrorism or Middle Eastern affairs in depth, I felt reluctant to address the subject in public writings.
Now I am emboldened on discovering that Louise Richardson, a longtime Harvard professor and expert on international security, is of the same opinion. Her new book is titled “What Terrorists Want — Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat.”
As Richardson points out, there have always been terrorist movements and she describes many of these, beginning with the Jewish Zealots trying to get the Romans to leave Palestine.
Terrorism is deliberately and violently targeting civilians for political purposes, a game of psychological warfare used by the weak against the strong. And the terrorists invariably wish to avenge and redress political grievances.
In the case of Al Qaeda, they do not hate us because we are free, as Bush claimed. Bin Laden himself pointed out that he did not attack Sweden, for instance.
Fundamentalist Muslims undoubtedly consider us degenerate, but they attacked us not because of our supposed degeneracy but because of our meddling in and dominating of Middle Eastern affairs.
Powerful Western nations have a long and sad history of arrogantly and selfishly acting like they had the right to dominate the Middle East, even determining the borders of different nations.
The U.S. joined these nefarious activities in the 1950s, causing the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected, mildly socialistic prime minister and his government because they wanted to nationalize their oil industry. We supported a tyrannical shah instead. And our meddling continued, using various devious methods, including huge amounts of arms sales to hated right-wing tyrannies, particularly in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
And then there is our incessant support of Israel despite its horrible treatment of the Palestinians and defiance of all United Nations resolutions.
How could we have been so clueless as to imagine we wouldn’t have to pay a high price for all this? Well our cluelessness was and is exposed by all of us who ask, “Why do they hate us?” Putting myself in their shoes, I have to ask, “Why wouldn’t they?” And what recourse do they have other than terrorism?
Wherever and whenever there are sufficient political grievances, a sufficient number of hopelessly unemployed and disaffected young men, and leaders presenting them with a legitimizing ideology, there will be terrorism. So we will never win a war on terror until there are far fewer major political grievances and far fewer unemployed and hopeless people. Neither drones nor boots on the ground will accomplish this.
Right after 9/11 the whole world was on our side, but by declaring a war on terror and then refusing to abide by our longstanding international agreements, particularly the Geneva Conventions, and also behaving in many instances as badly as the terrorists, we lost a lot of that support. Instead we supported jihadist recruitment.
We should have focused on capturing Bin Laden and his top leaders and put them on trial. Then we should have tried to defuse the situation by changing our policy in the Middle East to bring it into alignment with our declared democratic principles. We should have made clear to Israeli leaders that our continued economic and military support would depend entirely on their building no more settlements and making peace with Palestine in accordance with UN resolutions.
Then we must put terrorism in perspective. Yes, it is terrible, but so are highway deaths, deaths from gun violence, from lack of health care, from crime due to lack of opportunity for many sectors of the population, etc. etc. etc. After all, provoking the kind of overreaction Bush led us into is just what the terrorists wanted. Simply punishing the actual perpetrators, quietly increasing security where we are most vulnerable and otherwise ignoring them would deny the terrorists the importance they hoped to gain.
And all that is not to mention the trampling of our constitutional privacy rights which was and is part of our overreaction. And not to mention invading Iraq for no good reason.
Of course at this point, we have gone so far down the wrong road, it will not be easy to turn back and change course. Especially in the face of ISIS, a monstrosity far worse than Al Qaeda, and largely of our own making. Violence not only begets more violence, it begets worse and worse violence as ISIS demonstrates.
In the long run, Obama’s efforts to slow ISIS down will only bear fruit if we can change our Middle Eastern policies sufficiently to start depriving Muslim extremists of powerful arguments against us with which to recruit more jihadists.
Mary Boland’s column appears on the third Saturday of each month. She is a retired teacher and journalist, a proud grandmother and a longtime resident of Carbondale.
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