One of the consequences of the horrendous terrorist attacks of September 11 is that the United States is marching off to war in numerous countries around the globe. Given the terrible damage and large numbers of casualties, it is hardly surprising that most Americans want to destroy the terrorist organization(s) that launched the attacks and the government(s) that aided and abetted the terrorists. Unfortunately, there has been remarkably little public discussion as to why people from the Middle East chose to become suicide bombers intent on piloting air lines into enormous office buildings filled with people. Nor has there been much deliberation regarding the probable consequences of using military force to punish terrorists and the governments that harbor them.
President George W. Bush struck a popular chord when he charged that terrorists “have attacked America because we are freedom’s home and defender.” In his analysis, Americans are innocent victims of barbaric “people that hate freedom and hate what we stand for.” The victims on the four high jacked planes and in the buildings were innocent victims, but President Bush is voicing a widely held myth whenever he argues that the terrorist attacks were designed to destroy freedom and democracy in the United States, or that the United States was attacked because it is the defender of freedom and democracy abroad. In fact, the United States was attacked, not because of its political ideals, but rather because of its government’s foreign policy in the Middle East.
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During World War II and in the years after, U.S. power flowed into the region. There the U.S. government sought allies in the fight against fascism, then communism, and lastly against an expansionist Iraq. In these conflicts American policy makers were not particular about who the help they recruited. Brutal dictatorships, repressive military governments, and absolute monarchies were all recipients of U.S. economic and military assistance. In Iran the United States government even went so far as to overthrow the country’s democratically elected parliamentary government in 1953.
Today, the United States government arms and trains the militaries of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and American troops help defend these countries. But these countries are run by monarchies that deny fundamental democratic rights to their peoples and vigorously oppress any opponents to their rule. The United States government also supports with extensive military and economic aid a corrupt one-party dictatorship in Egypt. The one democratic state in the region the U.S. government supports is Israel. Unfortunately, the Israeli government conducts a brutal occupation of two regions-the West Bank and the Gaza Strip-whose population is made up of Palestinian Arabs. The Palestinians have no democratic rights or liberties under the Israeli occupation and live in appalling poverty.
In short, the foreign policy of the United States government in the Middle East has not been aligned in support of freedom and democracy, but rather in support of brutal and oppressive governments that deny their peoples liberty and often leave them mired in poverty. Many Middle Easterners have concluded, as a result of these past actions, that the United States government opposes the legitimate demands of poor and oppressed Arab and Islamic peoples throughout the region. The consequence of this policy, in conjunction with a militant strand of Islamic fundamentalism, has led a small minority of Middle Easterners to conclude that terrorist attacks against the United States and its military forces are the best way to change this policy. The intent of these attacks is not to destroy the American way of life and democracy, but rather to get Americans to change their foreign and military policy toward the region.
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In response President Bush has promised a war that will “secure our country and eradicate the evil of terrorism.” But despite the entire nation’s vast power, a military strike at terrorists in countries such as Afghanistan, and the governments of these states, will not and cannot address the current causes of terrorist attacks. In all likelihood an American military attack on or in Afghanistan will kill innocent civilians, inflame public opinion in the Middle East, which is already largely anti-American, and lead to demands for revenge. In this environment, extremist groups will easily be able to recruit a new generation of terrorists, more numerous and committed than their predecessors. Thus the widespread use of American military power to punish and revenge the September 11 attacks ironically will leave the United States with more enemies, not less, and in the end our country will be less secure than ever. These are the tragic and predictable consequences of such a course; they need to be kept in mind when Americans discuss the use of military force to revenge and punish those responsible for terrorist assaults on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.