We find ourselves, rather, in a conflict more like the Cold War. The threat looming over us isnt the global incineration that terrified us all during the Cuban missile crisis, but more realizable acts of mass terror that will likely be answered by a combination of military and policing actions. As was the case in the Cold War, however, the normal day-to-day action will be in the realms of diplomacy, security, economics and ideology. And here, as during the Cold War, the United States can wage this war in either progressive or reactionary ways.
It was at the very height of the Cold War, for instance the Berlin Wall/Missile Crisis early 60s that the civil rights movement in the U.S. achieved its greatest gains. The timetable of Martin Luther King Jr. and the freedom riders was not set by imperatives of global politics, of course, but the fact that the civil rights cause won the backing of the nations political and financial establishment was in part due to the establishments understanding of the imperatives of the Cold War. The newly de-colonized Third World, as they saw it, was comparison shopping between the U.S. and the USSR, which made the success of the civil rights movement an international no less than a domestic imperative.
Fast-forward to this Monday, and George W. Bushs visit to the Islamic Center on Washingtons Embassy Row, where he extolled the role of Muslims in the U.S. and warned against hate crimes. In this case, the imperatives of this new conflict showing the Islamic world that we are a pluralist nation that is not warring on an entire people produced a domestic act of commendable decency.
Five long-range issues have fueled this conflict, very broadly speaking, and three of these pose clear policy options for the U.S. that require a shift of vision rather than a mobilization of troops. The first is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, towards which the Bush administrations laissez-faire approach has proved a disaster. The case for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state along with a formal peace treaty of Arab nations with Israel, and the stationing of U.S. and other forces along the new borders has long been clear. On its own terms, such a settlement would be a boon to both the Israeli and Palestinian people, and it would just as surely contribute to a long-term de-escalation of regional tension. However, it would also be met by fierce resistance from nationalist groups on both sides. The sudden prospect of peace in the mid-90s was negated by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin at the hands of a right-wing Israeli terrorist, along with a wave of bombing from Hamas, ensuring that Rabin would not be succeeded by peacenik Shimon Peres but by the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu.
The plans for last weeks attacks seem to have been hatched well before the breakdown of the Barak-Arafat talks, and theres no reason to think that had those talks yielded a settlement, the attacks would not have been launched. But the level of support in the region for the attacks would surely have been less, as would the rage that may engender future attacks. For the past eight months, no party to a possible settlement has done anything to promote a solution and in the absence of plausible compromise, the appeal of the implausible extreme solution only rises. In repudiating the efforts of the Clinton administration to craft alternatives to extremes, the Bush administration was playing with fire as, belatedly, it now must realize. Now it has embarked on an effort to persuade Ariel Sharon not to press for maximum advantage over the Palestinians. In this part of the world, pressing for maximum advantage only results in maximum catastrophe.
The second point of intersection between the U.S. and the Middle East, and the second issue underlying this conflict, is oil. Indeed, the primary rationale that Osama bin Laden has given for his jihad is to remove U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia, where they are stationed not to defend Israel but our own (and the global economys) stake in Saudi oil. Plainly, reducing the Wests dependency on a region that teeters between monarchy and theocracy is a good thing with a range of ancillary policy consequences both good and bad. (On the plus side, Congress might want to revisit its opposition to higher fuel-efficiency standards. On the minus, the filibuster against opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling, which Massachusetts Senator John Kerry promised, may be much harder to sustain, if indeed its waged at all.)