WASHINGTON — Never mind that Pearl Harbor is an imperfect analogy to our current situation. The more serious problem is, can anyone envision an end to this conflict that resembles in the slightest the surrender on the battleship Missouri? There is no Hirohito who can go on the radio and tell his people to stand down, and no people who would unquestioningly follow such a command.
We find ourselves, rather, in a conflict more like the Cold War. The threat looming over us isn’t 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 nation’s political and financial establishment was in part due to the establishment’s 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. Bush’s visit to the Islamic Center on Washington’s 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 administration’s 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 week’s attacks seem to have been hatched well before the breakdown of the Barak-Arafat talks, and there’s 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 economy’s) stake in Saudi oil. Plainly, reducing the West’s 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 it’s waged at all.)
The third broad area of conflict where there’s been ample room for a more sensible U.S. policy has, of course, been our approach to globalization. Here, our almost unvarying adherence to the priorities of major U.S. financial institutions has been damaging for whole classes of both U.S. workers and workers abroad, many of them in the Islamic world. In particular, the austerity economics that the International Monetary Fund imposed on the world’s largest Muslim nation, Indonesia, in the financial crisis of 1997 led to a wrenching economic contraction that brought down the government and endangered secessionist movements that may yet spawn an officially Islamic state in what has been a secular East Asia. Plainly, a shift to a more Keynesian approach to the global economy would not only help stabilize that economy but also defuse some of the tensions between rich nations and poor ones.
More broadly, the globalization of the past two decades has been presented to the planet as a kind of fait accompli. Truly, the institutions of global capital have become the unacknowledged legislators of the world, so arrogant that only in the past year or so have they felt the need even to defend their legitimacy. The very fact that our laissez-faire approach to global capital is called “the Washington consensus” makes that arrogance even clearer. Whose voices, whose interests, forged this consensus? How did America become identified with a worldview that only a handful of us helped to shape, that would not likely have withstood the scrutiny of democratic discussion?
There are, however, two other underlying problems with a more direct causal connection to the violence of last week, and which aren’t really susceptible to changes in American policy. The first is the political underdevelopment of the Arab world.
The problem is really twofold. First, the region is dominated by regimes that essentially prohibit the creation of parliamentary democracy and the normal practice of politics — the formation of parties, unions, associations free from state sponsorship. The regimes range from repressive monarchies in the Arabian Gulf, to the secular totalitarian states of Syria and Iraq, to the theocratic republics of Iran (where theocrats have been compelled to battle with more pluralistic forces) and Afghanistan (where they haven’t). None of these regimes has an interest in fostering a genuine domestic politics. Instead, they either promote or tolerate a kind of regional/global meta-politics, invariably anti-Israeli and, in some cases, anti-American. Yasir Arafat wasn’t kidding when he said he had to consult with Arab heads of state about the proposed settlement he was offered at Camp David. Over the long run, a genuine Israeli-Palestinian accord could destabilize various Arab regimes for whom opposition to Israel has been both a safety valve for mass political expression and a bond linking them to their own people.
The other aspect of this underdevelopment was illustrated by a recent L.A. Times story on the bin Laden family — a collection of more than 50 progeny of Papa bin Laden, in which Osama, his siblings made emphatically clear, is very much the black sheep. It’s not just Osama’s support for terror that they can’t abide; it’s his support for theocratic rule. They, by contrast, are enthusiastic supporters of the Saudi monarchy. And that’s the challenge: how the U.S. and the West should deal with not just a family but with a nation (actually, several nations) where the political spectrum runs from monarchist to theocrat. Identifying and supporting the democratic opposition, say, to Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia was no great challenge for American statecraft. There are nations in the Middle East, however — Afghanistan leaps to mind — where such an option is simply unavailable. And the last time we picked a side in Afghanistan, we got it as wrong as wrong can be.
Finally, the suppression of worldly politics (and the civil society which gives rise to such politics) in much of the Arab world contributes to the rise of an unworldly politics — a politics of racial and religious utopianism whose goal is to create a world where one faith and one people live according to a clear set of precepts, untainted by outside ideas, or infidels. Such a creed certainly defines the Taliban regime, which, in the peaceful days before last week’s attacks, was forcing the Hindus among them to wear identifying insignia when they dared to appear in public. But there are more secular variants of this creed, too; and some of last week’s terrorists, we are now learning, may not have been theocrats, but certainly believed that ruthlessly eliminating the West from their part of the world is a transcendent cause and panacea.
Which is why, in both the short and the long run, the U.S. response to the terrorist war cannot simply involve non-military policy. Of course we need to alter our global economic and energy policies, and to re-engage ourselves in crafting an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Of course we need to reaffirm and make more real our commitment to an open and pluralist society, a commitment that Bush’s visit to the Islamic Center both symbolized and advanced. Any significant erosions of our civil rights and civil liberties weaken what should be our greatest strength in combating the appeal of a closed society. (Bush’s Islamic excursion notwithstanding, the thought of this administration having to wage a battle of both ideas and ideals inspires no confidence whatever.)
But there is more to this conflict than the cultural, diplomatic and economic fronts. The very nature of our opposition means there is a security and military front as well, though some of my friends on the left have trouble acknowledging this. The wisdom of any military course should — make that, must — be the subject of the most intense scrutiny, as there are no courses of action that don’t have negative consequences. But I’ve also encountered an a priori dismissal of any such action from non-pacifists who seem unable to move the discussion past an enumeration of America’s own historic reliance on violence or its lamentable role in the global economy. Some of what I’ve read in the past week seems a little like responding to the start of World War II by acknowledging that Britain and France should never have imposed those ruinous reparations on Germany in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Indeed, that decision surely helped fuel the rise of militant totalitarianism. But the question then — and the question now — is how do we oppose it? How do we defend our values and our lives?
The shovels and the buckets know
The language of this hot, dark snow,
The density of ash, the scrape
And grit of nothing’s breathless shape.
Dig down, dig down, till words are found
That have an unfamiliar sound;
But who on earth will understand
The speech of hearts turned into sand?
September 13, 2001
Leslie Monsour’s collection, Travel Plans, was published this year
by Robert L. Barth. She teaches formal poetry for the UCLA Extension Writers’
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