The Muslim world in 1500
The Muslim world in 1500
from An Historical Atlas of Islam
Russil Wvong / History, politics, and the future / September 11 and the Middle East

September 11 and the Middle East

by Russil Wvong

Most five-year-olds have developed a Star Wars script. Life consists of a struggle between Good and Bad forces, with the Good generally triumphant. Many movies and television programs, and a few events in real life, can adequately be described in terms of such a script. Most historical events or works of literature, however, prove far more complex; to understand the causes of World War I or the U.S. Civil War, or to grasp the thrust of a novel by Hawthorne or Austen, one must weigh and integrate multiple factors and nuances. Students learn in class to give more complex explanations for such historical or literary events. Yet, when they are confronted with new and unfamiliar materials--say, a story from another culture, or a war in an unfamiliar part of the world-- even capable students lapse to an elemental way of thinking. The Star Wars "good guy-bad guy" script is often invoked in such situations, even when it is manifestly inappropriate.

Howard Gardner, The Disciplined Mind, 1999

This web page is my attempt to understand the conflict in the Middle East which motivated the September 11 attacks, and the United States' response. Hopefully it'll be useful to other people as well, as a layman's analysis of what's going on.

I think it's important to distinguish between three different actors in the Arab world: the radical Islamists; conservative, US-aligned governments; and the people themselves.

Table of contents:

1. The radical Islamists
2. Conservative governments
3. The people

4. The US response
4.1. US policy factions
4.2. Why a democratic crusade is a bad idea
4.3. Rebuilding consent
4.4. The Iraq crisis
4.5. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict
4.6. Pushing for reform

For a good introduction to modern Arab history and politics, see William Polk, The Arab World Today, 1991 (5th edition).

1. The radical Islamists

What was al-Qaeda trying to accomplish by attacking the United States on September 11, 2001?

In particular, why did they try to kill so many people? Most terrorist attacks try to kill a small number of people for maximum political impact. Michael Jay Tucker, writing on September 16, 2001, on the H-DIPLO mailing list:

What puzzles me most about the NYC and DC bombings is that they seem, well, in violation of the basic rules of unconventional warfare, at least as I understand them.

The trick of unconventional war is, paradoxically, never being too successful. That is, in an unconventional war ... in which a weak group is in conflict with a relatively stronger one ... the guerrilla, the terrorist, the "freedom fighter" must convince his or her adversary that pursuit of some course of action will be unprofitable. You, the freedom fighter, must make the greater power believe that keeping troops in an area, or refusing independence to a colony will generate too many casualties or cost too much money to be worth the effort. That's exactly what the North Vietnamese did to us in our late Indochina war.

But, if you're too successful, and SO damage the greater power that it becomes convinced that it cannot survive you unless it destroys you ... Well, then, all bets are off.

The most convincing explanation that I've seen is Michael Doran's article Somebody Else's Civil War, in the January/February 2002 issue of Foreign Affairs. Doran attributes the September 11 attacks to a civil war going on between radical Islamists and conservative, US-aligned regimes in the Arab world and the wider Muslim world, particularly Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan. The aim of the radical Islamists is to overthrow these governments via an Islamic revolution. So far they've been losing the war; most people in those countries don't want to live under a radical regime.

At this point you might be thinking, why does Osama bin Laden want to overthrow the Saudi government? Isn't Saudi Arabia already an ultra-religious regime? Not in the view of the radical Islamists; to them, the Saudi rulers are outwardly pious but inwardly corrupt.

If you want to understand the radical Islamists, their goals, and the way they think, the entire article is well worth reading.

In attacking the US, which is very unpopular in the Arab and Muslim world, the radical Islamists were hoping to outflank their local enemies, particularly the Saudi government.

... The decision to target America, therefore, raises the question of whether, during the 1990s, Egyptian Islamic Jihad changed its ideology entirely. Did its leaders decide that the foreign enemy was in fact the real enemy? Or was the 1993 bombing in New York tactical rather than strategic?

The answer would seem to be the latter. Bin Laden's "Declaration of War" itself testifies to the tactical nature of his campaign against America. Unlike "The Neglected Duty," which presents a focused argument, the "Declaration of War" meanders from topic to topic, contradicting itself along the way. On the one hand, it calls for unity in the face of external aggression and demands an end to internecine warfare; on the other, it calls in essence for revolution in Saudi Arabia. By presenting a litany of claims against the Saudi ruling family and by discussing the politics of Saudi Arabia at length and in minute detail, bin Laden protests too much: he reveals that he has not, in fact, set aside the internal war among the believers. Moreover, he also reveals that the ideological basis for that internal war has not changed. The members of the Saudi elite, like Sadat, have committed apostasy. Like the Hypocrites of Medina, they serve the forces of irreligion in order to harm the devotees of the Prophet and his message....

In a subsequent interview, Doran says:

[Osama bin Laden] envisioned the following scenario: Washington was supposed to respond to the Sept. 11 attacks by pressuring the Saudi leadership to take a more active role in our war against the Taliban. Incorrectly anticipating a prolonged and bloody conflict with the United States, he sought to play on the spectacle of Americans killing innocent Muslim civilians.

Bin Laden intended to open up a chasm between, on the one hand, a Saudi regime inextricably tied to its American patron and, on the other, a Saudi society broadly sympathetic to al Qaeda. He expected that the same dynamic would operate in Pakistan as well.

More on the radical Islamists, from the January 17, 2002 issue of the New York Review of Books:

Kanan Makiya and Hassan Mneimneh, "Manual for a 'Raid'."

Throughout Islamic history there has been a balance between, on the one hand, the sanctity of human life and, on the other, martyrdom. Only rarely in Islamic history have religious authorities endorsed actions in the community's defense that would mean certain death for believers. Beyond this, to justify calling someone who kills civilians and noncombatants a "martyr" is an entirely modern innovation—a change driven by invasion, occupation, and political and social breakdown in Palestine, Lebanon, and Algeria. The idea that martyrdom is a pure act of worship, pleasing to God, irrespective of God's specific command, is a terrifying new kind of nihilism.

Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, "Occidentalism."

There is a recurring theme in movies from poor countries in which a young person from a remote village goes to the big city, forced by circumstances or eager to seek a new life in a wider, more affluent world. Things quickly go wrong. The young man or woman is lonely, adrift, and falls into poverty, crime, or prostitution. Usually, the story ends in a gesture of terrible violence, a vengeful attempt to bring down the pillars of the arrogant, indifferent, alien city. There are echoes of this story in Hitler's life in Vienna, Pol Pot's in Paris, Mao's in Beijing, or indeed of many a Muslim youth in Cairo, Haifa, Manchester, or Hamburg.

Tim Judah, "The Center of the World."

I was not with Amin for long enough to know whether he really believes most of what he says, but even if he does not, it tells us something about the way bin Laden and his men view the world. Amin explained that because the ideology of the Taliban and al-Qaeda does not believe in national states, as opposed to a universal entity of Muslim believers stretching from the Atlantic to Indonesia, their rout in Afghanistan was not a defeat but just a withdrawal, which left its fighters free to fight another day.

2. Conservative governments

The conservative, US-allied governments in the Middle East--Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan--are in a precarious situation. Their situation illustrates George Kennan's comment in Realities of American Foreign Policy (1954):

... let us recall now a most fundamental fact in the nature of governments. Every government has a dual quality. It is in one sense the spokesman for the nation at large. Yet at the same time it is always the representative of a single dominant political faction, or coalition of factions, within the given body politic, and thus the protagonist of the interests of that political element over and against the interests of other competing political elements in the respective country. The aspirations and pretensions it voices on the international level therefore do not necessarily reflect only the actual desiderata of the totality of the people in question; they may also be the reflection of the internal political competition in which the respective governmental leaders are engaged. That goes for every country in the world, including our own.

The conservative governments face popular hostility for their corruption, their weakness, their subservience to the United States, their failure to act against Israel. In turn, this makes it difficult for them to take actions which may further inflame public opinion against them--Sadat's decision to make peace with Israel, for example, led to his assassination.

More on the conservative governments:

Eric Rouleau, "Trouble in the Kingdom," Foreign Affairs, July/August 2002.

Abdullah's performance abroad, however, obscured the fact that the prince's power at home -- and indeed, the health of his nation -- has eroded significantly. A major crisis is now brewing in Saudi Arabia, and September's terrorist attacks -- committed by 19 hijackers, 15 of whom were Saudi citizens -- both highlighted and, in a way, aggravated the tensions in the kingdom. The intense violence in the Middle East has made matters even worse. The deterioration of the Arab-Israeli situation has started to threaten the very stability of the Saudi state in a way many Westerners, particularly Americans, had not anticipated. In particular, outsiders have underestimated the anger roused in the Saudi population by the suffering of the Palestinian people -- and the fact that this suffering is blamed less on Israel than on its American protector. Given the privileged nature of relations between Washington and Riyadh, this anger has also started to focus on the House of Saud itself.

Bob Kaiser and David Ottaway, "Marriage of Convenience: The U.S.-Saudi Alliance", Washington Post, February 10-12, 2002.

What has been plain to officials of both countries is their self-interest. Saudi Arabia wants, and has always received, American protection. The United States needs, and has nearly always received, Saudi oil. What can cause trouble is the realization that these two allies have very little in common beyond security and oil.

"Have we [the United States and Saudi Arabia] understood each other particularly well?" asked Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to the first President Bush. "Probably not. And I think, in a sense, we probably avoid talking about the things that are the real problems between us because it's a very polite relationship. We don't get all that much below the surface."

The Economist, "Revolution delayed," September 10, 2002. Argues that the fragility of the Arab regimes is exaggerated.

... since when has public opinion changed regimes in the Arab world? Iran had a popular revolution against the shah in 1978. But one of the most striking things about the recent history of the Arabs is the durability of the supposedly fragile monarchies and dictatorships that misgovern them.

Jordan, arguably one of Iraq's most vulnerable neighbours, is a prime example. More than half its people are Palestinians, who in the 1970s fought a civil war with the other half. The little country has seen riots and assassinations. For all that, the Hashemite family which the British installed as monarchs of the country Winston Churchill invented in the 1920s has stayed in power ever since. King Hussein lost a war, east Jerusalem and the West Bank, to Israel in 1967, but remained on the throne. He also remained when he made an unpopular peace with the Israelis in 1994. After his death in 1999 the succession passed smoothly to his equally pro-western son, Abdullah.

Jordan is by no means exceptional. The scions of Ibn Saud have controlled the Arabian peninsula and its oil wealth for a century. And in recent decades the formerly “revolutionary” republican regimes of Egypt, Syria and Iraq itself have settled down to an outwardly stable dynastic rhythm. Hafez Assad ruled Syria for 29 years and then bequeathed absolute power, as if the country were a private possession, to his son Bashar. The assassination of Anwar Sadat by Islamic militants in 1981 did not prevent his deputy, Hosni Mubarak, from assuming the presidency of Egypt and clinging to it ever since. A junior Mubarak is now being groomed to take over. Mr Hussein himself has been Iraq's absolute ruler for almost a quarter of a century, and a favoured son, Qusay, stands ready to inherit. The popularity of these regimes may wax and wane--but, practised in repression, they have never relied on popularity in order to survive.

3. The people

One of the most frequent questions after 9/11 was, "Why do they hate us?" "They" meaning people in the Arab and Muslim world who cheered the attacks; "us" meaning the United States.

First, I should note that the 9/11 attacks were condemned by Muslims and Muslim leaders nearly everywhere, including hostile countries such as Iran and Syria. Suicide, killing of noncombatants, and killing of women and children are all forbidden by Islamic law.

Nevertheless, it's true that there's a great deal of hostility towards the United States in the Arab and Muslim world, and even people who dislike the radical Islamists often don't like the United States any better. Why is that?

As a great power with a strong interest in preserving the status quo, the US will naturally incur the hostility of people who see the status quo as unjust. And from the point of view of people in the Arab and Muslim world, there's a great deal of injustice and suffering under the current status quo. If peaceful change is blocked, then ideologies justifying violence will become more attractive.

The two most important grievances in the Arab world are

  1. the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is seen as a great open wound, a symptom of the weakness, humiliation, and political fragmentation of the Arab world; and

  2. the sanctions against Iraq, which are blamed for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children.

Why are these particular grievances felt so strongly, while other instances of cruelty and atrocities in the Arab world are ignored? This may seem unfair, but it's human nature to feel keenly the grievances and humiliations inflicted on oneself by others, while disregarding those that you inflict on other people. Similarly, it's human nature to resent and oppose others' desire to gain power over you, while viewing one's own desire for power over others as natural and just.

In some ways the situation of the Arab world today strikes me as similar to that of China 100 years ago: their world has been turned upside down. After centuries of being a center of civilization and power, they find themselves in a position of weakness and humiliation. In the case of China, it's taken decades of civil war and chaos to recover to something like normality.

In particular, it seems to me that pride is one of the key issues. The intangible factor of the US attitude towards the Arab and Muslim world--I think it's fair to say that it combines ignorance and arrogance more or less equally--is a significant factor. As one woman bitterly described it to me: "We are nothing to them. The only reason they care about the region is that they need the oil."

This seems like a dangerous situation. As Louis Halle noted in The Cold War as History:

... real power is always something far greater than military power alone. A balance of power is not a balance of military power alone: it is, rather, a balance in which military power is one element. Even in its crudest aspect, power represents a subtle and intimate combination of force and consent. No stable government has ever existed, and no empire has ever become established, except with an immensely preponderant measure of consent on the part of those who were its subjects. That consent may be a half-grudging consent; it may be a consent based in part on awe of superior force; it may represent love, or respect, or fear, or a combination of the three. Consent, in any case, is the essential ingredient in stable power--more so than physical force, of which the most efficient and economical use is to increase consent.

By using physical force in such a way as alienates consent one constantly increases the requirements of physical force to replace the consent that has been alienated. A vicious spiral develops that, continued, ends in the collapse of power.

It's impossible by brute force alone to maintain a status quo that's widely seen as unjust.

More on the Muslim world:

Bernard Lewis, "What Went Wrong?, Atlantic Monthly, January 2002.

Many remedies were tried—weapons and factories, schools and parliaments—but none achieved the desired result. Here and there they brought some alleviation and, to limited elements of the population, some benefit. But they failed to remedy or even to halt the increasing imbalance between Islam and the Western world.

Hume Horan, "The U.S. and Islam In The Modern World", Foreign Service Journal, February 2002. Horan is a highly respected former ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

So how should a young Arab Muslim today answer the great question, "How then should I live?" and its corollaries: "How to reconcile the Koran's assurance of divine favor and worldly power with daily proofs that we Muslims are falling behind? And falling behind not just to the United States and Western Europe, but even to its despised `step-child' Israel? Where today are the happy, successful, and above all, POWERFUL states of Islam? How can God allow His people to be so confounded? Are our tribulations a punishment for our flawed practice of His teachings?" An increasingly common answer to all these doubts is: "I should resolve to become ever-more-and-more intensely and rigorously observant."

4. The US response

4.1. US policy factions

During the early Cold War, US foreign policy was based on a consensus between realists such as George Kennan, who emphasized prudence, restraint, and the need to restore a stable balance of power, and liberals such as Dean Rusk, who emphasized a more idealistic policy based on American values and international law. Both saw the need to rebuild Western Europe and Japan and to contain the Soviet Union.

This consensus was shattered in the late 1960s by the Vietnam War, started by Kennedy and escalated by Johnson. The moralistic strain in American thought led liberals (and radicals) in two different directions. The New Left movement, led by activists such as Noam Chomsky, denounced both the Vietnam War and the Cold War in general as American imperialism and fascism. Other liberals and former radicals such as Irving Kristol, appalled by the anti-Americanism of the New Left, moved to the right and became neoconservatives (although perhaps a better name would be "ultra-liberals"), campaigning against the Soviet threat, advocating greater defense spending, and denouncing Henry Kissinger (a realist) for his policy of detente with the Soviet Union.

The end of the Cold War has not ended these divisions. If we sort the different groups by their willingness to go to war, we get the following picture:

PACIFISM  <---------------------------------------------------> MILITARISM
            New Left   realists   liberals   neoconservatives
            Chomsky     Powell    Clinton    Cheney, Rumsfeld

In the second Bush administration, the two main factions appear to be the hard-line, neo-conservative "hawks" (led by Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld) and the internationalist "doves" (led by Colin Powell at the State Department).

The doves are reluctant to go to war, which carries great risks and dangers and has unpredictable results. In their view, diplomacy--that is, measures short of war, whether persuasion, compromise, or threats--is preferred. Prudence and restraint are vital.

The hawks place much more emphasis on military power and the use of force, downplaying other factors such as diplomacy, alliances, and international treaties. During the Reagan administration, Kennan suggested that the neoconservatives suffered from a kind of naïveté, saying that, "There is a naïveté of cynicism and suspicion just as there is a naïveté of innocence." Cheney was the only senior adviser in the first Bush administration who believed that Gorbachev was not to be trusted.

4.2. Why a democratic crusade is a bad idea

In the view of the hawks, the problem is that the Middle East needs to be set on the road to modernity. They hawks want to bring liberal democracy to the Middle East by overthrowing Saddam Hussein and setting up a liberal democracy in Iraq; they're hoping for a chain reaction in the rest of the region.

It's an alluring vision. If the US brought liberal democracy to Germany and Japan, why not the Middle East? Even if it doesn't succeed, why not make the attempt?

Having read a great deal of George Kennan -- who played a major role in the reconstruction of Germany and Japan, after all -- and other "tragic realists," I'm afraid the hawks' vision sends chills down my spine. Kennan spent a lot of time arguing against utopian democratic crusades, and to me this seems like another one. In short, if the neoconservatives think they can bring liberal democracy to the Middle East by fire and sword, I think they're dreaming in Technicolor.

Francis Fukuyama writes, "What has been lacking in the current debate over foreign policy is the articulation of a point of view that is realist, and yet takes seriously the traditional conservative principle of prudence." Well, here's some.

George Kennan:

The English historian Herbert Butterfield has shown us with great brilliance, and so has our own Reinhold Niebuhr, the irony that seems to rest on the relationship between the intentions of statesmen and the results they achieve. I can testify from personal experience that not only can one never know, when one takes a far-reaching decision in foreign policy, precisely what the consequences are going to be, but almost never do these consequences fully coincide with what one intended or expected.

Hans Morgenthau:

When an intellectual finds himself in the seat of power he is tempted to equate the power of his intellect with the power of his office. As he could mould the printed word to suit his ideas so he now expects the real world to respond to his actions. Hence his confidence in himself, his pride, his optimism; hence, also, the absence of the tragic sense of life, of humility, of that fear and trembling with which great statesmen have approached their task, knowing that in trying to mould the political world they must act like gods, without the knowledge, the wisdom, the power, and the goodness which their task demands.

Mark Danner:

Behind the notion that an American intervention will make of Iraq "the first Arab democracy," as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz put it, lies a project of great ambition. It envisions a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq - secular, middle-class, urbanized, rich with oil - that will replace the autocracy of Saudi Arabia as the key American ally in the Persian Gulf, allowing the withdrawal of United States troops from the kingdom. The presence of a victorious American Army in Iraq would then serve as a powerful boost to moderate elements in neighboring Iran, hastening that critical country's evolution away from the mullahs and toward a more moderate course. Such an evolution in Tehran would lead to a withdrawal of Iranian support for Hezbollah and other radical groups, thereby isolating Syria and reducing pressure on Israel. This undercutting of radicals on Israel's northern borders and within the West Bank and Gaza would spell the definitive end of Yasir Arafat and lead eventually to a favorable solution of the Arab-Israeli problem.

This is a vision of great sweep and imagination: comprehensive, prophetic, evangelical. In its ambitions it is wholly foreign to the modesty of containment, the ideology of a status-quo power that lay at the heart of American strategy for half a century. It means to remake the world, to offer to a political threat a political answer. It represents a great step on the road toward President Bush's ultimate vision of "freedom's triumph over all its age-old foes."

In its ambition and grandiosity there has been nothing like it in American foreign policy since the "rollback" ambitions of General Douglas MacArthur and his allies in the Republican Party a half-century ago. Perhaps most striking, this vision - drawn from an administration that has abhorred all talk of root causes and treats terror as a free-floating malignancy with no political history and no political goals - acknowledges that for the evil of terror to be defeated the entire region from which it springs must be made new.

The audacity of the crusade's ambitions is matched by the magnitude of its risks. Before Sept. 11, the Islamist radicals had been on the run, their project flagging. They had turned their talents on the United States - the distant power that lay behind the thrones in Riyadh and Cairo - only after suffering defeat on the primary battlegrounds of Algeria and Egypt and Saudi Arabia. By invading and occupying Iraq and using it as a base to remake the region, the United States risks revitalizing the political project embodied by Osama bin Laden. It is not only that Islamic radicalism may gain new life and new converts but that moderate regimes will be threatened and will respond harshly, leading them not toward democracy but away from it, and that, finally, the force to which the United States remains most vulnerable - terror - will once again visit our shores. And this time, terror may come not just from a reanimated Al Qaeda but from Hezbollah and other groups that heretofore saw the American threat as not quite so direct. To divide the world into good and evil, however effective that is as a means of building political support and however gratifying that may be to Americans who see their country as a "city on a hill," risks broadening a war that would be better kept narrowly defined.

William Pfaff:

Bush supporters now have offered a new theory about American-led peaceful revolution in the region, its democratization and peaceful economic transformation, with reform of Islamic religious thought so as to reconcile Islam with modern Western culture. The newly disclosed plan for military occupation of a defeated Iraq makes up part of this theory. The occupation will reform and "re-educate" Iraq, supposedly in the way imperial Japan and Nazi Germany were remade after 1945.

Only people who know little about Japan and Germany in the 1940s could make such an assumption.

Historical ignorance, however deplorable, is not considered an impediment to policy-making in today's Washington. But the people putting these ideas forward cannot pretend to be ignorant of political Washington, the nature and preoccupations of the U.S. Congress today and the temper of American public opinion.

The numbers offered in Washington concerning such a military occupation are between 75,000 and 100,000 troops. This is roughly one-fifth of the total personnel of the existing regular army of the United States. And the cost of an occupation is estimated at some $16 billion per year. That is more than 4 percent of the total U.S. military budget for fiscal 2003, including the post-Sept. 11 Bush administration's military budget increase.

There is no possibility whatever that the American government and public would make such a commitment of men and money to Iraq.

Would other countries pay? Not if there had been no United Nations mandate for the war.

Europe after 1945 simply needed to have its economy rebuilt. That is what Marshall Plan money accomplished. The Marshall Plan did not reform or transform European society, nor was it expected to do so.

Japan, like Europe, had an advanced industry in 1941. It would not otherwise have been able to put up a ferocious three-and-a-half-year defense against American offensives in the Central and Southwestern Pacific and against the British/Indian advance in South Asia.

Japan in 1945 was also an intensely corporate, authoritarian and hierarchical society. By leaving the emperor in place, and acting with his consent and authority, the MacArthur occupation was able to conduct a peaceful reform of the Japanese government, economy and educational system. The Japanese authorities policed the country, not the American occupation.

There was no resistance. Would there be resistance to American occupation of Iraq? It is another agreeable fantasy to think that American soldiers would be cheered as they arrived, and be encouraged by the Iraqis to take over their country.

What would George W. Bush do, though, if the Iraqi army put up a serious fight, and if the Iraqi public resisted an American occupation? What Ariel Sharon is doing?

Owen Harries:

During the 1990s I spent a lot of time arguing with a lot of conservative American friends that the United States should use its position of dominance, its vast power, with restraint, discrimination and prudence. I argued that anything resembling a "democratic crusade" or the imposition of a "New World Order" was a bad idea--first because democracy is not an export commodity but a do-it-yourself enterprise that requires very special conditions; and secondly because an assertive, interventionist policy was bound to generate widespread hostility, suspicion, and if historical precedents meant anything, concerted opposition to the United States. ...

And I regularly quoted the warning that Edmund Burke had once given his fellow countrymen when Britain had been the world's dominant power:

Among precautions against ambition, it may not be amiss to take precaution against our own. I must fairly say, I dread our own power and our own ambition: I dread our being too much dreaded ... We may say that we shall not abuse this astonishing and hitherto unheard of power. But every other nation will think we shall abuse it. It is impossible but that, sooner or later, this state of things must produce a combination against us which may end in our ruin.

... The danger in all this is not of a hostile military response. The United States is much too strong for that. It is rather of a gathering political hostility which leaves America both dominant and increasingly disliked and isolated--which would be an extremely unhealthy state of affairs, not just for the United States but for the world.

Let me be clear: After the outrage of September 11, I do not believe that the United States could have reacted in any way other than as she did. But doing so will carry a cost. The long-term significance of what happened some months ago may be that it forced America decisively along a course of action that--by emphasising her military dominance, by requiring her to use her vast power conspicuously, by making restraint and moderation virtually impossible, and by making unilateralism an increasing feature of American behaviour--is bound to generate widespread and increased criticism and hostility towards her. That may turn out to be the real tragedy of September 11.

Personally, I strongly believe that the US should not claim, or believe, that it's going to war with Iraq for humanitarian reasons. Paradoxically, even if US leaders are perfectly sincere, that's a terrible reason to go to war. I posted the following response to someone who said that the US was going to war with Iraq for humanitarian reasons.

First. George Kennan: "...most foreign peoples do not believe that governments do things for selfless and altruistic motives; and if we do not reveal to them a good solid motive of self-interest for anything we do with regard to them, they are apt to invent one. This can be a more sinister one than we ever dreamed of, and their belief in it can cause serious confusion in our mutual relations."

Second, humanitarian motives (e.g. those provoked by accounts or TV images of great cruelty and suffering) are often temporary and fleeting. If there's no solid motive of national self-interest, humanitarian motives alone are not capable of sustaining the effort and the sacrifices required to fight a war. See Somalia.

Third. War is an extremely blunt instrument. It can achieve massive destruction and death, but in itself it cannot achieve any constructive purpose. At most it can clear the way for constructive activities which follow. The people in Iraq may fear Saddam, but they also fear the Americans. They're caught between the hammer and the anvil.

Fourth, from a moral point of view it's probably better to fight a war with limited and self-interested objectives, rather than unlimited and idealistic objectives. Unlimited objectives tend to justify unlimited means. Stanley Hoffmann: "... often the greatest threat to moderation and peace, and certainly the most insidious, comes from objectives that are couched in terms of fine principles in which the policy-maker fervently believes, yet that turn out to have no relation to political realities and can therefore be applied only by tortuous or brutal methods which broaden ad infinitum the gap between motives and effects. What matters in international affairs, alas, far more than intentions and objectives, is behavior and results."

I'm not saying that the United States should not go to war with Iraq. There's a concrete reason for it to do so: Saddam Hussein with nuclear weapons would be a Very, Very, Very Bad Situation. We're talking about the guy who set the Kuwait oil fields on fire. But Americans shouldn't say that they're going to war for humanitarian reasons. As you can see, it just pisses people off.

4.3. Rebuilding consent

If a crusade for democracy is such a bad idea, what should the US do instead? And what should it do in Iraq?

It may, in fact, turn out to be necessary to go to war to prevent Saddam Hussein from acquiring nuclear weapons. (I'm writing this in early February, after Hans Blix's January 27 update but before Colin Powell's speech to the UN Security Council.) But to me, there's two different problems:

  1. What to do about Iraq's development of nuclear weapons.
  2. What to do about hostility to the US in the Middle East.

I think the idea that going to war with Iraq to solve problem (1) is also going to solve problem (2) is wishful thinking.

In particular, it's important to recognize the need for consent. It's impossible to maintain the status quo by naked force alone. Louis Halle, The Cold War as History:

Real power is always something far greater than military power alone. A balance of power is not a balance of military power alone: it is, rather, a balance in which military power is one element. Even in its crudest aspect, power represents a subtle and intimate combination of force and consent. No stable government has ever existed, and no empire has ever become established, except with an immensely preponderant measure of consent on the part of those who were its subjects. That consent may be a half-grudging consent; it may be a consent based in part on awe of superior force; it may represent love, or respect, or fear, or a combination of the three. Consent, in any case, is the essential ingredient in stable power--more so than physical force, of which the most efficient and economical use is to increase consent.

By using physical force in such a way as alienates consent one constantly increases the requirements of physical force to replace the consent that has been alienated.

Because the US supports the status quo in the Middle East, and the status quo is widely seen as unjust, the US is bitterly resented. What can the US do to change this situation?

Over the long term, I think the US and its allies ought to work to change the status quo to address the needs and desires of the Arab world. Currently, the most important grievances are the sanctions against Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the longer term, what's needed is not just economic and social development, but the recovery of national pride.

I think it's critical for the US to do as much as it can to support peaceful change in the Islamic countries. If change doesn't come peacefully, it'll come violently, through revolution.

Back in 1958, William Polk argued that the US and the Arab world had a common interest in (1) peace and (2) the flow of oil, from the US side to supply the European economy, and from the Arab side to pay for modernization and development.

What, in effect, do we want from the Middle East? Any answer must be tentative and subject to revision periodically. At the present, the answer seems to me to be sufficient peace to prevent a world war and a sufficient flow of oil to maintain the European economy. The first is the common interest of most Arabs, who are in earnest when they insist on "positive neutralism." Of the second, two points must be made: on the one hand, Europe now depends for 80 per cent of her oil on the Middle East, but she could be supplied, admittedly at greater cost, from other sources. On the other hand, the sale of oil is the major source of revenue for many of the Arab countries and is the only hope for those who plan, as does the new generation of nationalists, large-scale development programs--and the only customer for all of the Middle Eastern oil is Europe. Let us not forget that our essential policy interests are identical with those of the Arabs.

Unfortunately, these common interests are no longer apparent. Development has stalled, and the populations of the Arab countries are increasing rapidly. The failures of secular Arab nationalism have led to a revival of Islam, and the inability to achieve change peacefully has led to an increasingly radicalized and violent Islamist movement.

In the long term, I think peace isn't going to hold unless it's clear that the Arab people have an interest in the status quo.

4.4. The Iraq crisis

Should the US and its allies go to war against Iraq, or not? If not, what should they do instead?

The first question: is Iraq willing to disarm or not? After the Gulf War ended, Saddam Hussein decided not to disarm. Barton Gellman:

... as we now know, Iraq set in motion a very sophisticated and highly resourced effort to cover up most of its capabilities. They formed what UNSCOM has come to call the "Joint Committee" of the most senior security service leaders and the inner circle of Saddam Hussein. They decided what their story would be to UNSCOM. They decided which part of their program they would sacrifice. After all, they had used chemical weapons extensively in the Iran-Iraq War, so they couldn't say they didn't have that program. They decided to sacrifice their oldest and least sophisticated chemical weapons. They were available in quantity to do so. They made a great show of bringing these to UNSCOM. UNSCOM laid dynamite across them and blew them up and buried them in pits and everyone felt they were making great progress.

But they were also carefully culling their files to make sure that the advanced binary chemical weapons, that the entire existence of a biological program, that some of their missile facilities, and the existence of any nuclear weapons program at all, were carefully hidden.

After the recent threats from the US and the unanimous UN Security Council Resolution 1441, Iraq has admitted UNMOVIC inspectors. But Hans Blix commented in his January 27 update: "Iraq appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance -- not even today -- of the disarmament, which was demanded of it and which it needs to carry out to win the confidence of the world and to live in peace."

I'm afraid that if Saddam Hussein decided not to disarm after the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1441, I doubt he'll change his mind now that there's a public rift between the US, France, Germany, and Russia.

So Iraq's not willing to disarm. What next? If Saddam acquires nuclear weapons, would it be possible to deter him from using them?

The Cold War suggests that the answer is yes. The United States and the Soviet Union never went to war with each other, after all. Nuclear weapons tend to freeze geographic boundaries: because both sides know that the danger is so incredibly high, they won't take the risk of going to war.

Unfortunately, nuclear deterrence doesn't always work. Egypt and Syria went to war in 1973 against Israel, despite the risk of being destroyed by Israel's nuclear arsenal if things didn't go as planned.

Moreover, there's always the risk of miscalculation. Kenneth Pollack argues in The Threatening Storm that Saddam Hussein is an aggressive risk-taker who often miscalculates.

The most likely scenario is that after Saddam acquires a small nuclear arsenal, he decides that he can now launch a conventional war against his neighbors -- the most likely targets being Kuwait and Saudi Arabia -- because he can now deter the United States from intervening. So he launches a war. But the US decides that it can't stay out of the war. We now have a war being fought between two nuclear-armed powers. There's nothing down this road except disaster.

The US administration believes that given Saddam Hussein's character (particularly his aggressive risk-taking), it's going to end up going to war with Iraq sooner or later. Given this, they think it's better to go to war sooner, before Iraq has nuclear weapons, rather than later; the choice is between war now and nuclear war later.

Of course, there's a third choice: standing aside and withdrawing from the Middle East once Saddam Hussein has nuclear weapons, letting Saddam take over Kuwait and perhaps Saudi Arabia. But that road isn't any safer, because Israel's probably not going to stand by while this is happening; and Israel has nuclear weapons as well.

If Saddam doesn't decide to disarm, I don't think there's any good choices left. The question for the US and its allies, then, is which of these three choices is the least bad:

  1. Going to war before Saddam Hussein can acquire nuclear weapons (either now or in the next couple of years).
  2. Backing down, not going to war, and attempting to rely on deterrence once Saddam has nuclear weapons.
  3. Not going to war, and withdrawing from the Middle East, either now or once Saddam has nuclear weapons.

I'm afraid it's not obvious to me which of these choices is the least bad. Frankly, they all look pretty terrible.

I think if Saddam doesn't disarm, I'd have to reluctantly choose (1). If the US and its allies aren't willing to go to war at this point, because of the risks and dangers involved, then option (2) isn't going to work, because deterrence simply isn't going to be credible when Saddam has nuclear weapons and the risks and dangers become much, much greater. And option (3) also leads to disaster, probably in the form of a war between Israel and Iraq. As William Polk writes:

If going into Iraq is unlikely, should we consider getting out? That is our fifth theoretical option, to wash our hands of Iraq. I do not believe this is in the national interest or even at this point feasible, but I also believe that sooner or later many Americans will find it attractive. We are already pulling back some forces from the Gulf and this may prefigure withdrawal on a larger scale. If so, what happens then?

It is unlikely that any other nation or group of nations acceptable to us would assume our role. The members of the European Community do not have suitable means to take restrictive action against Iraq and they have less will than the US once did to use what means they have. Moreover, almost certainly they would compete with one another, as they did before the Gulf War, to supply what Saddam seeks. This would further encourage the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons and so give rise to a host of new problems. Furthermore, the "unleashing" of Saddam would probably trigger an Israeli attack, which would in turn upset the whole region, risking, because of the effects on oil supplies, a major world economic disaster and pressures from Iraq on our other Middle Eastern allies.

More on Iraq:

Brian Urquhart, "The Prospect of War," New York Review of Books, December 19, 2002. Review of Kenneth Pollack, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.

Pollack feels that the policy of containment is too far gone to save. The UN sanctions are now so leaky that illegal goods flow into Iraq, and no one knows exactly what they are. The profits of smuggling are too enticing— even economically too important—to Iraq's neighbors to be cut off by a new and stricter sanctions regime. There is, Pollack believes, no hope of stronger and more enforceable sanctions. He also believes that the UN arms inspections, as an element of containment, are a trap and that the new inspection team, the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), is inferior to the old one (UNSCOM). Moreover, he argues, proving that Iraq has not complied with the Security Council's resolutions is a virtually impossible task. (It was only through defectors that the old inspection team got an accurate idea of the extent of Saddam's programs for producing weapons of mass destruction.)

Kenneth Pollack, "Why Iraq Can't Be Deterred," New York Times, September 26, 2002.

William R. Polk, "Iraq: A New Leaf," New York Review of Books, February 18, 1999. Discusses the options for US policy towards Iraq. The three elements of diplomacy are persuasion, compromise, and threats. At the time, threats weren't an option (because there was no way the US could invade), and so Polk recommended that the US and its allies try to convince Saddam not to pursue nuclear weapons by reaching some kind of compromise. But Polk also notes that Saddam wants nuclear weapons very, very badly. If he hasn't been convinced to disarm by the Bush administration's threats over the last 12 months, it's hard to see how he'd be convinced in some other way.

Michael O'Hanlon, "War Against Saddam's Regime: Winnable but No Cakewalk," Testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, October 2, 2002. Discusses likely US and Iraqi casualties in a war.

William D. Nordhaus, "Iraq: The Economic Consequences of War," New York Review of Books, December 5, 2002. Discusses the economic costs of war.

Anthony Zinni, "A General Speaks on War With Iraq," Center for Defense Information, October 10, 2002.

Michael O'Hanlon, "Force and Finesse," San Jose Mercury News, December 16, 2002. Discusses the military plan.

International Crisis Group, "Iraq Backgrounder: What Lies Beneath," October 1, 2002.

International Crisis Group, "Voices from the Iraqi Street," December 4, 2002.

Council on Foreign Relations/Baker Institute, "Guiding Principles for Post-Conflict Policy in Iraq," December 2002.

Michael O'Hanlon, "The Dangers of Delaying an Attack on Iraq," Financial Times, January 19, 2003.

4.5. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Putting blame aside, which isn't going to solve the problem, I think it boils down to this: the Israelis, remembering the Holocaust, don't want to be slaughtered again; the Palestinians want their land back.

Since neither side has the power to defeat the other, the only solution is some kind of compromise: most likely, the Palestinians give up the land within Israel's pre-1967 borders, the Israelis give up the occupied territories. It'll be bitter for both sides to accept -- the Palestinians will be giving up most of their land, the Israelis will be abandoning the settlers in the occupied territories. But neither side really has much choice, so barring some kind of catastrophe, I think that's what'll eventually happen.

So why can't the two sides reach a compromise? They've come very close in the past 10 years. I think the problem is the conflict within each side between the hard-liners and the moderates. The hard-liners on each side don't want to compromise, because they see it as a fight between good and evil, or because they still believe they can defeat the other side. And the ongoing violence has weakened the moderates and strengthened the hard-liners.

As the violence drags on, it's possible that people will get tired of it, weakening the hard-liners, and that the moderates will eventually be strong enough to make a deal that they can keep.


Avishai Margalit, "The Middle East: Snakes and Ladders," New York Review of Books, May 17, 2001.

If there is one thing that gets on the Palestinians' nerves, it's the talk about Barak's "generous offer" at Camp David. Palestinians--all Palestinians--regard this expression as a deep contradiction. Just why they do needs explaining.

Palestinians view the Palestine that existed during British rule between 1918 and 1948 as theirs--100 percent theirs, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. They see themselves as the indigenous population of this region and hence the natural owners of the entire land of Palestine. Any part of the land that they yield as part of an agreement is, for them, a huge concession. Recognizing the State of Israel as defined by its 1967 borders--the so-called green line--and thus yielding some 77 percent of British mandate Palestine is to them by itself a colossal concession, a painful historical compromise. By recognizing the Israel within the green line they give up their claim to redress what they see as the wrong done to them by the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. If they accept any deal that recognizes Israel they will have succeeded at most in redressing the wrong done to them in 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza. Thus to ask them to compromise further after what they already regard as a huge compromise is, as they see it, a historical outrage. To call any such compromise "a generous offer" is to them sheer blasphemy.

The Israeli perception is of course diametrically opposite. And by "the Israeli perception" I do not refer to the idea of "Greater Israel," according to which the entire biblical land of Israel belongs to the Jews, who are the historical indigenous population that was forced out of the land but never gave it up. What I mean by the Israeli perception is something very prosaic and unbiblical. Following the two wars that were forced on Israel, in 1948 and 1967, Israel conquered and held on to the entire land from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. So the Israelis say that any territory we yield to Palestinians is, to us, a concession. And if Barak was willing to offer them almost all of the territories occupied since 1967--an offer that no previous Israeli leader was willing to entertain, let alone to make--it is entirely apt to see this as a generous offer.

Hume Horan, "The U.S. and Islam In The Modern World", Foreign Service Journal, February 2002. Argues that the US should impose a solution.

The United States, with its never-equaled political and economic and military might, should peremptorily put a stop to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It has already wasted too many lives, taken up too much of our attention, and consumed resources that could have helped move the area forward. It has been too much of a distraction. The expression "confidence-building measures" has a fantastical, even cynical air of unreality to it, at least as applied in the Middle East. The so-called "peace process," has proven to be little more than a diplomatic perpetual-motion machine. It provides excuses for all to keep things on hold. Between Arab anti-Semitism, and Jewish fear of Arab revanchism, no agreement is likely to be reached or to hold unless we take a strong hand.

To us and to many other friends of the region, the outlines of a settlement are pretty clear: they would resemble the Camp David proto-accords. There would be a Palestinian state committed to living in peace with Israel; Israel's West Bank settlements -- a bone in the throat to any peace effort -- would be dismantled. There would be security guarantees for both Israel and the Palestinians. As a corollary to any agreement, there should be measures in place to monitor the sort of Palestinian state that would emerge; one Taliban-dominated state has been enough.

We should work hard to enlist the association and support of our Western allies in this effort. But we should not get bogged down in details. We should ignore and bypass by those who would slow our peace efforts by reviving objections drawn from over 50 years of failed peacemaking. It has been my experience, that when the United States makes it clear to all the world that we are utterly determined that something must be done, reality tends to rearrange itself in a complaisant pattern. Once we do, Arab and Israeli leaders could turn to their populations, and say with a shrug, "What could I do against the might and desire of the United States?"

Dennis Ross, "Think Again: Yasir Arafat," Foreign Policy, July/August 2002. Argues that an imposed solution is not possible. I can't tell whether it's Ross or Horan who's correct.

If one overriding lesson from the past persists, it is that the Palestinians must make decisions and bear the responsibility of those decisions. No enduring peace can be reached until the Palestinian leadership levels with its public, resists the temptation to blame every ill on the Israelis or the outside world, assumes responsibility for controversial decisions, and stands by its decision in the face of opposition.

An imposed solution will only delay the day when all sides, but especially the Palestinians, have to assume real responsibilities. Consequently, an imposed solution would be no solution at all.

Robert Malley and Hussein Agha, "The Last Negotiation: How to End the Middle East Peace Process," Foreign Affairs, May/June 2002. The International Crisis Group has a detailed blueprint: Part I, Part II, Part III.

4.6. Pushing for reform

Why doesn't the US push for democracy in the Middle East instead of supporting dictatorships?

An anonymous poster ("Don't Tread on Me") put it this way:

Look, it's not like the United States can go skipping around the world handing out liberal democracy like candy from a basket to all the good little boys and girls.

Douglas Macdonald, writing on H-DIPLO:

I would also make distinctions between normal business among states and "support," which are many times blurred in the American debates over how to deal with the rest of the world. This is true for both left and right. Thus, conservatives in the United States argue that establishing normal relations with Castro would "support" his regime, while relations with rightist regimes will liberalize them over time; liberals say that "support" for rightist regimes extends their shelf life (and the United States must therefore take responsibility for their actions), while relations with leftist regimes (for example, China or Cuba) will liberalize them over time.

This assumed march toward political liberalization remains largely an untested hypothesis, ... but it is a fundamental part of the American liberal ideology. This is why backing dictators, of the left or right, is seemingly so much more painful for Americans than other peoples. It can take different policy forms, but it is liberal universalism just the same.

It's important to recognize that establishing stable, effective political institutions is not easy. Assuming that it'll be straightforward to transplant American-style democracy to Iraq, for example, is like reading about democracy in classical Athens and then trying to set up the same political institutions in the modern world. The world has changed; the circumstances are different. Similarly, Iraq is different from the United States. Even if liberal democracy is going to work, it's not going to work in exactly the same way, with exactly the same political institutions.

Macdonald's book Adventures in Chaos: American Intervention for Reform in the Third World, describes how the US has often attempted to push through reforms in unstable client states -- political as well as military and economic -- as a way of strengthening their legitimacy. The problem is that the client government is probably primarily concerned with maintaining its power relative to other domestic factions. Because reform will alter the domestic balance of power, it is always resisted by the client government. In times of political stability, the response is, "Why rock the boat?" In times of upheaval, the response is, "First I need to restore order, then we can discuss reform."

Macdonald describes three case studies in detail: China under the KMT, the Philippines, and South Vietnam. His book is well worth studying. Here's a brief review.

This suggests a way for the US to push for reform in the Middle East; but Macdonald himself isn't very optimistic. On H-DIPLO, he writes:

... what would Barth have the United States do in the region to countries like Saudi Arabia, or Kuwait? Press for some sort of "representative" government? Try to turn them into Jeffersonian democrats? Try to arrange compromises with a totalitarian mode of thought like Islamic fundamentalism? Accept them the way they are? Let them be overrun by the likes of the even more "unrepresentative" and "repressive" (by my standards) Saddam? Threaten to not buy their oil? Criticism is easy, but policy-making is very difficult.

What would Professor Barth suggest for a policy toward, let's say, the Saudi regime, the support for which is at the top of Bin Laden's list of American crimes and the government of which Barth finds "in no way represents the will of the people?" (But then again Bin Laden is still angry about the Crusades. How could one possibly assuage such a person and those who support his aims? By dropping jars of olives and iodine as Levine proposes? Or more "representativeness" as Barth suggests? I am really doubtful.)

Now, the "will of the people" is a slippery concept if there ever was one, and I am not sure how Barth has discerned what the Saudi people think with such clarity and certainty. But for the sake of argument let's assume that he is right. By whose standard do we judge "representativeness" to be a worthy and attainable goal to seek? Assuming that we do, how does Barth suggest we go about it? In policy terms, how would Professor Barth square this policy circle, without risking the collapse of the entire government structure and its replacement by something even worse, for the local people and the United States (such as happened, in my view, when the Shah was replaced by Khomeini and Islamic terrorism against the United States and the West took a quantum leap?) What would the reaction be from the Saudi ruling families, or even the populace, to such pressure? Would it not hand the nationalism issue over to the militants by proving them right, thereby strengthening Bin Laden's supporters? With characteristic wisdom, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote (I am paraphrasing from memory here): "The most dangerous moment for a bad government arrives when it tries to reform itself." With such unknowns, what government would or should run the risks? By any measurement, our opportunities for fostering these kinds of changes, even if desirable and necessary from our point of view, are modest.

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