The deadly terrorism in Kenya and Tanzania and the U.S. military response in Sudan and Afghanistan threatens to draw the United States deeper into a strategic no-win bind. On the one hand, the outrageous twin attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa, with their massive killing of innocent bystanders, could not go unanswered, especially when reportedly good intelligence made it clear who the perpetrators were and that further attacks might be imminent. Under such clear circumstances, no one could argue for inaction or a failure to respond.
The problem is that the issue does not end here. Sooner or later, retaliation is probable from a variety of radical and zealous groups--even individuals--who have little to lose and much to gain by pursuing the confrontation. Now, even administration officials speak of a possible "coming war" against terrorism.
But these terrorist attacks have not taken place in a vacuum. It is dangerous to divorce terrorism from politics, yet the U.S. media continue to talk about an abstract "war against terrorism" without mention of the issues or context that lie behind them. If a war against terrorism is coming, we had better start discussing and understanding more clearly the depth and range of impulses that drive people in the Middle East--a discussion so far stunningly absent from our public discourse. Why so?
There is no monolithic Muslim bloc, but a few deeply held attitudes among the public are quite evident. Broadly speaking, most Muslims feel helpless, weak and resentful in the face of external power at work in their region: The Middle East--the center of world civilization for several milleniums--is now beset with masses of poor citizens (apart from the oil states), bad social services, poor education, absence of democracy, constant abuse of human rights, widespread corruption, police states, often brutal rulers, no voice over their own fates; they are victims of truly bad governance in most states of the region.
And what do they perceive? U.S. support for almost any ruler willing to protect U.S. interests--routinely identified in Washington as oil and Israel. They see a Washington unwilling to act evenhandedly in the Arab-Israeli peace process and infinitely tolerant of a hard-line government in Israel that denies Palestinians land, dignity and statehood. They perceive double standards that allow Israel to violate U.N. resolutions, but not Iraq; that Israeli nukes are OK, but not nukes in Muslim hands. They see routine use of U.S. unilateral military power against Muslim targets that is unparalleled elsewhere in the world. They see themselves routinely humbled by use of overwhelming Israeli military power. They see U.S. military forces in the Gulf as being there to protect ruling families and not populations--the essence of Osama bin Laden's charge.
Muslims are concerned that there are no Muslim Americans involved in high level U.S. policy-making in the Middle East but that Jewish Americans occupy nearly every single senior position relating to U.S. Arab-Israeli policy. They perceive no interest in Washington in pushing any kind of democratizing agenda in the region, and they hear casual talk of Islam as "incompatible with democracy." They see Iraqi children dying of disease and starvation as a result of U.S. sanctions. They perceive widespread caricaturization and demonization of Islam in Western media and films. They point to colonial regimes in the past seeking to weaken Islam and traditional Muslim culture. They point to Muslims under siege in Palestine, Chechnya, Russia, Xinjiang (Chinese Turkestan), Bosnia, Kosovo, Kashmir, Eritrea, the Philippines and India, and often treated as second-class citizens in Europe. The list goes on.
These perceptions obviously do not fully reflect reality, and counterarguments can be made in many cases. But perceptions matter mightily since they form the increasingly poisonous psychological backdrop against which distraught and angry Muslims end up championing those who overcome their impotence, stand up to the West and assert Muslim dignity. Sadly, most Muslims in the region feel ambivalant about the embassy bombings; while rejecting terrorism in principle and sharing human sympathy for the loss of life, many also feel a touch of satisfaction that the U.S. partly got what it deserved.
We don't have to buy their rationale. And realistically, the kind of terrorists Bin Laden represents would probably never be satisfied with any kind of U.S. policy change. Their angers, fears and and resentments lie deep and beyond debate. But the dangers of getting drawn into an escalating war against terrorist groups who enjoy some public sympathy are very real. These attitudes form the backdrop that facilitates violent acts.
Yes, terrorism has no place in our world. But we had better ensure we have prepared a more sympathetic environment for our campaign than we now have. The U.S. is quite isolated in the Middle East today. Let's start by facing the full reality of the region's problems. Or is it more convenient just to talk of an isolated "war against terrorism," even when it is really just the tip of the iceberg?