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Commentary

A Time to Value Our World of Worry

January 02, 2002|SHIBLEY TELHAMI | Shibley Telhami is a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.

I watched our two children, ages 6 and 8, play with their presents by the Christmas tree with infectious excitement. But, for the first time since they were born, I could barely hide my worries for the new year.

Certainly, I worried about the vulnerability that the horror of Sept. 11 brought and about the sobering turn in the economy. But I had deeper fears: Will my generation fail our children by making the wrong decisions? Three concerns in particular soured my holiday mood.

First, I worried about the quick reversal from a sense of unprecedented vulnerability to a sense of unequaled strength after the military success in Afghanistan. There is something healing about this turnaround. But what concerns me is the wild swings in mood that may be carried to extremes.

As a student of U.S. foreign policy, I am well aware of pushing isolationism to the tragic extreme in the case of Pearl Harbor and interventionism to its painful end in Vietnam. These swings usually took a generation. But in today's world and with the absence of constraints, they can take place in a matter of months. Already, one hears talk of the wonders of modern weapons that can do so much without jeopardizing many American lives, and there are voices calling for more ambitious missions, carried out alone if necessary.

In particular, I worry about war with Iraq. Ultimately the U.S. has the power to prevail, but weapons of mass destruction almost certainly would be used by Iraq in any war to topple its government. We know it has chemical, biological and possibly radiological weapons. We know Saddam Hussein is ruthless enough to use them. One thing has prevented him from using them: his own survival. Go after him and he will surely use them.

There is a big difference between madness and ruthlessness, and Hussein is guilty of the second but not the first. That's why it is perplexing to hear that we can live with the damage of war now because it will be worse if he acquires nuclear weapons. We should do all we can to prevent him from acquiring such weapons, but if he does, he can be deterred because the man and his regime want to survive. Why is it that most of Iraq's neighbors who have to bear the consequences of Hussein's ruthlessness oppose such a war, while we propose it for their sakes?

Second, I feel grateful for our capacity to strike at the merchants of death, the Osama bin Ladens of the world. But I fear that in our apparent quick success we are ignoring a painful reality: Terrorism has a "supply side" and a "demand side," and unless we address both we will not remove the threat.

Terrorists are often politically ambitious individuals, but they succeed in large part because they can exploit public despair, which allows them to find ready recruits, to raise funds and to play to public opinion. If one supplier is destroyed, others will try to exploit the demand. The most horrifying aspect of the September attacks is how easy it is to commit terror in today's world if you have people willing to die.

The demand side is not so much driven by poverty or inequality, although on the extreme ends these are factors. Two words capture public demand better: humiliation and hopelessness. If our military actions succeed in destroying one supplier of terror but in the process increase public humiliation and hopelessness, other suppliers will surely try to exploit the demand.

The military side of the campaign on terror is necessary but insufficient for winning the war. If we spend a fraction of the energies we now use on the military campaign to address the political sources of humiliation and hopelessness, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, we would stand a far better chance of winning. Although I see the terror suppliers on the defensive today, public humiliation and helplessness in the Middle East are on the increase.

Third, I am concerned about the sanctity of our nation's principles. I raise my two children to be egalitarian and proud Americans. I remind them that, at the end of the day, they must be able to look themselves in the mirror. I want them to be strong and to succeed but not through a route that will change them in the process. I want our country to be a model to which people aspire, to be powerful enough to defeat its enemies but also strong enough to be compassionate, to be driven by the values that make it great but never to forget that the ends, no matter how noble, cannot justify any means.

May my generation possess the wisdom to overcome the pain of Sept. 11 and its new sense of power. Let us not take shortcuts on civil liberties at home and on compassion abroad, and may we succeed without losing what we stand for.

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