Location: Indianapolis, Indiana, United States

I'm just trying to develop an online body of work (even if the work is throwaway nonsense) to advance my writing career.

Monday, September 11, 2006

What If We're Wrong?

This is cause for celebration. The time as I write is 10:30pm on September 11, 2006 and I have managed to avoid so much as glancing at a television screen all day. It's not that I have a particular aversion to remembrance, nor am I above woolgathering about the past, even sometimes wallowing in it, but I don't care to see it depicted onscreen.

It is often said that anniversaries are a time for reflection and I've been reflecting. I haven't drawn any definite conclusions, but a question keeps occurring to me: what if we're wrong? Perhaps our entire approach to the specter of terrorism is flawed and doomed to fail. Maybe the only way to win the game is not to play.

In terms of law enforcement, terrorist acts must be confonted. People who blow up buildings, drive vehicles into a mass of humanity or otherwise launch unprovoked attacks against civilians should be pursued, caught, tried and imprisoned. Like any criminal activity, complete victory over terrorism is probably an unattainable objective--even though to avoid sounding like defeatists, those who fight it should probably say they're out to eliminate it altogether--but with patience and sound techniques, relative triumph might be possible.

Five years in, the rest of the War on Terror appears ripe for re-examination. The present strategy, if accepted at face value, goes something like this: the West will attempt to undermine or attenuate despotic governments that either openly support or blithely tolerate terrorist organizations. In two instances--Afghanistan and Iraq--military action has been taken in order to facilitate regime changes and assemble fledgling democracies; a third country--Libya--has renounced terrorist sponsorship and relinquished weapons of mass destruction on a voluntary basis. Several other nations--North Korea, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Lebanon, Somalia, among others--either pose direct threats or suffer from instability which could lead to security risks in the future. Is this sounding stilted enough? I'm trying to write like a Pentagon employee.

The upshot of all this boils down to a frustrating lack of progress. The situation in Afghanistan seems to have regressed lately, after some encouraging developments in the last 24 months. Iraq appears no closer to tranquility than it did three years ago. Why has this happened, or failed to happen? There probably isn't a single person who could name every possible reason, for even if a particular person knew them all, he or she would die of old age before getting through each one, but one rarely mentioned is the old fashioned anti-outsider syndrome that took place in Vietnam forty years ago. It wasn't that everyone in the country who opposed to the United States occupation was a Communist; many were simply war-weary xenophobes who had seen Vietnam controlled by China, then by France, then invaded by the US. In the present day, then, bearing in mind the situations in Iraq and Afganistan are not exactly the same as that which prevailed in Vietnam two generations ago, maybe a lot of Iraqis and Afghanis are simply tired of foreigners dominating their respective countries. This is a necessarily oversimplified telling of the tale, but you can see how this sort of thing would give rise to disillusionment.

Another problem in the War on Terror involves a pervasive cynicism around the world. Very few people want the terrorists to win, but from the beginning, the motives of the United States and its allies have been questioned. This second guessing was not as loud at first, in part because the attacks on September 11th, 2001 offered a kind of honeymoon, but also because ulterior motives were harder to detect during the initial phase of the War, that is, the Afghan phase. A deserately poor country ruled for years by the tyrannical Taliban and before that victimized by Soviet expansion desires--which failed--it was easier for most people to believe that the reason for action in Afghanistan was the stated one.

The same did not hold true in Iraq, an oil-rich nation ruled by Saddam Hussein, with whom the West had already quarreled repeatedly. Immediately, people all over the world claimed the rationale for war was exaggerated and the reasons given for it were not the real ones. Burdened by a poor communicator in the United States and a decent one in the United Kingdom who was by many perceived, rightly or wrongly, as servile to America, the Western leadership was unable to convince most doubters that it just wanted to rid the world of a menace. Not coincidentally, one reason Iraq has been so difficult to secure is probably due to its oil reserves. As much as religious fanaticism plays into the equation, there are many people who simply want power, control, and resources. In fact, it's clear now that the religious aspect of the conflict is often used by cold and pragmatic elders as a ploy to attract idealistic and callow youths who volunteer for suicide missions. The elders, it seems, never get around to sending themselves on these engagements.

So what can be done? Could it be that the only way to really combat the sort of extremism we're up against is to disengage and let it fail on its own? To a large extent, this happened with Communism. Attempts to battle Communists head on met with mixed results, heavy loss of life on both sides, and questions about true motives and intentions. More indirect forms of pressure, along with a sort of scornful neglect of the Communist world, contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc states, mostly because the system itself was unsustainable. Except for North Korea and Cuba, other nominally Communist nations have had to introduce sweeping changes just to retain power. Could the current crisis, which relies largely on religious zealotry and perceived disenfranchisement of Muslims around the world, only subside if it is addressed locally, by Iraqis and Afghanis and Iranians and other citizens who ultimately tire of its violence and rigors?

If this is true, it's a dreary prospect. Trouble is, critics of war often don't seem to have very workable solutions; they know they're opposed to war and that's about it. They use vague, ambitious words like "negotiations" and "diplomacy", but what do they really mean? In fact, one of the problems with every side of the debate--the pro-war faction, the anti-war faction, the Islamic extremists--is they all seem to suffer from the same narrow thinking: everything would be fine if you just did things our way! We know already this isn't true: none of these groups can be right all the time. What we don't know--and may be loath to discover--is if there's really only one way to do things: the hard way. Let's hope not. And if it must be this way, let's hope a better world awaits on the other side of it.


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