Managing the Rage

As the fog lifts from the September 11 attacks, the FBI and CIA are presumably honing in on the identity and aims of the people behind the plot. An organizational explanation focused on conspiratorial networks will be easier for us to accept than a broader sociological one, since anyone who draws attention to the "root causes" of anti-American hostility in the Islamic world risks sounding like an apologist for the terrorists.


We need to deepen our understanding of anti-American rage, however, not so much because it lay behind the plot as because it lies ahead of it. As Osama bin Laden hinted in his pretaped "response" to U.S. military operations, the September 11 atrocities may have been a carefully laid trap. Indeed, subsequent events suggest that they were designed to provoke an indiscriminate U.S. retaliation that would bring Arab and Islamic publics to a boil and destabilize America's allies throughout the Middle East. If such a scenario were to unfold, the initial stakes would be Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and Saudi Arabia's oil. To avoid either or both falling into the hands of fanatics, we need to calibrate our response to avoid doing what our ruthless enemies may hope and expect us to do. The question is: How can we retaliate without recruiting more foot soldiers to the war against us and without putting allied governments at risk?


From the outset, the Bush administration seemed soberly conscious that a military response had to be accompanied by nonmilitary moves designed to diminish the outrage that counterstrikes would predictably awaken in the Islamic world. It quickly recognized that refugee camps are not only humanitarian disasters but also breeding grounds for terrorism and thus a long-term security threat to the United States. Even before launching military action on October 7, the United States began organizing food drops inside Afghanistan and helping to provide United Nations assistance to those fleeing the country. These are fair examples of modest nonmilitary gestures designed to moderate the anti-American passions that any U.S. military assault on or within a Muslim nation will ignite.


Renewed American interest in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process manifestly serves the same purpose. On October 1, the U.S. State Department announced that the United States had decided to back the creation of a Palestinian state. Such an intention will be difficult to carry through. But the stakes for the United States now appear much larger than they were before September 11. Reaching a highly visible milestone in the effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could at least partly abate Arab anger fueled by what might be a long, drawn-out military response.


In other areas, however, it is unclear how quickly and appropriately American thinking will adapt to the new situation that confronts us. Retreating into our gated community will not guarantee our security, since committed killers, perhaps armed with lethal pathogens, can stealthily outflank whatever shields we choose to erect. Homeland defense therefore requires us to go out into the world and take the war to our enemies. But what ideas will guide our armed voyage abroad?


The greatest danger, paradoxically, comes from partially persuasive ideas rather than crudely simplistic ones. The problem is not that our policy makers believe that Islam is a monolith or that all Muslims seek a holy war against the West. These simplifications have no influence--and therefore no pernicious influence--on the thinking of the administration, which is making an effort to break the poisonous identification of Islam with anti-American terrorism. But subtler ideas with a palpable sway over American policy remain worthy subjects of debate.

The Trouble with Multilateralism

Multilateralism invites probing inquiry precisely because its reasonableness may obscure its limitations. After the atrocities of September 11, Colin Powell succeeded in cobbling together an antiterrorist coalition, even working through the United Nations (which the administration had earlier shunned) so that, among other things, cooperating governments in the Muslim world might not appear to their own populations as servile clients of the United States. This sudden volte-face in Bush's foreign policy seemed to vindicate critics who had assailed the administration for withdrawing from international treaties and generally acting as if the United States could afford to ignore other countries entirely.


But as the administration abandoned unilateralism, its former critics began to point out that an effective coalition against terrorism, which must include countries outside the industrialized democracies that comprise the G-7, entails dangers of its own. For one thing, many of our potential and actual allies in the current campaign define "terrorist" in a less restrictive way than we do. Russia, India, China, and Israel all have restless Islamic populations inside and near their borders. In the worst of cases, they could draw the United States into a confrontation between Islamic and non-Islamic populations, thereby reinforcing the appeal of transnational Islamic radicalism despite concerted American efforts to avoid such a polarized outcome.

But it will not be easy to keep our distance from the aspirations of such vital allies, for what Bush calls a war against "every terrorist group of global reach" cannot boil down to a war solely against terrorists who can reach the United States. Having signed up an eclectic group of partners with diverse private agendas, the administration must now articulate clearly the common interests that we share with others. And it must walk a fine line to avoid alienating indispensable allies on the one hand and reinforcing the appeal of transnational Islamic militancy on the other.

While manifestly useful, multilateralism also raises problems when it includes, as it must, cooperation with moderate Islamic regimes. For how can we construct a stable whole from unstable parts? We urgently require the kind of on-the-ground intelligence that only the security apparatuses of these governments can give us, just as we need the airfields and overflight rights that only local dictators can provide.


What's more, to elicit such cooperation we cannot simply twist arms and issue ultimatums; we must also be forthcoming. And this means that we must become increasingly thick with unaccountable and perhaps corrupt incumbents. An antiterrorist partnership with repressive and nonparticipatory governments may offer us partners poorly positioned to help us attenuate anti-American passions in the region. For a powerful catalyst of popular hostility to the United States is the perception that America hypocritically advocates democracy in principle while supporting nondemocratic regimes in Arab and Islamic countries. By entangling us further with weakly legitimate regimes, our coalition against terrorism may only corroborate such malignant preconceptions.

The Trouble with Nation Building

Before the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., President Bush and his advisers repeatedly explained that "nation building" abroad had embroiled the United States in intractable problems and should therefore no longer be included among our principal foreign-policy goals. In the wake of September 11, many commentators replied that that our current woes stem in part from the U.S. decision to abandon Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, thereby creating a power vacuum in which foreign terrorists could operate undisturbed. Others added, in the same spirit, that poverty and inequality contribute to political instability--the implication being that the United States, in order to win the global battle for hearts and minds, should channel economic aid to those nations that incubate the most venomous forms of anti-Americanism.


Signs are that the administration has embraced these and similar suggestions. Once a political settlement is in place, U.S. help in reconstructing the devastated Afghan economy--whether we call it nation building or not--could be designed to discredit the accusations that radical Islamists lodge against America. Prominent among these is the notion that the United States is an autistic and irresponsible power, unaware of how its actions affect other peoples and particularly unwilling to help Islamic countries the way it helped, for example, Germany and Japan after World War II. Admittedly, Germany and Japan provided more favorable underlying conditions for economic reconstruction than Afghanistan does today. Our aim in this case should simply be to provide decent prospects for ordinary people. By focusing especially on education and health care for Afghan girls and women, we could also answer the moral absolutism of Islamic fundamentalists (who regularly accuse the West of materialism and relativism) with a moral absolutism of our own: Half a country's population cannot be brutally degraded in this way.


But the genuine appeal of nation building should not be allowed to mask its inherent dangers and the enormous difficulty of managing it successfully. Not only are massive financial transfers unlikely to fix a broken economy or buy lasting gratitude, but a half-serious program designed to stimulate economic development may give youths a technical education only to throw them out into a distressed society with heightened expectations and few prospects for employment. A postmilitary commitment to economic assistance for Afghanistan must therefore be as unflagging as it was in postwar West Germany; for where U.S. development assistance has been halfhearted, failure has frequently been the result.


Without domestic support, governments inclined to support the United States feel boxed in and cannot cooperate effectively in dismantling transnational terrorist networks. But can we successfully coax Arab and Islamic regimes allied with us into moderating their ways--reforming their habitual methods of governance, reducing repression, and increasing democratic participation--without risking their ouster and replacement by radically uncooperative regimes? Can they become more responsive to their own societies without turning their backs on us?


This question brings us full circle. We cannot sustain an effective coalition against terrorism, which includes Arab and Islamic states, unless we reach past rulers into the societies that they govern and somehow reduce popular Arab and Islamic hostility toward America. Building nations, like building coalitions, requires the United States to walk a very fine line. We must encourage liberalization without provoking instability. This is a perilous task, requiring the kind of deep understanding of other countries and cultures that has been visible only occasionally in postwar American foreign policy.

A Wider War?

If the military war spreads beyond Afghanistan, managing anti-American rage may become even more critical. Some in Bush's administration advocate toppling Saddam Hussein and destroying his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, even if he had no material hand in the events of September 11. A land invasion of Iraq, however, would involve enormous risks, including the possibility of unintended civilian casualties (in Israel as well as Iraq) and the inflammation of popular passions across the Arab and Islamic world--not to mention incalculable regional instability in case the country broke up.


What auxiliary steps could the United States take, in such a hypothetical situation, to avert or minimize a dangerous Islamic backlash and to prevent a regional war in case of territorial fragmentation? We could, for one thing, exploit the occasion of an invasion to vacate our bases in Saudi Arabia, transferring troops to Iraq to stabilize the Gulf militarily while slightly reducing the offense to Islamic sensibilities caused by stationing soldiers directly in the land of Mecca and Medina. And the United Nations could hold prompt elections, at least in the south, producing some sort of local Shiite government untainted by Saddam's Sunni clique, thus in some measure conciliating Iran to a U.S.-led military action. (Saudi and Turkish concerns would need to be assuaged in other ways.)


None of these actions would make a highly risky U.S.-led invasion of an Arab country seem legitimate in Muslim eyes. But policies of this general sort could conceivably lower the temperature on Arab and Islamic streets. As the military drama unfolds, in any case, we must think hard about the wider theater of action. If anti-American rage turns into a firestorm, the terrorists who struck on September 11 may very well have hit their true target.

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