No Challenge to the United States

The Mail & Guardian (liberal), Johannesburg, South Africa, Sept. 14, 2001

World Press Review, November 2001


The idea that U.S. military and economic muscle has been dented in a fundamental way is a fantasy. The world has been left a more dangerous and more unstable place by the attacks, but the global balance of power is unchanged. For the foreseeable future there is no state, or alliance of states, that can offer any challenge to the United States' world ascendancy.

Rejoicing in the tragedy points to a sad failure of the imagination. The desperation of those who leaped from the World Trade Center and of the passengers in the doomed aircraft hardly bears thinking about. These were not politicians and generals. They were office workers and firemen- ordinary people going about their ordinary business.

What is frightening about the perpetrators was their belief that a larger ideological cause justifies inflicting any amount of suffering on innocent people. The same mentality lay behind the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. The bombers must have known they would kill hundreds of African bystanders.

Assuming that the killers are Islamic militants-and the suicidal nature of the attacks suggests this-it is important to realize that theirs is a minority version of Islam. Embracing a faith that enjoins mercy on its adherents, most Muslims will abhor their tactics. Certain Arab leaders who expressed outrage and sympathy with the United States may have done so as an insurance policy. But some Palestinians donated blood to the United States. The fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood has condemned the attacks as "contradicting all human and Islamic values."

The question arises: How should the United States respond to this enormity? The first indications are not promising. U.S. politicians immediately suggested on Wednesday that Afghanistan's Taliban movement should be targeted. This represents an obsessive focus on the alleged terrorist mastermind, Osama bin Laden. Informed by a crude Manichaean view of the world as a battleground between the forces of light and darkness, America's fatal tendency in such situations is to blame "rogue states" and diabolical individuals. The hand of the militarists and isolationists in the U.S. state will be immensely strengthened. Even if Afghanistan is bombed back to the Stone Age, and Bin Laden is caught and punished, terror attacks on the United States will not stop. The most sophisticated intelligence technology and the largest and smartest military arsenals are powerless against conspirators with an ideological grudge.

The root problem is that the United States is hated throughout the Arab world and in many other developing countries for the arrogance of its power. As shown by its rejection of the International Criminal Court, refusal to endorse the Kyoto Protocol, and withdrawal from United Nations racism conference, it seeks to impose norms on weaker countries while seeing itself as above international regulation. Both isolationist and controlling, it is ignorant of the world it rules and oblivious to the suffering caused by many of its actions. An example is its 11-year blockade of Iraq, which has left dictator Saddam Hussein unscathed but caused untold misery to ordinary Iraqis, including the deaths of an estimated 500,000 children. The Lockerbie plane bombing was a terrible act, but it is worth remembering that it was preceded by the U.S. downing of an Iranian passenger liner in the Gulf, for which George Bush's administration could hardly bring itself to apologize.

Considering its own strategic interests paramount, the United States threw its weight behind a slew of monstrous regimes and brutal rebel leaders during the Cold War. Millions have died in Africa's Great Lakes region while the most powerful nation in history has stood by.

It is a safe assumption that the trigger for this week's attacks is the spiraling conflict in the Middle East, for which the United States must accept much responsibility. There can be no peace until the Israelis accept a Palestinian state, which in turn hinges on the removal of Israeli settlements from the occupied territories and concessions on the status of Jerusalem. Instead of initiating talks on these issues, Ariel Sharon's government has chosen to grind down Palestinian insurgency by collective punishments, extrajudicial executions, and other violations of human rights. Without U.S. patronage, Israel cannot survive. What has the world's superpower done to push its client to the negotiating table?

World domination by a democracy like the United States is preferable to some alternatives. Not many people would choose to live under China's military-bureaucratic despotism or the repressive fanatics of the Taliban. But the poor two-thirds of the globe has little reason to feel grateful to America, and much to reproach it for. While that profound polarity continues, terrorism-the warfare of the powerless-will not go away.

Whatever military action the United States resorts to, what is required of it in the longer term is an exhaustive political engagement with, and sensitivity to, the concerns of the deeply aggrieved who are its bitterest foes-starting with those in Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East. Engagement, not military action, will ultimately deliver sustainable peace.

September 11th, 2001 - New York City

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