The Nature of Victory in a War on Terrorism

The Nature of Victory in a War on Terrorism

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       While President Bush has proclaimed a "war on terrorism" and taken measured steps in a strategic battle against terrorist groups, most prominently al Qaida, American citizens have been living lives far removed from his proclamation.  The American people have responded to the September 11th "act of war" with an outpouring of democratic rhetoric and bizarre acts of patriotism1.  Sadly, our proud demonstrations have truly ignored the reality of ensuing war. Americans have donated blood and established funds for firefighters' families, while failing to look outside of our nation with any intention of understanding the grounds for popular terrorism in Arab and Muslim states.  The American public refuses to accept that we are a nation at war because we are fighting against a culture of Islamic extremists instead of a tangible state that we can define in our minds.  Moreover, we are at war with a group of people that we do not understand and are disinclined to learn about.  While the government of the United States fights a war, using diplomacy, financial traps, and of course, missiles and bombs, the American people must fight a war against our ignorance of the enemy.  Additionally, the American people must fight against the propaganda and war hysteria that surrounds us in our own nation in order to identify our genuine role in the war on terrorism


             A true victory over terrorism does not lie in a successful military campaign or the destruction of one powerful terrorist network; a true victory lies in a global understanding of Arab culture and a willingness to accept certain values embraced by Arab and Muslim nations.  As our nation launches offensives against the Taliban and al Qaida, we must realize that there will never be a way to militarily or violently defeat every terrorist group in the Middle East, even if our nation may be successful in destroying al Qaida and deposing the Taliban.  There are simply too many terrorist organizations to effectively fight, owing to the popularity of the groups amongst citizens of Middle Eastern states.  The eradication of violent Islamic extremist groups will only come with the appeasement of impoverished, disgruntled, and deeply angry Arabs and Muslims.  This is something that we, as private citizens, cannot leave solely to the charge of our national government;  in fact, this is something which our government alone cannot accomplish.  The United States will never win a "war on terrorism" if American citizens are unwilling to participate in the daily struggle against the socioeconomic and political conditions that spawn popularly supported terrorism within Middle Eastern states.

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            If we, as citizens of the United States, cannot look beyond popular patriotism and war propaganda, we will be unable to discern our own role in a war on terrorism.  Just as we must each strive to learn about our nation's enemies, we must each strive to understand our government's response to September 11th.  Although real policy decisions are made by representatives of the populace, not the populace at large, the American people need to participate in the policy making process with respect to the nature of our new war.  If we do not each examine and evaluate the actions our government has taken in response to al Qaida's attack, then our nation's war on terrorism will become our government's war on terrorism.  Our government cannot win a war on terrorism because the war on terrorism will not be won by the military, but by the decisions of private citizens.  Private citizens will steer the institutions that will learn to accept Middle Eastern culture and foster meaningful relationships between the Middle East and the West.  Thus, as private citizens, we need to evaluate our government's war effort and decide what our personal contribution to that war effort should be.  


            Any action taken by the United States in response to the September 11th attacks, other than military retaliation in Afghanistan, would have been regarded as duplicitous by the rest of the world.  America has damaged too many nations and peoples, and reneged on too many diplomatic promises, to garner the type of respect necessary for its political threats to carry impetus.  America could not have responded to the September 11th attacks by simply issuing hard-line political demands for the imprisonment of bin Laden, the way other nations, such as Syria, known for its successful use of political pressure, may have been able to2.  Syria has been able to respond to Israeli attacks without reciprocating violence, and without losing face3; this is something that America is not in a position to do with respect to any Middle Eastern group or state.  While an American military retaliation surely will not lead to immediate peace, or an abrupt end to terrorist activities, it is a response that was necessary with respect to America's position as a nation in this world. 


            The legacy of American involvement in the Middle East, ranging from the Camp David Accords of 1978 and the Gulf War of the early 90's, to the 1981 American agreement of strategic cooperation with Israel, along with other Cold War politicking, has fostered resentment of American interest in Middle Eastern states, especially Arab states4.  This resentment has dictated the American diplomatic response to September 11th, and has bolstered the case for military retaliation, by demonstrating that a purely political and or economic response to the attack would have been inadequate.  In the words of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the pentagon is taking a "measured approach" in the war against terrorism; it is an approach that has been guided by the clearly defined political goal of the war, which is the eradication of al Qaida and the toppling of the Taliban5.  Furthermore, "the [Bush] administration is trying to make the case that this battle is against terrorists and not the Afghan people.  So dropping food to starving refugees may be as important as attacks with laser-guided missiles."6  It would be difficult for the United States to conduct a war in which diplomatic and economic pressure was applied to the Taliban without hurting the people of Afghanistan.  While the United States has enjoyed some diplomatic success in the Middle East following the September 11th attacks, a purely political or economic response to September 11th, could not have achieved the political goals of Bush's proclaimed war on terrorism. 


                        The response of the American government to al Qaida's assault has been appropriate and well executed.  On September 24th, Bush ordered the US Department of Treasury to freeze the assets of all known or suspected terrorist organizations, and any individuals associated with the organizations.  According to United Press International, this policy has, to date, led to the restriction of the accounts of 27 organizations and individuals within the United States, as well as 20 international accounts.  Thirty of the frozen accounts, thus far, are alleged to have belonged to al Qaida7.  Having instigated this policy, Bush then set up a series of diplomatic meetings aimed at solidifying Western relations with Middle Eastern states.  Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's tour of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Oman, Egypt and Uzbekistan, from October 4th to October 6th paved the way for the American military offensive launched against Taliban and al Qaida targets on October 7th 8.  Similarly, Secretary of State, Colin Powell, enjoyed great success in solidifying diplomatic relations with some Middle Eastern states immediately following the September 11th massacre9.  The American government was right to carefully plan and execute a strong military offensive against al Qaida and Taliban targets in Afghanistan.  A failure to do so would have unquestionably led to a perception of the United States as a weak adversary worthy of further terrorist harassment      


            While it is understandable that more resources have been committed to developing foreign policy in the wake of the attack, it is unsettling to think that a proactive Middle Eastern terrorism policy may have been able to prevent the tragedy of September 11th.  Although the American government has demonstrated some measure of understanding of the Middle Eastern political climate in light of al Qaida's attack, the government of the United States had certainly demonstrated ignorance of Middle Eastern culture and society preceding the event.  For years the American government has ignored the deepest causes of popularly supported terrorism in Middle Eastern states.  American administrations have long fought to uphold a sense of stability and order in a region that is dominated by religious and ethnic conflict.  Instead of supporting regimes that promote justice and equality, the United States government has habitually supported the Middle Eastern regimes that exercise the strongest control of the region's oil resources, regardless of their style of governance.  Because of this approach to Middle Eastern policy, the United States government fosters resentment from nations who see the American indifference to the dissatisfaction of citizens in nations such as Iran, as a sign of American insincerity. 


            It is the dissatisfaction of Arab and Muslim citizens with the abuse of their rights and their inability to affect change in their government that has led to the popularity of Islamic fundamentalist groups, and ultimately those Islamic fundamentalist groups that use terrorism tactics.  As The Economist, a British news periodical, reported on September 8th, 2001, "Frustration is attracting a growing number of [Palestinian refugee] camp-dwellers to Islamist groups.  The stark, simple ideology of groups such as Hamas also raises their appeal".  It is not just Arabs in refugee camps, however, who are attracted to terrorist organizations; in nations such as Egypt, al Gama al'a Islaymia provides a means of political articulation through violence for disgruntled Muslims, while the less aggressive fundamentalist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, provides incredible social services to Egyptian Muslims.  Both of these organizations are fundamentalist groups, although the Muslim Brotherhood is less of a terrorist organization than a political action group.  Al Gama al'a Islaymia, on the other hand, is a very violent terrorist organization that consistently challenges the authority of the Egyptian government.  Many times, this same general dissatisfaction and frustration is expressed through terrorism on a global level.  Perceived Western indifference to Arab frustration causes deep resentment of the West, which leads, in turn, to terrorist strikes against the West.  When the citizens of Arab nations no longer need terrorist groups to articulate their political dissatisfaction, a real victory over terrorism will be won.    


            In addition to perceived American self-interest in its treatment of Middle Eastern nations, American support of Israel has contributed significantly to Anti-American terrorist fervor.  It is obvious that the United States, can identify with Israeli culture and society more easily than with that of Arab nations.  The United States has traditionally supported and upheld Israel, both militarily and politically.  An example of the American relationship with Israel can be seen in the 1981 "memorandum of understanding on strategic cooperation" agreed upon by the two nations10.  The confidence of Israeli leaders in the assurance of American aide and support has also left bitterness in the hearts and minds of Arabs11.  Additionally, in the Israeli conflicts with Palestinians, the United States has traditionally bowed to meet the demands of Israelis during peace negotiations12.  The American government's treatment of Palestine and Israel has greatly influenced the perception of America across the Middle East.  Unfortunately, it seems that this cause of anti-Americanism throughout the Middle East has not affected American policy decisions regarding Israel and Palestine.


In formulating a strategy to defeat terrorism forever, American leaders must consider all dimensions of Middle Eastern society and manifest this consideration in an encompassing Middle Eastern policy.  It is easy to discern, in retrospect, which types of American foreign policies contributed to anti-American feelings and ultimately to al Qaida's September 11th attack.  In many ways, this affords our national government a great opportunity to alter current Middle Eastern polices in an attempt to ultimately eradicate terrorism.  Our leaders must seek to develop new strategies for dealing equitably with nations throughout the Middle East.  More importantly however, our leaders must realize that there is a need to be hypersensitive to the relationships between ethnic and religious groups in the region, as evinced by the relationship between Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world, for instance.  The American government must  develop foreign policy that proactively seeks an end to terrorism, through political and economic, not just military, means. 


            The American government alone can never affect a true victory over terrorism, regardless of the sensitivity or insightfulness of any foreign policy it may develop.  A victory over terrorism lies in the response of American citizens to terrorist activity.  In order to prevent terrorism, Americans must become aware of the methods of terrorists.  We, as private citizens, must take the initiative to realize that we are targets for terrorists, and must, therefore, deliberately seek an end to terrorism.  We must do more than react patriotically and compassionately to a terrorist strike within our borders - we must prevent the strike in the first place.  This can be as simple as checking our mail for Anthrax powder or having the wherewithal to contact the police if we see a suspicious package left unattended.  The American people must no longer be passive victims of terrorism.  It is the responsibility of the American government to launch military offensives against the Taliban and the al Qaida, it is not the responsibility of the government to prevent every single American citizen from stumbling blindly into harm's way; a nation fortified against terrorists is a nation of informed and conditioned citizens.


            Not only must we, as American citizens, each prevent ourselves from being victims of terrorist acts, we must seek to undermine terrorism as a popularly supported institution.  However, before we can commit our time and money to the people of Middle Eastern nations who are demoralized and discouraged, we must understand the political and cultural conditions that have led to their frustration.  This means that American citizens must strive to learn about a culture that we have been trained to distrust and have, recently, wanted to hate.  This also means that we must look beyond our nation's borders and understand the meaning of America's place in the world.  A real victory in a war on terrorism will come when every American citizen understands why an Arab person might feel compelled to cling to radical fundamentalist groups.  America will stand a victorious nation the day each of her citizens vows to make life in the Middle East life that does not warrant fanaticism.  In an ideal world, American citizens could eradicate the lunatic fringe in Islam.  In this, the real world, we must do everything in our power to eliminate the aggravation that leads to the widespread acceptance of terrorism amongst a religious group that advocates peace. 


            We, as individuals, must decide if we are pleased with our government and our position among the nations of the world.  If we are displeased with our government's indifference to Middle Eastern peoples, we must elect leaders that will develop a foreign policy that considers more than the stability of oil prices in the Middle East.  We must remind our officials that we, as voters, want to see continued support of the Isreali-Palestenian peace process.  Most importantly, however, we must make it known to the people of the Arab nations that Americans sympathize with them.  Although news of Western sympathy may not make it though the major Arab media networks, news of Western interest in the Arab condition could easily reach Arab people through the new intellectual channels established in telecommunications, including the Internet.  If citizens of Middle Eastern nations could ever see the American people responding empathetically to their situation, it is inconceivable that they would still support the radical organizations that seek to bring us down.


            Regardless of how we choose to become involved in undermining terrorism, American citizens must respond compassionately to the frustrated peoples of the Middle East.  The American people need to continue giving blood and donating to firefighter funds within our nation's borders, but we also need to get a sense of our place among the nations and peoples of the world.  The American people, in concert with the American government, are empowered to end terrorism.  We must now choose whether to exercise our strength, or wallow in idleness.




Works Cited


"Bush Warns Taliban 'Time is Running Out'".  AFP-Extel News Limited, AFX European Focus.  6 October 2001. 

"Exiled Palestinians Sit out the Intifada".  Economist Newspaper Ltd.  8 September 2001.

Gordon, Michael R.  "A New Kind of War Plan."  New York Times.  6 October, 2001.

Gordon, Michael R.  "U.S. Force vs. Terrorists:  From Reactive to Active."  New York Times. 14 September 2001.

Hourani, Albert.  A History of the Arab Peoples.  New York:  MJF Books, 1991.  415-422.

Shlaim, Avi.  The Iron Wall:  Israel and the Arab Peoples.  New York:  W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2001. 

"The International Donor Community Pledged $608 Million here Saturday...".  United Press International.  6 October 2001.

"U.S. Forces Arrive in Uzbekistan".  United Press International.  6 October 2001.






1 An example of such a "bizarre act of patriotism" was the spectacle I witnessed at a NASCAR race in Martinsville, Virginia.  Before the race began, two Republican Senators, representing the Commonwealth of Virginia, came over the announcer's loudspeaker and demanded that all of the spectators in the stadium cheer for our "men and women in uniform fighting proudly in Afghanistan".  This announcement was followed by the signing of "God Bless America", prior to the start of the race.  Another example of bizarre patriotism is the Jack-o-Lanterns I saw, in celebration of Halloween, which had such things as "USA Pride" carved in them.

2 Shlaim (2001): 589-591.

3 Shlaim (2001): 551-560.

4 Hourani (1991):  415-422.

5 Gordon:  "U.S. Force vs. Terrorists:  From Reactive to Active." 

6 Gordon:  "A New Kind of War Plan." 

7 United Press International:  "U.S. Forces Arrive in Uzbekistan".  

8 United Press International:  "U.S. Forces Arrive n Uzbekistan"

9 Gordon:  "A New Kind of War Plan." 

10 Shlaim (2001):  327-335

11 The attitude of Israeli leaders toward the guarantee of American support is epitomized in Prime Minister Rabin's concept of the post October 1973 Middle East.  " He depicted the post October 1973 period as the seven lean years that would be followed by seven fat years.  The reasons he listed for the seven lean years were Arab oil power, Europe's dependence on Arab oil, and continuing superpower rivalry in the Middle East.  His reasons for the seven fat years were the decline of Arab oil power by the end of the decade, the West's overcoming of its dependence on Arab oil power, and the replacement of the isolationist mood in the united States with a renewed willingness to assume external commitments of which Israel would be the main beneficiary."  Shlaim (2001):  327.

12 Shlaim (2001):  503-545

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