President Bush gave a speech recently on the war on terror, calling it "The Great Challenge Of Our New Century." Without addressing everything in this long speech, let us critically look at one aspect, namely, where the President is taking us in the Mid-East.
Mr. Rumsfeld and others of his ilk consider criticism of the President’s decisions as hindering the war against terrorism and encouraging our enemies. They are the turncoats — to the principle of free and open speech. In matters of life and death as these are, that involve many deeply, all the more should the President and his men welcome every bit of thought and criticism they can get.
He sets the scene with the end of the Cold War: "And all the cost and sacrifice of that struggle has been worth it." As a consequence "new democracies" arose and "we’ve gained the peace that freedom brings."
Not so. To our regret, much of the cost and sacrifice of the American people did not buy us a Cold War victory. Time, patience, and internal Soviet problems broke the stalemate, not Korea, not Vietnam, and not the arms race.
The Soviet Union fell apart because the Communist economy was a huge failure. This tied in with a cynical lack of ideological loyalty to Communism and national movements for independence inside the Empire’s boundaries. Stalin had built a system on terror and personal power that his successors could not maintain.
Years ago the common man regarded American interventions and burdens overseas with a strained smile and shrug. We had a job to do. We had to go clean up the mess that others were making. Common men and women served. Some were wounded and never fully recovered. Some never came back. It’s not easy to write all that off in one or two sentences, but sunk costs are forever sunk.
We must act rationally now, not based on emotional ties to the past. Do we want the same thing again, another lengthy period of war mentality, injury and death? That’s what the President is promoting. His idea is that we have to go through the same thing all over again in this century.
We have reasonably good information about the intentions of bin Laden and his associates. We understand his motives. We know what he wants for the Muslim world. We know what he thinks of the U.S., Israel, and their allies. We know that he’s willing to use extremely violent means to achieve his aims. He and his followers are murderers or murderous men.
The President understands and spells this out. Bin Laden’s wish list includes the end of Israel, driving all infidels from all Muslim lands everywhere (Burma, Thailand, Eritrea, Somalia, Indonesia, etc.), the downfall of the secular Arab administrations whom he regards as U.S. puppets (such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Jordan, and now Iraq), and replacement by his style of Muslim rule.
Bin Laden wants us out, moderate Arabs out, Jews out, and himself or other bin Ladens in. Bush has that correct. Bin Laden is elitist. Right again. Bin Laden is "committed," "not insane," "focused," "radical," all apt descriptions.
Where do we go with these facts? President Bush has a neo-domino theory. The "militants believe that controlling one country [Iraq] will rally the Muslim masses, enabling them to overthrow all moderate governments in the region [the Mid-East] and establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia. With greater economic and military and political power, the terrorists would be able to advance their stated agenda: to develop weapons of mass destruction, to destroy Israel, to intimidate Europe, to assault the American people, and to blackmail our government into isolation."
Stay in Iraq, Bush warns. It’s the big domino. If it falls, then all the rest fall. Did we hear this story before he attacked Iraq? No. Did he tell us then that terrorists had "set their sights on Iraq?" No. Did he tell us then that "terrorists regard Iraq as the central front in our war on terror?" No. We heard many stories, but not these. Mr. President, if Iraq is domino number one, you created it, you set it up, and you knocked it over. You attracted terrorists to Iraq; you created more enmity and enemies from native Iraqis.
The President repeats yet again his boilerplate warnings to Syria and Iran that he’s prepared to "hold those regimes to account," that "they deserve no patience from the victims of terror," that they are "outlaw regimes," that they are "equally as guilty of murder," in providing "support and sanctuary." Why does he keep repeating these warnings? Syria and Iran surely have the message, so it must be to persuade us, to pave the way for more war. The President is getting ready to knock over two more dominoes, Syria and Iran. Is Bush bin Laden’s secret weapon?
Is Iraq ready to fall into bin Laden’s hands if the U.S. pulls out? Who really knows? There may be civil war. There may be unexpected alliances and reconciliations. Who knows what the Kurds might do, or the Shia, or the Sunni? Who knows how they will react to interloping terrorists when the Americans are gone? Maybe another Saddam Hussein will work his way up. Syria and Iran might react. Turkey might react. Other neighbors might react. There may be other countries further away that decide to intrude. No matter who rules, they will want to sell oil. No matter who rules, the masses will struggle to better themselves under their rule.
Let go of Iraq. Let nature take its course. Stand back. Allow the parties most involved to work or fight this out. Withdraw. We did not break Iraq, and we do not own it. Iraq’s never been an unbroken piece of pottery. Only force held it together.
Is it reasonable to imagine bin Laden or a terrorist coalition sitting in Baghdad, vulnerable to attack and assassination? Others in the region will have a big say about who runs the show. Whoever will rule, as time passes the situation will change. Look at how Iran has changed in the past 20 years. Iran will continue to change if the U.S. will simply leave the place alone.
If terrorists or their proxies become rulers, they will stew in their own juices. Before long they’ll be talking to others and trading. They’ll be exposed. They’ll make mistakes. They’ll overreach. They’ll die off or be assassinated or fall on their own swords. New rulers will come along with different ideas. Many things can happen. Unless one makes a fetish of control, there is nothing in it for us to be involved.
Bush reminds us that Israel will be destroyed. What makes the U.S. the preserver of States, the upholder of the political status quo? What purpose does this serve? What is so sacred about maintaining any State, anyway? In the long run of history, Israel may disappear or be transformed. Most political entities are. In the short run, given their military, this is unlikely. Even if we end foreign aid to Israel, as we should, Israel will maintain itself.
A concern for the peoples of the Mid-East, all the peoples, should be first, not for their warring political units. It is time to transcend the State, and time to stop identifying a people with a State.
Is Iraq actually a domino? Bin Laden had a country in his pocket before, named Afghanistan. This didn’t start a chain reaction throughout Muslim lands. Why not? Bin Laden is an atypical violent Muslim. Muslim peoples are not united by being Muslim. Being human, they have many wants. They have worldly aspirations. They know something about Western standards of living. They like the freedom they have. The terrorists are violent and extreme and many Muslims condemn that. Killing innocent Muslims in Iraq didn’t help bin Laden’s cause any, judging from a recent poll of Muslims.
Without the U.S. around, maybe some existing governments will fall, and maybe they won’t. Governments are always falling. If some do, we can live with it. If some other power wishes to build an Empire and take our place, good luck.
Is there something wrong with cooling it and being patient?
Yes, says Bush. The terrorists don’t want Americans around. This is true, but neither do we want Russian armies marching up and down our country or their missiles in Cuba. The terrorists are not running the Muslim world anyway, and if moderate Muslim countries do not want Americans around, that is their choice.
Yes, says Bush. They will get nuclear weapons. Possibly, but they do not want to be incinerated either. If we lived with the Soviet Union and Red China, why can’t we live with radical Muslim States if that’s what occurs? If we are out of their lands, they have less reason to assault us. Nuclear weapons are attractive to weaker States as an equalizer, a bargaining chip to keep the stronger States off balance, to gain concessions. Our power can be neutralized. What if it is? Then what? Then people get back to living and trading, minding the store. Even radical Muslims have to eat.
Will fighting in Iraq or Syria or Iran deter a nuclear attack on the U.S.? According to Bush, "no concession, bribe or act of appeasement would change or limit their plans for murder." One historian says that Hitler was like this, that he wanted to see his military in victorious action no matter what concessions he had won without fighting. We do not know if bin Laden and his coterie are like this. If we act as if his aim is our destruction no matter what we do, then he has nothing to lose by living up to that view. He can expect to gain nothing from us, so he must use every means to destroy us. We raise the chance of nuclear attack.
Yes, says Bush. We must try to shape and control everything in the world to our liking. Otherwise, we will face a hostile Empire.
How so? These many countries with Muslim components are not all homogeneous just because Muslims live there. To create an Empire out of them is currently a bin Laden dream, or it may be rhetoric. Bin Laden may not live that long, or he may blunder along the way. He simply may not get the support he needs. Some other Muslim or Arab might kill him. Some Western force may kill him. Israel might become aggressive. Bin Laden probably does not know much more about the many Muslim places than Bush does. A great many things have to go just right to be able to create a Muslim Empire, if that’s really what he wants.
Let’s be fanciful. Suppose bin Laden were able to take over Pakistan and get its atomic weapons. Will India allow this to happen? Suppose it did. What happens then? Does India destroy Pakistan? India has suffered many, many terrorist attacks in the past few years. It’s a big target. Will China sit idly by? When it comes to power and its exercise, the number of possibilities is endless. Power politics is a constantly shifting multi-dimensional chess game in which everyone seems to lose, especially the common people.
Some believe that bin Laden’s heart is set on taking over his home turf, Saudi Arabia. Despite all the pan-Muslim rhetoric, he may be a nationalist at heart. No matter what, the U.S. will never allow him to set up rule anywhere after what he’s done. I cannot imagine terrorists running much of anything. Will bin Laden rule his Empire from a cave? Do they actually have a workable game plan, or are they too hooked on their violent chess game?
The President argues against observers who "claim that America would be better off by cutting our losses and leaving Iraq now. This is a dangerous illusion, refuted with a simple question: Would the United States and other free nations be more safe, or less safe, with Zarqawi and bin Laden in control of Iraq, its people, and its resources?"
His question is too simple. There is no straight line path between U.S. withdrawal and bin Laden takeover. There is a connection between the safety of the U.S. and our presence in the Mid-East tar pit. We will sink like any dinosaur.
The President writes one scenario: Iraq takeover, then a chain reaction throughout all Muslim countries, then an Empire, then nuclear threats, Israel’s destruction, and assaults on the U.S. You would think he was talking about building a tower out of children’s blocks, not the actions and reactions of people and players all over the planet. The number of alternative scenarios is infinite.
Then, contradictorily, the President provides the makings of an alternative scenario: "And Islamic radicalism, like the ideology of communism, contains inherent contradictions that doom it to failure. By fearing freedom — by distrusting human creativity, and punishing change, and limiting the contributions of half the population — this ideology undermines the very qualities that make human progress possible, and human societies successful."
These words ring true. They suggest that terrorists, even if they do manage to gain control and install radical policies, will ultimately fail.
The President’s primary appeal to fight and keep on fighting is, in one word, freedom. Defend freedom, bring freedom, stand for our freedom and that of others, see freedom’s victory, see free peoples everywhere. If you are for freedom, and what American is not, then you must be for war in Iraq and war on terrorists everywhere. And after the Cold War "we’ve gained the peace that freedom brings."
War, Mr. President, has brought us neither peace nor freedom. War has centralized our government and curtailed our freedom. War has brought more war. World War I brought World War II, and World War II brought the Cold War and large-scale hot wars in Korea and Vietnam. War between Israel and surrounding nations has brought us into more war and promises yet more.
Mr. President, you may be called to bring the sword to the tyrants of this world. I am not. Many of us are not. You bring the sword to us when you force us all into your battles. If you understand and believe in freedom, then you know that it is up to each of us to make our own choices about how to do good in this world. If you believe in freedom, then begin by freeing us. Begin by freeing us to fight tyranny, or poverty, or ignorance, or any other evils we see, the ways we wish to. Stop distrusting the creativity of your own people. Stop suppressing half or more of your own population. Stop fearing how we will use our freedom. You are yourself creating the contradictions in our society that doom it to failure. Do not draft us into your century-long crusade for freedom.
Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is the Louis M. Jacobs Professor of Finance at University at Buffalo.