All Writings
July 29, 2002

Moral Clarity In The War On Terrorism

Just think: One stateless man, Osama Bin-Laden, has affected our national security, defense, and strategic thinking equally, if not more so, than the former Soviet Union, which had tens of thousands of nuclear missiles targeted against us. Throughout the Cold War, we kept the Soviet Union in check because we had successfully developed a credible deterrence– albeit one based on mutually assured destruction– and because of our moral and ideological clarity. As a bear, the enemy was visible and clearly defined; thus, the risks involved in a nuclear or conventional confrontation were carefully calculated and ultimately it was successfully averted. Bin-Laden's Al Qaeda, however, is like a virus that continues to elude us, not only because we have had far fewer than forty years to develop an effective vaccine against it but because of the insidious and pervasive nature of this organization and its operative agility. Our problem in combating Al Qaeda is further compounded because we continue to experience a serious gap between our rhetoric and the moral clarity we need in deciding what political, military, economic, and other weapons we are willing to use in our war on terrorism.

What makes Al Qaeda unique is that it is the first world-wide terrorist organization established to liberate the Arab world by purifying its societies and governments through a strict interpretation of the Koran. In this context, Bin-Laden, borrowing from Iran's revolutionary ethos, has made the United States the main target of his hatred and the removal of all western influence–political, economic, and cultural–especially, the withdrawal of American military installations from Muslim and Arab states as the prerequisites for Al Qaeda's success. With operative cells in over 55 countries, including the United States, the organization maintains a loose military hierarchy. Despite their setback in Afghanistan, Bin Laden's operatives continue to provide fraternal groups with contacts, money, and training, while attracting new recruits–most dangerously, trained professionals with expertise in chemical engineering, computers, and other types of technical knowledge. Although there is no definitive evidence that Bin Laden is dead or alive, regardless of his ultimate fate, he has already become a voice for the oppressed, a mythic figure who fits the requirements of Arab cultural romanticism and shares the characteristics of its historical heros. With his simple message of defiance towards the greatest power on earth, he has captured the hearts and minds of millions and has emerged as the symbol of redemption for the destitute Arab masses.

Unlike the former Soviet Union, whose policies forced us to adjust intellectually to the need for new defense and national security measures over an extended period of time, Bin-Laden has successfully altered our thinking by a single overwhelming strike. This strike was similar if not more potent, to the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor which prompted the United States to enter World War II, permanently changing global politics and our role in the emerging post-war world's order. Since September 11, we no longer take our personal or national security for granted. We feel vulnerable abroad, increasingly less secure at home, have sustained hundreds of billions in financial losses, and are spending tens of billions more on the military, revolutionizing our intelligence gatherings, forming new alliances, and reorganizing our personal and national priorities. In addition, we are establishing a new department, Homeland Security, with an annual budget exceeding $100 billion. We are certainly justified in taking every measure we deem necessary to combat a ruthless enemy that has violated our basic rights and intruded into our fundamental way of life. Brutally attacked, we have sustained the loss of more than 3000 innocent lives, with as many injured, and the loss of property and resources in the tens of billions of dollars. We are continuously being threatened with more of the same and must remain vigilant at an enormous cost to protect ourselves. Thus, we not only have every right to defend ourselves, we have the right to launch preemptive strikes aimed at the heart of the enemy to avert future attacks against us. This is both our moral obligation and responsibility and is in conformity with international law. We need not apologize for such actions as long as we adhere to the principle of proportionality which dictates that we respond with only the necessary force needed to defend ourselves and our property. But as we embark upon new defenses and undergo enormous changes, these changes themselves raise new questions. For instance, how are we actually faring in the war on terrorism? Do we have the moral clarity not just to combat terrorism, but to do so decisively while walking a high moral ground? Do we continue to suffer from the Vietnam syndrome, conquering the same hill repeatedly and in the process creating the perception we are winning when in reality we are losing? And finally, are we sufficiently focused on the root causes of terrorism, or are we overly preoccupied with treating its symptoms?

To answer these questions, we first need to understand that terrorism is a complex phenomenon that has historically involved many different ideologies, causes, motivations, sources, methodologies, intensities of violence and forms of resolution. Therefore, President Bush's assertion "You are with us or against us" is not merely simplistic, but disingenuous for the existence of gray areas make such black and white determinations virtually impossible. For example, the president has labeled Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as "axes of evil," yet we treat each of these states differently. Recent developments have shown that Mr. Bush has had no strategy or plan of action behind his words. Thus, as we consider removing North Korea's name from the state department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism, we chastise Iran and maintain our sanctions against it, meanwhile we are going ahead with planning a military attack against Iraq. What possible advantages do we derive from lumping these three nations together, when each requires a policy tailored to fit its unique set of prevailing circumstances and our own specific national security concerns in that regard? But what is more worrisome is how this willy-nilly approach reflects on our moral conviction to do the right thing. I believe the way is clear: We can, and should expect our friends and allies to support our war efforts against terrorism, but we must first provide not only a clear rationale but the moral clarity that makes possible their support and solidify our resolve in making our choices.

Second, we need the active support of many countries and, at a minimum, the tacit consent of others in our war against terrorism. Yet we must, when necessary, act unilaterally and decisively against any target but only after we have established solid evidence linking it to terrorist activities, and all the while standing on a firm moral ground. We must in such circumstances not allow political niceties or the theatrics of coalitions cover or undue foreign pressure to water down our resolve. For example, although Palestinian terrorism has not been directed against the United States, the Palestinian problem has incited and will continue to incite tremendous anti-American sentiments throughout the Arab and the Muslim world. Why then did it take nearly eighteen months of horrendous violence between Palestinians and Israelis before we decided to intervene? And why has it taken us nearly as long to conclude that Palestinian Authority Chairman Arafat must go, not simply because he failed his people but because like Serbia's former president, Milosevic, his continuing leadership will worsen the plight of his people? I believe that in losing our resolve we failed both the Israelis and Palestinians. Had we intervened much sooner, we could have possibly averted much of the death and destruction sustained by both sides during the past two months. We also might have been able to reduce the level of violence in the territories appreciably and thereby remove one critical source of the anger, frustration and anti-American sentiment that has swept much of the Arab world. In addition, we could have marginalized rather than strengthened the influence of extreme Islamists such as Hamas and Jihad. Finally, it might have been possible even to bring an end to the Palestinian plight and spare both Israelis and Palestinians not only terrible losses, but prevent the shattered trust and dreams both people now feel. Here is where we lost our moral compass. Did the Bush administration truly believe that Israel and the Palestinians could have settled their conflict without active and sustained American involvement?

Third, let us be clear that our efforts to curb the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and punish rogue states that support terrorism are legitimate, especially when we or our allies are threatened by these states. Moreover, while we are hardly the world's policeman and may not be required to play that role automatically, as the only superpower we have an obligation to take upon ourselves some "global policing", if for no other reason than that there isn't any other nation willing or capable to assume such a responsibility. But once we assume on such a role, it places on us an extra burden as well as a moral responsibility to exhaust every peaceful means before we resort to force.

Iraq's Saddam Hussein may be irredeemable and may have to be forced out of power in order to spare his people further hardship and prevent the Middle East and ourselves from becoming targets of the WMD that he may unleash deliberately or inadvertently. Removing him by force, however, may not be the only possibility. Have we, in fact, exhausted all other options? For example, how much effort and credence have we put into the establishment of a new inspection regime? We must not merely go through the motions by insisting on keeping the current sanctions in place, thereby insuring Saddam's rejection of them, which then justifies an all-out military assault on Iraq. Rather, we should continue to push for smart sanctions that will lift restrictions on Iraq's importation of civilian goods while banning its importation of military and dual-use items. Our efforts must be genuine enough to leave no doubt about our willingness to accept, support, and work with the new inspections team. At the same time the Iraqi leader needs to know with the utmost clarity what he will gain by complying and what punitive actions we will take and what will be the consequences for him if he fails to admit the new team and comply with their requirements. The more we, our traditional allies, Russia, and China are unified behind the new inspection regime, or the use of military force against Iraq if it becomes necessary, the more compliant Saddam Hussein will be. In addition, we must temper our public threats and personal verbal onslaughts against him, as they simply play into his hands and help to rally his people against us. All such utterances leave him with no options but to increase his defiance and become even more intent on undermining our interests since the risk of doing nothing is greater than lashing out against us. Finally, our fixation on Saddam Hussein may compromise our moral commitments to the Iraqi people and the Arab states in the region. What the Iraqi people's fate will be in the aftermath of such a war must be evaluated before we act, with our making certain that the ultimate result leaves all parties involved, except Saddam, better off than they were before we acted.

Fourth, we must not lump all terrorists together and consequently target them all for destruction. Although national interests determine both our involvement in principle and the real level of our commitment, we must, nevertheless, consider how just the cause is and what alternative means we have to resolve the conflict. History is replete with resistence movements that had to resort to acts of terror because they saw no viable alternatives. For example, the French Resistence movement during the German occupation and the African National Congress in South Africa. Today other resistance movements are fighting for worthy ends. But our reaction has been one of knee- jerk opposition. For example, although we correctly opposed and branded as terrorist the Workers Party of Kurdistan (PKK), led by Ocalan, we have abandoned the Kurdish population to the mercy of successive Turkish governments. We decided to side with these governments because of Turkey's close alliance with us, even though the Kurds had legitimate grievances, having been denied every civil right accorded to other minorities in Turkey. Through this policy we have inadvertently contributed to the prolongation of a bloody conflict that has cost 30 thousand lives and over 100 billion in material losses. Only Turkey's desire to become a full member of the European Union has forced its government during the past two years to ease the pressure on the Kurds. In effect, we looked the other way when our own values–freedom and human rights–were stamped on in another country, one of our closest allies. Thus, we sacrificed moral principles for political convenience and in the process ill served the Turkish people by acquiescing to their governments' policies of discrimination and violence against its own citizens. A moral breach such as this is not readily overlooked by the rest of the world, because we are the only superpower and everything we do or say matters.

Fifth, we need to understand that if we eliminate every known terrorist and terrorist cell, we will not eliminate terrorism. We must, therefore, deal with the root causes of terrorism, whether or not the governments of the implicated states are cooperating with us in the fight against it. Although the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, for example, may cooperate to greater or lesser degrees with us, their countries remain breeding grounds for future terrorists. Even if Saudi Arabian youth are better off financially than their Egyptian and Pakistani counterparts, socially and politically all three nations are basket cases. Gradual, but major reforms to alleviate the despicable conditions of the young in these nations (60% of these populations are under the age of 25) are absolutely critical. Idleness, hopelessness, and despair are what the young all over the Arab world have in common, and they hate us with a passion for supporting their corrupt governments and helping them to secure their hold on power. Their leaders have done little to relieve the plight of the masses while managing to enrich the ruling elite ( 15 out of the 19 highjackers involved in the September 11th attack were Saudi Arabian citizens and Al Qaeda's second in command, el-Zawaheeri is an Egyptian). These lands are the most fertile for future Al Qaeda recruits, and it is an illusion to think that we can somehow win the war on terrorism without sustained socioeconomic and political reforms there and in other Arab or Muslim nations as well. I am not suggesting that such measures will eradicate terrorism, but I maintain that there is a correlation between the terrible socio-economic and political conditions and the restiveness of the public, especially the young. As long as we are perceived to be closely connected to and supportive of these regimes, we will always be guilty by association of their shortcomings. If our strategic and economic interests dictate that we maintain special relations with these nations, then we must work with their respective governments to alleviate the plight of the people through sustained democratic and human rights reforms. We have a moral obligation to the leaders of these nations and their people to point out to them the bleak consequences resulting from governmental inaction or bad actions–otherwise their societies will eventually explode. It is only a matter of time, and when this happens, it will certainly pave the way for Islamist takeovers. If such a scenario unfolds, we will be forced to abandon these states to their own devices, as in the case of Iran, thereby fulfilling Bin Laden's principal goals.

We won the Cold War, in the final analysis, not simply because of our military superiority, but also because of the strength and the conviction of our ideals and the moral clarity with which we contained communism. Our war against terrorism requires balance and an equal, if not greater moral vision, a vision befitting our global supremacy, obligations, and values.