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Some Questions, And Some Answers


Monday, Oct. 01, 2001

The events of September 11 have, or will shortly alter the American perspective of the world, and how we view our own lives. Ordinary tasks which were previously automatic

will now be subject to deeper thought, and will probably produce new behavior patterns. Whether we are sitting at home and hear an airplane overhead, or are about to consider how to travel from one place to another, we now know we have entered a new period in our history. The question many of us are asking is how did it come to this? Why now? Are there things we could have done to prevent it?

The Failure of a "Bomb and Retreat" Policy

In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, symbolizing the end of the Cold War, American policymakers lost the bedrock of our foreign policy–the communist menace. In a sense, the Soviet Union provided a degree of security–we knew who the enemy was, and it made it easier to develop strategies to cope with the supposed threat the Russians presented.

In 1991, for a short period of time, Saddam Hussein and Iraq replaced the "Russian Bear" as our focal point. But since the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War, US officials have been trying to develop a coherent foreign policy, without an identifiable enemy to which to devote our undivided attention. As a result, our policy has been very diffuse.

When a crisis developed, our response was to use overwhelming air power as a means of punishing those who opposed our interests. But bomb and retreat is not a coherent policy designed to achieve our goals, whatever they may be.

The Need For A New Approach, and the Limits of Coalition-Building

In 1993, our diffuse policies should have crystallized very quickly when, with a car bomb, terrorists attempted to destroy the World Trade Center. We began to realize that we were now facing a new kind of enemy–a type of anarchistic terrorism, which did not represent a particular goal or national interest.

We were confronted with fanatics who had a different type of agenda than we were used to confronting. Yet in 1998, when the American embassies were bombed in Africa, or more recently when the USS Cole was attacked, our response again was to use American technology to punish those who we perceived to be the perpetrators. Again, "bomb and retreat" was the order of the day.

What the events of September 11th should foster is a realization that a new approach to cope with, and eradicate the evil of terrorism must be taken. The George W. Bush administration is trying to recreate the global coalition that President Bush's father once employed to deal with Iraq's seizure of Kuwait. On the surface it is an excellent idea. But we should realize that any international coalition, even one designed to deal with the evil of terror, is tenuous at best.

It reminds one of the posse in the old west, which brought together people who often had nothing in common, except that they wanted to catch the outlaws. Constructing an international coalition of Arab, European, and other states will not be easy, and maintaining it once the coalition is forced to take concrete action will almost be impossible.

Today these nations may offer public support for what the president has called a "new kind of war," but when Saudi, Pakistani, or even French internal politics come to the fore the coalition will dissipate rather quickly. Global empathy is wonderful, but how long will it last?

New Tactics: Infiltrating Terrorist Organizations

It is a given that something must be done. The United States must develop new tactics in trying to lessen the fear of terrorism. But what should that be?

Thomas Friedman, in a recent New York Times column, compared the problem of terrorism to that of trying to defeat the tobacco industry. Mr. Friedman argued that to achieve success, one must infiltrate the organizational structure of those you are trying to defeat.

According to Friedman, if you want to fight organized crime, you infiltrate the organization. Similarly, if you want to defeat the tobacco industry, executives from inside the industry must be convinced what they are doing is unethical and immoral, which is how the industry has been curbed in this country. And if you want to win a terror war, "bombing Afghanistan back to the stone age" will not accomplish your goal — in part because the country has already been bombed into oblivion by the Soviets during the 1980s, and its people already live a medieval existence. Instead, infiltration of terror organizations is the best policy.

At this point in our history we must take unconventional methods in order to stand a chance. If it means working with unsavory characters and using them to infiltrate terrorist organizations, then we must do it.

But Americans want immediate gratification. We have a president who publicly invokes the Old West, referring to "wanted dead or alive" posters. Rhetoric like this just inflames a population already on the edge.

The American people must be prepared for the long haul. Special operations forces and human intelligence (spying on the ground) are needed as much as conventional forces to make any headway. The Congress must lift certain bans on covert actions, and we must be prepared to accept that perhaps certain civil liberties we are so proud of, may have to be reduced.

Some would argue that if we reintroduce a policy of political assassination we are reducing ourselves to the level of the terrorists, but what choice do we have? Far more fine-tuned approaches than the old "bomb and retreat" strategy will have to be employed.

A New Marshall Plan?

Many have asked what types of people commit these types of terrorist acts. Answering this question, and thinking about the answer seriously, will also help us to figure out a solution to terrorism.

If one examines many of these individuals, they have emerged from poverty. Be it in the Beeka Valley in Lebanon, the mountains of Afghanistan, or the refugee camps in the Gaza Strip, these people have known nothing but a horrendous existence their entire lives. As a result, they are excellent fodder for the extremist rhetoric that attracts them. Those who have little to lose have been more likely to become kamikazes.

Samuel Huntington in his book The Clashes of Civilization argues that the manipulation of ethnic and religious disputes will lead to the exacerbation of cultural conflict in the future, thus fueling violence. Perhaps what should take place is a revisiting of American policy after World War II.

The institution of a program similar to the Marshall Plan — in conjunction with a rekindling of a "spirit of humanity" which seems to be emerging as people all over the world watch CNN each hour — could help eradicate some of the problems that makes the recruitment of terrorists seem so easy. The point being, without terrorists, there would be no terror.

Whatever solution is developed, the problems we now face will not be solved quickly. We must realize that terror will be with us for a very long time, and we must be prepared not to rely on the quick fix. Terrorists believe that time is on their side, and they can out wait the United States. Whatever we decide upon, I hope it is a coherent policy that we will support for the long run. If not, our children will face a very uncomfortable future.

Steve Freiberger is a history teacher at Middlesex School in Concord, MA. He has been an educator for twenty-eight years at the secondary and the college level and has earned many awards for his teaching. He completed his Ph.D at Rutgers University and is the author of Dawn Over Suez, a monograph dealing with American foreign policy in the Middle East during the 1950s. He is married and has two children.

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