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In response to the horrendous September eleventh terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, likely this “first war of the twenty-first century” will be waged largely by intelligence services and police from many countries around the world. More power to them. Additionally, the diplomatic arm of this nation has already come into play in the negotiations, persuasion, and discussions connected with putting together an anti-terrorist coalition. The U. S. Department of State and the Foreign Service and will have increased requirements laid on them. As I compose these words, it seems less likely than early in the crisis the war will be waged by the traditional means of inflicting widespread death and destruction. This is so even if Afghanistan’s Taliban regime continues to support or permit the presence of terrorist movements. One can hope this will prove to be the case.

I hear and read, however, well-intentioned arguments to the effect that the fault for Black September Eleventh lies with the United States.

This position holds that America has long pursued wrong headed policies in the Middle East detrimental to the interests of that region’s people, thereby bringing on these and other attacks. It follows that America should strive to understand the causes of the terrorists’ discontent. I infer from some of such analyses that the nation should try to address those grievances and turn the other cheek, making no retaliation. (This argument generally does call for terrorists, if captured individually, to be tried in courts of law.)

The most thoughtful of such lines of reasoning further holds that the terrorist attacks should be taken as compelling evidence that the United States must cease exerting its influence in that region in an overtly interventionist fashion. As one example, the continued stationing of U. S. troops in Saudi Arabia is a profound irritant. The U. S. intervention against Iraq that resulted in the Gulf War ten years ago is another source of anger, along with the United States’ continued all out support for Israel.

I wonder about this argument, as telling as it appears in some respects. It seems unlikely that anything less than a hurried retreat from the Middle East of most of the U. S. presence would result in an end to terrorist tactics. And maybe not even that. Are we prepared to accept as “success” a lessening of the likelihood of terrorist attacks? Perhaps.

U. S. Middle East policies in truth are and have been flawed. But the worst that can really be said about U. S. programs in the Middle East (and elsewhere in the world) over the past half century are that they have been typical of what might be expected from the historical record of major nation states. Great powers use their power. Additionally, U. S. policies in the region have remained little changed since the end of the Cold War, even with profound differences on the world scene.

The end of World War II—a war fought against a truly malignant political movement in Europe and an Asian power bent on imperial conquest— saw the entry onto the world stage of a powerful United States. This was a nation that had failed to face up to challenges to world peace during the “long truce” following the First World War. From the late 1940’s, in defense of freedom and the containment of the Soviet Union, America took both successful initiatives, such as the Marshall Plan, and disastrous ones, such as the destructive war seemingly without end in Vietnam. Hindsight reveals mistakes along with successes. But the active U. S. presence—its interventionism—here and there around the world during the “Long Peace” and beyond manifested the acceptance of its standing as a preeminent nation state on the world scene. Nothing more or less.

To return to the role of diplomats and policy makers: While the practice of diplomacy importantly includes seeking to understand other peoples and their political systems and cultures, that is not, I submit, what is involved here with the Middle Eastern terrorists. The largely unarticulated grievances of the al Qa‘ idah zealots apparently derive from a hatred of the United States for what amounts to certain aspects of that nation’s conduct, sometimes wise and sometimes not, as the world leader that it unavoidably is. One more instance of unintended consequences.

A specific course of action arises from the arguments of those who hold that Americans must heed the grievances of the terrorists: The United States should revise its Middle East policies forthwith, away from a tendency to intervene toward a resolve to undertake fewer obligations, and those only if asked. This would involve revising our relationship with Israel and no longer acting automatically as the guarantor of Western access to the region’s oil.

Some I have talked with suggest, by extension, that the time may have come for Americans soberly and thoughtfully to debate whether an activist policy of global involvement continues to serve the nation well in general. Now that the twenty-first century is under way, would it be advisable for the United States to rethink the limits of its role as a great power? Traditionalist that I am—and I speak of the internationalist tradition of the past half century—I personally am doubtful about the utility of the first about-face, that pertaining to the Middle East, in heading off the terrorist threat. Further, I find it difficult to accept the practicality of the latter withdrawal; like it or not, the United States is a world power of the very first magnitude.

That is what a democracy is all about, however. Let the matter be deliberated and debated. The electorate, as usual, directly or indirectly will decide. It is galling, however, after half a century of global obligations, commitments, and leadership to have to consider such momentous decisions while staring down the barrel of a gun.

—The Editor

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