by Curtis F. Jones
The author made these comments as an introduction to a public forum discussion at North Carolina State University on Sep. 19, 2001. The Triangle Institute for Security Studies organized the event. —Ed.
In the aftermath of World War II, there were three momentous developments in the Middle East: The region emerged as the global center of oil and gas production, Israel became a state, and British hegemony collapsed.
Two enduring conflicts ensued—one microcosmic, between an expansionist Israel and its immediate neighbors—the other macrocosmic, to determine whether the power vacuum the UK left behind would be filled by an indigenous force or by a newcomer, the United States.
Almost inadvertently, the United States has taken the British place, not with troops on the ground but by remote control based on naval domination of four of the five seas that adjoin the region. America’s objectives are prevention of nuclear war, access to oil, and the security of Israel. To promote these objectives, it has adopted a three-point strategy: all-out political, financial, and military aid to Israel; benefits for regimes that cooperate; penalties for those few that don’t.
With or without UN endorsement, the United States has mounted five military interventions — three in Lebanon and two in Iraq. The second Iraqi intervention continues as of this writing.
Although Washington professes democratic intent, the actual criterion for its support is pliability. All the Middle Eastern states under our bounty are autocracies, and we like it that way. Autocrats are simpler to do business with. Even Israel, in many ways an extension of U.S. society, has yet to find a way to embrace Arabs in its single-minded system of government.
The United States, born in revolution, has become a status-quo power. The timing is unfortunate, because the status quo is doomed. The critical question is how soon.
So far, the armor of the US-Israeli juggernaut has been essentially impregnable. Hizballah harried it out of Lebanon, but in the Gulf War Iraq lost some 100,000 dead, against the deaths of 148 Americans. Iran has been afflicted by America’s economic sanctions. Israel is gaining ground in the Occupied Territories.
Even weaker are the revolutionaries, who oppose all existing Middle Eastern regimes. Thirty years ago the secularists were on the march, and the Islamists were our allies. Today secularism is dormant, and Islamists are held responsible for all major anti-American actions of recent years, culminating in the attacks of September 11.
Terrorism is an unscientific term. It is dangerously misleading. The carnage of September 11 was not to scare us, but to start us wondering about the viability of our policies — possibly even to drive a wedge between the United States and Israel. Terrorism is also ethnocentric. As used in our media, it automatically means the satanic “them” versus the faultless “us”. If we ever believed in our faultlessness, the failure to direct events in Viet Nam should have disabused us of this notion.
Some analysts have suggested adopting the phrase “asymmetric warfare,” wherein those outclassed on the military side look for vulnerability in other arenas—and find it in our open society.
The grievous losses of September 11 impose on Washington some agonizing decisions, among them:
How to reduce the virulence of future attacks without converting America into a police state?
How to retaliate without wiping out bystanders, martyrizing the quarry, and energizing the anti-American movement—thus creating a latter day Hydra which grows two heads for every one we lop off?
The attack of September 11 was directed against the violence the United States and the regimes it supports have inflicted on their opposition.
Can we be confident that the way to eliminate that opposition is to step up the violence another notch?
Finally, if our Middle East policy is in need of updating
How to reconcile it with the ruthless realities of our political system?
Bound to the electoral wheel, successive U. S. presidents stayed with the Vietnam intervention long after they knew it was hopeless. Secretary of Defense McNamara admitted error, but he was thirty years too late. This writer knows of no policy maker to admit a mistake while he was still in office.