They Still Don't Get It!
Terrell E. Arnold
Over the past several weeks the Washington debate on terrorism has descended to a self-centered level that is probably without precedent, granted that city is unlikely to have pursued any other national issue in an information environment that offers such belly button clarity. The debate about who knew or did not know the threats and who did or did not do what might have been done about them is surely as sterile as it can get. This debate has spawned reams of print and rolls of electronic coverage without doing anything but pass the time. The fact is they still do not get it.
Richard Clarke, who has been one of the most coherent players in the debate, almost turned to the right page of this problem in an editorial called " The Wrong Debate on Terrorism published this week in the New York Times. He rightly identifies the struggle within Islam as a challenge for the world community, but he says that struggle is both ideological and directed against the west, neither of which is accurate. As serious Muslim scholars in Cairo, Rabat, Beirut, Karachi, and elsewhere will explain, this struggle is not about the west it is about how Islamic societies manage, read cope with change, modernization, and the stresses this puts on Islamic beliefs. It is less about ideology than it is about how religious values fit in modern patterns of life and behavior. This struggle is not without counterparts in Christendom, and it is hardly finished in the United States. Our fundamentalists are probably as dangerous to the Muslims as theirs are to us. Certainly Bush and his neo-conservative advisers have done a convincing job of making that point.
Clarke then goes on to indicate that the so-called anti-American jihad is in great measure a product of American policies and programs pursued through several US administrations. He says it is a good idea to advocate democracy in Middle East countries, but not at the point of a gun and not without plans to follow on effectively from regime change. However, he then suggests that the struggle against terrorism is a war of ideas in which "ideological and religious " counters to al Qaida and the fundamentalist Muslim clerics must be found. He suggests, however, that this is our assignment, when in reality it is not. As outsiders we cannot provide the new truths that will guide Islam successfully through this and succeeding centuries. They must come from within. He also suggests the ideas are bin Laden's when in fact the problems now plaguing Islam have been accumulating for well over a century. The newest element is an aggressive, self-interested, and hardly skillful outsider trying to impose a fix.
A high priority in Clarke's war of ideas is progress on the Israeli and Palestinian issues, but, he affirms, "safe-guarding Israeli security. In that statement, however, he exposes the single most damning element in the US position: He gives not even a nod toward the security of the Palestinian people who are daily attacked, walled in, hassled and targeted for assassination by current Israeli leadership, using modern, expensive weapons largely provided and paid for by the United States. If we are indeed engaged on a war of ideas, the omission of any concern for the rights and interests of the Palestinians is a virtual guided missile targeting the Islamic world. The Arabs will believe we are serious about peace in the region when we actively pursue a truly balanced policy toward Palestinian and Israeli interests. We can make matters worse in various ways, but we cannot make them much better without fixing this enduring flaw in US behavior.
Clarke then turns to the Washington debate about how to organize to fight the war on terrorism. He concludes that some structural changes might help, but says they are not the answer. There probably are a few aspects of the US defense against terrorism that can be improved with different organization and staffing. However, the number, skills, training, dedication, and distribution of qualified people are far more critical issues than how they are organized. With cuts and budget constraints in all the critical agencies for several years, the United States simply does not have enough people in enough places to acquire the information and analysis we need to be effective. Penetrating the intentions or planned actions in another society is not possible without sustained and concentrated observation and interaction with key players in that society. With all the benefits of electronic media, these are merely tools and they do not substitute for human eyes, ears, understanding and judgment. When most of the knowledge or intelligence problems are abroad, beefing up organizations at home is likely to run up the bill while not providing any added protection.
The most disturbing aspect of the Washington debate, even as reformulated by Clarke, is that it treats the human conditions that spawn terrorism as givens. Most of the developing world has problems of governance and pervasive scarcity of resources. The inequalities that go with mal-distribution of scarce goods and services define the human condition in too many places. Inequalities of political participation and access to opportunity are features of this situation in many countries, even some advanced ones. Problems with fundamentalism appear most pronounced in those Muslim countries where such economic, political and social conditions are most severe. Normally the people who are left out or are unable to share effectively take out their discontent on their own governments and elites. However, the aggressive approaches of the United States, as demonstrated in Iraq, and a persistent lack of US sensitivity to the needs of the Palestinian people, as well as US alliances with governments that are insensitive to their out groups, provide fuel for turning jihadist energies against the United States.
A war on terrorism that does not recognize these facts is unlikely to succeed and, if anything, is likely to make matters worse. The Washington debate will begin to make some sense when the human factors that spawn terrorism are taken into account and actions are taken to correct them. We might even win this war in our lifetimes, if Washington leadership were to turn it around and do battle against the inequities of the human condition, but as of now the focus of the debate shows that they still do not get it.
The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State. He welcomes comments at



This Site Served by TheHostPros