My Turn: America needs to encourage democracies in Middle East

Posted: Wednesday, October 31, 2001

I want to thank Lisle Hebert for his thoughtful piece ("Foreign Policy Does Not Always Reflect Ideals," Oct. 23) on the relationship between U.S. foreign policy and the tragic events of Sept. 11. He points out that we have been ignoring the 800-pound gorilla which is ransacking our living room. Understandably, we have been reluctant to discuss the effects of U.S. foreign policy for fear of sounding like apologists for the slaughter on Sept. 11. Of course, there is no conceivable justification for those despicable acts. Nevertheless, we cannot have true internal security if we continue to ignore the obvious: our propping up of despotic regimes because they are willing to give us cheap oil is a prime cause of the anger that so many in the Middle East feel toward the United States. It is that anger which Osama bin Laden tapped into for recruits to his perverted plan. It is that anger which we must understand and deal with if we are to stop terrorist attacks.

Rhetoric about "attacks on freedom" and "the Evil Ones" does nothing to advance our understanding of the economic conditions which are such fertile ground for bin Laden's madness. It is not unpatriotic to suggest that we must re-examine the fundamental assumptions and methods of our foreign policy if we are to achieve safety on our own soil. So far, there is very little indication that President Bush gets this. He has been an excellent cheerleader for business as usual, (let's get our posse together and put a whuppin' on the bad guys) but I have not heard him talk about fundamental policy changes that will make a real difference to our national security. Annoying but ineffectual Band-Aids to airport security only distract us from the real issues. The administration has rammed through a very, very scary bill (The USA-PATRIOT Act), which allows the government to rummage around in every facet of our private lives and will result in thousands more warrant-less arrests, detentions, and deportations of law-abiding individuals. We are involved in a ground war that even Defense Secretary Rumsfeld publicly doubts we can win. Does anyone feel more secure?

There are few voices asking the hard questions about where we went wrong in our dealings with the Saudis, Iranians, Iraqis, Libyans, Sudanese, Jordanians, Yemenis, and others who are holding our country hostage. The president of ABC News, David Westin, said recently that it is the patriotic duty of journalists and the public to actively question the government's handling of this crisis. By asking the right questions and reporting all the facts, we may convince the administration to get it right. I suggest that the foreign policy questions we should be asking are framed by the speech given by Sheikh Hamad al-Thani of Qatar, host of recent meetings of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, reported in the Economist on Oct. 13: The roots of terrorism lie in the suppression by governments of national aspirations. The cycle of violence, he said, will never be broken without dealing with these aspirations, particularly those of Palestinians. We continue to ignore this fundamental advice at our peril.

The war against the Taliban was a predictable response to Sept. 11, if only for our national emotional health. We might even get lucky and catch bin Laden, although no one really believes it. The predictable result is that we will install a totalitarian regime of temporary convenience, we will support them as long as they do our bidding, and when they no longer serve our interests we will abandon them, leaving behind a disaffected populace which will again be a fertile breeding ground for terrorists. That is exactly what happened when we supported Mr. bin Laden and the Taliban against the Soviets, and nothing about this war should give us confidence that we learned anything from that blunder.

Unless we rethink the economic expectations we bring to our foreign policy; unless we curb our insatiable appetite for oil and are willing, like the Europeans, to live with $4.50 gasoline; unless we allow and encourage democracies to exist even when they do not do our bidding; and unless we stop thinking that the preferred solution to terrorism is military force, we cannot succeed in disrupting the cycle of violence. It is time for Americans to have serious discussions about new ways of conducting ourselves in the world.

Grant is a Juneau attorney in private practice. He sits as a director of the American and Alaska Civil Liberties Unions. He also is a member of the Juneau Empire Editorial Advisory Board.

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