A Better Way to Fight Terrorism

The U.S. government is telling us that we have entered a new war, one that may last for years, even decades. If that is so, we are beginning with the wrong strategy.

Let’s be clear: There is never any justification for the kind of terrorism we witnessed this summer at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The world is full of grievances, real and imagined. But the taking of innocent life in response to those grievances is never morally acceptable. Never.

Terrorists, by definition, seek extreme solutions. And Islamic extremists who have perpetrated terrorist violence appeal to deeply held Arab resentments and grievances. They view the American military presence in Saudi Arabia as a religious offense to the sacred sites of Islam. They regard the United States as the primary backer of Israel that refuses to demand that the Israeli government accommodate Palestinian rights and comply with the peace process. They regard the United States as an ally of unpopular Arab regimes. Finally, terrorist networks represented by people like Osama bin Laden envision a Muslim theocracy forcibly uniting the Islamic world, imposing its strict religious regime on the entire region, and consolidating Middle East oil reserves.

That’s a frightening vision for the people of the Middle East as well as the rest of us, and is at odds with the true principles of Islam. The question is, What is the most appropriate and effective response? The United States has decided upon a unilateral military strategy to counter such terrorism and, indeed, go on the offensive. That is a moral and political mistake.

Military responses generally have not been effective in combating terrorism. The full force of the Soviet army was unable to defeat the guerrillas bunkered down in the mountains of Afghanistan. Why do we think the United States can be successful in defeating the same people now become anti-American terrorists? Where has a purely military strategy worked?

On the contrary, these U.S. strikes have made Osama bin Laden an international household word and conferred upon him a status he might never have achieved otherwise. Already, more angry Muslim youth are murmuring his name in reverence and are being attracted to his cause.

Because the basis of this terrorism is understood as more theological than ideological, it poses the real danger of a confrontation between the primarily Christian West and Islamic fundamentalism. There is profound misunderstanding between Christians and Muslims, which underlines the potential for conflict, even though the mainstream of each religion does not want it.

Terrorism could become the new enemy that we have "lacked" since the fall of communism, bringing the needed excuses for more military build-ups and weapons systems, more simplifying of complicated realities, more means-justifies-the-ends thinking and acting, and more violent conflict. With more strikes against U.S. citizens, the public clamor for more counter-strikes will grow; and with them the demand for more retaliation from the aggrieved parties in the Middle East will increase. And the prospect of the introduction of weapons of mass destruction is too terrible to contemplate. But we must.

There is a better way. The best way to counter terrorism is to isolate the perpetrators and decrease their public support by taking the wind out of their sails and the energy out of their cause.

That means, first of all, the United States must be much tougher on the present Israeli government until it honors the peace process. That is much more difficult politically than launching cruise missiles, but it is a course more likely to produce results. At the absolute heart of Middle East conflict is the crucial need for an Israeli-Palestinian peace and security settlement. Progress in other areas will flow from that.

The United States must cease its double standards in the Middle East, honoring some U.N. resolutions and ignoring others. That perceived double standard is at the center of Arab grievances. The United States must also support democratic reform in the Middle East, especially among its oil-rich and repressive Arab allies in the region. A more democratic region would require less American military presence, high on the list of things that insult many Arabs.

The U.S. government must commit to genuinely international solutions to problems like Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. This will not be easy. It will mean strengthening the international institutions and rule of law that the United States often seeks to keep weak to preserve its superpower prerogatives. And it will require a commitment to real multilateral action, especially in the Middle East, when unilateral U.S. action has often been preferred.

And a whole new effort, perhaps sparked by American religious leaders, must be undertaken to increase understanding for Islam. Conflict resolution could be undertaken by religious leaders across political lines who have learned to trust and respect each other. The American public must learn not to equate the words "Islam" and "Arab" with terrorism.

We must not begin a new war against terrorism. Instead, we must commit ourselves to a new strategy. Both religious and political wisdom suggest a different course than the one embarked upon by the Clinton administration. It is not too late to re-examine that course.

This commentary appeared on the MSNBC Web site.

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