Friday, April 09, 2004


The following was written for the April 7 edition of The Daily Star, Beirut, by the newspaper’s Executive Editor.

By Rami G. Khouri

Three important dynamics taking place before our eyes these
days revolve around American government perceptions of the
world that also impact on the lives of billions of people
around the globe. It is urgent to correctly diagnose and
appropriately respond to the issues involved, especially in
view of the expanding terrorism threats in Europe and the
upsurge in violent clashes in Iraq.

The three issues I refer to are the internal American review
of how the George W. Bush administration in its early days
responded to the threat of terror by Al-Qaeda, the
American-led global response to terror after Sept. 11, 2001,
and this week's American response to Shiite leader Moqtada
al-Sadr and other forms of anti-American defiance or
resistance in Iraq.

The common thread that runs through these three issues is how
the United States perceives and engages the rest of the world.
The US's global perception and engagement were relatively
consistent for the half century of the Cold War, but became
more complex after 1990, when the US emerged as the dominant
global power and it could project its power anywhere in the
world virtually unchecked. The first Bush administration
unleashed that force in order to reverse the 1990 Iraqi
occupation of Kuwait. A decade later, the George W. Bush
administration and its neoconservative ideologists transformed
the opportunity of American global power projection into an
operative policy. Responding to the attacks of Sept. 11 made
this transformation politically possible, both at home in the
US and with cooperative governments around the world. But what
have been the cost and consequence of this policy?

The debate about how the Bush team viewed the terror threat in
1990 is history and the potential consequences of clashes in
Iraq this week will become clear in the period ahead. At this
delicate juncture, therefore, we can gain the most from
analyzing the third of these dynamics - how the US responded
to terror after Sept. 11, and what impact this response has
had. The initial assessment does not look very good, given the
literal and figurative explosion of terror attacks and plots
around the world. The recent successful and thwarted attacks
against train systems in Europe are especially troublesome,
for they indicate the widening range of terrorists' targets,
including Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia,
Spain, Germany, France and other countries. The threats
against civilians around the world - not just in the US - are
much greater now than they were three years ago, as the
terrorists seem to become more diffused, decentralized,
localized and thus much harder to stop.

Was this inevitable? Could it have been avoided? Or is this
precisely what Osama bin Laden and his kind wanted to achieve?
My own sense is that after Sept. 11, the US government wasted
a historic opportunity. It could and should have rallied a
global coalition to fight injustice and violent extremism,
through a multi-pronged strategy that simultaneously addressed
the root economic, political and social causes of terror and
also used police actions to curtail its practical, criminal
expression of bombings. US President George W. Bush and his
ideologues walked right into the trap that Osama bin Laden set
for them, by giving bin Laden the war he sought to ignite. The
global "war against terror" that Bush initiated after Sept. 11
is slowly looking more like simply a "global war" between the
forces of terror and the forces of anti-terror.

It is important to go back and assess how we reached this
point, because more or less the same people - or at least the
same sort of mentalities - on both sides now confront each
other in a more limited arena in Iraq. They both use the
weapons and emotional fuel of anger, bombs, resentment,
missiles, fear, helicopter gun-ships and suicide bombers. It
would be catastrophic for all if events in Iraq were allowed
to be driven by the same violent extremism that the terrorists
bring to the table, or by the immoderate ideology and faulty
policy that has seen Washington transform a legitimate war
against terror into an indiscriminate and unnecessary global

In retrospect, it seems that in responding to Sept. 11,
Washington made serious mistakes on the three critical levels
of diagnosis, strategy and policy on the ground. First it
badly misdiagnosed the nature and causes of terror, and the
reasons why ordinary men and women become active terrorists
who kill innocent civilians. The terror phenomenon has plagued
the world for millennia. In almost every historical case we
can carefully unravel the rhetoric and actions of the bombers
in order to understand what motivated them, and, more
importantly, why they stopped being terrorists at one point.
This was not done with any seriousness or credibility in the
case of Al-Qaeda-vintage terrorism.

Second, Washington almost certainly misinterpreted the
motivations, operational methods and aims of Al-Qaeda and
allied groups, and its response was therefore probably
distorted and not consistently effective. The response may
have even increased and stimulated global terror - not
thwarted it. Washington's main mistake was to view Al-Qaeda
through the same prism with which it viewed Cold War
communists, the only adversary it has known for half a
century. Washington identified an enemy that may not exist - a
centrally organized, globally operational ideology that sought
to undermine and overwhelm the American way of life. The
American strategy to fight terror may have been based on a
faulty, even fictitious, foundation from day one. This is
incompetence on an award-winning scale.

Third, Washington launched a global war against terror that
has relied on military and political means that have had mixed
results. Many terrorists have been arrested or killed and
their networks disrupted, but terrorism has also become a much
more active, widespread, and dangerous phenomenon. This is
almost certainly because the preponderance of military means
to fight terror does not work, and often has the opposite
effect of inciting ordinary men and women to become
terrorists. This may be happening on a global scale, has
certainly happened in the Palestinian response to Israel's
reliance on military power, and seems to be happening in Iraq
in response to the American military force.

The world should not have to pay the price as it watches these
mistakes being made over and over by the same mindsets, but in
different countries. The legitimate battle against terrorism
must be waged in a more intelligent and effective manner. The
Bush team has gone to war on the back of a dysfunctional and
misguided combination of faulty perceptions, wrong diagnoses,
inappropriate strategy and counterproductive tactics. Rarely
in world history has such immense power been so poorly used,
or has a reservoir of global goodwill to a single country -
the United States - been so mercilessly squandered.