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September 2001

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Some Hard Second Thoughts: The Attack on America

Our grief over the loss of innocent American life naturally gives rise to outrage, which in turn understandably leads to the call for striking back. Talk of vengeance may be therapeutic, but before the country launches off on a crusade in the Middle East, a bit of reflection would seem wise. Let me advance two propositions that might prompt some hard second thoughts.

First, the terror attacks that we have just witnessed should not be dismissed as psychotic acts by crazed fanatics. We might more usefully see them as an extreme expression of a broad-based regional reaction against deep U.S. entanglement in the Middle East spanning over a half a century.

That entanglement began with the Cold War and the related campaign to promote stable secular, pro-Western regimes that would shore up the anti-communist containment line in the region and assure the flow of oil. Washington thus acted on a vision of the Middle East tied politically and economically to the West. A variety of critics—from Arab nationalists to economic nationalists to Marxists to neutralists—challenged that vision. U.S. policymakers soldiered on, and in the process made two critical decisions with legacies still playing out today: first, to support Israel and, second, to overthrow a neutralist, economically nationalist government in Iran in 1953 and replace it with a regime tightly tied to U.S. interests (that of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi).

Since the 1970s, the Middle East has emerged for the United States as the chief zone of crisis and conflict (in effect displacing East Asia from that dubious distinction). Over the last three decades we have remained an active player in the political, military, economic, and cultural life of the region. We have been on both the receiving and giving end of suspicion, misunderstanding, retaliation, and violence. The undercurrents of opposition to the United States became stronger and they increasingly found expression in terms of Islamic values and resentment over U.S. support for Israel. Troubles began with an oil embargo in 1973; continued with the overthrow on an unpopular, U.S.-backed Shah and the taking of American hostages in Iran in 1979; support for Iraq in its long, bloody war with Iran in the 1980s; Reagan’s bombing of Libya; the dispatch of marines to Lebanon; the Gulf War of 1990-1991; the residual American military presence in the Gulf; continued containment of Iran; the isolation of Iraq; and the on-going protection of Israel.

We do not need to decide now whether the positions that the U.S. took were good or bad. We do have to recognize that while most Americans may not be aware of this pattern of U.S entanglement, it is widely understood and resented in the Middle East. Because of this interference, it has been easy for critics in the region to denounce the U.S. as an obstacle to economic development, social justice, cultural integrity, and democracy. It has also been easy to label as neo-colonial the order promoted by Washington, in effect linking U.S. policy to the earlier British and French imperial enterprise.

We are a country of well-intentioned and generous people, and therefore it is difficult for us to imagine how our role might, at least among some, generate a hate that would inspire such a deadly and indiscriminate attack. But there is no alternative to this act of historical and cultural imagination if we to avoid lashing back blindly.

Second, Americans have been highly ambivalent about the use of military force over the last half-century. Talk today of "going to war" by President Bush and Secretary of State Powell may be in the short term politically expedient and emotionally gratifying. But such talk flies in the face of this well-established popular allergy to protracted or open-ended commitments that result in heavy loss of American life (as in Korea and Vietnam most dramatically and more recently in Beirut and Somalia). These calls may in the final analysis violate the very rules for combat commitment formulated by Powell’s generation of military leaders after the Vietnam War.

The classic statement by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, issued in November 1984, included the following provisions: act only in defense of vital national interests, devise clear political and military objectives, commit to win, use the appropriate size and type of force, be sure of the support of the American people and Congress, and seek first non-military solutions to the problem.

Powell himself while serving as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff endorsed these propositions: "The use of force should be restricted to occasions where it can do some good and where the good will outweigh the loss of lives and the other costs that will surely ensue. Wars kill people."

Are we clear that we have satisfied these prudential conditions for applying the massive power available to us? Do we have clear objectives? Do they reflect definitions of the national interest that will win sustained popular and congressional support? Do we have the kinds and size of force needed? Have we exhausted non-military solutions? Perhaps above all as moral agents, we need to ask: Can we apply our military power in a way that does not multiply the human suffering?


13 Sept. 2001
Copyright Michael H. Hunt

Michael H. Hunt is the Emerson Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Professor Hunt, an eminent authority on American Foreign Relations, is the author of numerous works, including Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy. He serves on the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers and lives in Chapel Hill.

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