With the kind permission of the Organization of American Historians, American Diplomacy is pleased to publish another analysis of the post-September 11 world (see Professor Peter Sederbergs commentary elsewhere in this issue [click here]). Note that the author, a member of the board of directors of this organization, published an earlier version of his current assessment in this journal [click here]. -- Ed.
Acute problems attend the interpretive framing of an unfolding foreign policy crisis. Just when perspective is most valuable, it is also hardest for policy makers and commentators alike to find because of the pressure to act and the value of quick and simple ways of understanding.1 Historians have something important to say at such a moment. Understanding of the past is a useful, perhaps even essential, way of providing orientation in the midst of the press of confusing events. Historical perspective will not make any easier the resolution of the difficulties now facing the United States in the Middle East. On the other hand, it would be reckless to engage ever more deeply and especially militarily in the region without first considering the possible pitfalls that a historical perspective might reveal.
The argument advanced here is that the nature of the conflict sparked by the horrors of September 11 and represented by the "war on terrorism" has been ill defined historically by those who have declared that war. Their justifications rest on simple binaries, usually couched in terms of defense of civilization and the march of the modern. We need instead a framework that eschews superiority and inevitability and prompts both some degree of self-consciousness among Americans with a voice in the policy debate and a modicum of awareness about those supposedly arrayed against us and ostensibly teetering on the brink of barbarism or trapped in tradition. The pairing proposed here is a bit less neat and a bit less symmetrical. On the one side is a seemingly potent and long-lived but perhaps hollow American nationalism quick to see evil, ready to combat barbarism, devoted to the advance of its way of life, and forgetful of a long record of U. S. intervention in the Middle East. On the other side is something considerably more complexa multivalent politics in an Islamic key with decades of history behind it and with a striking range of articulations among Muslims in far-flung places. "Fundamentalism" does not begin to do justice to its diversity, and positing some blind hostility to "the West" and "the modern world" misses the genuine, specific grievances varying from country to country and inspiring both intellectual ferment and political action.
Let us begin by considering the two most popular ways of interpretively framing the crisis of September 11. One reading with perhaps the widest currency derives from Samuel Huntington. In 1993 he advanced the view that the United States as the leader of the West was caught in a clash of civilizations. The main challenge, as he saw it, came from Confucian Asia (primarily China) and the Islamic world (Iran seemed at the time of writing the embodiment of militant regional resistance).2 Huntington's interpretation, with its stark and value-laden delineation of regions in conflict, commanded considerable attention when it appeared and has won fresh converts in the wake of September 11.
This "clash" interpretation has flaws that are troubling but also familiar in American foreign policy thinking. Huntington's notion of civilization is monolithic, static, and essentialist much like the Cold War-era view of the Communist enemy. Reacting against the revived interest in Huntington's argument after September 11, Edward Said warned of the dangers of making "'civilizations' and 'identities' into what they are not: shut-down, sealed-off entities that have been purged of the myriad currents and countercurrents that animate human history, and that over centuries have made it possible for that history not only to contain wars of religion and imperial conquest but also to be one of exchange, cross-fertilization and sharing."3 Seen in even longer-term perspective, Huntington is heir to one of the most ethnocentric and aggressive notions in American history. Like nineteenth-century advocates of Manifest Destiny faced by the perceived barbarism of Native Americans, Latin Americans, the Spanish, and the Chinese, he posits U. S. civilizational superiority and on that basis calls for a kind of moral rearmament to promote and defend Western values. In his construction, countries determined to find their own way are not part of a culturally diverse world, but wrong-headed rebels against a preponderant and enlightened West.
The clash of modernity is an alternative, more intellectually refined formulation. But it too is ethnocentric, and it too has a dubious pedigree. The social science modernizers of the 1950s and early 1960s championed the notion that old values and institutions (deemed "traditional") holding back the Third World were to give way to new ones (deemed "modern").4 In the new rendition of modernization as in the old, modernity takes at least implicitly American form (for example, in Paul Kennedy's formulation "laissez-faire economics, cultural pluralism and political democracy"), and tradition is embodied by countries cursed with seemingly static and rigid cultures that block development and breed popular dissatisfaction. In its most recent incarnation, modernization appears as part of the popular view of impersonal forces of globalization sweeping around the world and inexorably creating social and cultural as well as economic uniformityand leaving behind backwaters of failure where tradition either refuses to surrender its hold or collapses into anarchy. The Middle East has figured as one of those backwaters, a natural breeding ground for crazed fanatics given to psychotic behavior. This view has been most widely disseminated in the snappy, enthusiastic writing about the new laissez-faire world by Thomas Friedman, the New York Times reporter turned columnist, and by Robert D. Kaplan, a journalist who has painted a dark picture of parts of the world fragmenting under mounting social, demographic, and environmental pressures.5
The proponents of the modernization perspective conjure up a tradition-bound world in images of exotic dress and rituals, bizarre theocratic rule, a fanatic faith, inexplicable group identities, and women locked in the harem.6 While Huntington calls for manning the walls against barbarians at the gate, the modernizers offer the comforting notion that "progress" will inevitably bring most countries into the fold of the modern world, leaving only a few lagging farther and farther behind. In this view, the duty of the United States is to align itself with the forces of history, pushing the reluctant ahead, calling to heel those straying from the designated path, and washing its hands of "failed states" hopelessly trapped in the difficult transition from the traditional to the modern. Relentlessly teleological and culturally tone-deaf, modernizers now as earlier have had difficulty imagining more complicated historical processes by which societies change in idiosyncratic ways involving borrowing, indigenization, localization all terms meant to suggest a dynamic of cultural amalgamation and accommodation. It is as if China, Japan, India, Iran, and Turkey all striking examples of indigenous values and institutions interacting with outside social, political, and economic forces to create new forms did not exist.
The shortcomings of these two influential American interpretations of the Middle East suggest the need for some self-reflection, especially on the nationalist impulses that animate both of them. The events of September 11 jolted U. S. officials and most of the public into an impressive outpouring of nationalist feeling. The heavy, horrifying loss of civilian life was part of the reason. Another was the violation of American soil. Finally, the existence of an easily recognizable "evil other" (the Muslim fanatic retailed widely in public pronouncements and popular culture the last several decades) provided a clear and ready villain. The president went before Congress on September 20, 2001, and in a televised speech that was widely praised vowed to fight back. Liberally sprinkled through the text were the keywords from a century and more of public foreign policy discourse: national mission, the fate of human freedom, world leadership, strength and courage in the face of a dark threat.
As long as the United States of America is determined and strong, this will not be an age of terror; this will be an age of liberty, here and across the world. (Applause.) . . . [I]n our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment. Freedom and fear are at war. The advance of human freedom the great achievement of our time, and the great hope of every time now depends on us. Our nation this generation will lift a dark threat of violence from our people and our future. We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail. (Applause.)7
Reading these lines calls at once to mind passages from such classic early Cold War statements as the Truman Doctrine and NSC-68. Once more policy makers proclaim a time of national testing with the fate of the globe hanging in the balance.
The new patriotic consensus expressed itself in a wide variety of ways familiar from previous national trials. The consensus was rapidly evident in proliferating flags on cars, storefronts, and office doors and in heated language on radio talk shows and in official pronouncements. In the name of "civilization" the innocuously named American Council of Trustees and Alumni decried too-free speech, moral relativism, and national self-loathing supposedly evident in critical academic reactions to the "war on terrorism." Muslims around the country came under close official and popular scrutiny and prudently self-censored. Public debate sputtered and died; dissenters fell to the margins of political respectability. The media at once got in step and deferentially made government press conferences, speeches, and press releases the staple of its reporting.8 The war on terrorism became a compelling story told in familiar nationalist terms of a country rallying and readying to strike back. A corps of instant experts appeared to satisfy the public hunger for information about those big, confusing, overlapping entities the Middle East, the Arabs, and Islam suddenly thrust into popular consciousness.
The most remarkable feature of this nationalist upsurge, for a historian at least, has been the ability of policy makers and most pundits to maintain a sense of injured innocence through an audacious repression of a half century of U. S. intervention in the Middle East. That deep entanglement began with the Cold War and the related campaign to promote stable, secular, pro-U. S. regimes that would shore up the anticommunist containment line in the region and assure the flow of oil. A variety of critics from Arab nationalists to economic nationalists to Marxists to neutralists challenged the American vision of the Middle East tied politically and economically to the interests of the United States and its European allies. U. S. policy makers 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).9
Since the 1970s, the Middle East has emerged for U. S. policy as the chief zone of conflict, a dubious distinction that East Asia had surrendered after a quarter century of crises and war. 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. Troubles began with an oil embargo in 1973 and continued with the overthrow of 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, Ronald Reagan's bombing of Libya, the involvement of marines in fighting in Lebanon in 1983 following the Israeli invasion, the Gulf War of 1990-1991, the residual American military presence in the Persian Gulf, continued containment of Iran, a policy of economic and military pressure against Iraq, and the ongoing diplomatic cover and military and financial support for a territorially expansionist Israel.
Well after September 11, most Americans still do not have the foggiest notion of this pattern of U. S. entanglement. The relevant past has been instead the grand narrative of American confrontation with heterodox ideologies from fascism to totalitarianism to fundamentalism. Or the past simply disappears in timeless contests between good and evil or civilization and barbarism. But this U. S. entanglement is widely understood and resented in the Middle East. Americans too need to understand it if we are to imagine how our role might, at least among some, generate a resentment that would inspire deadly and indiscriminate retaliation. It has been easy for critics in the region secular as well as religiousto denounce the official U. S. presence as an obstacle to economic development, social justice, cultural integrity, and democracy. It has also been easy to label as neocolonial the order promoted by Washington, in effect linking U. S. policy to the earlier British and French imperial enterprises. Like Britain, the United States has established bases, shored up governments headed by amenable elites (notably in Israel, Jordan, Egypt over the last several decades, and Saudi Arabia), and opposed both openly and covertly governments not responsive to U. S. goals (such as Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser, Syria, Iraq, and Iran). By working closely with our British allies in carrying out these policies, we have provided a constant reminder of the link between the British era of dominance and the more recent American one.
The post-September 11 nationalist upsurge in the United States with its impressive capacity to blank out an inconvenient past has sturdy antecedents. Its immediate antecedents include the popular patriotism of World War I and the early Cold War, the nationalist revitalization project undertaken by neoconservatives in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the seeming loss of moral fortitude in the Nixon years, Reagan's appeal for the country to stand tall in the world, and the celebration following a Gulf War victory banishing the specter of national decline. Perhaps the predictions of global theorists are wrong the state is not in steep decline but, to the contrary, remains a potent symbol of popular loyalty and a formidable mobilizing force. Nationalism seems still a vital force in American life.
But how seriously should we take this recent explosion of nationalist sentiment? Is it a mile wide and an inch deep? Two general studies of the relation of nationalism to U. S. foreign policy my own in 1987 and Anders Stephanson's in 1995 diverge on whether this ideology was becoming attenuated at the end of the twentieth century.10 The emotional nationwide outpouring immediately after September 11, almost seamlessly tied to the Bush administration response, tends to support my own claim for durability and persistence. But, once beyond shock and grief over the loss of American life, the national response had the feel not of a great crisis or cause whose course would define the life of a generation, but of a sporting event at which the home team sweeps the outclassed opposition from the field or (perhaps more commonly) a quickly satisfied hunger for revenge and a quiet longing for security from future attacks. Every bit as much as the Gulf War, this anti-terrorist war evoked tough talk and soaring aspirations while following a cautious military strategy designed to hold down U. S. losses. Meanwhile, the president called reassuringly for business as usual on the home front, and consumers complied. Stephanson's skeptical appraisal increasingly seems closer to the mark.
This strange disconnect between the epochal issues ostensibly at stake and the minimal sacrifices asked of Americans carries forward a pattern familiar to historians. The public seems as ambivalent today about the direct involvement of Americans in combat as it was during the war in Vietnam or earlier in Korea or even earlier after World War I or earlier still in the course of fighting in the Philippines or still earlier in the war with Mexico. Vietnam and Korea offer especially dramatic illustrations of the public's allergy to protracted or open-ended commitments that result in the heavy loss of American life.11 Consumer values and the closely related notion of individualism made it difficult for policy makers to elicit significant, sustained popular sacrifice. That public allergy has persisted, confirming its influence following loss of American soldiers serving in Beirut and Somalia and the hesitation over intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo.
The generation of military leaders who had served in Vietnam as junior officers shared the public's aversion and helped to formulate prudential rules to guide decisions on committing U. S. forces to combat. The classic statement by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, issued in November 1984, included the following almost paralyzing set of preconditions for the use of force: 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 nonmilitary solutions to the problem. Secretary of State Colin Powell, himself a Vietnam veteran, called during his tenure as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a seemingly more flexible if nonetheless cautious rule of thumb: "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 other costs that will surely ensue. Wars kill people."12 Powell did not make clear how policy makers without the gift of clairvoyance were to tot up the overall costs and benefits of military action.
Even while military leadership passes from one generation to another, the caution remains. The evidence is to be found in the expeditionary model that the armed forces adopted during the 1980s and 1990s. From Beirut to Libya to the Persian Gulf to Somalia to Haiti, American forces undertook variously to punish, order, and feed but always at a low cost in American lives and with the maximum use of air power. These police and social welfare actions maximized the use of U. S. high-tech weaponry and minimized the exposure of U. S. soldiers to danger. The intervention in Afghanistan neatly fits into this pattern. U.S bombs clear the way for ground forces, preferably allies alongside or in front of U. S. troops. So far it has worked.
But the Bush administration finds itself by virtue of its commitment to a war on terrorism in a familiar and dangerous situation. The war's geographical range and vague goals raise the risks; the U. S. public and Congress seem permissive; and so the president may by choice or inadvertence place (or find) his military in a situation that would prove more costly or intractable than anticipated. Then patriotism would receive its true test. Americans would then have to face the serious challenge that lurks behind this foreign policy crisis: whether a country with pretensions to lead and change the world was too self-absorbed even to grasp the dimensions of those gargantuan ambitions or to pay the price in treasure and lives when the bill inevitably comes due. The United States thus hangs suspended between the dominant nationalism that by its very nature constantly risks overreaching and an alternative national identity that is more modest in its goals but less able to supply an emotionally satisfying sense of collective identity and power.
If American nationalism is one side of a new binary, what should we place on the other side? Seen through the prism of that nationalism, "Islamic fundamentalism" (also referred to as "militant Islam") would seem the obvious answer. Here is the most often cited source of evil, darkness, and terror coming out of the Middle East. Buried in that phrase are appealing if vague explanations for such brutal acts as September 11 and for the troubled advance of modern life that makes fanaticism and irrational anger fester in the region. Like all broadly appealing ideological gestures, this one dispenses with considerable complexity. It offers a marvelous economy of explanation at the price of conflating a wide variety of religiously inspired political movements and ignoring the wide variety of ways that religious ideas have assumed a prominence among the countries that are the home of well over a billion Muslims on the planet. In a sweep of territory running from northern Africa to Southeast Asia, there are at least as many public, political expressions of Islam as there are countries, each with its own linguistic, ethnic, and historical profile. The challenge is to understand Islam as among other things a source of political ideas that have taken quite distinct national forms, that are also transnational in their reach, and that thus resist easy categorization or generalization.
Islamic politics, a more useful, complex binary to set against U. S. nationalism, needs to be understood primarily in local terms as an expression of sharpening disillusionment with secular regimes over the last quarter century.13 Opposition sometimes electoral, sometimes violent appeared in places as widespread and culturally diverse as Iran, Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. All were states that had sought to build a "modern" society on the basis of socialism, nationalism, capitalism, or liberalism. Those wanting to anchor national life instead in religious values not only attacked the moral bankruptcy of a secular path but also condemned the U. S. government for propping up hated secular leaders divorced from their own people, for guaranteeing the survival of the no less hated state of Israel, and for promoting a soulless materialism. For those critical of the status quo, the American presence has become deeply entangled with national as well as regional problems, and thus solutions to those problems seem to involve unavoidably a confrontation of some sort with the U. S. government. Those wielding the weapon of terror may not elicit much open support in the Middle East or elsewhere in the Islamic world, but their radical critique of present conditions, their potent amalgam of religion and politics, and their determination to act even against the odds enjoys strong popular appeal.14
Following this line of argument, the regional past to set September 11 against is not the one favored by critics of the Bush administration the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan and the "blowback" from that covert effort that Americans are now experiencing. To be sure, covert U. S. support for the resistance in Afghanistan had unintended, damaging consequences (as virtually all such interventions do). But the blowback thesis flirts with the same ethnocentric notions of U. S. power entertained by the Bush administration. They share a tendency, as Francis FitzGerald has phrased it, "to relate the fall of sparrows in distant lands to some fault or virtue of American policy.''15 Just as some policy critics make the United States the main source of evil in the world, so do leading policy makers assume a boundless national capacity to combat evil.
Rather than focusing on Afghanistan and the blowback thesis, we might more fruitfully look to the Iranian revolution of 1978-1979 as a more pertinent past. That revolution was a defining, watershed moment when Islam assumed formidable political proportions with reverberations not only in Iran but also throughout the region.16 It demonstrated the power of religious ideas and leaders to mobilize the public and effect change. Islamists across the region hailed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's triumph as a harbinger of cultural and political resurgence that would turn back the inroads of the West and Israel and overthrow secular elites. The revolution's powerful impact on its neighbors helped almost at once to destabilize the region. Afghanistan was the first domino to fall when Soviet forces invaded in 1979 to head off what the Kremlin feared would be the spread of Islamic unrest in Central Asia.17 By throwing its protection over the Shi'a majority in Iraq, the Iranian revolutionary regime also helped provoke the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988. That war in turn prepared the way for Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the Gulf War of 1991. The war with Iran had drained Saddam Hussein's treasury, created good relations with Washington, and fed his ambitions. Kuwait was tempting and seemingly easy pickings. This string of conflicts ignited by Iran's newfound political faith would set the stage for the current crisis: devastation and civil war within Afghanistan, resentment over the American military presence in Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. dual containment policy directed against Iran and Iraq.18
Finally, the Iranian revolution deserves special attention because it throws into sharp relief the very problems that policy makers face today. The run-up to the revolution found the Carter administration unable to grasp the appeal of an Islamic political movement. That administration was also unaware of Iranian resentment over the role of the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) in overthrowing the government of Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953 and over U. S. support for the shah and his program of secularization, militarization, and ties to Israel over the following decades. AntiAmericanism seemed in 1979, as much as it seems now, an irrational, incomprehensible outburst by wild-eyed radicals. The legacy of anger and incomprehension has made it easier for U.S. policy makers, including the current Bush administration, to fixate on Tehran as a sponsor of terror and to ignore a lively political and social experiment that experienced observers invest with considerable promise and that Muslims everywhere watch with great interest.19
If the clash unfolding before us involves some sort of fundamentalism, it is tempting to say that it is as much ours as theirs that there are strong strains of fundamentalism on both sides. Americans bring to the September 11 crisis a deeply rooted nationalist faith that is universal in its application, ahistorical in its thinking, and reductive in its view of other cultures. The talk from the White House, the Justice Department, and the Pentagon draws from a familiar nationalist repertoire that reduces complex situations to easily grasped terms familiar from other times of tension and fear. The result is the ethnocentric invocation of a great conspiracy, an axis of evil, a monolith of terror. This is the language of the crusader. Posed against this official American position with broad popular appeal is something more amorphous but demonstrably powerful a set of values that has come to the fore in Muslim countries, that is preoccupied above all with domestic renovation, and that is in the main opposed to the United States for what it does politically and militarily to sustain a bankrupt old order and obstruct efforts to create something better.
There may be dangers lurking as Americans make their way deeper into the affairs of the region. Taking guidance from convenient simplifications is not likely to prove in practice any wiser today than it has in the past. It may well be now in the Middle East, as earlier in East Asia, that historical perspective will find little if any place in policy decisions and public debate. Ignoring history or embracing a simple, comforting version of it is always an attractive option. U.S. policy makers are likely to plunge heedlessly ahead. A fundamental reconsideration of policy may then have to wait until they encounter resistance that imposes costs higher than the public is willing to pay and that finally creates a kind of education through violence. This is a grim prospect with much uncertainty and much human suffering likely to attend it.
Republished by permission from the Journal of American History, Vol. 89 No. 2, September 2002. See http:www.oah.org/. Copyright held by the Organization of American Historians.