How to Be Tough on Terrorism

by Robert B. Reich

The American Prospect magazine, November 2001

The righteousness of our cause shouldn't prevent us from asking why so many people around the world who aren't terrorists hate America, and from seeking ways to reduce their hatred. Recognizing America's past failing in this regard isn't justifying terrorism. Finding means of ameliorating the hatred isn't appeasing terrorists. Rather, it's looking at terrorism's larger context-the soil in which it has taken root-and examining our role in helping to create those conditions or allowing them to endure.

Here's where America's political and intellectual left and right seem incapable of reasoned debate. Much of the left is still bemoaning America's Cold War support of anticommunist dictators-the shah, Mobutu, Somoza, Greek colonels, Korean generals, Pinochet, Marcos, Armas, the mujahidin-and our nation's gruesome record advising them, training their death squads, schooling and equipping their torture specialists, and helping them squirrel away their vast wealth. Given this history, the post-September 1l effulgence of American flags, patriotic hymns, and "freedom and democracy" bromides offered by American politicians strikes many on the left as dangerously ahistoric if not downright hypocritical.

The right dismisses this sordid history as irrelevant to the current crisis and accuses anyone on the left who dwells on it as "blaming America" for terrorism. Both sides are wrong: the left for suggesting that this history should make us any less determined to fight Islamic extremism and the right for assuming that this record has no bearing on why much of the third world is hostile toward us. Of course, we must proceed against terrorists with full force. Yet it's also important to understand that our checkered history has shaped the understandings of many poor nations whose cooperation we need in order for that force to be effective and many of the world's poor who are both attracted to radical fundamentalism and repelled by American bullying.

This blaming-versus-understanding terrain is also where American backers and critics of Israel butt heads. Backers don't want to admit that part of the third world's animosity toward the United States comes from its unswerving support for an Israeli government that's been assassinating Palestinian leaders, bombing Palestinian towns, demolishing Palestinian homes, and expanding Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Critics, meanwhile, fail to acknowledge the immensity and randomness of the Violence aimed at Israeli Jews, and their legitimate worries about surviving in a region whose hostile Arab population is growing quickly. Here, too, much of this debate is beside the point. It's time for the United States to pressure Ariel Sharon and Yasir Arafat to resume the peace process with an eye toward a separate Palestinian state on the West Bank. Indeed, the United States and the West may have to take a stronger role in creating that state. Without it, continued hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians will only further inflame the Muslim world.

Finally, we have to think through our responsibilities as the world's only remaining superpower. America-firsters insist that we have no obligation to anyone beyond our borders and should act only where our national interest is directly at stake. This entails expanding global trade, stabilizing the world economy through the International Monetary Fund, defending ourselves against missiles from rogue states, and fighting terrorism that threatens domestic security. Globalists say that we have more important moral duties: We must fight genocide wherever it breaks out; share our wealth and knowledge in order to save the lives of so million people a year-12 million of them children-who will otherwise die of preventable disease or malnutrition; and bear our rightful share of the cost of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions, improving working and living conditions in the third world, and reversing the trend toward greater inequality between rich and poor nations.

Considering the larger context of terrorism, each of these positions has part of the truth-but again, neither is sufficient. America-firsters are correct that the national interest is America's paramount concern, but globalists correctly focus attention on the many ways in which the United States can play a more constructive role in the world. Spreading prosperity and relieving human suffering are in our national interest to the extent that they reduce the anger felt by many of the world's poor toward rich and powerful America while creating opportunities for the poor to share the benefits of the global economy. It's the same lesson we learned from rebuilding war-ravaged Europe and Japan after the Second World War, when an emerging Soviet threat prompted us to take a broader view of national security. The terrorist threat should cause us to think no less generously. Identifying and responding to the root causes of terrorism in no way justifies the horror that terrorists inflict; nor should doing so be seen as a means of appeasing them. To the contrary, it's part of a long-term strategy to eradicate them. Ultimately, terrorism cannot be rooted out by anything other than its roots.

Britain's Tony Blair, who has offered the most eloquent justification for why we are at war against terrorism, promised during his first campaign for prime minister to be "tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime." It was possible and desirable to do both. It's the same with the current war, which must be fought on two fronts: We must be brutally tough on terrorism but equally tough on its causes.

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