Saturday, March 26, 2005

Dear Sir,

I read the recent ‘analysis’ in the Ridge titled “Terrorism and the ‘New Equation’” with no small amount of incredulity and dismay at the lack of objectivity and some spurious argumentation.

Three issues are basically raised by the article. 1) How is the Palestinian Problem central to the problem of terrorism? 2) What has the USA’s role been in the creation and continuation of such problems? 3) Is using force to combat terrorism necessarily mutually exclusive and counter–productive to a policy of solving the Middle Eastern Problem?

The article rightly points out that the word ‘terrorism’ only became more ubiquitous after 9/11 and so did the materialisation of the ‘War on Terror’ and there is absolutely no doubt that it is true. Similarly, there is no question that this is fundamentally a US led cause. However there are a number of reasons why this is the case. 9/11 shattered the complacency of the Pacific-Atlantic security of the US. This was the biggest, most audacious and most successful atrocity at the same time. But most fundamentally, terrorism became truly global for the first time. No longer is terrorism simply a politic tool of violence for domestic ethnic groups, ETA (Spain), IRA (UK/Ireland), FARC (Columbia), Red Brigade (Japan), Shining Path (Peru) etc.

Osama’s Al–Qaeda seeks to be the new pan–Arabic Nationalism, no longer based in secular principles but in a form of extremist Islamic Fundamentalism rooted in Wahabism. Its original aims are nothing less than an eradication of the way of life as we know it. Offshoots like Jemiah Islamiah have demonstrated an interest in this region, with breakaway groups in ASEAN nations claiming inspiration and allegiance to a broader cause. This has gone beyond a domestic political dispute and grown into something much broader.

So in what manner is the Palestinian Problem truly central to the current problem of terrorism? Osama ranked the Palestinian problem right at the very bottom of his list of grievances, which begs the question on how important he truly viewed it. It is worth pointing out that he said nothing about the US pullout from Saudi Arabia, which had conversely ranked at the other end of the spectrum. The autocracies of the Middle East find it more useful to play up the plight of the Palestinians in order to divert attention away from their basic domestic problems i.e. poverty, lack of political representation, oppression and ethnic rivalries.
So even if it were possible, as the authors have sweepingly and breezingly assumed, to solve the massive Palestinian Problem, it will not fundamentally alter the situation so as to solve the problem of Terrorism. As long as this is an ideological war where its adherents are willing to swallow extremist Islam Fundamentalism, because they lack alternatives, they can be persuaded of the inherent evil of the rest of the world. If so even if there were peace between Israel and Palestine, their eyes will turn from Palestine and towards perhaps, the existence of Israel as a state. As long as they can be persuaded of the evil of the West, they do not need any other reason for their brand of terrorism.

What then is the Palestinian problem? And is the unstinting support of the US truly the biggest obstacle to reaching a solution? Oddly enough, it has seem to slip the authors’ minds that the last two peace plans (Dayton and Oslo Peace Accords) that had even a passing chance at building a lasting solution were US–led. In a way, American support (and presumably the threat to withdraw it) has been the main reason why Israel has even been willing to come to the table.

At the end of the day, Israel wants to exist as a state and any ‘solution’ that threatens its survival will be unacceptable. US support is the only way, short of constant war to ensure that survival. The persistent refusal to condemn acts of Palestinian terrorism (no matter how justified or heinous) simply reinforces the Israelis’ siege mentality. More troubling for them is the governing Palestinian Authorities (PA) inability to truly enforce a cease–fire, much less a truce or a lasting peace. To be fair, the systemic destruction of the PA’s institution and the Palestine economy have very much been due to Israeli action e.g. the West Bank Wall, the Gaza carve–up and so on. But at the same time, the PA and its late leader Yassar Arafat himself has as much to blame. They squandered the good will and political capital that they earned from signing the peace process (and gaining a Nobel Peace Prize in the process) through corruption, sheer incapability and a refusal to relinquish power long past when one ought to. Is it any wonder then, that even the Egyptians have made an about face and put the onus on the Palestinians to take the first concrete step for a political solution?

Hamas emerges from this political vacuum to become, in a sense, a state within a state. But unlike the PA, they have still yet refused to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. It is this fear and the constant suicide bombings that they have used to achieve this end that have forced the Israeli’s hand towards military incursions and the erection of the Wall. Terrible as its effects have been, it has bought some measure of peace, and to a beleaguered people, sometimes that is all one can see. Thankfully, this myopia of terror has been lifted somewhat from the two peoples’ collective eyes. Ariel Sharon, uber–hawk as he may be, has faced down both his party and the powerful settlers’ lobby to start a unilateral pulllout from the Gaza Strip. Hamas and the PA in turn have held their hands and not made too much of as effort to make it seem like an Israeli retreat from acts of terror. PM Abbas has the popular support of the people (the joys of an election) as well as wary support from the Israelis, Americans and the British.
But at the end of the day, the real sticking point in any lasting peace treaty is not land but people. The Senai treaty with Egypt aptly demonstrates Israel’s willingness to trade land for peace, so too the Golam Heights with Syria. Even Jerusalem is not the big issue as it once was. But the right of Palestinian refugees to return is. Allowing unlimited right of entry will swamp the current Jewish majority and turn them into something less than even a substantial minority. Thus far, the Palestinians power-that-be have refused to budge from this position (the Israelis are willing to accept under controlled circumstances certain numbers), which on balance is justified. But justified or not, unless the world is willing to admit that it will cause the end of Israel as we know it, this is a non-issue. Thus far, the Saudi–sponsored plan (more land from Israel in return for the dropping of the right to return) is the only one with a modicum of support from both countries, but its death gives a good indication of its political feasibility.

So what is the USA’s true motive for being in the Middle East? Let us examine the very simplistic populist notion that it is all about the oil, the immediate question would be what’s wrong with that? Our global economy is entire and heavily and much too dependant on oil. It would be blatantly naïve to assume that if the US did not attempt to exert influence, no other country would. In fact, we have seen nations such as France, China and Russia do so by essentially turning a blind eye to and propping up autocratic and corrupt regimes like Saddam’s Iraq. Ironically, that is the exact same failed policy attempted by the US towards its support of the House of Saud. The regime in turn supported Wahabism in an attempt to bolster its religious credentials and stay in power. That in turn bred maniacs like Osama bin Laden who in turn threatens the status quo.

So the authors’ are right in a sense when they claim that nothing has fundamentally changed with the US invasion of Iraq. It’s all about control, never mind whether the assumption that it is possible to install a popular, democratically elected, pro–American regime in that region is even reasonable. Even so, it marks a drastic shift in the manner in which USA influence and control is to be maintained in the Middle East. It is not by coincidence that we are seeing more liberal and democratic reforms not simply in Iraq but also Lebanon and even Saudi Arabia. Granted, the questions of how far these reforms would go and whether they are sustainable remain. It would be interesting to know what exactly the authors’ preferred solution is? Perhaps a total withdrawal of the US in the Middle East, thereby leaving it open to the influence of the EU or maybe China and Russia? The US is no more a force of absolute good than it is a force of absolute evil, on balance their recent actions while in the short run destabilising, looks to be paying off.

Which brings us to the final issue, whether a conventional war is necessary at odds with the ideological one. If the situation was as simple as the authors’ have made it out to be then yes, the Palestinian Problem cannot be solved by military force. Both the intifada and the Seven–Day War show that neither nation will be cowed by a show of force and hence Bush’s conventional aspect in his War on Terror will be doomed to failure. The more sophisticated argument would go that the conventional war will breed nothing more than another cycle of hatred and violence and would not alter the realities on the ground. I have great sympathy for both arguments but the where the real problem is not the Palestinian Problem but Osama’s brand of madness, the conventional war is still a necessity.

The ideological war, USA wielding its soft power, is just as necessary as stamping out regimes like the Taliban and Saddam’s Iraq which have had a history of state–sponsored terrorism. One cannot win a defensive war on terrorism, the experience of domestic terrorism have demonstrated the need to strike out at the terrorist. This has always been at heart a policing issue but the global nature of Al–Qaeda and its support from various nations make it clearer than ever that there is that military component as well. The need to strike at terrorist camps must be balanced by the need for the US to demonstrate that there are not simply anti–Arab or anti–Muslim (the war that NATO undertook in defence of the Muslim Bosnian Serbs has largely been gone from our collective memories).

I hope that you will transmit this to the authors’ and let them know that people do read their articles even if we do not agree with them.

Thank you.


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