Special Feature by Dr. Festus L. Brotherson, Jr.

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Tracking the USA's Sternest Test in the Wake of Terrorist Tragedy

Posted September 22nd. 2001

Writing in the New York Times of September 21, 2001, UN Secretary-General, Kofi Anan, made a point superbly about the immediate consequences of dastardly acts of terrorism that killed over six thousand American citizens and other foreign nationals in New York, Washington, DC and Pennsylvania on Tuesday, September 11. Annan found that the perpetrators had "aimed at one nation but wounded an entire world" while, at the same time, uniting it.

It was rare for such unbreachable world unity ever to occur and, on this occasion, it was "born of horror, of fear, of outrage, and of profound sympathy with the American people." This unity was also linked to the fact that the main terrorist target had been the World Trade Center (WTC) where nationals from eighty countries (at last count) had worked and mingled everyday in a spirit of marvelous amity and routine cooperation. Thus, said Anan, the terrorists had attacked, symbolically, "all humanity, and all humanity has a stake in defeating …" them.

The UN Secretary-General is correct and the USA has taken up the mantle of leadership of all civilized humanity to crush terrorism. But is America up to the task when so many divergent world interests are inter-connected, and so much is at stake regarding religions and American values, and, on top of that, there is the fact that conventional military ways of dealing with terrorism in the Twenty-First Century are only limitedly effective? Besides that, what are main hurdles the USA must overcome in order to achieve victory in the newly declared war on terrorism? Will the superpower moderate its foreign policy since the prevailing wisdom is that elements of it are what motivate terrorists, and that there have been increasing calls for change from both strong allies, including Britain at times, and more civilized adversaries?

If one were looking for indicators of mettle and readiness for the challenge ahead, answers were unequivocally positive in President George W. Bush's speech to the US nation and the world on September 20. The encomiums have been plentiful, deservedly so. Mr. Bush demonstrated calmness of rectitude along with superior, exemplary aplomb as he warned Mr. Bin Laden, his Taliban backers and other terrorist movements and their governmental supporters around the world. "Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated," he said. This was hyperbole but it appeared credible.

Earlier in the day, the US Secretary of Defense, Mr. Donald Rumsveld, repeatedly stressed that this new war will be fought by unconventional means. It will not comprise familiar mass strikes and invasions but small, surgical commando raids instead where successes might not even be publicized. It will require severe restrictions on the press, and Americans will have to sacrifice axiomatic freedoms of movement, association, openness and others in the interest of victory and restoration of a way of life that emphasizes cherished civil liberties. The war will be so secretive and long term that no revelations will be made, except by countries themselves, of the extent of support they are contributing. By giving up some freedoms, and staying the course, citizens will be helping themselves help the American government provide that most basic freedom of all - freedom from fear in every day living for its citizens and other freedom loving people around the globe. Mr. Bush also stressed this theme of freedom from fear in his speech by casting the war against terrorists as one between "freedom and fear."

Waxing in the best traditions of rhetorical grandiosity to persuade while tapping core common American values by clever inference and, for the most part, world values as well, the president said: "(Of the terrorists) We have seen their kind before. They are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th Century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions, by abandoning every value except the will to power, they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way to where it ends: in history's unmarked grave of discarded life."

Truly, this was Mr. Bush's finest hour of presidential leadership in an administration which is only eight months old. Any doubts about his strengths in view of the fractious November 2000 elections seemed remote. It was almost as if, said one analyst, "we were seeing a different Mr. Bush" - confident, and evincing infectious invincibility.

By citing ongoing, nonstop volunteerism, community, national and international bonding and support, Mr. Bush persuaded that America is up to the challenge of waging the new type of war. He expressed confidence in the excellence of US military prowess and called on the generals to "Be Ready!" The USA had the verve, stick-to-itiveness and mettle to lead and prevail, he attested. This was further apparent in "the endurance of rescuers working past exhaustion… the unfurling of flags, the lighting of candles, the giving of blood, the saying of prayers in English, Hebrew and Arabic…"(and) in "the decency of a loving and giving people who have made the grief of strangers their own." This was the spirit needed for victory. It was apparent and bountiful.

And what about the main hurdles the US must overcome to sustain both long-term domestic and international support? There are, after all, experiences where strong coalitions for a cause have broken apart due to pressures of longevity and self-interest, e.g., Iraq. This one is so fractured that only the US and Britain take part in bombings for eleven years now (unauthorized by the UN Security Council) of the Iraqis over an also unauthorized no-fly zone that effectively cuts Iraq into three spheres and limits its sovereignty. Significant trade has resumed quietly with former antagonists. And the attacks and embargoes have become near inhumane as horrendous suffering now afflicts the Iraqi people. This has given rise to significant sympathy for Iraq. And terrorists cite the US-British actions as motivation for their cause. Academics label it "state terrorism," no different in effect than that wrought by vengefully obsessed terrorists.

The same situation bedevils US-backed policies in the Middle East where the Israeli military wreaks human havoc on lightly armed but determined Palestinians. One major irony is that initially, reporters assigned to the region, express support for Israel, but over time, switch sympathies towards the Palestinians because of the systematic manner in which they see these people overwhelmed by superior, more punishing Israeli firepower.

These two examples demonstrate the nature of one big hurdle to be overcome by the US. It is a perception that there is a vindictive policy of overreaching to punish Arabs and Arab-type people. They are also Muslim and so the policy seems to be anti-Muslim; especially given the way some xenophobes describe them - "people wearing head diapers," "towel-heads" - and generate the most awful of foul, ethnocentric stereotypes.

Happily, the USA is addressing this problem spiritedly. Arrests and prosecutions of people who harass, assault and murder Arab-Americans have been vigorous as have been the exhortations and condemnations from Mr. Bush and the top echelons of national and state governments. The president has also been meticulous and consistent in pointing out that the war is not against Islam; that America has millions of Muslims, peace-loving, law-abiding citizens of Arab descent. This was frequently alluded to in his speech: "…to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It is practiced freely by many millions of Americans and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful. And those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith…"

We know that the new war on terrorism cannot be brief and this raises yet another hurdle as time goes by. Americans, themselves, may grow weary of curbs on their liberties - especially mass media personnel. Already, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), that indefatigable watchdog over civil liberties, is amassing a powerful team of attorneys, lobbyists and civic organizations to challenge in the courts some planned curbs on freedom that the US Attorney General wants the Congress to approve.

An additional hurdle remains that enveloping sense and need for the immediacy of results that is core to American principles of effectiveness and efficiency - but quickly. Can the people of fast food, microwaves, fax machines, e-mail, etc., be coaxed into enduring patience to wait long periods for results? This remains unclear. Popular demands usually tend to be met by savvy politicians. This means that despite the best intentions of secrecy in a long campaign of war, this process will be an up and down one where, upon occasion, political considerations will necessarily affect military decisions. This, is inevitable and is simply the nature of dealing with the political beast in statecraft.

The final question concerns whether American foreign policy will change because of the terrorist attacks on September 11. Expect policy makers to vehemently deny this.

In reality, change will take place. Despite the disgusting immorality of terrorists, one thing their acts do accomplish is widespread knowledge about their cause and their radical demands. We can never agree with their solutions and so, inexorably, positions we used to reject suddenly appear more moderate and acceptable. The example of this in the USA is the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. The extremism of the Black Panthers, H. Rap Brown, Stokeley Carmichael and Malcolm X helped make Marin Luther King's ideas more acceptable over the long term by the same people who were strongly opposed to them initially.

And there does exist very significant displeasure with American foreign policy as played out in the Third World, especially in the Middle East. Votes at the United Nations General Assembly, Security Council, and, most recently, at the UN Conference on Racism are usually lopsided with only Israel and the USA voting together. But external terrorism never struck the USA before on the mainland. This has produced in people's mind an unerring sense of the horror it wreaks among ALL people. There is a need to avoid its repetition not by meeting the demands of Mr. Bin Laden but by more responsive policies. Remember that Ysair Arafat was once considered a terrorist. So, too, was Menachem Begin. However, as radicalism grew to outstrip these men, their ideas became more acceptable. God bless America which is damned if it does and damned if it does not!



Dr. Brotherson is a Guyanese professor of political science and corporate risk-assessment consultant who resides in the USA.