Warning: political discussion ahead.
At book group last night, conversation eventually drifted from the book (the strange and wonderful At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien) to the situation in the Middle East. (The progression made sense in the context of our discussion, though I’m hard-pressed to reproduce it now.)
The group — mostly liberal, mostly Democrat — wondered: would a hypothetical President John Kerry have a substantially different Middle East policy than President George W. Bush? I’m not sure Kerry would — or could — have a different policy at this point. The United States is in the thick of things now; the time for alternate approaches may have already passed.
The book group spent some time discussing what other choices might have been possible, what actions might have appeased the “terrorists”. I mentioned the research I did in the days following the attacks on September 11th. I always meant to share that research here, but my weblog was young at that point, and I was in shock, so it never saw the light of day.
While sorting through cruft on my hard drive today, I found those notes I wrote in the days after September 11th. They were meant to help me organize my thoughts, to put the attacks on the World Trade Center in perspective. I didn’t share them then; I’m sharing them now.
I was raised a pacifist. I once got knocked unconscious in a “fight” because I would not defend myself. My personal pacifism translates to a desire for global pacifism. When required to register with the selective service, I made it clear that I am a conscientious objector. When the Gulf War occurred, I marched through the streets of Oregon’s capital carrying placards and chanting anti-war slogans. This was not because I’m a hippie or some liberal nutcase — I’m as independent as they come — but because I’m a pacifist. I understand there are complex moral problems with a pacifist ideology. That’s fine. I’m not here to argue the merits of my personal beliefs.
I was as shocked as anyone on September 11th. I was devastated. My heart ached for the people trapped in the World Trade Center, for the people held hostage on the hijacked planes. But my first reaction wasn’t, “Let’s bomb the terrorists who did this.” My first reaction was, “In order for someone to have murdered thousands of people in this fashion, they must hold some pretty strong convictions. I wonder what those are?”
While everyone else was watched the news and discussed how many ways we could nuke Afghanistan, I spent my time on the internet researching the history of the Middle East, exploring the genesis of the attacks. For whatever reason, many of the sites and pages I found are now gone. Fortunately, I printed out the pages I found most useful. I compiled a binder filled with information.
What follows was my attempt to distill that information. I wrote these notes on September 13th, two days after the attacks. The notes are incomplete, but they represent what I was able to find in my research. Throughout the process, I tried not to judge anyone, neither the U.S. nor the attackers. I tried to ignore my political feelings. I noted when I didn’t understand the implications of particular events, or could not find a particular piece of information. I tried to summarize what I had read over the previous 48 hours.
Here are those notes.
How did we get here?
The 11 Sept 01 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were shocking, in part because they seemed to occur with no warning. Our news media and our government officials have treated the attacks as isolated terrorist attacks. They’ve failed to provide a historical context for the events. The attacks were actually a piece of a great war that has been raging for centuries.
Discuss ancient history of Middle East: Romans, etc. [Note: I never completed this section.]
At the end of World War II, the British found themselves occupying the area around Jerusalem, the traditional homeland of both the Jews and the Palestinians. The Jews had been wandering for centuries. They had no homeland since being deposed by the Romans. After the end of the second World War, the Allies said, “Aha! We occupy this land that used to be your homeland. Why don’t you share it with the Palestinians?” So, the area was divided into Israel and Palestine. This, of course, did not sit well with the Palestinians who lived there. They were forcibly moved, and the Jews took up residence in Jerusalem and the surrounding area. Over the next few decades, they fought several wars (most notably with Egypt) over the area. Tensions remain high to this day.
After World War II, during the Cold War, the USSR was more concerned with foreign policy than with domestic policy. Money and attention was lavished on foreign relations, while concerns at home were neglected. The Soviet republics in the southwest had large Muslim populations. Afghanistan, on the boarder with the USSR, saw an opportunity to goad a Muslim insurgence while the USSR’s attention was focused elsewhere. This brought Soviet attention to bear on Afghanistan, and the Soviets invaded. The mujahadeen, or God’s Warriors, were Islamic fundamentalists who opposed the Soviets. Osama bin Laden was one of the mujahadeen. The United States provided funds and weapons for the mujahadeen and the Afghans in the war with the Soviets. However, the Soviets were able to march though and to capture the Afghan capital, Kabul. They set up a puppet government. They then retreated to take care of more pressing matters. This puppet government fell to the Taliban. Afghanistan’s leaders became intertwined with the Islamic fundamentalists.
The United States and Iran had been allies for decades. Iran’s Shah was a great friend of the U.S., and relations were good. Relations with Iraq were not so good, though I’m not sure whether they were considered an enemy. Iran was a valuable source of oil for the U.S., and held a key strategic position bordering the Soviet Union. The Shah, however, was not popular in his homeland; his regime was oppressive, and this fomented revolt. During the mid- to late-seventies, his people rose up (led, in part, by Islamic fundmantalists) and deposed him. In the process, they took hostages at the American embassy.
Meanwhile, Iran and Iraq went to war. Though Iraq, and Saddam Hussein, had never been a great friend of the U.S., they became uneasy allies now. With the loss of Iran as an ally, U.S. influence in the region was diminished, and oil supplies were in danger. Iraq provided a mid-East ally and a source for oil. The U.S. provided money and arms for the Iraqis, supporting their war on Iran. The Soviets, in turn, provided support for the Iranians.
As part of this war, Iraq protected Kuwait (which it actually still considered a part of Iraq — Kuwait and Iraq, once part of the same country, had been divided by a British fellow earlier in the century). When the war ended, Iraq found itself with large debts which it serviced largely through oil sales. During the late eighties, Kuwait began a policy of lowering oil prices. This pleased the U.S., of course, but it violated the OPEC charter and, among other states, Iraq became angry with Kuwait. Iraq needed the money from oil in order to stay financially stable. Kuwait ignored the concerns of its larger neighbor.
Iraq became incensed for several reasons: a) Kuwait was cutting oil prices, b) it still considered Kuwait as part of Iraq, and c) Kuwait had annexed a major oil field from Iraq. These problems led to a deterioration in relations between the two countries. Also during this period, Iraq began to believe itself an important power in the region.
During 1990, Saddam Hussein (still on favorable terms with the United States) prepared to invade Kuwait. He met with a representative of the Bush administration. Reports vary as to what occurred at the meeting. Hussein, however, came away from the discussion believing that the United States would, at the very least, not interfere with his actions, and possibly even support them. He invaded Kuwait. To his utter surprise, the U.S. leapt to Kuwait’s defense and the Gulf War occurred.
Osama bin Laden
During the Gulf War, the United States used Saudi Arabia as a base of operations. The Saudis are U.S. allies, though uneasy ones at times. Saudi Arabia is the site of several Islamic holy sites. (I’m unclear as to whether the U.S. bases of operations were actually located near these holy sites.) Conservative Mulsims were outraged at U.S. presence in what it considered holy lands. This outrage increased when, after the Gulf War, the U.S. did not remove its bases, but instead made them permanent installations.
Osama bin Laden was one of the leaders of the outraged. Bin Laden’s father was a billionaire construction magnate. Osama was one of fifty-two children, and a devout Muslim. (I think he may have become a Muslim cleric.) He had left Saudi Arabia to fight with the mujahadeen, receiving U.S. support in the Afghan fight against the Soviet Union. He retuned to Saudi Arabia sometime in the late eighties or early nineties, and became outraged at the U.S. presence on the Islamic holy lands. He was vocal demanding that the U.S. leave. I’m unclear as to whether he began attacks against the U.S. at this point or not. In any event, the U.S. did not like bin Laden and asked the Saudis to exile him, which they did.
Osama bin Laden went to Somalia, from which he began his attacks on U.S. interests. Later, he moved to his current base of operations in Afghanistan. Why is Osama bin Laden so powerful among conservative Moslems? He has wealth, he is a religious leader, and he is a war hero. These three things give him tremendous power. Why does he hate the United States? To some extent, he hates the U.S. because it is there. This isn’t the only reason, though, and it trivializes his beliefs to focus on it as the sole motivation for his behavior. More to the point, he hates the United States because: a) the U.S. is one of Israel’s closest allies, b) the United States will not leave the holy lands in Saudi Arabia, and c) he considers the United States to be a great force for evil in the world, a perpetrator of wanton terrorism (bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, fighting in southeast Asia, and carpet-bombing Iraq).
U.S. foreign policy does seem to have been conducted without regard for the feelings and beliefs of the Moslem people. (This is understandable, of course. The United States’ primary concern is itself.) It is impossible to please everyone, and the U.S. has made a decision (whether conscious or not) that Islam is not important enough to be considered in its foreign policy decisions. Whether this is right or wrong is debatable. Regardless, there are consequences to this behavior. Whether these consequences are out of proportion with the U.S. foreign policy is also debatable.
To many Moslems in the Middle East, the Gulf War is not over. The United States marched in, stomped Iraq, and then left. The war was over for the U.S., but not for Iraq, and not for certain Islamic fundamentalists such as Osama bin Laden. To them, the war has continued for the past decade. But, it’s a war in which they must fight using unconventional attacks.
The United States is too large and too powerful, and the Muslim resources too insignificant, for a traditional attack on the U.S. Of course, geography is also an important factor; it’s simply impossible to launch a direct assault on The United States. Instead, the war has continued on the Muslim’s terms: through acts of what we consider “terrorism”, but the Muslims consider legitimate warfare. The attack on U.S. soldiers in Somalia, the bombing of the World Trade Center, the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Africa, the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, and the attacks on September 11th are all salvoes in this war. They are not isolated incidents of terrorism, but part of a larger war that has been playing out for centuries, and into which the United States has placed itself largely, though not solely, due to its dependency on oil.
Whether the U.S. should be involved in this war is debatable, and it’s not for me to say. I’m merely trying to provide background information to explain how we got here. What will happen now? I’m sure we’ll attack somebody, but I just don’t know who.
[Error corrections welcome. Additional information — especially on ancient history of the Middle East — also welcome.]
Two-and-a-half years later, the results of this research still form the basis for my understanding of the situation in the Middle East. My opposition to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq isn’t so much because I think our actions are evil — though I do think this — as I think they don’t address the core issues. The people we’re fighting are only going to be satisfied if we remove all of our presence from the Middle East and if we decrease our support for Israel.
Some of the book group members noted — correctly, I think — that a U.S. withdrawal is not going to appease anyone now. We’ve gone over and thrown our weight around too many times; now people might just fight back for the sake of fighting back. This is true. But at one time, it would have been a significant step toward pacifying the anger fomenting against our country.
The Middle East has been a source of cultural turmoil not just for decades, not just for centuries, but for millennia. Think about that. Millennia.
It’s ignorant to think that we can go over there with our military might and moral rectitude and somehow make things right. We’re better off worrying about our own neighborhood.
Imperfect reproduction of a joke told by Joel last night, as he had heard it earlier in the day on Garrison Keillor’s annual Joke Show: “The government knows Iraq has weapons of mass destruction — the Pentagon has the receipts.”
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J.D. Roth said:
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