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Liberals and Terrorism By: William R. Hawkins
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, April 16, 2004


The current media uproar of the priority accorded counter-terrorism, either before or after September 11, 2001, reveals a fundamental difference between the liberal and realist view of the post-Cold War world. The 1990s was another of those "liberal moments" which history has shown to often appear at the end of long periods of stress. Optimists rushed forth to proclaim a "new world order" in which the traditional practices of statecraft were no longer needed. Each "war to end all wars" since the 18th century has brought forth hopes that history itself has come to an end.

To liberals, the bane of world politics is the nation-state. The 1990s was filled with learned tomes on why the demise of the nation-state was a hand. A revived United Nations, buttressed by new international arrangements like the UN Law of the Sea treaty and the World Trade Organization, would prevent unilateral actions and reign in conflict. With nations thus tamed, attention could focus on a globalizing civil society devoted to the eradication of poverty,  disease and intolerance.

U.S. military forces were cut to their lowest levels since before the Korean War. And while America's remaining military forces operated at a high tempo, it was on humanitarian missions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, earning the term "foreign policy as social work."

By President Bill Clinton's second term, the incompetence of the international institutions he had earlier championed as founts of legitimacy was becoming apparent. NATO was substituted for the UN as the vehicle for action in the Balkans, and the U.S. launched a unilateral missile strike on suspected Iraqi WMD sites in 1998. Yet, as late as 1999, President Clinton was still claiming, "perhaps for the first time in history, the world's leading nations are not engaged in a struggle with each other for security or territory. The world clearly is coming together."

When President George W. Bush came into office, many of the problems that had been glanced over in the 1990s were coming to a head. North Korea's 1994 Framework Agreement with the US, Japan and South Korea was coming apart, revealing that Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions had not been contained. North Korean was also shipping rocket engines to Iran for testing, aiding both countries to expand their offensive capabilities. Iraq was using its UN "oil for food" program to support a diplomatic effort to wiggle out of the box it had been placed after the 1991 Gulf War. Combined with the rapid proliferation of ballistic missile technology, it is clear why the Bush Administration was concerned about the threat from rogue states.

On April 1, 2001, a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane was rammed by a Chinese interceptor over international waters and forced to land on Hainan island. This triggered a crisis with Beijing, whose rising power had been (and continues to be) fueled by the 1990s attitude of "commercial engagement" in a harmonious world,. an attitude not shared by China's leaders.

The terrorist attacks five months later, however, revealed that liberals had not given up on their benign view of the world. Interviewed as he was evacuating his office that fateful day, Senator Carl Levin, ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called for a shift of money from national missile defense—which he had always opposed, to anti-terrorism. Terrorists are a much more acceptable enemy to the liberal mind than are foreign states. They are part of civil society. At worst criminals, they also serve as protesters, forcing us to consider "why do they hate us?" The liberal answer is because we have not done enough to reform the injustices of global society. One can fight terrorism while remaining a "progressive" and avoiding any relapse into the geopolitics of the past.

The leftist journal The Nation editorialized the day after 9/11 "that the most effective way to halt terrorism lies in bringing those responsible to justice through non-military actions in cooperation with the global community and within a framework of domestic and international law." What opposition there was to attacking the Taliban regime in Afghanistan came mainly from the Left. Opposition grew after President Bush expanded the focus on state sponsors of terrorism and state development of weapons of mass destruction with his identification of an "axis of evil" (North Korea, Iran and Iraq). The invasion of Iraq followed, to the accompaniment of an explosion of the antiwar movement and the dramatic shift leftward of liberal politicians.

The Bush administration concern about rival states is the correct one. The most important thing to remember about terrorism is that it is the weapon of the weak. Though the casualty count from 9/11 is often compared to that of the Pearl Harbor attack, there was no surge of enemy conquests across vast areas of the world like those the Japanese launched on December 7. Speaking at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on March 17, Vice President Dick Cheney noted that "the terrorist enemy holds no territory, defends no population." This was meant to show how elusive the enemy is, but it also reveals how weak the enemy is. 

Osama bin Laden's objective on 9/11 was not to capture New York. He and his imitators elsewhere want to drive a decadent U.S. out of the Middle East, to clear the way for the establishment of radical regimes that can mobilize the much greater resources available to nation-states (and empires) behind the cause of Islamic fundamentalism. Without larger resources, al-Qaeda cannot change the balance of power in the world.

Wars are about politics, and politics is about the control of territory and people who are organized by states. The Bush strategy is to prevent foreign states from acting against American interests. Part of that effort is to stop terrorist groups from gaining control of states, which is why the battles for the future of Iraq and Afghanistan are so important. It also explains why Iran has been backing the uprising of the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr in Iraq. Ultimately, the question of who rules in Baghdad is much more important than who is hiding in what mountain cave somewhere.

Terrorism must be vigorous combated, but it cannot be the only focus of policy. There are dangers lurking in nearly every corner of the world which, if left unchecked, could threaten lives on a scale orders of magnitude beyond terrorism. Last month Russian President Vladimir Putin watched a massive military exercises that practiced a nuclear attack on the United States. China holds similar exercises aimed at defeating American forces in Asia.

And though not as dramatic, a recent Pew Research Center poll showed strong support in France and Germany for making the European Union powerful enough to counter U.S. influence in world affairs.

As the 21st century advances, the old game of international power politics is still very much in session. America's defense and foreign policy team must be active on multiple fronts if the nation's interests are to be protected. Myopia is not the kind of vision we need.

William Hawkins is a consultant on international economics and national security issues.


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