PETER C. NEWMAN April 28 2003


PETER C. NEWMAN April 28 2003



Islam-based terrorism will not be as easily defeated as Saddam’s evil regime


DESPITE THE toppling of Saddam Hussein’s evil regime, this is a scary time. Two recent doomsday prophecies emphasized that fact:

James Woolsey, a former CIA director, described the coalition victory as “merely the first episode of World War IV,” the Cold War having counted as World War III in his lethal arithmetic.

A spokesman for North Korea’s foreign ministry interpreted the Iraqi conflict with this sliver of dubious logic: “It shows that to allow disarmament through inspection does not help avert war, but rather sparks it. Only a tremendous military deterrent force,” went the thinking, can prevent attacks on states that the U.S. dislikes.

Time to step back and consider the alternatives.

The Iraq war was meant to convey to the world at large just how powerful and irresistible U.S. military power can be. At the same time, of course, it was aimed at displacing Saddam, with or without his weapons of mass distraction. The ball is now in George Bush’s court. Will he use his impressive victory to demonstrate that Pax Americana can be as creative and benign as his Abrams tanks were deadly and destructive?

I hope so. But in order for that to happen, American leadership must alter its thinking. If George Bush is serious about using the Iraq experience as a template for democratizing the Middle East, the world is in big trouble. It’s a task that would make the invasion of Iraq seem like a Sunday school picnic.

Democracy is like love. It must come from within. It is not a gift that one country or individual can bestow on others. The Middle East hardly qualifies as fertile ground for people power, since 65 million of its adults can neither read nor write and 14 million are unemployed. Some of the region’s larger countries have exploding populations with 50 per cent of their citizens under 16. Even in the highly unlikely event that the Bush doctrine successfully installed democracy in the region, chances are free elections would produce youthful, radical, anti-Western


What Bush and his advisers must consider, now that the Iraqi threat (such as it was) has been eliminated, is that the war they’ve just won was a diversion, one that will not affect the much more significant struggle against worldwide terrorism. Their approach to that real and present danger must be much more subtly reconsidered.

Islam-based terrorism is not, as some senior Republicans seem to believe, the new Communism, which can be defeated with the same strategies that humbled Moscow. Communism was a temporary and, as it turned out, self-defeating ideology adopted by a dispossessed proletariat being exploited by an oppressive monarchy. When the Berlin Wall tumbled in 1989, most of its scattered disciples in obscene haste turned capitalist.

ONE CAN IMAGINE that bin Laden caught one of his 15 children dipping at Dunkin’ Donuts or chomping on a Big Mac

Once they accept the notion that Islambased terrorism has far deeper and more dangerous roots than Communism, Bush and his advisers must considerably water down another unrealistic attitude: their tendency to regard their feud with al-Qaeda as something of a holy war—at least, as much as Texas Protestants are drawn to such grand designs. Under Bush, the spirit of free enterprise has been raised to something of a theology. As any graduate will testify, earning an MBA from Harvard, as George W. did, amounts to the spiritual equivalent of being dipped in the baptismal stream of unbridled capitalism. Certainly, the President’s recent speeches cite divine inspiration for his actions and leave the impression that he considers himself an agent of Providence.

If he follows that rhetoric, Bush would pit his version of Christian capitalism against the radical forces of Islam, thus involuntarily reviving in modem dress the religious passions of the original Crusades. The repeat of such epic confrontations is clearly beyond imagination in the 21st century, except that some similar religious elements are at play. In Holy Terrors, an authoritative examination of alQaeda, University of Chicago historian Bruce Lincoln describes the movement as a “religious institution that acts on behalf of a broader religious community.” To its leader, or at least leading spirit, Osama bin Laden, the fight to the death is not with Bush, but against contemporary Western civilization and its infiltration of Muslim culture.

To take the most generous interpretation of Bush’s motives, he wants to raise the standards of living in the Arab crescent of nations, some of them among the world’s lowest. Simpler said than done. Take the example of McDonald’s, which has become a symbol of unwanted modernity. That’s not because it serves cardboard hamburgers, but because it’s a handy manifestation of American capitalism on the hoof, so to speak. Why, goes the complaint, do the American hamburger flippers make all the money, when local cafés run by generations of Arab coffee grinders struggle to survive? It’s a wild exaggeration, but one can imagine that bin Laden caught one of his 15 children dipping at Dunkin’ Donuts or chomping on a Big Mac—and that set off the train of events that eventually destroyed the World Trade Center. It’s bad enough to have your neighbourhood invaded by the outposts of American imperialism. It’s a lot worse to realize that your offspring enjoy patronizing them.

The spectacular demonstration of U.S. power in Iraq has made it even more apparent and much more disturbing that the world has to find a way to deal with what the classic historian/philosopher Arnold Toynbee called “The American Empire.” That sense of U.S. entitlement dates back as far as 1776, when revolutionary essayist Thomas Paine declared, “The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind.”

The coming weeks will test the future of the American empire as George Bush decides whether he wants to be an emperor or peacemaker.

Peter C. Newman’s column appears monthly.