Friday, August 11, 2006

I could have been a terrorist...and so could you

Of late, a confluence of factors is contributing to a profound sense of dissatisfaction, anger, and frustration with the direction of the "War on Terror" within my psyche. Part of my general disposition stems from the evidence that the "war" is clearly failing, part from a great book I'm reading, "Confessions of an Economic Hitman", and part from the rhetoric of the neo-con/radicals, especially from the Super Perra in my Spanish class (who said today that terrorism is because Muslims are all radical Arabs who believe they'll receive 72 virgins in heaven - which is totally ignorant of the fact that Pakistani's AREN'T Arabs - not to mention that the statement is just flat out racist in and of itself).

At any rate, I've reached an intellectual point where it seems obvious to me that the "War" is bound for failure, not because of it's execution (Nope, Dems won't fix it either), but because it is methodologically flawed. While the politics of the day essentially "buy" Bush's premise that we have to "take the fight to them" little press has been given to the reality that global terrorism is largely a rejection of (perceived) Western Economic Imperialism. Instead, the Dems (rightly) criticize Bush for his execution of the war, for pushing Iraq, and for not a multitude of challenges at home.

But I think it's much more complex than that. Instead, I think that to build a strategy to combat terrorism, one much not only address the question of "what do we do today" but also seek to change the fundamental conditions that cause people to blow themselves up. And I'm not talking about stationing US troops in the "Holy Land" of Saudi Arabia. People might be pissed about that, but being pissed isn't normally a sufficient justification for choosing to blow yourself up.

No, instead, I believe that global terrorism is rooted in an ongoing historical struggle. Through much of the second half of the 20th Century, the US and Europe pushed large scale infrastructure projects upon poor, developing nations that couldn't afford such projects, but whom believed them to be necessary. At times, the leaders of these countries were just outright swindled; at other times, the "pro-US" leaders were little more than despots who we installed (Iran, Guatemala, Panama, etc) or bought off with World Bank loans.

Of course, the consequence of loaning billions of dollars to nations that could barely afford to pay the interest, was to keep those countries in the US sphere of influence - something deemed critical because of the fear of "red spread". Not only was this strategy critical to the US containment policy, but also it fed the coffers of giant construction and military conglomerates. The World Bank "gave" money by funneling it directly to a giant, American corporation, who then built a 6 lane highway connecting Panama City and the Colombian border, while grossly exaggerating the economic benefits of said project.

In the long run, this strategy led to US affiliation with some of the worst and most corrupt dictators of the 20th Century, leaders that tortured and killed their oppositions, stole money from the public coffers, and often associated with some of the worst international criminals (think Saddam, Noriega). This long and bloody history hasn't exactly endeared the populations of the developing world to the United States, but even worse, the result of these large scale, macroeconomic projects hasn't been to bring economic advancement or stability to the so-called "developing world". Instead, the poor have stayed poor and in many countries, the gap between rich and poor has widened.

Different regions have responded to stagnant poverty in different ways. South America, for example, has turned to the left. Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, etc. all have or have had recently left leaning politicians. At times, there has been violence, terrorism, or revolution. While in the long run, the economic situation for the poorest haven't changed much, it is clear that the general dissatisfaction has led to widespread democratic movements, sometimes violent, sometimes peaceful, and, in the longrun, greater instability.

The Muslim world is different. The popular line is that Islam is a religion ripe for radicalism and that the world merely needs to stamp out the hoven's of radical Islam to "win" the war on terror (eliminating the fundamentalist schools in Pakistan, for example). The people that trumpet that line are undoubtedly correct that eliminating indoctrination camps would be good in the long run, but the premise that we can "win" the war by clamping down on radicalism is seriously erroneous.

Even if were it possible, we could no more stop terrorism by eliminating radical Islam than we could stop a dam from bursting by sticking our finger in the hole. No, religion is the great red herring that today's politician's use to deceive and blind an all too uninformed public. Islam is merely a vessel used to channel generational dissatisfaction, anger, and extreme poverty toward the West. Whether we like it or not, the reputation of the United States in the developing world is abysmal and until or unless we do something about that, terrorism is going to continue to be an enduring reality.

And this is why I say that I could have been a terrorist. I was extremely lucky to be born in the United States to a middle class family. I received a good education, a strong moral foundation, and a wealth of opportunities that millions, if not billions of people would literally kill to have. The priviledge of being "American" has influenced my intellectual and decision making process in a very particular way - I'm not prone to resort to violence, but neither am I likely to be facing a truly desperate poverty situation in my life. Sure, maybe I can't get that BMW, but really, when you're in that category, as far as the world is concerned, you're living the good life.

But had I been born in rural Indonesia with contaminated drinking water, no education system, barely enough food to survive, and absolutely no prospects for a good quality life? Well, maybe it wouldn't be all bad in and of itself. But when one sees how they are deprived relative to the rest of the world, then violence quickly follows. The indigenous tribal doesn't know what he's missing, so he lives a content life. But the city dweller who suffers through extreme poverty knows exactly what he's missing because the globalization of communication means that everyone can see the "high life" that is America. Some people see those images as a sign of hope, others become angry. Over a generational perspective, the seeds of terrorism are sowed with each successive failure of US led "development" projects and economic upheaval that has often followed (when countries don't reach artificially high growth estimates, investors pull money out, and the economy collapses, more often than not, we shoulder the blame).

In light of this backdrop, US foreign policy is grossly insensitive to not just the plight of the world's poor and downtrodden, but also to their perceptions. Launching wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are always seen as attempts by the US to reinstall colonial empires and continue to dominate oppressed people. It doesn't matter how "noble" our intentions are, the world only sees the US securing it's oil supply. It doesn't matter if a speedy US pullout in Iraq would have been a terrible situation for the people of Iraq. The world only sees that we're still there. They look at our history - Korea, Vietnam, Iran, Panama, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Iraq, etc - and see a nation that has always worked to secure it's interests at the expense of the world.

In the end, those views are largely accurate. OF COURSE we invaded Iraq to secure our oil interests. No one really ever denies that. But this short sighted and extremely selfish perspective on international affairs from the strongest country in the world is extremely damaging in both direct and indirect ways. Directly, we started a war in Iraq in which well over a hundred thousand people have been killed, more terrorists are recruited every day, and we are all collectively less safe. But indirectly, our blind adherence to a foreign policy of strict national interest leads us to inaction when genocide breaks out in Rwanda. Millions of people die because the brutal leaders of genocidal forces know that we just don't care.

As well, we have lost the PR game and the global resentment and anger directed at the US government only fuels greater urgency to attack our interests and to overthrow the manifestations of US power in the developing world. What is shocking is that we have such capacity for positive change in the world. We could be a benevolent leader that could help to bring millions out of extreme poverty, yet we choose to fight a dangerous and erroneous war for 10 times the cost. Not only would acting in the interests of the global population be the ethical thing to do, but also it would have preserved the American "empire" well into the 22nd Century as well as acting as a disincentive for terror. Now, I fear that our power will decline more rapidly than expected.

I'm not really sure where this leaves me professionally. I desperately want to be part of the US foreign policy world, but do I really want to work for a government so ideologically bankrupt that even foreign policy successes are completely insufficient to impact the direction of my countries future? Do I really want to work for those very organizations that take foreign aid dollars and engage in potentially dubious work in the developing world? Do I really want to exist at the micro (program) level? I don't know. I think it's the big questions that fascinate me and while experience at the micro level would be a valuable commodity for my professional development, I have a hard time seeing myself satisfied at that level. I'm not sure where that leaves me.

Maybe I should have just eaten my tacos and read the sports page like all the other Americans that just turn their heads away from the most critical issues facing our nation in recent history. But like it or not, this is what I think about and I have to find a course of action for my professional life that is consistent with my thought process. I'll not work for the powers that have consistently lead our nation down the path of dementia (like Iraq).

And now, I must go catch my flight to Pereira.

(There are substantive errors in the US counterterrorism strategy afoot, as well. For example, I saw on BBC last night that the current strategy of searching everyone and everything at the airport is a rather curious policy since it's labor intensive, time consuming, and not exactly foolproof. Instead, there are a number of organizations that have recommended shifting the strategy from the "general public" to targeting "likely suspects". This sounds a lot like racial or religious profiling, but seriously, how many times have you seen an elderly grandmother being extensively searched while young, "profile" males proceed through security without a hitch? Random searching just doesn't make a lick of sense. A group of terrorists could just double the number of "would be" terrorists to ensure that some made it through the random screening process.)


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