Negotiating Honesty in America’s War on Terror
15 February 2008
[The following is a cultural exploration of the real reasons we Westerners despise terrorism; how our morality and history of victory shaped our perceptions; and how these perceptions have restricted our foreign policy and commandeered our expectations when it comes to the identity and ideology of the people at the other end of the negotiating table.]
There is a robust dialogue in the west concerning just causes for declaring war (such as preemption, self-defense, etc.), but very little discussion about the methods of warfare that we (and other westernized countries) have come to regard as either justifiable or unconscionable. Americans, in particular, have developed a keen sense of what constitutes fair and unfair behavior in conflict and war, but much like members of any culture, westerners seldom question (or even ponder) their unequivocal abhorrence for certain behavior, such as terrorism and hostage-taking. It is important to recognize the difference between why we emotionally hate terrorism, and why we are politically adverse to it. The justifications are intertwined, just as they are in the rest of our moral-centric policies; but their differences should be addressed.
Ultimately, if we do not understand why we despise terrorism so much, then we cannot define terrorism. If we cannot define terrorism, we cannot define victory. If we cannot define victory, we cannot achieve it. And finally, if we cannot achieve victory in an ideological war, then what good are our cultural values, anyway? Admittedly, this last question is rather circular, but this is precisely the point, as the following should indicate. Americans have great difficulty framing foreign policy (and most objectives, generally) outside the scope of values and morals. In the case of terrorism, it is with a rather bizarre twist of rhetoric that we have endorsed a war whose bounds are frighteningly limitless in every possible way.
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Why is terrorism regarded with such disdain in the West? Beyond a first glance, the answer to this question is starkly different from its broader counterpart, “Why is violence regarded with such disdain in the West?” Whatever connotations violence might carry in western (and especially American) culture, widespread disdain is not one of them. America is a very violent culture, for countless reasons and through infinite outlets. But the drastic differences between America’s regard for terrorism and for violence point to one cultural certainty: while violence might be the ultimate source of America’s enjoyment in competitive sports and Hollywood adventure films, the glorification of terrorism (especially the suicidal variety) is a serious infraction against the collective body of American cultural values. Young boys do not team up and play “FBI and al-Qaeda” the way they might play “Cops and Robbers” or “Cowboys and Indians.”
Without question, al-Qaeda’s attacks on September 11, 2001 solidified the taboo of depicting terrorists in anything but an evil light, but terror was hardly tolerated or exceptional before 9/11. In New York, Lebanon, Iran, Kenya, Kuwait, Germany, Tanzania, Saudi Arabia; on the USS Cole in the Persian Gulf and in the skies above Scotland—these are just some of the places Americans have been targeted by terrorists, and all of these attacks have struck a chord in the American psyche. The reasons for this are complicated, if only because Americans seem to hate terrorism for any and every reason they can think of—cherry picking various principles and fusing them with others.
Granted, we have our notions of what constitutes a worthy agenda (freedom, tolerance), but for Americans, we believe the war on terror’s necessity is founded on the methods, not the agendas, of our enemies. To start, by accusing terrorists of cowardice, Americans reinforce their own perception that bravery and subterfuge (e.g., “sneak attacks”) are mutually exclusive.
One grievance Americans have returned to again and again is the bravery factor. As most cross-cultural analyses have indicated, Americans are known for being bold and blunt. We stand up for ourselves. We refuse to be bullied, and we are fervent believers in practicing what we preach and preaching what we practice. One patriotic slogan regarding the Iraq war, for instance, says of the US flag: “These colors don’t run.” We like to think that we will not shy away from a fight, that we do not make idle threats or promises, and more broadly, that we are honest—perhaps even to a fault. Like most cultures, we take great pride in the bravery of our armed forces, but when this pride is fused with our honesty, bravery becomes inextricably tied to a refusal to run or hide. For better or worse, our policies do not always reflect these principles, but few Americans view any such inconsistency as a basis for abandoning the principles themselves.
As a result, we find terrorism detestable because only a coward would target “innocent civilians” instead of soldiers, or hide among civilian populations for protection, forcing us to bomb those populations despite our heartache from doing so. The pejorative tones in such an accusation are seldom questioned as anything less than self-evident. Anyone can kill civilians, the reasoning seems to go. “You’re only going after civilians because it’s like stealing candy from a baby.” When pressed further, many Americans grow uncomfortable when they take this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion: namely, we despise terrorism, in part, because there is simply no sport in killing civilians. “Only a coward who is afraid of a real fight would hurt defenseless civilians.” That is, in order for a fight to be ‘real,’ its means must fair and ‘legitimate.’
For a militant Shia group to summarily execute defenseless Sunnis as they approach a makeshift roadblock in Baghdad is completely risk free for the militants. And, in the eyes of Americans, precisely because such a massacre is risk free—precisely because the fight is so obviously unbalanced in favor of those with weapons—Americans are disgusted by the idea of such a slaughter. If, on the other hand, Sunnis and Shiites were evenly matched and fortified in desert trenches—away from the ‘civilian’ population, and dying in roughly comparable numbers and at comparable rates—then American tolerance for such bloodshed far surpasses any similar threshold in the western world.
Upon realizing this bizarre discrepancy, most Americans warily approach the first rhetorical road block in their assault on terror: how to reconcile our humorless attitude toward war with our sportsmanlike, even cavalier, sense of fairness that pervades all American competitions, including warfare. It would seem that unless we face an opponent who can pose a serious challenge to our agenda, it would be immoral for us to declare war on them, as the result would be little more than an unsportsmanlike massacre. In theory, at least, we feel that we should give the other side a chance. There must be some kind of adventure in the struggle for power and dominance. The assumption here is that we only declare war on enemies that pose a threat to us, and therefore, any enemy who poses a threat will mount a substantial defense, and thus preclude a slaughter.
Yet few Americans embrace such a litmus test, if only because we resent the suggestion that we risk our soldiers’ lives to make war more dramatic. Specifically, those familiar with US foreign policy would insist that Operation Desert Storm was both worthwhile and unbalanced: everyone knew that we would decimate the Iraqi army, and this did not reduce American support for the war. In fact, since the end of the Cold War, even the most cautious Americans encouraged President Clinton to intervene only in those conflicts where our victory was nearly guaranteed. This seems to point to a double standard—that slaughters are coincidentally tolerable to Americans only when Americans do the slaughtering. We seem to believe that a fight leaves the realm of a ‘slaughter’ as soon as the enemy picks up a weapon, but only when that enemy is our enemy. When we speak of two distant warring parties, the fact that both sides have weapons does not prevent us from denouncing the more powerful party for its immoral tactics. Remarkably, when American troops have routed its enemies, the explanation is often that ‘we were just superior soldiers.’ So, does our distaste for unfair matches only point to textbook hypocrisy—that Americans only insist on fair fights when their own soldiers are not on the line?
It is tempting and logical to dismiss much of American public discourse as hypocritical, but the truth is often substantially more complicated, and this case is no different. To Americans, a “fair fight” is not a reflection of some power differential; it is a reflection of methods. After all, it is one thing to be an underdog defending yourself (and dying in battle), while it is another matter entirely to be slaughtered without ever picking up a weapon. Yet this can only leave us wondering about our focus on the sport/competition factor: we define a “fair” fight as one where both sides have weapons, and both have chosen to engage in battle. This gets particularly complicated when the question of free will—if self-defense constitutes a choice—is introduced, but either way, what is clear is that the means/methods of warfare matter greatly to Americans.
“They have no honor”
Undoubtedly, any explicit mention of a “sportsmanlike war” is bound to offend American sensibilities, as we are accustomed to hearing moral justifications for nearly every culturally acceptable behavior. No one wants to think their enjoyment of Schwarzenegger movies has anything to do with their concept of just warfare. And given the amount of courage it takes to die for one’s cause, it is rhetorically difficult for us to dismiss suicide terrorists solely as cowards. Another moral basis for demonizing them is needed—though still within the framework of targeting civilians—which also strengthens our case against non-suicidal terror. With suicide bombers, in particular, our moral accusations shift from a lack of courage to a lack of honor. Terrorists, we insist, absurdly attack civilians who have done nothing to their attackers or their respective causes. A lack of honor implies an inability to discipline oneself to abide by certain rules and reject ‘senseless violence’. Accordingly, we have no qualms going to war with an enemy whose aggression ‘makes sense’ to us—that is, aggression directed toward those its perpetrator views as responsible for its grievances. But we are simply lost when trying to understand the concept of (what we could only call) unrestricted warfare, to say nothing of its application.
Our love of rules governing the chaos of warfare are both a cause and an effect of a particular psychological process. Specifically, one of the most effective means of reconciling our love of violence with our love of morality is that—rather creatively—we moralize our violence, especially in war. We insist that warring parties should kill each other in certain ways and avoid other ways that are dishonorable, cowardly, and ultimately, downright senseless. To Americans, the act of targeting civilians seems like the saddest case of misplaced rage. We often wonder: “What possible reason could a person have for taking out their grievances on an undeserving target in a calculated ritual, again and again? They must enjoy it, or they must not be interested in justice, myopic or otherwise. Whatever their differences, surely any two warring parties can agree that innocent bystanders should be spared if possible, right?”
In the end, because we cannot conceive of any basis for targeting civilians, we frame such methods in moral terms: ‘Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?’—that is, someone who has a chance of fighting back. Otherwise, we believe, the fight leaves the realm of warfare, poisons the concept of freedom-fighting, and embraces nearly indiscriminate mayhem. Even if terrorism is an effective strategy—which merits a separate analysis of its own—we resent that effectiveness because we regard it as cheating a noble system of warfare. We are repulsed by the implications of what terrorists demand of us, especially how their tactic of hiding among civilians forces us to inflict (against our more humane wishes) significant collateral damage.
It is very painful for us to watch as terrorists use our own humanity against us: we are vulnerable to terror because we are moral and thus accept whatever costs might accompany abiding by the rules that terrorists dishonorably exploit. If it were not for our morality, we say, an endless civilian death toll would be the last thing to stop us.
Refusing to Negotiate “with a gun to our heads”
Given our resentment of terrorism for its methods, it should be no surprise that we regard any attempt to negotiate with terrorists as the single worst course of action available to any aggrieved party. “It would only encourage more terrorism,” the reasoning goes, with all of its various spin-offs and modifications: “that would embolden the enemy”, “they would learn that terror works”, etc. And while these tactical considerations often suffice as a basis for making policy recommendations, there is, nevertheless, something rhetorical and emotional at work here, as well. Something must take us from the impartial suggestion that “negotiation would be unwise” to a recommendation loaded with emotional content like, “negotiation with terrorism is no different than unconditional surrender.”
Specifically regarding Americans, the idea of negotiating with terrorists or hostage-takers is abhorrent due to the dreaded connotations of being forced into a corner that has only one, very uncomfortable exit. As poster-children of a nation usually obsessed with negotiation, Americans are firm believers in contracts as a “meeting of the minds,” and insist that any subsequent agreement should be signed out of affirmative yearning to obtain something desirable, but unnecessary. Americans do not want to feel as though they “have to” negotiate; they would much prefer to enter negotiations because they “want to” do so. In other words, no sense of coercion, and no sense of impending doom if an agreement is not signed—these should be the conditions for a fair and honorable negotiation. Otherwise, we view the process leading to the agreement not as negotiation, but instead as simple extortion.
Whether dealing with legitimate nation-states like Iran (and its nuclear ambitions) or non-state actors/terrorists like Hezbollah, America and much of the West cannot tolerate being put in a situation where the only rational choice is to give in to the demands of its enemies, who are essentially holding “a gun to our heads” while they pretend to be reasonable.
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Pressure-Washing the Boilerplate
Without question, there are a number of holes in the American rhetoric condemning terrorism, even beyond the standard (and accurate) claim that America has supported and continues to support terrorists all over the world for their own strategic purposes—from the contras in Nicaragua to the peshmerga in Iraqi Kurdistan, and countless others. But even within the American cultural and linguistic framework that condemns terrorism, there exists a number of problems that together point to an unsurprising but compelling conclusion: Americans hate terrorism because they are vulnerable to it, nothing more.
In the early 1980s, a nascent group of Shia militants in Lebanon began a suicide bombing campaign against Israeli forces and American/French peacekeepers—all of whom occupied Lebanon at the time. On October 23, 1983, two Hezbollah suicide bombers simultaneously killed 241 American and 58 French soldiers as they slept in their military barracks in Beirut. US President Reagan called it a “despicable act,” and urged Americans to resist “the bestial nature of those who would assume power.” US Vice President George H.W. Bush toured the collapsed US marine barracks and insisted that the US “would not be cowed by terrorists.” Pope John Paul II and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir both called the attack a “despicable crime.” French President Francois Mitterrand called it a “despicable attack.” Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau said, “These brutal and criminal actions cannot be excused.” Every western leader (and most Middle East tyrants) publicly condemned the attack.
Headlines about the attack dominated the news for weeks. Americans were devastated, and our leaders echoed these emotions with their mourning and their fury. But imagine how Americans might have reacted the next day if President Reagan, VP Bush, or Secretary of State George Schultz had said, “Today, we mourn the loss of many good men to a cunning enemy, but we must remain steadfast in our mission, and grateful that our enemy did not target civilians.” Without question, we would have been outraged that our leader was asking us to look on the bright side of tallying America’s greatest one-day loss of marines since the Battle of Iwo Jima. We did not want to be grateful to our enemy for obeying the rules of war; we wanted blood. It did not matter that Hezbollah targeted our military infrastructure—not that day, nor on any other day when American military targets were attacked in Lebanon.
On November 13, 1995, an al-Qaeda-affiliated militant remote-detonated a car bomb outside the US-operated National Guard Training facility in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killing five Americans. President Clinton called the bombing “an outrage,” and he insisted that the US and Saudi Arabia would work together to identify “those responsible for this cowardly act.” Raymond E. Mabus, Jr., the American ambassador to Saudi Arabia at the time, described the bombing as “a desperate act, a horrible act, the work of cowards.”
On June 26, 1996, a truck bomb killed nineteen Americans at a US Air Force complex at the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have been linked to the attack, which US President Clinton said, at the time, “appears to be the work of terrorists.” He went on to say that if the explosion was the work of terrorists, “I am outraged by it…. The cowards who committed this murderous act must not go unpunished…. Anyone who attacks one American attacks every American, and we protect and defend our own.”
On October 12, 2000, seventeen American soldiers were killed by a suicide boat-bomb attack on the USS Cole as it refueled in a Yemeni port. Again, President Clinton said that “if, as it now appears, this was an act of terrorism, it was a despicable and cowardly act.” Likewise, Admiral Vern Clark, the US Chief of Naval Operations, noted that “I have no reason to think that this was anything but a senseless act of terrorism.” Secretary of Defense William Cohen called the attack a “vicious and cowardly act.”
Again, consider how offensive it would have been (in the aftermath of each of these three attacks) for President Clinton to commend the bombers for not targeting civilians. In fact, it would have even been offensive for Clinton to describe this bombing as anything but a terrorist attack. This should be more than enough evidence that, in the end—regardless of whatever principled moral arguments we might make in a classroom—our disgust with terrorism actually has nothing to do with targeting choices.
It is crucial to note that the appropriate conclusion from this evidence is not that, deep down, we actually love when our military is attacked. Far from it, we should recognize that—contrary to our talking points about honor—we actually value our soldiers’ lives just as much as we value our citizens’ lives. It hurts when we lose civilians, and it hurts when we lose soldiers. The fact that American civilians did not die in these four attacks does not detract from the devastation wrought on the victims’ families, nor does it mitigate our nation’s sense of loss. In our eyes—and those are the eyes under scrutiny here—were our fallen soldiers in Beirut any more or less “innocent” than the American civilians who died in the twin towers? Strangely, our first tendency is to say ‘yes’, even though the Beirut, Riyadh, Dhahran and USS Cole attacks fall well outside the oft-cited civilian argument condemning terrorism: no civilians died, only soldiers; it was an attack on our military, and it stung because Americans were killed, not because the attack was “cowardly” or “senseless.”
Granted, we had not declared war with any parties in Lebanon or Saudi Arabia, but our soldiers were present on foreign soil and—regardless of the accuracy of the local assessment—many Lebanese and Saudis saw no distinction between peacekeeping and occupying. In fact, a crucial factor explaining why we viewed these two attacks as terrorism is that the idea of “going to war” with the whole of Lebanon or Saudi Arabia was absurd. So the soldiers and their patrons in America did not view their presence in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon as an “occupation,” and certainly not as domination. After all, “we were asked” to help Lebanon and Saudi Arabia by their own governments, Americans always insist. Unfortunately, this comment also reflects the American cultural assumption that a government has the support of its people, but most nations in the Middle East are plagued by painfully clear fault lines that are seldom straddled by their governments. And regardless of an obvious inter-cultural clash about what constitutes terrorism, even within our American culture, if terrorists are repulsive to us, then it is not because they target civilians.
The fact that we are still shocked when our soldiers die in inhospitable environments is a frightening testament to our ease with warfare and to our belief that war need not (and should not) burden Americans with any costs. War has become so normal and mundane to us that we call these attacks terrorism because we do not feel like we are at war, and so we naturally believe that the attack “came out of nowhere.” Under such conditions, we could never be prepared to make sacrifices in the name of a war we do not even know about. In an interview with the Hebrew daily Ma’ariv, Salah Arouri, the founder of Hamas in the West Bank recently argued that Israelis—whose resentment of terrorism bears significant resemblance to our own—tout equally inconsistent rules of war:
The entire Israeli nation asks how [a captured Israeli soldier] feels, how he lives, what his problems are. [They] ask how we can hold him. [But] he is a soldier. He was taken from a tank. He was not a tourist. He sat in the tank with his gun aimed at Gaza. So what’s all the excitement about?
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Contextualizing the Boilerplate
There are several reasons why many terrorists might insist that what they are doing is actually brave, honorable, and deserving of negotiation, but their reasons are less important to this analysis. Nevertheless, the differences between the divergent cultural approaches as to what constitutes fair warfare illuminate how the American approach developed and continues to solidify today, especially within the context of the wider “war on terror.”
Like many other cultural traits, the American outlook on fair methods of warfare is both a cause and effect of America’s ascendance to the top of the geopolitical food chain. Even before 9/11, Americans had a very precise resentment of terror methods, and the current “war on terror” only cemented that resentment in a historical framework. Since the end of the Second World War, the only perceived and genuine threat to American national security has been the Soviet Union. It became impossible to talk about strategic defense without also talking about space-based missile defenses, intricate spy networks within the Kremlin, and covert operations to keep Soviet expansion at bay.
To defeat the communist giant, we employed our inherent virtues of freedom and hope, which we honed so well during our moral triumph over Nazi Germany, when we saved the world from a thousand years of misery. After four decades of adding nuclear deterrence and proxy wars to our moral and ideological momentum, our resilience finally paid off in 1991. High from our victory, not only did we start to believe that we could defeat anything, but far more worrisome, we believed that we could do so with conventional means. Why continue tweaking a method that worked well enough to defeat our only strategic threat?
Few of these observations are original, but among many smaller factors, our vast experience facing a truly overwhelming threat molded our perception of what warfare is supposed to look like, and what it does look like. More importantly, we excelled at this global game of chess. We adapted to threats, and like most victors in war, we prided ourselves on the skills that we acquired in order to defeat the enemy. Granted, most of the elements in American (and western) culture regarding warfare predate the Cold War, which helped shape—and was also shaped by—these cultural attitudes. And rather harmoniously, our modern concepts of courage and honor echo their ideological ancestors, embodied, for instance, in the fearsome warriors of Sparta, the chivalrous knights of Europe, and American generals literally leading their men on the front lines of our Civil War. It was our bravery and honor—we seem to believe—that have brought us to where we are today, against all odds and enemies.
Yet these disparate influences on our concept of warfare have now culminated in a period of our cultural history that does not fit particularly well with our geopolitical fortune. Most cultures view their forebears as underdogs who miraculously prevailed because of a long list of virtues. But when that underdog finds itself alone at the top of the junkyard heap, narratives often change considerably. And we were no different. Not only are we having trouble reconciling our own dominance with our underdog rhetoric (from a theoretical point of view), but we are therefore jumping even greater hurdles in our attempts to apply this contradictory outlook to our national interests throughout the world. One way, for instance, that we reconcile our power with our morality can be seen in the change in our narrative (throughout the last century) from being the underdog to defending the underdogs across the globe who cannot defend themselves against the oppression of tyranny.
As the world’s “lonely superpower,” America’s strategic threats during the 1990s were so minimal that we could afford to examine frightening (though hardly existential) threats, like terrorism, which (ironically) is far more difficult to prevent than a mighty Soviet invasion. The events of 9/11 were a stark awakening to a nation whose concept of power had been left behind in the dust: after nearly a half-century of staving off a nuclear holocaust at the hands of an enigmatic and sophisticated enemy, how could our unchallenged grasp of global power—and our very sanity—be leveled to its foundations by a motley crew of cave-dwellers from some god-forsaken land in central Asia?
Only adding to this overwhelming sense of impotence, the absence of any centralized retaliation target left us drooling for blood, only to be told that our skies were falling because of an enemy that was paradoxically nowhere and everywhere at the same time. And so began the “war on terror,” which has since targeted a particular method of warfare because there has been no credible strategic enemy for the US to oppose.
Even if al-Qaeda destroyed Manhattan with a dirty or sophisticated nuclear weapon, our civilization would continue. Undoubtedly, such an event would be disastrous and terrifying; it would traumatize much of the country for decades, and we should do everything in our power to prevent it from happening. But this is nothing compared to the threat of nuclear holocaust (with the Soviets) or even a focused holocaust like that of World War II.
Absent the threat of such an endgame, the only rhetorical basis for a war would be the perpetrators’ means of attack, namely terrorism. For perspective, consider how bizarre it would have been for the French in 1940 to beg the invading Nazi army to humanely refrain from attacking at night, as the French children were having trouble sleeping. If Charles De Gaulle had proposed that idea to the other members of the French Resistance, they would have probably reminded him that they have significantly larger problems to worry about than peaceful sleep, like survival. No one cared how Germany invaded; that they invaded at all was terrifying enough. As traumatic and devastating as 9/11 was, it did not come close to threatening the very survival of our civilization. Because the endgame was not a worry in 2001, it was reasonable for us to focus on the means our enemies employed. But even still, we do not recognize that we are warring against a form of war itself, not some credible threat to our existence.
Without question, however, 9/11 stoked a legitimate fire in us all, and it continues to blaze. But without an enemy who rivaled our power—and with all that rage boiling over—we had to attack something, and to fill the void, that something needed to be broad and ambitious. The invasion of Afghanistan only weeks later sated our thirst for retribution, but it hardly alleviated the incessant sense of doom and vulnerability from another 9/11-style attack, which had been so low-maintenance that it passed under the radar screen. The unsophisticated nature of our enemy’s methods on 9/11 was another source of humiliation and frustration for Americans. We hated the idea that our enemies could take advantage of our technological prowess, and then use it against us. We were so far ahead of the enemy’s curve that we could not anticipate its primitive nature, for whatever reasons. Al-Qaeda mocked us with its reliance on a technology that we had invented, and nearly a century ago, no less.
While Americans shared a precise concept of terrorism long before 9/11, there was a distinct shift in the paradigm: until that day, terrorism was dismissed as a “despicable” means of achieving political goals, but one that would never pose a threat to our psychological state of mind—one that was supposed to plague distant war zones, not America’s skylines. Now, however, despite the absence of a credible threat (and no follow-up attacks on our homeland), terrorism is still perceived as the primary threat to our way of life.
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Power and Application
With a broader perspective, even if our sense of strategic vulnerability has shifted focus from a Soviet escalation (or even expansion) to Islamist infiltration and terrorism, neither our attitudes nor our tactics have caught up to the perceived threats, and without a balance between the two, the “war on terror” will continue to fail. We will always be vulnerable as long as we fool ourselves into thinking that we hate—and have declared war on—terrorism for its methods. Put bluntly, we hate terrorism because we are exceptionally vulnerable to it, and (naturally) this prospect is rather terrifying to a nation that considers itself both invulnerable and morally deserving of invulnerability.
If this argument seems more like a critique of neoconservativism than of American political ideology as a whole, this is only the case because, for whatever reasons, since the end of World War II, no US Administration has indulged American idealism to the degree—and with the recklessness—that President George W. Bush has. Previous presidents were better able to balance our raw idealism with our realist objectives, even though they often spoke the language of morality to the American people—telling us that we were the planet’s moral beacon—while quietly ensuring that our impulses be checked by a cold dose of caution and realism. For better or worse, it was inevitable that our own idealism (or more cynically, self-righteousness) would lead us to overreach.
Ascribing moral content to our policies is hardly new, but this has become particularly difficult as America has risen to super-power status and pursued its strategic interests like any other super-power. While most burgeoning hegemonies abandon morality when they become powerful, we have merely integrated our morality with textbook super-power behavior. By insisting that doing “what’s right” is the basis for our most important decisions, we become particularly vulnerable to self-delusion in a rough world.
For the same reason, these enemies find our demands perplexing: given their agenda, should we expect terrorists to fight us with methods that will ensure their defeat? Our response, naturally, would be, ‘if you cannot fight fairly, then you should not fight at all’, while the terrorists insist that ‘if we cannot fight fairly, then we will fight unfairly, as our cause is too important to be hindered by talk of methods.’ And could we expect anything less from our enemies? Is this not why they are our enemies, because they see the world through a lens that is incomprehensible to us? Consider, for example, that our insistence that our enemies ‘come out and fight like men’ is really only a ploy to get our enemies to play by rules under which we are sure to obliterate them. In the end, insisting on the moral high ground has tremendous strategic benefits for the more powerful party wedded to the status quo.
No super-power can resist the temptation to take advantage of its advantages, nor would any reasonable beneficiary of that super-power argue in favor of resisting such a temptation. It is important to note, however, that as a nation entrenched in the Judeo-Christian moral tradition, America can and often does capitalize on this power to do wonderful and uncontroversial work all over the world. Like American security and prosperity, our morality and strategic interests are not mutually exclusive; we merely have a tendency to frame those strategic interests in the language of morality, for various reasons.
American leaders, for instance, almost always speak the language of morality—sometimes manipulating their constituencies for political purposes, and other times because they genuinely believe in a particular moral imperative. Debate over the American intervention in the first Gulf War, for instance, was framed in (almost exclusively) moral terms, but many believed—with reasonable grounds—that our government’s decision to intervene was founded on the need to protect our interest in the region’s crude oil, and that President Bush (41) only spoke of “liberating the Kuwaitis” to garner support that would have disappeared had the explicit agenda been protecting our oil supplies.
Either way, despite being at the top of the geopolitical food chain, we continue to use morality to identify ourselves as the eternal underdog who sticks to its principles, while simultaneously (and bizarrely) we believe that if we are on top, it is only because we are morally superior and deserve to be there. The ascendance of American power—according to this line of logic—is not merely the result, but also the reward, for our moral integrity.
So, it should come as no surprise that we view terrorism through a similar moralistic lens. Yet this hardly mitigates its detrimental effect: if we believe terrorism is terrible for its methods, we cannot recognize that terrorism is just another form of leverage—one that we (correctly) regard as frightening and dangerous, but hardly monolithic. To understand this dynamic better, it is helpful to consider how other nations regard terrorism and hostage-taking—specifically, as a normal form of exerting leverage in negotiations or even high-context “engagement” (diplomatic signaling). Neither approach is “better” or “worse” than the other, but such a comparison is important if only to illustrate that we can exert greater control over our visceral reactions than we might think. We have greater control over undesirable outcomes than we might think. Armed with such an understanding, we can build a more nuanced approach to the “war on terror,” one that acknowledges that victory, in any conventional sense, is utterly impossible in this case.
The two typically moral, American arguments (dissected earlier) against negotiating with and/or engaging terrorists are often met with perplexity in non-western cultures. The first argument is that terrorism (including hostage-taking) is morally wrong because it is an evasive, cowardly form of aggression, and thus not worthy of our engagement. The second American argument is that negotiating with terrorists (sometimes over hostages) is even more offensive because such a negotiation corrupts the integrity of an honorable contractual process. ‘Bartering in human lives’ or ‘negotiating with a gun to their heads’ is the best way to infuriate an American in a negotiation, or even in an argument about the prospect of negotiation. In fact, bartering under duress is so repugnant to Americans that their most common reaction is some form of moral boycott.
Yet while we boycott negotiations with terrorists in the name of morality, the rest of the world negotiates under duress every day. Again, for Americans, a “fair” negotiation is one that is desirable but not necessary, as both parties want to improve their lots in some way; whereas people in other (often developing) countries, who are accustomed to disappointment, settle for merely preventing a worse outcome—having recognized that in times of duress, avoiding disaster is more than enough incentive to negotiate. In fact, many less powerful nations/cultures/parties would say that times of duress are the only times in which negotiating compromises is absolutely imperative. After all, if you are not ‘over a barrel’, then you have excellent reason to avoid the negotiating table.
Without a doubt, a party that is accustomed to disappointment in negotiations will often view moral boycotts as luxuries they cannot afford—and that any American refusal to negotiate with certain players is a direct and enviable testament to its unsurpassed power and expectations. In other words, the more powerful party to a conflict is often faced with the question: why should I bother negotiating when I can just take what I want? Ultimately, Americans are just as likely to take (as is the nature of power), for better or worse. Yet the tense dissonance in this dynamic lies not in the hypocrisy of double standards when fighting terrorism, but rather in our inability to see past the moral rhetoric to even determine if terrorist groups like al-Qaeda actually pose enough of a threat to warrant negotiations, or if they are just a severe nuisance that that found good fortune on 9/11.
For Americans, the mere act of “going to war” on anything or with anyone is interpreted as an unequivocal sign that we must be facing a serious threat, and when that paradigm is thrown into upheaval, we simply cannot function. That the presence of a threat is—to most nations—a basis for both negotiation and war (depending on the situation) only confuses Americans even more. We seem to ask, how can negotiation exist on the same behavior continuum as war and peace? That is, if aggression is the name of the game, then to us, war is the only rational choice—a view, again, reflecting our reliance on (and expectation of) hegemony.
Ultimately, our cultural lens clouds our judgment and prevents us from seeing the more nuanced (and ostensibly contradictory) reality—that terrorists have frightening, earth-shaking power but nevertheless pose no strategic threat to us. Put differently, because of this cultural lens (which fuses our morality with our foreign policy to ensure our supremacy), it is hard for us to distinguish between an enemy’s power to make us afraid, and the same enemy’s power to actually bring about our destruction. In the post-Cold War era, the two types of power are no longer synonymous, and it is hard for us to imagine our fears are anything but the result of a dire and very real threat.
Until 9/11, the Cold War was the last time we had felt genuinely terrified about the security of our existence. Yet in our standoff with the Soviet Union, the threat of a nuclear holocaust was infinitely more credible than any threat that al-Qaeda could ever muster. We merely saw on 9/11, for the first time, how truly terrifying terrorism can be. Yet while it might seem depressingly inevitable, our cultural response to terrorism—reaching its apex that September day—was actually the result of factors that can only dictate our fate when we fail to recognize them.
Our culture has often inspired us to bring freedom and justice to millions across the globe, but if we cannot recognize when the seeds of our cultural blessings sprout hemlock, our wars will give us a sense of retribution, but little strategic advantage or humanitarian appeal. Defining the world in black-and-white terms, we will only become more vulnerable, perhaps enough even to bring an end to America’s supremacy, though still not enough to threaten our culture and civilization. Nevertheless, the fact that we ignore our culture’s inconsistencies (and behave accordingly) means that we see our vulnerability as a fluke. The idea of being vulnerable on a consistent basis is as foreign to us as viewing ourselves as immoral.
In light of our passion and particular breed of morality, our staggering margins of supremacy over our competitors will prevent us from considering that we might need to conserve our power—militarily, politically and culturally—as part of a long-term strategy to ensure that very supremacy. Nothing brings seemingly omnipotent empires to a grinding halt as quickly or dramatically as overreach. At this rate, our cultural expectations will lead us into more battlefields than it will lead us out of. We were shocked by 9/11 and we will be shocked by its sequel, as well. Having already declared a “war on terror,” when we endure another terrifying disaster, we will all expect the war on terror to be escalated, no matter who leads our government.
But when we turn to our arsenal of weapons and morale—even if successfully adapted for asymmetric warfare—we will find our resources either nursing civil wars abroad or licking their wounds at home, almost certainly humiliated by the same can-do attitude that inspired their deployment. Sadly for us, our vulnerability is no coincidence of the moment. It is no fluke. We face a dire threat, but not from terrorism. We are our own threat, and not because of overreaction as much as ‘misreaction.’ Ultimately, in a world where the brushfire of hatred is no passing fad, our wisest course of action would be to acknowledge our vulnerability and hedge our bets accordingly. This means that we have to radically alter our negotiation paradigm and the acceptable identities of the parties on the other side of the table.
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As many are quick to note, negotiating under duress does encourage our enemies to put us under duress more often, and this is certainly an important consideration. Yet despite endless insistence by our government that we do not and should not legitimize and reward terrorism through negotiations, President Bush (like any leader) nevertheless implicitly negotiates and often capitulates with terrorists on a nearly consistent basis.
Every day in Iraq and Afghanistan, our armed forces, defense contractors and our civilian allies in President Karzai’s government and Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s coalition all negotiate with people who our President calls “terrorists,” “extremists,” “islamo-fascists,” etc. We also negotiate with countries that—whether by lack of desire or capacity—enable militant groups to attack soft and hard targets of the United States and its allies abroad. We negotiate and are explicitly allied with Pakistan’s dictator Pervez Musharraf, who consistently strikes deals with Pashtun militants (some Taliban, some not) promising them free reign to smuggle copious amounts of opium out of Afghanistan and attack NATO forces there; and in exchange, Musharraf solicits empty assurances that his own regime will not be the target of their aggression. These assurances have proven useless to a crippled Musharraf, but regardless, these assurances were and are, in fact, negotiated. More importantly, in the weeks after 9/11, because we zeroed in on bin Laden and his sponsoring Taliban regime in Afghanistan, we had no choice but to buy Musharraf’s cooperation—as limited as it certainly has been.
Likewise, we negotiate oil prices with Near East tyrants because we are “addicted to oil,” as President Bush has said, even though the greatest beneficiaries to these deals often dedicate their wealth to terrorizing Americans and our allies in the region. Now, after nearly five years of stubborn self-delusion, we have decided to initiate the early stages of a very quiet and important negotiation with the Islamic regime in Iran over the stability of Iraq and Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
In fact, even if our government did not negotiate with terrorists and their respective sponsors on a regular basis, the American government negotiates under countless other types of severe duress, which we strangely regard as benign “diplomacy.” We negotiate with China about import/export tariffs that cost Americans hundreds of thousands of jobs because we believe that this benefits our nation in the long run. We negotiate with Mexico over illegal immigrants because we are worried about Latino contributions to America’s melting pot.
When the Soviet Union inserted nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles into Cuba, we negotiated with them (though in secret) because, in order for us pose an effective nuclear deterrence, we had to have more warning than the few seconds it would take for those missiles to reach Miami 90 miles away. Under unfathomable duress, we eagerly negotiated during these 13 incomparable days.
Countless nations would add terrorism and kidnapping to the above list of obviously worrisome but normal forms of “leverage”—exceptionally persuasive leverage, but leverage nonetheless. In contrast, we see kidnapping and terrorism as extortion, and (ironically) our elected leaders actually feed into this delusion for the same reason that they negotiate with our enemies: they have to. Grounded in reality, they are compelled by a landscape that offers no other way to keep themselves and America at the head of the table. Compromise is not a moral imperative, but rather a distinctly political one. So if we are repulsed by foreign insistence that we negotiate under duress, then this repulsion has nothing to do with morality, but is instead the standard and understandable reaction of any party facing a tactical disadvantage in negotiations. Employing moral rhetoric enables us to cope with feelings of utter impotence. Yet even if our resolve was, in fact, based on moral considerations, then we would be fooling ourselves to think we are able to measure up to these standards in a world that is already brimming with compromise at every turn.
Furthermore, the fact that the above negotiations with the Soviet Union, Pakistan, Mexico and Cuba were with ‘legitimate’ governments is (though true) entirely irrelevant. It is not the statelessness of terrorists that repulses us, if only because there are countless transnational entities that have our endless admiration, like Amnesty International and the Red Cross. Instead, it is our vulnerability to their methods that terrifies us—a fear, no less, that is magnified by our inability to conquer our enemies or even overcome the fears they inspire. Yet rather than come to terms with our fears, we continue lusting for assurances that our moral virtue compels us not to negotiate with terrorists, and simultaneously, that these very virtues also make our wholesale victory inevitable. Like every other person on the planet, Americans prefer not to negotiate under duress, and we are right to dread it; the world can be exceedingly erratic and unstable.
Yet even if it was the illegitimacy or statelessness of terrorists that bothered us, and even if we really managed to boycott every negotiation with every party that has ever expressed contempt for the United States, then every other country in the world would continue to negotiate with their respective enemies, much as they do now, because they recognize that a country can have no power if it boycotts any negotiation where it is at more of a disadvantage than it would prefer to be. Granted, if we are the only ones who suddenly refuse to negotiate with terrorists—assuming we can pull off such a feat—then the terrorists that America is determined to punish for their behavior will certainly learn that terrorizing Americans does not work. But because everyone else would still negotiate with them, America could only sustain such a boycott as long as it maintained a completely isolationist policy.
If we are the only ones not negotiating, terrorists will not be cut off; we will be cut off. And to put it gently, like any super-power would be, we Americans succeed at minding our own business only when we generously define everyone else’s home as “our business.” Regardless, cutting ourselves off would be far worse than capitulating to terrorism, but thankfully, those are not the only two choices, as the nations accustomed to negotiated disappointments can attest. Again, the point here is not simply that we should negotiate with terrorists, but rather, that we already do, and rightly so.
Accusations of American inconsistency and double standards notwithstanding, an equally consequential dissonance among the American people brews unscrutnized. That is, more important than how the US government treats other nations is how that government relates to us, its constituency. Our government openly negotiates with our enemies but then tells us that we Americans refuse to “bow down to terrorism” because we are just and moral people. And naturally, we love hearing this. Both as westerners and as members of the most powerful nation in history, how could we not enjoy hearing this?
Yet regardless of whether we are righteous or not, insisting that we are makes it impossible for our government to tell us what we must hear: sometimes, despite our unprecedented power, we still have to make uncomfortable sacrifices to get what we want; and even worse, sometimes we will not be able to get what we want, no matter the sacrifices we might be willing to make. If we are not prepared to admit this, then surely our elected leaders will never do so, because they know that Americans do not like being reminded that it takes a lot more work to remain the most powerful nation than it does to become the most powerful nation.
Consider, for instance, the American public’s bitter reaction to Jimmy Carter’s infamous “malaise” speech, when he told Americans, “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns.” And contrast this speech and its backfire with the glee we felt when President Bush insisted after 9/11 that the best thing we could do for our country would be to go shopping.
If we were powerful enough not to have to negotiate with our enemies while under duress, then rest assured, we would never would. In fact, if we were that powerful (by nearly any definition of power) then we would never negotiate at all. We would just take. But we are not that powerful, and we need the willing assistance of millions across the globe to ensure our safety and prosperity. We hate weakness, and we hate dependence. But we also hate expensive gasoline, and we hate watching a genocide unfold on CNN.
Unaccustomed to fear and vulnerability, we have been unable to recognize that all of us, all over the world, have always been and will forever be more vulnerable than we would like. Absent this self-awareness, we could only paint the “war on terror” as all-or-nothing—as unequivocally brave or cowardly. And as a result, we cannot end this war touting anything less than the unconditional surrender of our enemy—an obviously misguided goal in asymmetrical warfare, especially if our enemies are so diffuse that they could never agree on anything, and certainly not their terms for surrender. Hoping to avoid the eternal scorn of history books, President Bush will stay at war indefinitely, and long after his successor withdraws our troops, when we feel another ‘flukish’ sense of vulnerability in the future, our leaders will have exactly the same response, and the cycle will repeat itself.
But there is simply no need to view this war on terror as an all-or-nothing battle. In fact, the only thing worse than not winning the war on terror (however that might look) would be not losing the war on terror, either. Like the wars on poverty and drugs, the best we can hope for is a vain fizzle for this war, far from the spotlight.
We have to make compromises, we have to negotiate with our enemies—because they captured our soldier, and we want their oil; or because they killed our soldier, and they burned our oil. On 9/11, our culture framed the familiar debate around morality so that any US president in George W. Bush’s position would have been incapable of considering his choices outside the Manichean dynamic of cowardice (doing nothing, tolerating evil) and unleashing hell (doing everything, over and again). Without a middle ground, we will return to this battle, as though our sanity depended on it, again and again.
Whatever else we might need to win the war on terror, what we need most is humility—and not because we are moral people who should care about how we treat others, although that is true, as well. No, we need humility for the simple reason that we cannot defeat terrorism by any definition of ‘defeat’ and any definition of ‘terrorism’. We cannot defeat terrorism any more than we can defeat hatred or vulgarity. It is simply out of our league, out of anyone’s league. And the longer we tell ourselves that we are that powerful—that we are essentially invulnerable because we morally deserve to be invulnerable—the longer we will find ourselves hopelessly watching replays of our crumbling foundations, staring at the face of an enemy we don’t understand, and worse, locked in a battle with our own reflection, which we understand even less.