San Francisco Chronicle – 1/13/2002

Unlike most of you, I find myself on the short end of the 80/20 split that now dominates American political life. When the pollsters ask the public about  the president or his war policy, my negative response is shared by 1 in 5 – or fewer.

Following the news has become a lonely experience for those of us unwilling to jump on the bandwagon. Discordant opinions have not been welcome in  the nation’s public discourse since the enactment of war powers, so our 20 percent has been reduced to invisibility, but I find it important to persist,  invisible or not. Especially in light of the government’s obvious intention to take this war show on the road to Somalia and Iraq and commit the United  States to playing superpower vigilante for the next decade.

And, though I am not yet ready to call this policy Wrong with a capital W, I do think it is, at the very least, Stupid with a capital S. As such, it deserves  opposition.

And look around, closer to home. The first four months of this war policy have already altered the face of American life for the worse. TV journalism now features propaganda slogans as constant tag lines across the bottom of the screen. The attorney general has warned that opposition to the government’s policy by American citizens could jeopardize national security. Racial profiling has become standard police procedure.

The government has taken steps to begin trying foreign nationals before secret military tribunals. The government has also sought to use the war to promote its domestic agenda – arguing that oil drilling in the wilderness is a national security issue but that, while it was necessary to read everyone’s emails, the rights of gun owners would not be infringed by any steps against terror.

What was once a two-party system has become one big war party. The freeways are overrun with flag decals, but nobody in Washington has yet said a word about using less oil.

Herewith, my 20 percent worth:

However overwhelming our Afghan conquest, this policy’s short-term successes are matched by its long-term dysfunctionality.

By making military intimidation the leading edge of our approach, we have played to our bully’s stereotype in the Islamic world, thereby reinforcing  Islam’s alienation from us at a time when we need the opposite if we are to truly disenfranchise terror. We have consequently managed only to disrupt the infrastructure of jihad while actually enlarging the reservoir of potential jihadi talent available to strike the United States, as well as deepening the resentment, feeding it – effectively only postponing the terror we claim to eradicate.

In that sense, Osama bin Laden carried more of the field in Afghanistan than we give him credit for. Al Qaeda assaulted us, claiming to their fellow Muslims that we were a heartless monolith valuing only ourselves, thriving by intimidation, intent on dominating, and already at mortal odds with the followers of Mohammed. So, when the United States behaves like a reasonable facsimile of that caricature, the jihadis win the martyrs’ victory – dying, but, in the process, enshrining us in the Islamic imagination as the intimidators they claimed we were.

If we now proceed through the Islamic world, targeting countries that don’t like us and assaulting them, all in the name of stopping terrorism, our ability to intimidate may flourish, but so may terrorism – intimidation’s flip side.

This war policy’s shortsightedness is immediately obvious in our failure to seriously address Israel and the Palestinians, by far the most significant single factor generating terror against the United States and earning us Islamic enemies. Whatever happens in Afghanistan, there will be no peace between the United States and Islam until the Palestinians have a homeland, the Israelis cease to occupy the West Bank, and both sides guarantee the security of the other.

As Israel’s staunchest ally, we are perhaps the only nation in a position to facilitate such a solution. Any American policy that fails to put such a solution at the top of its list of priorities only amounts to Americans kidding ourselves. What we are trying to do is impossible without it.

The dangers in the precedent we are setting are also apparent in the strife between India and Pakistan.

India made it apparent early in the process that it was a victim of a terrorist assault sponsored by our ally, Pakistan, and, like Israel, India endorsed our war on terror and reserved for itself the right to make an American-style  response to it. Thus we now have two nuclear powers poised for open military conflict and no one to make peace, least of all us. Similarly, we have changed the language of international conflict so that anyone claiming to battle terror
can claim the right to full-scale military suppression of movements against it, certainly welcome news to the Russian campaign against Chechnya and potentially a line of defense for Slobodan Milosevic’s war crimes against Kosovo.

To call this war policy ill-defined and open-ended is an understatement. The United States is committed to military engagement of unspecified length
against Terror, for which there is no definition except what the White House decides it to be – in effect, a political blank check to a president elected by fewer than barely half of us. Nor is there any effort to codify a standard of behavior with which we and the rest of the world can sort the terrorists from the guerrillas and freedom fighters, the first step to any genuine international ban on terror. Instead, our policy recognizes no standards or jurisdiction but our own power to enforce our own often arbitrary conclusions.

One consequence is that our actions will not be seen as international justice but as America pursuing its interests, thereby isolating us even further.

If there are principles behind our actions, let us articulate just what they are and invite the rest of the world to help maintain them. As it is, we have  insisted on not only calling all the shots but doing so without consultation.

When I watch Fox News I sometimes feel like I’m in a movie where the central character goes to sleep in Topeka one night and wakes up the next morning in North Korea.

We can do better than this, America. Join the opposition Your country needs one.

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