The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Wednesday, May 14, 2003  

Let's Put the Bully Club Away

In response to the latest terrorist attacks, these in Saudi Arabia, that killed seven Americans, the Bush administration's response was just what we would expect:

Vice President Dick Cheney said the United States must continue to aggressively pursue terrorists. "The only way to deal with this threat ultimately is to destroy it," he said in a speech.

"There's no treaty [that] can solve this problem," Mr. Cheney said. "There's no peace agreement, no policy of containment or deterrence that works to deal with this threat. We have to go find the terrorists."

(Source: "U.S. and Saudis Sensed Attacks Were Imminent," by Douglas Jehl and David Johnston, the New York Times, May 14.)

It's time to stop pretending or imagining terrorism is a new phenomenon. It has existed in various forms for centuries, as far back as ancient Greece and Rome. What makes the Bush administration think it can be "destroyed" once and for all? True, it must be fought, obstructed, and with a vengeance. But we are not omnipotent.

There has to be a better way, or at least something more than repeated pledges to "root out" terrorism -- anywhere and everywhere -- with military force. In the long run, Americans will resist this strategy, as will those beyond our shores. With respect to the latter, we can expect not only resistance, but defiance, a bloody and deadly defiance.

I don't have the answer, I admit. And I'm not among those who believe a settlement of the longstanding disputes between Israel and the Palestinians will solve the problem, though I hope to see that come to pass and I expect this would help, at least at the margins, as they say.

So do we pack up and go home, retreat from the entire world to a Fortress America? It's a tempting proposition. The U.S. is probably the only nation on earth that could be almost completely self-sufficient economically should it choose to pursue that route. Yet the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 proved we remain vulnerable here at home, assuming this Fortress America would not evolve into a police state.

Or do we drastically alter our foreign policy, redirecting our attention from the affairs of Europe, both "old" and "new," focusing instead on the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and South Asia? It would be a start, I think, particularly if accompanied by an aggressive approach to economic aid and development, "nation building," even, if you will.

There's an excellent article in the latest issue of Foreign Policy, "Ranking the Rich," that details the shortcomings not only of the U.S. foreign aid program, but of its trade, investment, and environmental policies, among others. A familiar theme in that journal, of course, but a valuable essay nonetheless. The study on which the article is based, conducted by the Center for Global Development, makes clear, to me at least, that we're not doing enough and what we're doing is not working to anyone's advantage.

Tempting as isolationism might be, I think it's painfully evident we cannot even attempt to keep terrorism at bay (for I don't believe it can ever be destroyed or eradicated), and we cannot do this alone. An effective counter-terrorism strategy requires working with our allies, including, perish the thought, those of "Old Europe," as well as those nations that view American power and policy with suspicion, even contempt.

An editorial in today's New York Times, "Death in Riyadh" makes the point with respect to Saudi Arabia:

The Saudi government, which relies on foreign workers to support key parts of its economy, understands that it must move quickly to root out the people who strove to make a political point by plotting yet another murderous attack. That is the obvious first step. The second must be internal reforms that will reduce the population of unemployed, angry, disenfranchised young people who connect the United States with a government that ignores their problems.

The Bush administration is already embarked on a plan to take American troops out of Saudi Arabia. That is a smart idea that will eliminate one target of fundamentalist ire, put our soldiers where they can be more easily protected and give the Saudi royal family an opening to begin making political and economic concessions to its restless people. Nothing that happened this week should deter the administration from pursuing that plan.

There are no easy answers to the problems of terrorism, and yet the Bush administration continues to put forth the most simplistic, and I think dangerous, of responses. This is not the time for that which I have here in the past called "unseriousness." It's time to put the bully club away, or at least keep it behind our back, and get down to some serious policymaking.

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