October 9, 2001

The Push for A Wider War

MCCAIN TOES THE NEOCON LINE

As the news of U.S. strikes on Afghanistan trickles in, we watch anxiously the pro-bin Laden street demonstrations in Pakistan: energetic but not all that large, at least for now. If they grow massive, the troops protecting Pakistan's government will begin to melt away, the government will fall, and Pakistan's nuclear arsenal will slip into the hands of those who are enthusiastic about the terror attacks on the World Trade Center. It is a perilous moment.

Like many others, I've been cheering for Colin Powell in his battle within the government against those who want to turn the WTC attacks into a pretext for a war against all "sponsors or terror" by which they mean all of Israel's enemies, a recipe for a terminal conflict between the United States the entire Muslim world. Thus far Powell is prevailing: Newsweek even reports that Vice President Cheney told Paul Wolfowitz (the main "wider war against Islam" advocate within the administration) to button his lip. That leaves the war hawks isolated and on the outside: they have the Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal, and National Review, but that isn't enough to push George Bush into a war that would be disastrous to America's long term interests.

So it was worrisome to see Senator John McCain interviewed by Tom Brokaw several hours after strikes on Afghanistan commenced. McCain charged right into wider war cheerleading:

"Once we take care of Mr. bin Laden, [and] the Taliban are overthrown, then there will be other nations . . . Iraq, Iran, Syria, they will have to either eject those terrorist organizations or they will also pay a penalty."

Then, in the understatement of the year, he continued, "that's when the coalition, which we've so beautifully put together, may experience significant strains."

You bet, Senator: there would be significant "strains" if the United States, without any Arab or European backing, started attacking Iraq, Iran and Syria, -- none of which have been credibly linked to the attacks of 9/11.

It's one level of danger when a neocon columnist is spouting such stuff on a Sunday talk show; it's a greater menace when it comes from a popular elected official who came close to winning the presidency.

ANDREW SULLIVAN'S HOLY WAR

My minister, who has been a tower of strength and inspiration since 9/11, recommended in his sermon that we read Andrew Sullivan's New York Times piece, "This is a Religious War."

I complied. The piece is a clever and not uninteresting form of fundamentalist-bashing -- they can't stand the West's success, resent the eclipse of Islam in the modern world, etc. Ever broadminded, Sullivan reminds us that irrational and violent religious fundamentalism is also a homegrown product, permeating the West until relatively recently.

His central argument is that conflict on a massive scale is unavoidable. "There is very little room in the fundamentalist psyche for moderate accommodation." After the inevitable quotations from Bernard Lewis's "The Roots of Muslim Rage" [The Atlantic Monthly, September 1990], he concludes that the coming "epic" battle against Islamic fundamentalism -- a foe far more formidable than Nazism or Communism -- is unavoidable. At stake, he concludes, are "not only our lives but our souls."

Well, as I will tell my minister next Sunday, I'm happy to have read the piece, which has its true and interesting passages. But Sullivan skips over some very important items, most notably anything that would ground his argument in contemporary politics and particularly political geography -- the reality hundreds of millions of Muslims are experiencing and talking about every day.

For instance, Sullivan hardly mentions the Israel-Palestine issue and the gnawing hard facts of the Israeli occupation, which understandably obsess the Arab world. No acknowledgment of the constant Western presence in the historic Muslim lands, a presence that must seem "in their faces," all the time: sometimes with direct military occupation, sometimes with military bases, sometimes with embargoes, sometimes merely with aggressive commercialism (the "Mickey D's" outside the mosque).

Nor does Sullivan acknowledge the interesting fact that that in those lands where the Western presence is limited, as it has been in Iran for the past twenty years, anti-American and anti-Western fundamentalism is rapidly going out of business, an enthusiasm of the old, not the young.

I write this in full recognition that when a foreign power kills 6000 American civilians, the United States has no choice but to strike back at the perpetrators, hard and unrelentingly. But it does not follow for a moment that that the destruction of bin Laden and the Taliban is only "Phase One" of a larger war we must fight. The United States has no moral or strategic requirement to make war on all of Israel's many foes (the so-called "war against terror" as defined by the Israeli right). American interests, both moral and strategic, would be far better served by an honest, evenhanded effort to broker a fair peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Nor do Americans need to rally to Andrew Sullivan's call to arms against "religious intolerance," a virus confined to relatively poor and faraway lands, and not likely to spread beyond them.

Neither war is forced upon us. Neither is necessary. Both struggles would be open-ended, and would squander America's blood, treasure and liberty. A sensible American leader would do everything he could to avoid them.

Text-only printable version of this article

As a committed cold warrior during the 1980ís, Scott McConnell wrote extensively for Commentary and other neoconservative publications. Throughout much of the 1990ís he worked as a columnist, chief editorial writer, and finally editorial page editor at the New York Post. Most recently, he served as senior policy advisor to Pat Buchananís 2000 campaign , and writes regularly for NY Press/Taki's Top Drawer.

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