October 23, 2001

An Open Letter to Arab Readers

Let me apologize from the outset for the presumption of this missive. What standing have I to write a letter to an Arab readership? If you are citizens of Egypt or Jordan, Syria or Iraq, or the Palestine struggling to be born, I have not visited your lands or studied your language, and you are unlikely to know my writing.

Some of you who are Arab-Americans might recognize me; I spoke before several of your groups during last year's presidential campaign, and have occasionally sought assistance from the ever-helpful press officers of Arab-American organizations. But I am only someone who has, over the past years, developed growing remorse over the injustices of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian land captured in 1967, and for my country's inability or refusal to do anything about it. I have written several newspaper columns about Israel and the Palestinians, and probably lost some of my pro-Israeli friends because of them. I have modestly assisted a Christian group working for a fair peace in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. But I would readily admit that my engagement on these issues has been minor.

I have also begun to question, in a not very systematic way, whether the American policies for the "containment" of Saddam Hussein are worth the cost – especially if that cost is contributing to the health care catastrophe in Iraq and the death of thousands of innocents who have been unable to overthrow Saddam Hussein themselves.

There are still very few Americans prepared to go out of their way, through their own political activity, to help bring about a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But there are more than there used to be, and many more still who, for the first time in their lives, are curious about the subject. The same could be said about the Gulf, with Saddam's brutal regime and its suffering subjects. You surely know that American diplomats have been, during the past spring and summer, casting about for a ways to change policies there without making things worse. All things being equal, I believe that the next year would have seen considerable evolution in the American posture towards these two problems – evolution in directions most of you would applaud.

But, and this "but" is the reason I am writing to you in this way, all things are not equal. Indeed I want to warn you about this, because I fear that your own ambassadors may not be giving you an accurate picture of the ways in which "9-11" has changed the United States and where those changes could lead. There is already a considerable record of Arab governments (Saddam's for instance, in 1990 and 1991) woefully misreading American intentions. In this case the consequences could be far more horrific.

I especially fear that your observations of American behavior in war and peace over the past fifty-five years – during the entire post war period – may have given you a false impression of what the United States is capable of. During that time, America has fought more than a dozen limited wars and "police actions" including wars (such as the one against Iraq) which it knew it had virtually no chance of losing. While Washington used its military power widely, its leaders always tried to keep in mind the bigger picture – the dangerous rivalry with the nuclear armed Soviet Union, the need to keep the trade routes of the world economy open, the requirement not to alarm excessively an American citizenry that – deep down – was deeply skeptical about getting "bogged down" in foreign entanglements.

In short, during the various military crises, American officials and generals generally maintained a well-calibrated sense that they were fighting a "limited war." In both private rumination and government memos, they were conscious of the precepts of Christian Just War doctrine (about proportionality of means and ends, and the inadmissibility of targeting innocents). Certainly there have been occasions where such precepts were breached, but seldom were they breached in egregious fashion.

But if you have concluded that the recently commenced "war against terrorism" will be fought in the way Americans have fought wars in the past fifty years, you could be terribly mistaken.

As an inhabitant of New York City, I hope with all my heart that the attacks we have experienced so far are the worst of it. The Al-Qaeda organization carried out what in terrorist circles was probably seen as an unbelievable spectacle – killing five thousand people in an instant, with the whole world watching. I pray that they achieve no greater "success" – no large scale and undetected anthrax dissemination, no nuclear bomb in an American city, no smallpox epidemics, nothing that involves really large-scale American civilian casualties.

I hope so for your sake nearly as much as for our own, because if the United States comes to feel it is really in a war for its survival, it will be very different than anything we've seen in the last fifty years. American history shows that beyond a shadow of a doubt. Our Civil War in the last century commenced with Washington's bourgeois families packing picnic lunches to go out – the women in fine flowing dresses – to take in the spectacle on the battlefield. It ended with American cities in the defeated South being starved and put to the torch.

World War II opened with most Americans not the least bit eager to declare war on Germany – which was the ancestral home of the largest non-English American ethnic group. But after a few years of combat, a period during which German arms barely scratched the American homeland, America's air commanders eagerly went about creating firestorms in Germany's cities, in one instance incinerating more than one hundred thousand souls on a single night.

In short, if wholesale slaughter of noncombatants begins, the American government possesses the weapons to do a lot of it, and America's leaders, civilian or military, whoever they are at the time, will not hesitate to use them. If the men of Al Qaeda imagine that they will achieve something positive for the Arab world by killing hundreds of thousands of American civilians, and somehow manage to carry out such a plan, they may find that the American response is to essentially put an end to urban life in the Arab world. This kind of "thinking about the unthinkable" is a dreadful thing to have to do, but I hope your leaders are able to do it as they calibrate their nations' diplomacy in the weeks and months ahead.

A momentous cultural shift has taken place in the United States. It is apparent at the baseball games, where people stand and belt out traditional patriotic songs during the seventh inning stretch, with no hint of skepticism or irony.

It was even more visible the other night in Madison Square Garden, where dozens of leading entertainers organized a tribute to the police and firemen who lost their lives on September ll. The evening was emotionally poignant, as it should have been – we New Yorkers lost a lot of real heroes that day.

But there was something else in the program, which I had never seen before, though I have lived here nearly fifty years: Hollywood was heaping visceral scorn on an enemy of the United States. This did not happen with Ho Chi Minh, or the Sandinistas, or Noriega, or Saddam Hussein, or Krushchev or Brezhnev or Chairman Mao, and certainly not with Fidel Castro. I won't go through the jokes, but they were crude and usually sexual: about Osama bin Laden and his goats, or the sexual repression and frustration which (many Americans imagine) lies behind all this Muslim rage we see displayed nightly on our televisions.

As Arabs in the wider world embrace Osama, as millions are apparently doing, they will receive the same scornful treatment. Americans are being psychologically prepared to see their enemies destroyed. The people who plan wars in Washington have never had Hollywood on their side, or at least have not since World War II. They do now.

This new situation may prove unfairly difficult for those Arab regimes that have not sheltered or funded bin Laden and his associates, nor engaged in any anti-American terrorism. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, for instance, has been targeted for assassination by fundamentalist terror groups far more than any Western leader. Now his government is receiving hostile American scrutiny for its lack of full cooperation with the U.S. war effort. The Palestinian Authority faces new Israeli attacks because of the killing of an Israeli cabinet minister, a man who – in his rhetoric and openly-proclaimed ethnic cleansing goals – makes David Duke seem temperate by comparison. Ariel Sharon has launched an obscene moral equivalence gambit, pretending that that assassination of one racist Israeli minister is the same kind of "terrorism" as the murder of 5000 American civilians, justifying a similar reaction. This comes from a government that has made assassination a regular feature of its foreign policy.

But while Americans may not care much for Sharon, they like Yasser Arafat no better. More importantly, for the overwhelming majority of Americans, whatever Israel does on the West Bank is a tiny sideshow compared to the effort to track down bin Laden and the people waging war against the United States. Americans may be mistaken to feel this way, but that sentiment is a reality that should not be ignored.

Given these circumstances, what is the best course of action? What route holds the best chance to improve the situation for Americans (who now live in fear of more terror), for Palestinians (who have lived under brutal military occupation for a very long time), and for the overwhelming majority of other Arabs? I hope you would agree that bin Laden and all the terrorist networks associated with him must be destroyed or neutralized as quickly as possible. Even if one were to postulate (as I would not) that Al-Qaeda's goals are limited to kicking the United States out of the Persian Gulf and the Israelis out of the occupied territories, there is no way that they are going to be allowed to accomplish them.

Quite a few Americans might consider such goals, taken by themselves, worthy of discussion. Few people still think that the government of Saudi Arabia (whose financial sponsorship of rabidly anti-American fundamentalism has been widely reported in the past weeks) is worth two cents as an "ally". There is growing understanding that there has to be a secure Palestinian state alongside Israel. Many are willing to concede that Washington's anti-Saddam policy is an utter failure.

But the United States will not address any of these issues until bin Laden's network has been destroyed. At present, there are no American voices that count saying, "Let's change our policies right now," by seeking greater accommodation with the Arabs or adopting a lower profile throughout the Middle East. Right now, the United States is a country primed for war, as it has not really been since 1945. When Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Myers said last week he considered the Osama threat the greatest danger the United States had faced since World War II, his assessment may or may not have been accurate, but it was not empty rhetoric. He was giving voice to what most Americans now feel.

My recommendation is that every Arab government (and every Arab-American organization) so inclined cooperate as fully as humanly possible to help the United States win its war against terrorism as quickly as it can. It now seems unlikely that the "go-to-war-against-all-the-Arabs" faction in Washington will prevail in the absence of credible evidence that Iraq has sponsored anti-American terror. The Washington wider-war people still pine for a grandiose "Phase Two," an offensive against Iraq, Iran, Syria and whoever else is on the Israeli Defense Ministry's target list. But Great Britain has already expressed a firm negative reaction to this scheme, and London's voice is heeded. Absent renewed and extensive terror attacks, there is no American groundswell for a wider war.

But the United States is committed without reservation to a war against bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and will win that war one way or another. It is in your interest as well as ours that that war is won as rapidly as possible, long before the United States slides into any temptation to resort to total war.

After that victory, things may improve. As I have mentioned above, there is a great deal more conversation among Americans than used to be about foreign affairs in general and about wrongs committed against the Arabs in particular. You have seen some evidence of this in President Bush's own words about Palestine. American elite opinion is now fluid – and quite receptive to arguments that a substantial rethinking of American policies in the Mid East is long overdue. You can help in that reshaping; indeed you must. But to squeeze any durable gain from the present situation, you must help us eliminate Al Qaeda, as quickly as possible.

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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The Struggle Over War Aims
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Why They Hate Us
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Why Many Arabs Hate America
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War Fever
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Right is Still Right
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A Real Plan for the Mideast
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A Just Mideast Peace
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The Arab Vote
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Pat Smears
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An American Quebec
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Authoritarian Liberalism on the March
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The New Peaceniks
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