October 30, 2001

The Strategic Withdrawal Option

Contemplating whether the mail accumulating on the front hall table has picked up bio-pathogens during its transit through the New York City Post Office, I realize I'm getting awfully tired of this.

Last Sunday's New York Times contains a front-page story about the arrest of immigrants who got on the phone the morning of 9-11 to express their joy at the attacks. I don't know whether the government will obtain useful information from them, but the fact that there were apparently quite a few Middle Easterners here making such calls helps clarify what ought to be America's long term aims, after bin Laden is brought to justice.

So does the fact that, in order to keep informed, I've been compelled to read many articles about Wahhabis and Shiites and Sunnis, and sought to develop informed opinions about the internal politics of the Pashtuns and the prospect that Islam might some day experience its own version of the Protestant Reformation.

I'm game to make the effort, and believe that wise policies in the next months and years will require that a lot of Americans become more informed than they are.

But in truth, I'd rather spend the time deepening my knowledge of my own traditions, which is woefully deficient.

So how is this for a war aim? Create a world in which Americans can have (if they so choose) as little to do with Islam as they did in, say, 1950. Or 1900.

This would require an American military disengagement from the Gulf and indeed from the entire Mid East region. Some of our great friends the Saudi princes might be cut off from their lavish allowances and might even have to work for a living; the Iranians would wish us back; all the parties there could fight over who got to sell us the oil. Can't predict what would happen to Hosni Mubarak, but it would become more and more difficult for the Egyptian intelligentsia to blame the United States for everything. There would be no American troops in the what bin Laden calls the "land of the two mosques." Israel could decide whether to make peace with its neighbors or continue to dig a hole for itself as an isolated pariah state.

Immigration from the Muslim world would be stopped cold: it's simply too difficult to distinguish normal folks from people who, for whatever reason, take joy in our suffering or actually are trying to kill us.

That could be legislated easily enough by enacting restrictions on immigrants originating in countries with a terrorism problem, or where there exists a certain threshold of hostility to the United States.

If after thirty or forty years, something changes in the dynamic between Islam and the West, we could reconsider these policies.

One of the great blessings bestowed on the United States is its opportunity for strategic isolation. Protected by two oceans, and bordering two relatively peaceful states, it really can afford to pursue the policies recommended by the Founding Fathers: no entangling alliances, serve as a beacon of liberty, but generally mind its own business.

My proposal is not very different in spirit to the one increasingly bruited about in Israel – the separation or "build a fence" concept, recommended by several pro-Israeli columnists in this country. The difference, and what an important one it is, is that we are not occupying any Arab land and don't desire to. Our fences are already constructed by favorable geography.

Such a strategy would probably require building deeper relationships with Canada and Mexico, and perhaps even oil suppliers like Venezuela. That doesn't sound too difficult. If we wanted continued immigration (I favor some, though a good deal less) there are plenty of places to choose them from.

Immigration after all is entirely a choice for Americans to make. During the past generation, this country has sought (without any consultation with the American people) to define itself both as "the world's first universal nation" and as a benevolent hegemon, intruding militarily in foreign squabbles all over the world. Together those two notions, and the policies which flow from them, have brought us to the current, extremely unfavorable juncture.

Perhaps the fever in the Muslim world will soon pass, as it seems already to have in Iran; perhaps it will endure for centuries. Either way, it need not be a life and death matter for us. Returning to the condition where the internal politics of the Islamic world are an issue of little concern – the real status quo ante – should be our goal.

I recognize there is unfairness in my proposal. I have heard frequently both from American diplomats who have served in the Arab world and personally from Middle Easterners that, beneath much of the hostile rhetoric we hear, the United States really is a beacon of democracy and modernity to a great many Arabs; that to sever our ties to them would be an unwarranted blow; that Americans and Arabs have a lot to teach and learn from each other.

I have no good answer to such objections. They do, at present, seem dwarfed by the many layers of frustration, misunderstanding, and sheer hatred now passing back and forth between the Middle Eastern countries and my own, a hatred which can perhaps only be diminished after an extensive period of not having too much to do with one another.

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.

Previous columns on Antiwar.com

The Strategic Withdrawal Option

An Open Letter to Arab Readers

The Push for A Wider War

The Bushes and the Palestinians: Act 2

The Struggle Over War Aims

Why They Hate Us

Why Many Arabs Hate America

War Fever

Right is Still Right

Poor England

A Real Plan for the Mideast


A Just Mideast Peace

We're Not Humble

Ugly Again

The Arab Vote

Pat Smears

An American Quebec

Authoritarian Liberalism on the March

The New Peaceniks

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