A Conflicted Activist Speaks Out
by Bernard Weiner
October 12, 2001

I am one of many deeply conflicted ex-activists who worked to stop the war on Vietnam but isn’t (at least as of October 10) quite sure how to act in the current situation.

Let’s get the bona fides out of the way first. In the 1960s and early-1970s, I was involved majorly in the anti-war movement, everything from Movement journalism, to organizing and addressing rallies and demos, to running draft dodgers across the border into Canada. I was threatened with arrest more than once, and I lost my college-teaching job because of my perceived “radicalism.”

But that was another time, another war. It was clear from the git-go that the war in Vietnam was immoral and doomed to failure in any case. (Even Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara admits that he knew as early as 1967 that the war was unwinnable.) The U.S. government was ignorant of Vietnamese history and culture, and was fighting a technological war for a long time against an invisible enemy of determined guerrillas fighting to expel the invaders. Le plus ca change...

Everything changed for all of us on September 11, 2001. The U.S. mainland itself was under attack from determined, clever, ideologically resolute guerrillas, eager and willing to die in their religious/political frenzy. Regardless of what one thinks of their political and policy complaints – and regardless of what one thinks of U.S. foreign policy over the decades that might have contributed to the climate that breeds terror – their crime against humanity and their single-minded determination to kill U.S. civilians wherever and however they can puts them beyond any pale of civilized behavior. These are very bad and dangerous people. They must be rooted out and dealt with.

So I applaud President Bush’s pushing the issue of terrorism to the top of the world’s agenda, and organizing a coalition to begin attacking the terror networks in a wide variety of ways: diplomatically (isolating states that may have harbored terrorists), financially (trying to dry up their money-laundering accounts), through police work here and abroad (rounding up suspects, collapsing cells planning further attacks), waging an educational/propaganda campaign to drum up moral support for the anti-terrorism campaign.

Where I, and perhaps many like me, grew more uneasy was with the U.S. rush to military action. I understand the desire to strike back relatively quickly – to throw the terrorists and their supporters into a disruption of normal patterns, to debilitate their assets, to assuage the U.S. population’s desire for retaliation, etc. – but I question the thinking behind that approach. (After all, it was President Bush from the very beginning who urged patience and said the campaign would take years; why the rush to the military option first? One can never put the toothpaste back in the tube.) And I wonder if the U.S. action, though it may yield short-term dividends, will come back to bite us badly in the long term.

For one thing, not only do we not have an exit strategy for this war, it appears we didn’t even have an entry strategy. We bomb for three or four days and then, say U.S. spokesmen, we’ll see what happens. In other words, other than bombing and putting ground troops in with no clear goals, it doesn’t seem as if we have much of a long-term strategy. We want to find and capture (or kill) the elusive bin Laden and his lieutenants, and we’d be happy if the Northern Alliance forces would topple the Taliban, but clearly we have nothing yet that is respectable and institutionally viable with which to replace the Taliban. And there’s no indication that we’re prepared for nation-building tasks in a post-Taliban Afghanistan. Instead, there are rumbles in the Bush administration about moving on to bombing Iraq and going after Saddam Hussein and his lieutenants.

We are leading a most fragile coalition that is ready to break apart at any moment. If civilian casualties in Afghanistan begin growing, and especially if we attack another Muslim country, the coalition will implode, with potentially horrendous consequences. Bin Laden and his friends and supporters around the Middle East/South Asia will have fodder for their fire that this whole U.S.-led operation is another “crusade” (Bush’s original term, remember) against Islam. (Remember the Italian prime minister’s racist remarks about Islam and how Christianity is far superior? No wonder Muslims are nervous.)

Pakistan’s leadership may be overthrown, and has anybody emphasized that Pakistan now has nuclear weapons? Do we want to contemplate what bin Laden and the Taliban and their allies might do with such nuclear missiles? Indonesia, the most populous Muslim state in the world, already politically shaky, could fall to fundamentalist extremists.

Meanwhile, off the geopolitical radar screen, what is China up to? While the U.S. is preoccupied with going after terrorists (and there are reports that China is moving Chinese troops near, or maybe even into Afghanistan), might China decide to engage in some major mischief of its own? (Even more disturbing possibility: In exchange for its anti-terrorism support, the U.S. seems to have given Russia carte blanche to do what it wants in Chechnya; might we have made a similiar, under-the-table deal with China in regard to Taiwan?)

Finally, the U.S. – from top governmental officials to ordinary American citizens – seem utterly focused on the terrorists we know, with virtually no attention being paid to the next generation of terrorists we don’t now know. In other words, we are forgetting to pay attention to finding a way to lower tensions in the Middle East. We know, if we think about it, that U.S. foreign/military policy has contributed to the growth of anti-U.S. sentiment in that explosive area of the world, even among Arabs and other Muslims who consider the terror attacks on the U.S. a major crime of horror. Should we not be thinking, even a little bit, about re-examining U.S. foreign policies that bring risk to our country?

It seems to me that this would make sense, but we’re in the usual American mode of trying to remove the irritant to our system and then getting “back to normal.” If we go that route, we will have to deal not only with the dangerous terrorists from The Base but with a whole new crop just waiting to join the Islamic extremists’ “jihad” against the U.S. and Western civilization in general. There is no “going back to normal”; we’d better get used to it: This IS normal for the foreseeable future. Bin Laden's network is so extremist/fundamentalist in its attitude that even if there were a just Israeli/Palestinian peace, he'd still be on his jihad against the U.S.; they've got to be stopped.

What am I referring to in terms of what the U.S. can do? Well, for starters, how about the U.S. becoming energizingly engaged in trying to broker a peace between Israel and the Palestinians – one that takes into account Israel’s desire for security and the Palestinians’ need for a contiguous state? How about re-thinking whether there’s another alternative to basing our troops in Saudi Arabia? How about weaning our economy and culture off Mideast oil (and I don’t mean opening up ANWAR in order that we can continue to drive gas-guzzling SUVs)? Etc. Etc.

In sum, if we truly want to move intelligently beyond this current war effort – assuming we can get through it without the Law of Unintended Consequences (Pakistan & nuclear weapons, China’s machinations, India& Pakistan going to war, something else unforeseen) bringing havoc to the world – we’ve got as citizens to become better educated as to history, geopolitics, and learn how everything ties together. And then let our political leaders know that we know.

So, having said all that, what are we conflicted ex-activists to do, given that we support the idea of closing up terrorist cells around the world, but are anxious, and have many questions, about U.S. war policies?

I can’t speak for others, but for me, I will continue raising these questions wherever I can – to my senators and congresspeople, in public dialogue in newspapers and on the internet, with my friends and colleagues and neighbors. I will try to remind folks that since the war genie has been let out of the bottle, the Law of Unintended Consequences dictates that more disasters lie awaiting. I will emphasize the need to re-examine U.S. foreign policy in the Mideast and elsewhere that may be creating the conditions that lead to hatred and resentment of America and Americans. I will try to ensure that the very civil liberties and freedoms that distinguish us from so much of the world not be overly compromised as we move more and more to a martial society. I will keep on keeping on, praying and working for justice and eventual peace.

Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., taught government and international relations at Western Washington University and at San Diego State University; he was with the San Francisco Chronicle for nearly two decades.

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