It is time that America rethinks how it defines and approaches terrorism at it relates to its national security and interests. Terrorism is generally understood to be the intentional use of violence against civilian populations to achieve political goals. Today’s political approach to terrorism is all encompassing: any state, semi – state, or non – state actor that has engaged in asymmetric violence against America or its allies is a de – facto terrorist. While noble in its goals, such a wide view and definition of terrorism as it relates to U.S national security interests is actually counterproductive.
This overly large view of terrorism causes America to become overextended and overinvolved, often in a manner that is detrimental to many people in the world and to America’s future security, and leaves America unable to focus more directly on the actual terrorism that threatens American lives and interests.
America’s conflicts in the Middle East offer a prime example of the wide view of terrorism gone awry. On 9/11, America suffered the worst terrorist attack in its history. The damage was clear and the evidence was equally so. Al – Qaeda was undoubtedly responsible and took pride in admitting it. The Taliban would not give up Al – Qaeda leaders. The mission should have been clear: capture or destroy Al – Qaeda’s leadership and infrastructure. Do the same wherever the Taliban became a hindrance to that task. Instead, America embarked on an ill – defined war against terrorism in general. This meant that any and all terrorists had to be aggressively countered. Practically speaking, all actors that had ever lifted a violent finger in an asymmetrical manner against the America or its allies were game for military action or sanctions, regardless of their very different contexts.
This all – encompassing view of terrorism combined with America’s wide range of allies meant that many of the world’s regional and civil conflicts immediately became America’s conflicts, even though the only group responsible for 9/11 was Al – Qaeda, and to some extent the Taliban. Drift quickly became apparent in President George W Bush’s, “Axis of Evil,” speech. Three countries; Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, that had no relation to the attack on 9/11 were immediately cast as the supply chain of terrorism. Interestingly enough, the only two countries that could really said to be in the supply chain of 9/11 were Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Yet, little attention was paid to either of those two countries. Also of note at the time, the 2nd. Palestinian Intifada was going on in Israel.
Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Israel are all allies. And in both the case of Saudi Arabia and Israel, their conflicts became American conflicts and their terrorist enemies became American terrorist enemies, even if indirectly, but it was enough to distract America from the primary goal of defending itself and defeating Al – Qaeda with finality.
It may sound good to say that, “We are all in this together,” but the reality is quite different. Conflict in the Middle East is not comparable to WWII where many very different actors were solidly unified against one enemy.
Saudi Arabia has simply been playing a regional power game against Shiite rivals, namely Iran. And there is no evidence that Saudi Arabian influence in the Middle East or throughout the Islamic world is more in the American interest than having Iran’s influence be dominant. While Iran certainly has a harsh government, it does not appear to be any more harsh or fanatical than Saudi Arabia’s. More importantly, Iranian officials are not funding or supplying terrorists that are intentionally and repeatedly killing American civilians. Iran has fought against American political and military interests at times, but this is more comparable to insurgency warfare that the Viet Cong might have engaged in against America. It is more for regional political and military goals, even if Iran’s rhetoric is often dressed in religious terms. All the evidence points to this being the case. In either case, America should not be involved in regional conflicts dressed as a fight against terrorism because it is not, and doing so only bogs America down in conflict that is not in its interest.
In Israel’s case, it is fighting over what is plainly a territorial dispute. Yes, some Palestinians have engaged in acts of terror against Israel. There can be no disputing that. However, the international community, including America, acknowledges that Israel is taking and settling land that does not belong to it. Terrorism is not the right answer, but one cannot expect there to be no reactions or even peaceful reactions. Historically, people become violent when their land or homes are taken from them. This is why Israel’s fight against terror is absolutely not the same as America’s. America is fighting a radical and small minority of Wahhabi inspired terrorists, whose goals can only be described as apocalyptical, and to which the vast majority of the Muslim world is totally unsympathetic to. Israel is fighting over land with Palestinians in a fight that the vast majority of the Muslim world, and increasingly the world at large, is sympathetic to the Palestinian side. (That does not mean that the world condones the killing of Israeli civilians. They do not. They are however, sympathetic to Palestinian grievances. They are not sympathetic or understanding of Al – Qaeda’s grievances.)
Because of the sympathy that the Palestinian cause inspires in the Muslim world, countries like Lebanon, Syria, and Iran have often supported the Palestinians in an asymmetrical manner. And because Israel is a close American ally, their terrorist enemies become American terrorist enemies.
The wide ranging definition of terrorism does not just lead to American military overextension in fighting the conflicts of allies in the Middle East. It also puts America in oft difficult diplomatic positions where it must expend a tremendous amount of international political capital at the expense of relationships with other allies, whom are more numerous and important than allies in the Middle East in the long term. Neither of these outcomes serve American interests.
Saying that America has no interest in resolving some of the bigger conflicts and fault lines in the Middle East would be false. It is too late to think that it does not because at this point America’s fingerprints of involvement are everywhere in the Middle East. One cannot break an object in a store and just walk out. There has to be resolution, but that resolution cannot come in the, “all terrorism is equal,” format that is given to America by its allies in the Middle East. Regional conflicts cannot be allowed to morph into a fight against terror. Such a format will lead to America fighting perpetual war in the Middle East, that it is unable to win, but will leave many broken pieces and instability, thereby making the next wave of terrorism more likely, not less likely.