The Ties That Blind
Foreign policy experts at MIIS talk about the United States, the Middle East and the evolving craft of terrorism.
Thursday, September 13, 2001
On Tuesday, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Amin Tarzi hung up a poster of New York City in his office window. Like many other researchers at the Monterey Institute for International Studies, Tarzi divided much of his time that day between giving interviews to reporters from all over the country, watching footage of the wreckage, listening to coverage, and scouring the Web for the latest news.
For Tarzi, none of that could happen before he called his family members in New York, where he lived for 20 years, to find out if everyone was safe. They were, but even so, he is grieving and, whether or not by design, dressed entirely in black.
"I used to work in that building," he says, standing in the hallway and pointing to the North Tower on the poster. "I was selling luggage on the first floor. New York was my home."
Tarzi is now an expert on the Middle East at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, and one gets the sense from talking to him that his knowledge is not only extensive but well catalogued. As of press time, no one had claimed responsibility for the attack, and numerous nations and most Arab groups had either denied or condemned it. Osama bin Laden''s name had surfaced repeatedly in press reports as a suspect (he has reportedly denied responsibility), and while Tarzi is not declaring bin Laden the culprit, he says the Saudi-born millionaire and self-appointed defender of Islam has plenty of motives, many of them shared by other Arabs. Tarzi lists a great many grievances that the Arab world has against the United States: its support of Israel in the conflict with Palestine, the United States'' war of attrition against Iraq, and its generally murky policy in the Middle East. And, of course, bin Laden has long been believed to have bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, as well as the U.S.S. Cole last October.
"I don''t know who did it," Tarzi says. "[But] It has [bin Laden''s] marks on it--it could be him. It could be him with state sponsorship.
"Osama is the only person we know of who has threatened Americans openly not once, but several times." (The last declaration came in June, when bin Laden told a Middle Eastern Broadcast Corporation reporter that "severe blows" were to be "expected against U.S. and Israeli interests worldwide.")
Tarzi points out that tensions have been mounting throughout the Arab world in recent months. He picks up a printout from the Arab News, "Saudi Arabia''s First English Newspaper," and reads aloud from a story dated Sept. 11.
"Frustration is growing in Saudi Arabia with Washington''s blind support for Israel..." He reads on, highlighting notable developments. The Saudis have for the second time this year canceled a visit to the United States, and Saudi newspapers have been harshly criticizing the United States recently for standing by and tacitly approving Israeli actions against Palestinians. This behavior, Tarzi notes, has included repeated trespasses on Palestinian territory with tanks and American-made F-16 fighter planes.
One of these encroachments is, coincidentally or not, documented in Tuesday''s edition of the Arab News, along with other news of the kingdom, including a story teased as: "Youths whipped for harassment of girls." The story about the Israelis reveals the exacting nature of the resentment; the lead sentence details a "700-meter incursion into Palestinian territory" and describes injuries to a teenager and damages to Palestinian farmland.
In essence, says Tarzi, the Arab world is looking past Israeli soldiers to the "Made in USA" signs on their equipment, and interpreting every unfettered Israeli infringement as another insult from the US.
"The Arabs don''t see it anymore as a war between Israel and the Arabs," Tarzi says. "They see it as a war between the U.S. and Arabs."
Down the hall, Jason Pate, a boyish-looking expert on terrorism at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, is wolfing down a tuna sandwich. He figures he''s done 50 interviews already today and isn''t done yet.
"That it happened is not a surprise," he says. "Where it happened is not a surprise. The scale is a surprise. It reflects trends in terrorism toward mass-casualty spectaculars."
What sounds like a new aisle in the video store (some commentators have noted the horrifyingly "cinematic" quality of the attacks) is a category of terrorist assault in the tradition of the Lockerbie disaster and the U.S. embassy bombings of 1998. The method has Pate and other terrorism specialists worried.
"What concerns us is we''re forced to rethink how we deal with the threat of terrorism," he says. "In the past, terrorism hasn''t been a major U.S. problem. Oklahoma City, the [1993 bombing of the] World Trade Center--those made us aware of terrorism. But I believe the feeling persisted that we were still in the era of the truck bomb."
That''s irrevocably over now, he says. "There''s no way to protect a building from an attack like this one. There''s something about a plane flying into a building that''s really new."
"The danger right now is everyone wants to know who did it," says Bill Monning, director of the Project on Negotiation, Mediation and Conflict Resolution at MIIS. Monning won''t speculate about who might have done it or why, but he says that something can eventually be learned from the terrorist attack.
"It''s reprehensible," he says, "and yet it provokes the question, ''Why?'' When we get through the worst of this terrible tragedy, we have to evaluate how this happened.
"There is a great divide between the people who view America as the great bastion of democracy and people who view it as the greatest of all evils," he says, "so we must ask, what are the causes of that great chasm in perception of the U.S.?"
Tarzi may have some answers. The unevenness of recent American policy, he reports, has aggravated the Arabs. After President Clinton''s 11-day peace-brokering marathon at Camp David with Yasir Arafat and Ehud Barak last July, disappointment soon followed: Last September, hard-line Likud Party leader and Prime-Minister-to-be Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount, a sacred site near two treasured mosques on disputed land. Fighting broke out anew, and America did not intervene. After Sharon took over as prime minister, and Israel''s responses to Palestinian aggression became more and more forceful, America did nothing.
Arabs throughout the Mideast felt the Palestinians had been abandoned.
With President Bush''s election, Tarzi says perhaps some hoped for a continued effort at brokering peace. If they did, they were sorely disappointed. Bush''s policy on the Middle East has been laissez-faire at best. It''s as if nothing were happening.
"The moment the current Arab/Israeli conflict started," Tarzi says, "America disengaged. That was Clinton, not Bush. So it''s not only the policy of Bush. America disengaged, as they say, when the going got tough."
He also cites the United States'' sanctions against Iraq and the bombing of that nation as a cause of Arab hostilities. Our country''s inability to settle on a coherent policy regarding Iraq--even Secretary of State Colin Powell denounced U.S. policy as being in "disarray"--has resulted in death by malnutrition of many of Iraq''s most vulnerable citizens, and has exasperated even our closest Arab allies, who would prefer to see any definitive action implemented rather than the interminable (and ultimately ineffective) sanctions, Tarzi says.
And now that all the damage is done, he says, the United States must deal with the perpetrator accordingly. And this, he predicts, is where America will fail next.
He criticizes the United States'' military methods as inappropriately deployed and "too big"--"we want to drop bombs on Kosovo and then come home for lunch," he says. It just doesn''t work. That''s been proven before.
"In 1998, when Osama bombed the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, what was our reaction? We threw Tomahawks [missiles] at him," Tarzi says. "He''s still there. We declared him Enemy No. One of America, but we never went after him. Our military is such that we cannot sustain casualties.
"However, this is war. This ain''t a terrorist attack. This is war. We can''t fight this war with Tomahawks. We have to engage with them on their level. We need to train special forces to get in there and fight them where it hurts; hurt their leadership. Because we''re not fighting a country."
Pate is more diplomatic. "Is this an act of war?" he asks rhetorically. "I don''t know. With a terrorist attack, retaliation becomes very complex. When you''re dealing with a subnational group, even if you have identifiable targets that can be blown up, it''s still happening inside another country."
In President Bush''s address on Tuesday night, he explicitly said that the United States would not distinguish between the terrorists responsible for the thousands of lives lost in New York and Washington, D.C. and "those who harbor them." This begins to get at an item on Tarzi''s list: the possibility that the terrorists are colluding with a nation. Part of this analysis comes from the sophistication of the attack and part from the fact that no one has claimed responsibility for the act.
"There are two times [terrorists] don''t claim responsibility," Tarzi says. "One is when they may know that military retaliation will be very, very harsh. Two is if there''s state sponsorship--and there may be state sponsorship."
Like Monning, Jason Pate blames a general perception of the U.S. for resentment abroad, not individual policy decisions. Though some may consider it no surprise that Tuesday morning''s sickening attack took place, Pate says, "It''s not that it''s ''no surprise'' because of U.S. foreign policy. It''s that it''s ''no surprise'' because so many people hate the United States."
In spite of Tuesday''s events, Pate says it''s important not to give free reign to fear and the reactionary desire to tighten security to a level that will one day feel very uncomfortable. "If we restrict our civil liberties we''re undermining our way of life, and that plays right into the hands of the terrorists, so what do you do?" he says. "I have friends in San Francisco and they called me this morning saying, ''Should I go in to work?'' I said, ''Absolutely.''"