Only Resolve is Respected
In the Arab world, only resolve is respected. Outrage can be generated against America by portraying America to the Arab masses as a bully. But to physically attack America (as happened on 9/11), or American interests abroad (as in the cases of the embassy bombings and the USS Cole), requires that America also be depicted as weak and vulnerable. It is this perception of America, in the eyes of the Arab world, that represents the greatest threat to Western civilization because Arab misperceptions about America have led to wars.
Acts of terrorism are encouraged by the belief that America is essentially weak, vulnerable, and capable of being brought to its knees by a high body-bag count before it has achieved its strategic objectives. It has been this perceived softness that has encouraged terrorists like al Qaeda and rogue nations like Iraq, Iran and Syria to act against America and American interests abroad. In the Middle Eastern mindset, it is fatal for any nation to be perceived as weak and vulnerable.
And, in many ways, our actions and reactions have led to their perceptions. The explosion of Islamic terror and the threats of mass destruction from an Iraqi tyrant armed with nuclear or biological weapons could have been prevented.
For example, in the 90s, the decade of denial, hesitation and prevarication, U.S. foreign policy consisted of Bill Clinton desperately seeking a legacy, running America by opinion polls, sending cruise missiles to blow up empty tents in the Afghan desert, signing agreements with dictators based on the belief that America would be "safe," and seeing attacks and provocations as nothing more than a series of separate and unrelated criminal acts rather than as a sustain organized military assault on America.
The assumption in those days, according to Claudia Rosett writing in the Wall Street Journal recently, was that what we didnt acknowledge, really couldnt hurt us. As long as we got dictators to sign on the dotted line, wed be safe......protected by the paperwork that said so. Decisions to use force were avoided to prevent a confrontation with the Arab and Islamic world, and also in the naive hope that these threats would simply disappear.
As a consequence, America focused on the arrest and trial of the criminals, protecting buildings rather than tracking down the terrorists and neutralizing their funders, planners, organizers and commanders. Worse, America relied on metal detectors, security guards, electronic surveillance and trials rather than ships, aircraft, soldiers and human intelligence. America studied the acts of terror as distinct from the ideology of the terrorist. It failed to recognize that the cumulative effect of these acts against America and American interests abroad were part of a sustained assault on this country. And our enemies perceived this as American vulnerability.
The result was inevitable.
This policy of "self-deception" led to the monstrous growth of al Qaeda, the naive Oil-for-Food shell-game with Iraq, the Oslo Accords, and the 1994 "Agreed Framework" with North Korea whereby America proclaimed peace on the Korean peninsula in return for allowing North Korea (a soon-to-be-member of the Axis of Evil) food, oil and the wiggle-room necessary to continue making (and marketing) missiles, chemical and biological weapons, and ultimately, its own nuclear weapon.
The North Korean fiasco was not the only attempt during the Clinton era at what Charles Krauthammer refers to as "paper diplomacy." The bloodiest farce was the Oslo "peace" Accords between Israel and the Palestinians. President Clinton insisted that it be signed on the White House lawn under his upraised arms. He then spent the next seven years brokering one new agreement after another while declaring the peace "irreversible." He knew it was so because Yasser Arafat had promised - in writing - an end to violence and terrorism. Then Arafat decided to start up the violence and terrorism in September 2000, bringing on the worst Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed in decades and leaving the Clinton "paper-pushers" surprised.
The absurd UN-run Oil-for-Food program with Iraq was another piece of paper based on the false assumption that Saddam Hussein would respect the written rules crafted by the worlds most hapless bureaucracy - the UN. Needless to say, he didnt respect the rules, used Syria and Iran to bypass them, and now, he too is on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons.
For too long, America has deluded itself into a false sense of security based upon the written word of dictators, and this delusion has lead to the Arab perception of American weakness. Written agreements didn't work well with Hitler or Mussolini and they still don't.
Unfortunately, the Oil-for-Food program, the Oslo Accords and the Korean Agreed Framework were not isolated incidents. The Arab states and al Qaeda took cognizance of the fact that the U.S., in the past, also failed to respond aggressively to many terrorist attacks against its own citizens in Beirut, in Tanzania, in Kenya and in Somalia; stood by while Americans were seized as hostages in Iran and Lebanon; let Saddam Hussein remain in power after the Gulf War (while letting the Shah fall in Iran); and pressured Israel, its ally, to make dangerous strategic concessions while simultaneously courting Israels enemies and allowing its prized Arab-Israeli peace process to be destroyed.
This policy also led the Chinese to conclude that the United States is a superpower in decline, losing economic, political and military influence around the world, according to the congressionally-mandated U.S.-China Security Review Commission. The Commission also noted that Chinese analysts believe that the United States cannot and will not sustain casualties in pursuit of its vital interests. That is, America is "soft."
And China is far from alone in holding this opinion. Americas perceived decline into weakness and its questionable staying power in pursuit of its strategic objectives has served as a call to arms to the monsters of the world.
Astute Middle Eastern observers have made much of the United States' post-Vietnam loathing for foreign adventures, and America's enemies have listened. In the 1970s, when many Iranians worried that American power would destroy their revolution if it went too far, Khomeini told them not to worry, saying America "won't do a damn thing." And as recently as 1998, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khomeini's successor, insisted there was no need to negotiate with the United States since Tehran had shown that Washington was too weak to be feared or heeded.
Far from attacking the United States because it is a big bully, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and others have urged attacks to prove that the United States was just a paper tiger. Barry Rubin, writing in the November-December issue of Foreign Affairs has noted that "not surprisingly, these same leaders have made it clear that, in their view, power (not popularity) is the most important factor for political success. As Syria's late president, Hafez al-Assad once noted, "It is more important to gain respect than to garner sympathy." Bin Laden has agreed, commenting that people always back the side that looks strongest. Western weakness in confronting Hitler, wrote Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Nizar Hamdoon, encouraged Nazi aggression (and presumably, that of Saddam Hussein as well)."
Even the process of placing "The Iraqi Resolution" before the UN has served to reinforce the Arab perception that America is weak - that America doesn't have the stomach to fight a bloody war with Iraq by itself, and so requires UN sanction and approval before it will commit its armies to battle - a dangerously incorrect perception, and one that will most assuredly lead to war.
Saddam Hussein has also tried to persuade Arabs and Muslims of U.S. weakness. He interpreted U.S. efforts at conciliation as "proof" that Washington feared confronting him. By evincing no strong reaction to Iraq's use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, threats against Israel, outspoken anti-Americanism, or ultimatum to Kuwait, U.S. policy helped precipitate the first Gulf War. In a February 24, 1990, speech to an Arab summit, Saddam told Arabs that America feared military confrontations and losses. It had shown "signs of fatigue, frustration, and hesitation" in Vietnam and Iran and had quickly run away from Lebanon" when some marines were killed" by suicide bombers in 1983. Experience had shown, he concluded, that if Iraq acted boldly, the United States would do nothing - a classical example of "misperception leading to war," and the primary reason why Iraq must be disarmed before it acquires nuclear capability.
Saddam may have been wrong in thinking that he could take over Kuwait and that America would stand by and do nothing, but he was right enough in his judgement of America to still be in power today, a decade after making what should have been his final miscalculation of "American weakness."
Radical Islamists, including Osama bin Laden, spoke in remarkably similar terms in the 1990s, arguing that direct strikes against U.S. interests or territory would be met by American cowardice and trigger an Islamic revolution. After all, he said, the mujahadeen had defeated the worlds other superpower in Afghanistan, and America would be a much easier victory. Even the U.S. defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan has not changed that perception.
So when a neophyte American President stands up (after the tragedies of September 11th) and proclaims an end to moral ambiguity, holds states responsible for the terrorists they sponsor, asserts a right of pre-emptive action, and assimilates Israels war against terrorism into its own, it comes as no surprise that the Arab world shrugs its shoulders and chalks it all up to American rhetoric.
Unfortunately, America has never considered how her actions (and reactions) are being perceived from the Arab perspective. The cultural differences between our societies allow the Arab world to see our efforts at "peace making" as "another aspect of weakness and vulnerability."
So what should Washington do in the face of this Arab "perception" problem?
Answer - forget friendly persuasion, concessions and written accords when dealing with terrorists and dictatorships like Iraq, Iran and Syria. Making concessions will only encourage further contempt for America and confirm the Arab perception of us as "cowards."
U.S. policymakers should understand that American public relations efforts, apologies, acts of appeasement, concessions, compromises resulting in "written agreements," attempts to build UN coalitions, or policy shifts will not do away with anti-American hatred. Only when the Arab regimes that manufacture and encourage this hatred are deposed will popular opinion change. Until then, promoting hatred of America will remain a necessary diversion for despots and dictators. Only when Arab women are empowered, only when the Arab masses are educated, and only when Arab society is democratized will changes come about.
In the interim, the United States must show steadfast support for its interests and its allies, and must be firm in following the Bush Doctrine. Our enemies must be convinced that democracy, while slow to anger is relentless when angered. The time for negotiating with Iraq over disarmament has long since passed. If America means business, then let's get on with it. If America wishes to change its perception as "coward" in the eyes of its enemies, it had better stand by Israel, defend its interests abroad, react swiftly and strongly to provocations and attacks, and urge moderate Arab states to do more publicly to justify American support. That is, either reform your systems, or make way for the reformers who will.
We must recognize that we are involved in World War III in a war against the new totalitarians, who strike at our businesses, our discos, our airports and our theaters in an attempt to bring us to our knees, and force us back into pre-World War I isolationism.
In the 21st century, America will have to bury its Vietnam Syndrome and be prepared to fight the wars that must be fought at all costs, if it is to remain a credible and respected world power. If it does not, if it allows the gradual negation of our sovereignty through American inaction (or insufficient reaction to attacks and provocations), a neo-isolationist mainstream will develop in this country, and America will no longer have an opportunity to dramatically alter the course of world events as it has today.
It means a paradigm shift in our thinking leaving the domain of criminality and law enforcement-based tactics of arrests and detentions of Qaeda suspects and moving into the domain of warfare; targeting not just the foot soldiers of violence, but the organizations and governments that shelter them; using force so that the punishment is disproportionately greater than the damage resulting from the attack; defending our interests through aggressive action rather than courtroom skirmishes; relying on the armed forces rather than on policemen; and most importantly, a readiness to spend money and lose lives in support of our vital interests at home and abroad.
In the past, tenacity, passion and determination to stay the course for the just cause won victory in World War II over the Nazis and the Empire of Japan, and today, it remains the best way to counteract Arab perceptions of American weakness...... and to avert future 9/11s.
Return to Archives Index