Ever since the Paris attacks and the San Bernardino shootings, I’ve been thinking more and more about the Middle Eastern enmity toward the West. It’s a story many Americans seem to be unaware of. The problem can be traced back to the West’s post-World War I partitioning of the Ottoman Empire with no thought given to the feelings of the people who regarded this area as their home.
The goal of the West even then was to control oil resources.
By the time of the Cold War, America’s political support was granted to whichever strongmen rulers in the newly created states aligned themselves with our interests. One of those dictators was Saddam Hussein, whom we backed financially and militarily, even when he gassed his own people. Opposition and terror groups rose to oppose both Saddam Hussein and other governments across the Middle East and North Africa. We’ve all heard about al-Qaida, Hezbollah, Boko Haram, the Taliban, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, just to name a few.
So far though, Americans have largely been disconnected from the horrific actions these groups have perpetrated to advance their causes. Terrorism, for most of us, is something that happens in other places. But now there is ISIS, and it has done something that no other organization has managed to do since 9-11. They’ve become effective enough to actually frighten us.
Certainly, we have sufficient cause to take action against these fanatics whose aim is not to see justice done in their homelands but, rather, to eventually impose their own perverted brand of religion on the rest of humanity. But the question we must ask ourselves is how to deal with them in a way that won’t simply create reinforcements for their cause. We cannot afford the luxury of fear-based responses, for our fear is precisely what plays into their hands.
There are military and economic actions that we can effectively employ but, as with all ideologically driven violence, the primary way ISIS can be eventually marginalized is for us to win the hearts and minds of the populations supporting its terrorism. There are simply no quick fixes, and one of the first steps in meeting the jihadist mentality head-on is for us to acknowledge the extent of America’s role in creating this problem.
Case in point: The State of the Union Address on Jan. 23, 1980, proclaimed the Carter Doctrine, stating that the United States would use military force if necessary to defend its national interests in the Persian Gulf. Americans, it seemed, would be willing to go to war for assurances that we could tank up whenever we wanted to.
Fast-forward to 1990, when George H.W. Bush’s administration practically assured Iraq that we wouldn’t get involved if they invaded Kuwait. Then, once Saddam moved in, H.W. declared war. The U.S. won a rapid victory, then stepped back. But not until we had established a string of “temporary” military bases, stretching from oil pipelines on the Arabian Peninsula up to the natural gas deposits near the Caspian Sea. From the viewpoint of several militant organizations, the U.S. was an invading force, and they hated us for being there.
Not long after, the Clinton administration enforced an embargo on Iraq — including on food and medical supplies. Thousands of civilian deaths occurred, a great many of them children. Then came 9-11, which George W. Bush and his cronies disingenuously blamed on Saddam Hussein, and the American public bought this lie — at a huge price. Aside from the blood and treasure we squandered, we destabilized the region and earned an increased enmity toward our country by so many people whose lives were shattered by our ham-fisted “shock and awe” tactics. The documented Iraqi civilian death toll since our 2003 invasion is 165,000 persons — huge numbers of whom were children. That’s 165,000 people slaughtered by an unnecessary war — a war manufactured by U.S. politicians out of the whole cloth of lies and politically stoked paranoia.
Now there are calls to take the fight to ISIS, but what that struggle would look like is not very clear. Its leaders will not be overcome by Western armies engaging in yet another major conflict on Middle Eastern soil. It certainly will not be defeated by calls to close American mosques, register Muslims or ban them from entering this country. That kind of paranoid rhetoric only serves the cause of terrorist recruiters.
If we give way to fear, if we become a country divided against ourselves, if we marginalize anyone who looks or prays differently than the majority of us, then ISIS trumps America. We may call for coalition of Mideast nations to fight this common enemy but, until we find solutions to the problems created by the forced partitioning of native homelands a century ago, the prospects for such cooperation seem dim.
Ultimately, we must recognize that until we get serious about shifting the world market away from oil-based energy, our interests will continue to embroil us in Middle Eastern affairs. Unless we are willing to get serious about developing renewable energy sources, our sense of security will remain elusive.
Tony Marconi of Delaware is a retired teacher and a longtime social justice advocate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.