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The limits of American resolve

October 12, 2001
The Iranian

This article was sent to iranian.com on September 16, 2001.

The other day, the Reverend Billy Graham was encouraging America's spirit to rise from the ashes of Tuesday's bombings and return to God and do God's work. As the television cameras panned the interior of the cathedral, I shut my eyes for a moment imagined a sermon being delivered by a prayer leader in a Mosque urging the believers into action for their God: I shuddered at the irrepressible conclusion that words so universally ecumenical in their soothing appeal can fuel also sectarian and denominational hatred. The "War", as the Bush Adminsitration has called it, may be against terrorism, but it is in effect the exordium or prelude to open warfare in proverbial political clash of civilizations, that is, an armed struggle between pluralistic secularism and Islamism or Islamic fundamentalism.

This morning's Sunday talk-shows were filled with images of U.S. government officials talking up the Big War against the Big Evil while cautioning that we do not become like the evil ones whom we are trying to punish, contain, and eventually eradicate. The notion of an "Immaculate Holy War" is an amusing one though. It worked in punishing Belgrade and bringing about the partitioning of Kosovo, but it did not work in Beirut or Somalia, where men not machines were required to get the job done. In Beirut, the Reagan Adminsitration cut bait and ran when the marine barracks were bombed. In Mogadishu, the Clinton Adminsitration was dealt such a paralyzing blow to the American ego that the adminsitration sat out passively as hundreds of thousands of people were consumed shortly thereafter by the Rwanda genocide.

On another channel, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency was extolling the resilience of the American people. No doubt about it. This country is resilient, a characteristic that is born, in my opinion, not from some genetic predisposition to be like rubber but because people in this country have things to do, places to go, and cannot dwell too long on one thing, no matter how tragic. In any other part of the world last Tuesday -- September 11, 2001 -- would have acquired immediately a historically significant name like "Black Tuesday." The only time in my lifetime that such shorthand was exercised was the day the stock market crashed in the late 1980s. When it comes to money, capital and finance, there is no kidding around. When the Arab kamikazes attacked Wall Street the other day, they attacked everybody's money, which may be the reason why so quickly the governments in the capitalist world are lining up to take part in the antiterror coalition.

There is vice in the virtue of resilience, in that what allows this nation to bounce back from tragedy also causes it to become forgetful and consequently ignorant of historical lessons, not to mention becoming exceedingly forgiving in the long run. One lesson consistently lost on this country is the lack of staying power on the part of this nation to see anything through to its desired and logical conclusion, time and time again. "Resolve", a word that we have heard all too often these days, dissipates quickly in this nation. Surely President Bush is resolute -- a quality that is evidence by his cold-turkey bout against alcohol abuse. He is determined, and he is purposeful. But neither of these attributes translates into seeing something through to the end. He has reassured an anxious nation that resources will be thrown at this problem, but also said that it will take a long time for us to get this job done. This is where neither he nor anyone else in this country can ensure continuity and seeing that the enterprise is seen through completely.

The last time this country saw any foreign venture through to the end it was during World War II. We helped defeat Germany and Japan and for ideological reasons having to do with containment of communism and Soviet aggressin, we poured money and effort in the reconstruction of our former enemies, leaving democracies behind. Much of the groundwork for that was done by Franklin Roosevelt's Adminsitration at a time when presidents could hold office longer than two-terms. In my opinion, the four-year presidential term, the constitutional amendment that limits the presidency to two-terms, and the ever-so-increasing trunover in a diplomatic service takeover by spoil-system appointments, have sounded the death knell of continuity in American foreign policy. Since the time of FDR we have fared lousy in any of our foreign ventures that required staying power to complete.

The Korean War was a draw, we neither prevailed nor were forced to retreat completely with our tail between our legs. The next great American military venture that went sour was the Bay of Pigs, which sought to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba. Surely the officials of the outgoing Eisenhower adminsitration too had much resolve and resources earmarked for the operation; President Kennedy may have thought of the idea as hare-brained but gave it his approval to proceed. That was in 1961. Forty years later and the tyrannical Fidel Castro is still in power and has offered to send doctors to the United States in order to help in the recovery and rescue of victims of terrorism.

In Vietnam, the United States was defeated by a people with a lot less resources but a lot more resolve. At the height of the conflict, this country had 500,000 troops on the ground and showered bombs and defoliant on the enemy day and night. The national resolve was running high, but then it was gone in a matter of a proverbial blink of an eye like the puff of smoke from a hurried joint. As opposition grew steady against the war, the Nixon Adminsitration sought to ensure its reelection by assuring the nation that it was going to seek "peace with honor." Peace was signed and the boys and girls in uniform came back, mobilization was canceled, and compulsory military service was scrapped. The North soon invaded the South and the leaders of that beleaguered country pondered the intention of Messrs. Nixon and Kissinger who had assured them in writing of American support if the North did not abide by the Paris Peace Accords. This country's resilience soon forgot the horror of 50,000 dead and thousands injured in Vietnam; many went back to visit Vietnam and President Clinton normalized relations with this former enemy.

The fall of the Shah in 1979 and the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini's fundamentalist Islamic government in Iran produced their own share of headaches and heartaches for the Carter Adminsitration. It also worried the Soviet Union because such a spread of political Islam could claim some of its Central Asian republics. Meanwhile the geniuses at the Carter roundtable decided that America should contain the Soviet Union by encouraging a Moslem belt along its southern flank. The Soviets sensing that general unrest in Afghanistan was assuming Islamic overtones, invaded the country. The pundits in Washington likened the Soviet Afghan adventure to the American folly in Vietnam, and the comparison became reality as the Soviets too got bogged down. The American intelligence operations reinforced the Afghan Mujahiddin forces and Amercian politicians began to refer to them as "freedom fighters." Fight, they did, and freedom from the Soviets they did achieve. Having helped create the monster that chased the Bear out of Afghanistan, America too packed up and left the freedom fighters to their own device, still armed with some of the super-sophisticated missiles that we had provided them.

This country failed to clean up Afghanistan after the Russians had left. A progressive blueprint for self-government was never produced for the war-torn Afghan people. The civil war there eventually led to the introduction of the Pakistani-based and Saudi-financed Taliban takeover of Kabul. Had we had staying power we could have left a country behind that would not produce the likes of Taliban or harbor the likes of Osma bin Laden. We did not.

George Bush Sr.'s finest hour was when he managed to assemble an international coalition against Saddam Hossein and deliver on his promise that this man's aggression against tiny Kuwait would not stand. It was time for the American resolve to make the world safe for the American oil companies. Having grossly underestimated the Iraqi military power, the former Bush Adminsitration also called openly for Shi'ites in the south and Kurds in the north too to rise internally against Saddam Hossein. When the American guns fell silent, Saddam's army moved against the naive Kurds and Shi'ites and massacred them. The Bush Sr. had freed Kuwait but did not have the staying power to finish the job. That was in 1991, perhaps out of concern for what overbearing adversity could do his chances of reelection. Regardless, this is 2001 and the United States is still content with having Saddam in a box, while the American tax-payer-funded overflights keep vigil over Iraq's southern and northern no-fly zones.

Presently, President Bush is seeking to take the "War" against terrorism to its source. He has called this the first war of the new century. Okay. What he has not told the nation is for how long will he pursue this war and to what extent what he does abroad will be influenced by his desire to be reelected. This is a personal constraint on his penchant for action. There are also a myriad of institutional and other considerations that will limit his crusade.

Unlike the rancor that accompanied the previous war resolutions by the Congress during the Bush and Clinton administrations, Congress has this time given the White House a pass on the limits of the 1974 War Powers Act: the ability of the President to dabble in overseas military ventures. Time will tell if President Bush will use this newly acquired license and turn the dogs of war loose one day against the "freedom fighters" in Colombia or elsewhere by labelling them as "terrorist".

Less than two hundred years ago, the British empire arrived on the shores of the Persian Gulf to take out the Arab pirates, the hostem humani generis of their day. That expedition in order to bear fruit had to be accompanied by commitments on land, including treaty relations and other forms of political engagement and stewardship. Piracy was stamped out for good some twenty years later, but that presence had spun other reasons for the British to hang around. Even then, in 1971 Pax Britannica had to withdraw from there and elsewhere primarily for fiscal reasons. Already there is talk about how to finance Bush's antiterror venture, even though the Congress recklessly okayed the other day some $40 billion without much debate.

There are very few examples of a prolonged and costly presence overseas that grew out of simple police actions. The Americans know of Korea, where our military is still poised. We also know about the deployment of our armed forces in Europe and its cost over time. We also know about the cost that is associated with patrolling the Persian Gulf and Iraq. Can we undertake another big-budget item and then stay with it for as long as it takes, no matter the cost, to achieve peace and security at home by being ever so present abroad?

The duration of American resolve or staying power is also limited by the American propensity to lose focus. While this might not be the case with the policy makers and military personnel, but the public, the source of all that is legitimate in this country, is not so focussed. Has anyone heard about Gary Condit lately? Or the Israeli-Palestinian internecine quarrels?

The sheer futility of an operation is also another factor that quickly tires the American soul. The difficult terrain in Afghanistan, the ever-changing face of terrorists and terrorism, and the feeling that no matter what we do will not be enough to ensure our safety, will soon begin to erode the national resolve and focus. This morning, Vice President Cheney briefly digressed from his main themes in order to throw in a word about the dire need for missile defense, which the adminsitration is pushing as the prophylactic designed to spare us from the incoming missiles from rogue nations. Just as the country was not prepared for domestic airliners being hijacked by muscle, jujitsu, and small knives, I would think that all this talk about incoming missiles would lull the country from the threat of missiles being fired one day from backyards and overpasses.

Lastly, the single most important factor that tends to erode the American resolve when it comes to the fight against terrorism is the uncompromising value that we attach to the Bill of Rights, our civil liberties. In the past days alone, we have heard endlessly about how we cannot limit our civil liberties because that is what the terrorists would want us to do. "If we do that, then they win," we say. Nonsense. The terrorist does not give a hoot about what we do with our civil liberties other than without them he knows his actions or missions cannot be as successful. No, the terrorist wants our civil liberties to stay intact because it helps him to go and buy ammonia nitrate, guns and ammunition, and he can learn how to navigate a jumbo jets, avoid profiling, spend thousands in cash, openly worship, freely speak, not be questioned, travel, and watch and be inspired by Hollywood productions that give the impression that acts of grand terror can be done and how, almost as if we as a public expect them to happen. Without our civil liberties, McVeigh and Atta and their cohorts could not have been as successful.

President Bush has warned that any foreign government that sponsors, aids, abets, harbors, or tolerates terrorists and terrorism would be brought to account. I did not hear him say anything about his ire applying also to those who comfort the Irish Republican Army and other elements that the British government calls "terrorist". I digress. In most countries, such as in pre-revolutionary Iran, armed struggle at times becomes the only form of dissident political expression. The line that separates the political dissident from terrorist is often blurred. It is my fear that in the zeal to stamp out potential terrorists, foreign governments begin to take out their political dissidents more frequently and with greater prejudice. This will lead to greater totalitarian regimes, whose affiliation with the United States will create yet a nasty association in the mind of the next wave of malcontents who at some point will decide to take a swipe at the United States and its nationals.

By then our resolve would have dissipated yet again and we will be back at it again wondering what happened.


Guive Mirfendereski is a professorial lecturer in international relations and law and practices law in Massachusetts.

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