Foreign engagement got us here


It has now become something of a cliché to say that what happened in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001 was at turns unprecedented or predictable. I submit that it was both.

Dave Min, my foil in this bi-weekly column for the RECORD, and I have agreed to discuss the relative wisdom of American “engagement” in local struggles abroad, at least for the past 10 years or so. The point, while interesting, may now be moot; the United States is now probably forever locked into committed foreign involvement for the sake of its own defense. That’s exactly what is unprecedented about the World Trade Center attack — for the first time America has suffered massive casualties from a foreign attack within its own borders. The U.S.’s foreign entanglements of the last decade weren’t nearly so pressing. The luxury of having an empire is the ability to fight a war without a risking the homeland. That’s a luxury we will probably never again enjoy.

As an aside, my foil Mr. Min has chosen to decry the global hegemony of Starbucks, Coca-Cola and Levi’s and fingers global corporate capitalism as the cause for last Tuesday’s attacks. While I find global corporate capitalism at best distasteful and at worst an insidious threat to sovereignty, liberty and those traditional values that make our society worth preserving, I fear Mr. Min misses the point. A Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Bangladesh may not make many new friends for the U.S., but I doubt any of that is as infuriating to militants abroad as what I’ll describe anon.

To start with the beginning of the ’90s, there’s the proud legacy of the U.S.’s defeat of Iraq in the Gulf War. To be sure, Saddam Hussein is a viscious dictator who is prone to torturing, killing and terrifying his own citizens. His humbling defeat at our hands, however, has left him in power to continue doing whatever bad things he was doing before, at least as long he doesn’t invade any more oil-rich countries. In the meantime, the civilians of Iraq starve and die under U.N.-imposed trade embargoes. The military might of the U.S., and its readiness and willingness to make its way in far-off countries stood self-evident.

Later on, we bombed Serbia. Then we bombed Kosovo. Neither of those attacks eliminated any threats to the national security of the U.S. They did, however, make it clear that we were willing to bomb the hell out of places that have been embroiled in ethnic struggles for centuries when we decided once and for all how things ought to be. This has happened before. After World War I, Europe and the U.S. parceled out the former Ottoman Empire into “spheres of influence” by drawing weird maps all over the Middle East that had little basis in reality. Many of the problems in Eastern Europe and the Middle East can be traced to that boondoggle. And then there was that Treaty of Versailles: more foreign meddling that helped Hitler come to power. Anyway …

There is also Israel. Many people in the Middle East are dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state of Israel. Personally, I’m not. Israel should remain, but I admit that’s not the easiest position to justify without revealed authority. Even more people believe U.S. support is the “but-for” cause of Israel’s survival. Whether or not that’s the case, our continued support for Israel’s colonization of its Palestinian frontiers probably doesn’t impress your average Palestinian or his supporters in other countries.

It doesn’t matter now. Should we retaliate against those individuals who planned and executed this terrible attack on our own soil? Absolutely, hopefully with swift and forceful justice. But if we’re at war, what about the U.S.S. Cole? Isn’t an attack on a U.S. Navy ship tantamount to an act of war? Inexplicably (perhaps) the Clinton administration did, well, next to nothing in response to that attack. Certainly, at the time no one advocated the wholesale bombing of Afghan-istan (ask Gorbachev about the wisdom of that strategy). Something certainly must be done, but the American people should think long and hard about sacrificing their own soldiers, and maybe more civilians, by getting further enmeshed in insoluble local conflicts abroad. We can try to take a hard line by invading countries that “harbor” terrorists, terrifying the people of those countries so much that they’ll have no choice but to submit to a U.S.-approved regime. That’s what empires have always done, after all.

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