Putting terrorism in context


In 1956, Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev told America, “We will bury you.” On Monday, more than 40 years later, his son Sergei gave Harvard Law School some historical advice about terrorism, as well as some perspective on his homeland.

“The success of foreign policy is measured in the creation of friends, not in enemies defeated,” Khruschev told a crowd of about 50 in Austin North. While not directly criticizing the current direction of the war on terrorism, Khruschev called for a balanced U.S. foreign policy that added more diplomacy and negotiation to proposed military action.

Before we can fight terror, Khruschev said, we must first understand its history and its methods.

“How can you defeat something you don’t know?” he asked. “It’s like believing you’ll pass exams without knowing the subjects.”

Khruschev began by examining terrorism in Russia, from the assassination of several czars in the 19th century to the Russian Revolution in 1917. He also drew an interesting parallel to the American Revolution, saying: “To Britain, Sam Adams was a public enemy, an outlaw and a rebel — the equivalent of a terrorist. He believed revolution was in the hearts and minds of the people.”

He described the 18th century roots of the Chechen conflict as well, noting the parallels to the U.S. war in Afghanistan. When Chechen rebels first precipitated new violence by bombing two apartment buildings in Moscow in 1999, Russian President Vladimir Putin was “a nobody.” But after waging war against the “evil” Chechen rebels, Putin’s popularity surged past 80 percent — much like that of President Bush. Since then, the situation has escalated to unimaginable degrees, with over 3,000 Russian soldiers killed and an inestimable number of innocent Chechens killed. Though he said that, “I’m not a politician,” he argued that some method of negotiation — with as many factions as possible — was the only route out of Russia’s current mess.

Today’s war in Afgh-anistan also has its roots in Russian foreign policy. According to Khruschev, the Soviet Union under his father tried to maintain a friendly relationship with Afghanistan, which he described as “a good neighbor.” But after a series of assassinations and takeovers by extremist groups within the country, the Soviet Union decided to get involved. Like the current U.S. operation, Khruschev noted that the Soviet mission began with small special forces units reinforcing rebelling Afghan factions. Eventually, the operation became “a Russian Vietnam,” resulting in the death of 15,000 Soviets and more than a million Afghans.

“It was not a war of ideologies,” Khruschev said, “but a popular rejection of a different culture.” Afghans did not care about communism or even the Soviets’ ultimate objective, he said — they simply wanted the foreign power out of their country.

Still, Khruschev stopped well short of condemning the war on terrorism. Instead, he offered suggestions for containing the scope of the conflict while still ending the reign of terror inaugurated by Osama bin Laden.

“We have to fight the war on terrorism,” he said, “but we have to fight, find and punish the terrorists that created exactly this terrorist act. Don’t punish people who are easy to punish — punish those who are guilty.”

Khruschev suggested strengthening diplomatic ties with moderate factions and trying to use those ties to mediate between more extreme groups. He frowned upon a widespread campaign against many nations, noting that, “If we take over Iraq, then we have to feed those people. If we take over Iran, then we have to feed 80 million Iranians, and more, and more and more. Or, without our support, the people of these nations will become even more hostile.” Instead, he said, “try to create peace with Iraq, Iran and Libya. It’s much easier and cheaper than war.”

While a majority of Khruschev’s speech focused on terrorism, he spent some time discussing missile defense. A former nuclear scientist, Khruschev said that creating an effective anti-ballistic missile system is “impossible,” describing it as “an umbrella full of holes.”

Khruschev has written two books about his father’s era and has another work coming out soon. His speech was sponsored by the Harvard Law Forum.

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