Alternative to Unending War

“Bin Laden’s objective,” I speculated to Hernando de Soto, Peru’s great author of The Other Path and now The Mystery of Capital, “is the expulsion of American interests from the Muslim world.”

“No, no,” he replied, “it’s more than that. He wants American interests out of the whole Third World.”

In this scenario, the pessimistic concern is not only that American businessmen, students, and tourists will fear to travel in any nation with a Muslim community. It could also mean disinvestment overseas, the further impoverishment of the developing world, de-globalization, a world depression, and police-state policies at home.

President Bush is under great Republican pressure to bomb other Arab nations, which would further isolate Washington. But in time, Europe and Russia will withdraw from “America’s war.” After all, they don’t have a dog in this fight. It’s only the U.S., not Europe, that is now so hated by so many millions of Muslims.

Perhaps Orwell should have titled his book 2004 rather than 1984. His scenario of surveillence technology, police power, and perpetual warfare are coming closer to reality. It is easier now to imagine American interests being expelled from many parts of the world, or, as likely, Washington choosing itself to return to the Western hemisphere. Europe/Russia could become another great power, and China/Japan the other, just as Orwell imagined.

The Perfect War

For big government we now have “The Perfect War,” everywhere and nowhere, secret and interminable.  The war will justify ever expanding police powers, higher taxes, and more controls over the citizenry.  You can see easily how Washington thrives on war.  Since Sept 11th, there have been no nasty challenges to government spending and waste, no tedious debates over things like social security “lockboxes,” nor “political” attacks upon the Presidency.  Congressmen and Think Tank experts get lots of TV time and most everyone jumps to obey government orders and support more regulations.  Any groups opposed to American military interventions overseas appear unpatriotic and are marginalized, while press covereage of the war is restricted, using the last Gulf War as a model.  Big Government, as Orwell wrote, thrives from unwinnable wars; it doesn’t get any better than this. 

Costs, just for homeland defense, are already estimated as high as $1.5 trillion over the next five years (Los Angeles Times, October 15, 2001). This is in addition to a military budget approaching $400 billion per year. Also, our growing security forces are very costly; an experienced FBI or Secret Service Agent makes $80,000–100,000 per year plus a good pension, often after just twenty years work. Costs for less qualified guards will rise astronomically.

New restrictions on capital movements, the end of liberal immigration policies, and curtailed trade may also herald the end of the golden era of economic growth in America. The boom of the last years came in part from technological innovations and the worldwide market for American goods and services. All this may come under increasing restrictions, mainly self-imposed by Congress, such as those brought about by World War I and the 1929 stock market crash.

For example, new laws allowing seizures for so-called money laundering may cause foreign banks to fear holding deposits in the U.S. One trade reprisal will lead to another. Meanwhile, more and more nations (currently some 65) will face American trade sanctions this time for not cooperating in the “War on Terrorism”; this will reinforce protectionists who will help push such legislation.

Fortune Magazine (October 15, 2001) draws a similar analogy, pointing out that world trade as a share of world output didn’t return to 1913 levels until 1970. It further explains, “A Fortress America mentality in security matters could spill into economic ones…a short hop from nationalism to protectionism…all sorts of parochial interests in the U.S. are much more likely to get the upper hand.” The effect on the economy will result in real declines in American living standards. Local governments will be raising taxes and directing budgets and resources to police, fire, and medical departments above all else. U.S. productivity will decline substantially.

As George Friedman, editor of, puts it in a cover story in Barron’s (September 14, 2002): “Wasteful spending on enhanced security, fattened transportation costs, and the abandonment of just-in-time inventory supply in favor of just-in-case redundancies, will play hob with New Era efficiency.”

The other great costs, beyond massive inconveniences, are the new restrictions on civil liberties. Particularly pernicious was a provision proposed for the  new anti-terrorism bill that allowed evidence from foreign courts, obtained by torture or threats against families, to be used in American courts, and other sleepers we don’t yet know about. The new law also apparently allows the unconstitutional provisions of the drug war—seizures of property without warrant or judicial action, for example—to be used equally in the war on terrorism.

War, once started, always has unforeseen consequences. For example, now the U.S. is responsible for Afghanistan’s starving millions as winter approaches. A famine was forecast even before the bombing, but we will now be held responsible. If hundreds of thousands die, as seems quite probable, America will again be blamed, as it is now for the half million Iraqi children dead since the U.S./UN blockade; more anti-American charges will rock the Muslim world.

Already, Washington is, for the first time, concerned that pro-American messages don’t get out to the Muslim world. It plans new radio programming, purchasing time on Arab TV, and so on. But it’s very late. The Financial Times (October 13, 2001) warns of the “readiness among ordinary Arabs to believe anyone…rather than listen to Washington.”  Further, the paper notes,  “For a long time after the Gulf war, the US assumed that its allies in the region—most of which are authoritarian regimes—could impose their views on their people. The error of this approach has become apparent… The plight of Iraqis…forced rulers to distance themselves from U.S policy… Pictures of rock-throwing Palestinian youths killed by sophisticated Israeli weaponry have fed anger towards U.S. policy.”

Can It Be Won? 

All of this will inevitably spawn a rethinking of American foreign policy (see my article, “America is Not Rome“).  For the U.S., this war is unwinnable, because our policymakers refuse to address its causes, and fear that doing so would make us look like we are caving in to terrorism. Until we do, for every terrorist killed, ten more will take his place, just as is true regarding Israel’s much tougher policies on the West Bank.

It is indeed ironic and threatening that Bin Laden’s objective of making America the enemy of the whole Muslim world is solidly reinforced by naive (or worse) American conservatives demanding attacks on more Arab nations. Fox News, the op-eds of the Wall Street Journal and Washington Times, National Review, the American Enterprise Institute, and Heritage Foundation are filled with demands for policies that will cause the killing of more Muslims, which they euphemistically call “changing the governments.”

This is exactly what Bin Laden planned (see Robert Fisk of the Independent). Bin Laden’s writings argue first for the overthrow of pro-American regimes in the Arab world. He foresees that American attacks on other Arab nations would generate sufficient hatred to bring this about, and that Americans overseas would become targets. Already, the U.S. Navy has severely curtailed shore leave in many nations. Student plans to study in Europe are being trimmed. Our enemies are not going to fight us on our terms, with F-16’s and cruise missiles. Instead, they may hit our soft underbelly: unarmed Americans abroad. They’ll use the weapons they have.

None of the above supports the thesis that we are faced with a “clash of civilizations” or that Muslims love dying in order to get a quick trip to Paradise. This rot comes from those who made the catastrophe we now face: the neo-conservative foreign policy establishment that ran Republican foreign policy. Their interest is in obfuscating the consequences of the interventionist foreign policies they were able to force upon Washington.

As for Bin Laden’s stated political demands on the U.S., they reflect nothing but the political priorities of the Muslim world. Bin Laden has been very clear (as the now-famous British study of his motives  has shown): American troops out of Arab lands, an end to the blockade of Iraq, and an end to the occupation of Palestinian lands on the West Bank and Gaza. He certainly uses Muslim fundamentalism as his weapon, but nonreligious Arabs have the same views (witness the hijackers who drank liquor and visited girly bars).

We forget how America and Americans were once loved in the Muslim world, when we stood up against European imperialists, as when Eisenhower forced withdrawal of French, English, and Israeli troops from Suez in 1956. (See Will the Middle East Go West?) Americans individually are still popular, and millions love our culture. There is certainly enough goodwill remaining to revive mutually beneficial commercial relations and maintain peace.

What To Do Now 

Bombing Afghanistan’s terrorist bases is one thing, but it does nothing to resolve the underlying issues that have generated hatred and will continue to motivate suicide bombers for years to come. To begin to address the problem, the U.S. should no longer support militarized settlements on the West Bank and Gaza. Established under military occupation, they were always a prescription for “an even greater disaster and constant conflict,” as Richard Cohen suggests. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times agrees.

To pull back is not a radical suggestion; it reflects what most Israeli peace groups have long advocated, as well as the priorities of the late Yitzhak Rabin. There can be barriers between Israel and Palestine for a cooling-off period; however, a majority of both Jews and Arabs want peace and commerce. Eisenhower and Reagan negotiated Israeli withdrawals in the past, from Suez and Beirut. It can be done again.

With Iraq, we should immediately allow the import of civilian consumer goods, as well as supplies to restore the civilian infrastructure, for example, water purification and irrigation. The naval blockade must be dropped, which was and is an act of war. It will take Iraq a generation to recover from the horrendous damage done to it, a generation malnourished and uneducated. By then, we can hope, tensions will have calmed throughout the Muslim world. Our fleet should be withdrawn from the Arabian Gulf and our air base taken out of Saudi Arabia. A European, non-English force can be assembled to guard the border of Kuwait.

With the sore issues out of the way, America would no longer be the target of Muslim hatred and terrorism, and the world could get on with the prosperity and progress it began to know during the 1990s.

Washington resists this solution, but our alternative is unending conflict, lower standards of living, higher taxes, fewer freedoms, longer lines and traffic jams, more searches, global economic calamity, and, eventually, strong pressures for a permanent state of war and big government. The U.S. should do now what it should have been doing all along: strive for commercial relations with all, without attempting to manage the entire world political scene.

Author: Jon Basil Utley

Jon Basil Utley is associate publisher of The American Conservative. He was a foreign correspondent in South America for the Journal of Commerce and Knight Ridder newspapers and former associate editor of The Times of the Americas. He is a writer and adviser for and edits a blog, The Military Industrial Congressional Complex.