Landmark Conference Critiques War on Terror

An extraordinary two-day conference in Washington (much of it on C-Span) sponsored by the New America Foundation,”Terrorism, Security & America’s Purpose” featured a host of scholars, elected officials, intelligence experts, journalists, an others, from Tom Clancy and Grover Norquist to George Soros and Ted Sorensen. Though perspectives varied widely, it is clear that experts from all sides reached similar conclusions, namely that Americans need to understand the enemy and that unending war and terrorism are not inevitable.

Below is a summary of some of the highlights. (Click here for videos of the presentations.)

Mitchell Reiss, former director of State Department policy planning, decried the lack of foreign language studies in America, comparing the lack of federal support to the hundreds of billions spent on the military. He explained that public diplomacy is almost nonexistent: explaining American policies to foreigners has now become dangerous in many nations. He added that every embassy needs a rapid-response team to explain in local media Washington’s actions, since the old U.S. Information Agency was virtually liquidated at the end of the Cold War.

Congresswoman Jane Harman of the House Intelligence Committee and Robert Hutchings, now at Princeton University, urged changing the law to allow different levels of security clearances (e.g., current law excludes most immigrants with family ties abroad). This would allow hiring immigrants in America with foreign language skills to fill the dearth of translators in the Arab world and in Iraq. American soldiers are tremendously handicapped by the shortage.

George Soros warned that Washington’s excessive reliance on military force played into the hands of the terrorists and that the "war on terror" was doing more harm than good for America. He said the occupation of Iraq was the greatest blunder in American history, that attitudes in the world had never been so negative toward America. He warned that when "American bombing creates innocent victims, we play into their hands."

Author Tom Clancy was very well received. He said that in writing novels he always studies his characters so he could see the world through their eyes. He warned against overestimating one’s enemies, saying that most battles are lost because of "idiots." He argued that most human motivations are simple, and that one always needs to "know one’s enemies." His main point was that economic prosperity would tremendously undermine terrorism, thus spreading it should be a major objective of American policy.

One of the most interesting talks was by Robert Pape, author of the new study, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. His database of all suicide terrorist attacks during the last 30 years shows that over half were secular, and over 95 percent had a political objective. He said that al-Qaeda was stronger today than before 9/11, having successfully stripped America of allies. Most terrorist attacks in the world have been to rid nations of foreign troops. He urged the U.S. to withdraw its military from Muslim lands while maintaining strong naval forces within striking distance for future security, a policy called "offshore balancing." Although some terrorist leaders might still want to attack America, they would find it much harder to find suicide bomber recruits after a withdrawal.

Rita Hauser of the RAND Corporation and the International Peace Academy also urged Americans to work with allies, saying that we had turned our back on the UN and other international organizations, and that our intelligence is "hopeless" unless we work with other nations.

Roger Cressey, formerly with the National Security Council, called Iraq "the war of unintended consequences" and argued that the U.S. message is lost because it is not trusted by foreigners.

Senator Joseph Biden claimed that most Republicans in Congress see allies and international agreements as "tying down Gulliver." He said that Washington’s unilateralism has "given a green light to other nations to use force first, with minimal prior intelligence."

Nir Rosen, New Yorker writer and Iraq correspondent, urged Americans to pay attention to what terrorists actually say and write. The U.S. leadership usually ignores their statements when analyzing them.

Yosri Fouda, London bureau chief of al-Jazeera, also encouraged America to listen to its enemies in order to understand them. He explained the Arab view as being that America went looking for an enemy after the collapse of communism in 1990, but he added that he now feels much more optimistic about America, and that most Muslims now believe that America supports democracy and freedom in their nations.

Former Gen. Wesley Clark said that we can’t win by just killing people and making new enemies, that we must put ideology first. He also suggested that we develop a volunteer civil defense corps to handle future terrorist events.

Grover Norquist exhorted listeners to read the PATRIOT Act. He said that all new laws invading constitutional freedoms should have sunset clauses to force reconsideration after a few years. He pointed out that Paul Weyrich, Phyllis Schlafly, and other key conservative leaders oppose parts of the PATRIOT Act and had preferred the Senate version to the House one. He said that the center-right coalition needed an ACLU- type organization to defend individual freedoms from government.

Gen. James Cullen, former chief judge, U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals, decried the torture of POWs, saying that the White House had written a brief for America’s future enemies. According to Cullen, most retired generals support the Warner/McCain legislation to outlaw torture.

Ted Sorensen argued that public diplomacy, that is selling and explaining American policies, sometimes means changing the policies. He urged talking to one’s enemies, citing how former President Kennedy (for whom he worked) picked up the phone to talk to Khrushchev. He said that America would not be safer by undermining our own values, that we should be careful about whom we call a "terrorist," that Washington has undermined America by calling all enemies terrorists, and that by current definitions, the Boston Tea Party would be called a terrorist act. He said there could never be peace without a "mutually acceptable Israeli-Palestinian settlement."

Francis (author of The End of History) Fukuyama’s talk warned that future terrorists would not necessarily be Arabs, but could come be Muslim white Europeans such as the "shoe bomber." He argued that even a "benevolent hegemon" needs to be competent, that America now had tremendous credibility problems, that our ideas of American exceptionalism were no longer accepted in the world.

Banquet speaker Senator Chuck Hagel argued that America must engage its allies, and that we will not be safer isolating ourselves from the world.

Former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell explained that criticism of American policies by our allies does not mean that they are anti-American, but rather that they support and look to American power and see Iraq policies as weakening America.

Former Congressmen Lee Hamilton and Warren Rudman argued that relying upon military force is by no means a sufficient policy; we must reach out to moderate Muslims and do better in controlling the dispersion of fissile materials.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that listening to foreigners is also a key part of public diplomacy and that democracy is not imperialism.

Other key speakers included Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center, scholar Anatol Lieven, Morton Halperin, Congressman Jim Saxton, Daniel Levy (co-author of the Geneva Initiative for Mideast Peace), and Galima Bukharbaeva, who played a tape she took of the massacre in Uzbekistan.

It should also be noted that the second luncheon speaker was Juan Zarate, deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism. He claimed America is winning and had succeeded in killing top deputies to bin Laden, including Mohammed Atta. Atta was the lead suicide bomber on 9/11.

Very comprehensive were the summary reports of several working groups. Their chairpersons spoke briefly explaining the contexts, in particular areas of dispute and areas of agreement. These are most interesting and relevant for current and future American policies. We can’t summarize all of them here, but note three major ones.

Louise Richardson, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard, said that her group reached unanimity on the necessity for Washington to focus on the causes of terrorism. “[Members] also reject the view that to address grievances exploited by terrorist leaders is to reward terrorism; quite the contrary, we agree that addressing these grievances is essential to diminishing support for terrorism.”

Susan Spalding, chair of the homeland security group, maintained that the debate should not be seen as security vs. liberty. She decried the government’s ever growing secrecy as putting "Jersey barriers" between people and information. She said the government’s job was "risk management" rather than "risk elimination," which is impossible. She said that since Katrina, fewer Americans assume that the government will rescue them.

Prof. Charles Kupchan’s group studied for the first time the role of religion in formulating foreign policy. Note that no speaker focused on American fundamentalists who, like many Muslims, also see Middle East war as a quick way of going to paradise. Academics and intellectuals find it impossible to take seriously the dreams of 20 million Americans hoping for Armageddon in opposing meaningful peace negotiations.

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.