September 20, 2001

After spending the better part of ten years in the Middle East, I feel the need to say something about the direction in which we are heading, which I think is a very dangerous one.         


Beit Eddine, Lebanon

I was for five years in the early 70's the Ford Foundation's representative in the Middle East, based in Beirut, but traveling widely in Egypt and the Sudan as well as the states on the Arabian Peninsula. Later I spent five years periodically advising the Lebanese Council for Reconstruction, and much of one year advising the Palestinian Authority in Gaza on the development of their Planning Ministry. 

          One cannot spend that much time in the Arab world without having some sympathy with their frustrations, and some understanding of their problems. I don't pretend to be unbiased, nor do I have one iota of sympathy for the people behind the atrocities of September 11, 2001.  

          In the Arab world, as here, people function at different levels of consciousness. In Beirut, where I lived through the first two years of civil war, I witnessed an inversion of society. The reasonable, gracious, admirable strata of society I knew and worked with mostly fled the country, and the thugs took over. "Thugs" is a descriptive word that accurately describes their behavior, but it isn't a very useful classification. They were people operating with what S. I. Hayakawa called two-valued orientations and psychologists call concrete operations.          

          Two-valued orientation, the mindset that perceives a clear separation between good and bad, black and white, right and wrong, is a stage of consciousness that everyone experiences as part of the maturation process. Some people remain there instead of growing into the more nuanced stage of formal operations and beyond, and these people can be described as fundamentalists. They exist in Islam, and also in our society. Not all, or most, fundamentalists are terrorists or capable of terrorism, but all, or nearly all, terrorists are operating at the fundamentalist level of human consciousness. 

          The highjackers, therefore, were the international equivalent of Timothy McVeigh and the abortion clinic bombers. They believed their cause to be righteous, and the slaughter of innocent people to be acceptable in pursuit of their goals, just as McVeigh dismissed innocent victims as "collateral damage." Such people are often willing to die for their beliefs. 

          Universities help us transcend the concrete operations level of consciousness and enter higher stages. It is a transforming experience. It can happen outside of the university experience, but it is much easier to grow in the academic environment and at the age most people attend college. University life is not available to everybody, but it is more available here in America than in most other countries. 

          A much smaller share of the population of Arab countries have had the opportunity and stimulation to grow beyond their literal, concrete, two-valued level of consciousness. But many Arab countries, such as Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, though not democracies, are led by modern, intelligent, advanced people. (Maybe Syria is too, now, but it was not at the time of Hafez al Assad). Those regimes are ahead of their people in their understanding of and sympathy for America and our policies that affect the Middle East. Islamic fundamentalists, those who carried out the attacks on us, hate those modern Arab regimes as much or more than they hate us.  

          The struggle in Middle Eastern countries is between the traditional and the modern. The United States is the brightest symbol of the modern, and therefore, for the traditionalists, the most hated of nations. Remember when the mullahs overthrew the Shah of Iran and took over the country. The United States was called the Great Satan precisely because we symbolize modernity. Our continued support for Israel contributes to their feelings towards us, but I think our role as leader of the modern world is most important to these people. 

          To the rational mind, the attack on America would seem to have achieved the opposite of its objectives. It hurt us, but it also drew us together behind our President. The Congress has almost unanimously handed over $40 billion to the President with very few constraints on how to use the money to rebuild and to retaliate. Our European allies were becoming mistrustful of the US because of our intention to unilaterally abrogate the ABM treaty and to withdraw from the Kyoto agreement on the environment. Now, NATO has for the first time invoked the principle that an attack on one is an attack on all. They are firmly behind the United States at this moment. 

          Not only the Europeans have rallied around in support: the Russians and the Chinese have also voiced support for the struggle against terrorism, support that was not forthcoming over Kosovo and Bosnia. In the Middle East itself, our government was becoming impatient with the uncompromising policies of Prime Minister Sharon of Israel. Now he feels he has unquestioning support from us, and he has cancelled at least one meeting between Peres and Arafat because it is "not in the interest of Israel."  

          The terrorists accomplished all these remarkable changes through what they must have thought was an incredibly successful operation. Are, or were, they crazy? 

          No, I don't think so. They accomplished half of their mission by hitting their targets. They are waiting for us to accomplish the other half for them. They count on the United States to retaliate with great force against our enemies and those who harbor them. The indiscriminate use of our great force will alienate the entire Muslim world, at least that portion that is in the Middle East. The people of Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, ambivalent about us anyway, are more than likely to bring down the moderate regimes in power and replace them with more militant leaders. 

          In this way will the terrorists achieve their primary objective: They will have succeeded in turning a conflict between traditional forces and modernization into a war between Islam and the West. A traditional vs modern contest would inevitably be won in time by the forces of modernization. A war between Islam and the West, however, is likely to drag on beyond the lifetimes of our children without resolution. 

          We seem to be proceeding down a very dangerous path just now. All the talk by our leaders about war is useful in rallying the American people and our allies, but it seems to imply bloodshed, and to promise some sort of victory. The pressures on our government to use massive force wherever we strike will be immense. The pressure is unlikely to be seriously resisted because the use of massive force has been called the "Powell Doctrine" after our Secretary of State. If events proceed in the direction they are heading, we are likely to be in a religious war by the end of the year, one that will expand to global proportions as the cycle of vengeance and revenge spirals upwards. 

          How could we avoid this fate? I think we need to recognize that the modern leaders in the Middle East willing to cooperate with us against the terrorists are doing so at great peril. We need to support them materially, so their people see the benefits of cooperation. Most importantly, we need to treat these leaders with respect. We need to consult with them, not order them about.                  

          Our blustering that countries must choose if they are with us or against us, and our listing actions we require from our allies, as we have done with Pakistan, is exactly the wrong way to go about shoring up these leaders. If we attack Afghanistan in a massive way, I think the Government of Pakistan will be forced either to denounce us and withdraw from cooperation with us, or be thrown from power. 

 If I were Pervez Musharraf, or King Abdullah, or President Mubarak, or a member of the Saudi royal family, I would be very uneasy in my seat of power right now. 

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