The Longest War


ABOUT AS MANY AMERICANS WERE KILLED IN THE TERRORIST attacks of September 11 as at Lexington and Concord, at the Alamo, at Fort Sumter, on the Lusitania, and at Pearl Harbor combined, all of which precipitated Americans’ entry into major wars. Where else can we turn but to history to make sense of such carnage? Yet many facile comparisons that are being made with the past are fraught with error. They tell more of our own popular perceptions of culture than of the real lessons of history, and they misinform us about every element of the situation, from its underlying politics to the nature of the terrorism involved, the proper role of the military in our nation’s survival, the broader cultural context, and the true philosophy of war itself.


Many Americans, gazing in horror at passenger jets crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, asked themselves what the nation had done to deserve such hatred, forgetting that history teaches us that wars often break out over professed rather than authentic grievances. In a famous passage in Thucydides’ history The Peloponnesian War , the Athenians say that the source of conflict hinges on a state’s perceived sense of “honor, fear, and self-interest.”

In this classical way of thinking, irrational statesmen (Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo) often provoke conflicts over perfectly rational goals (more land, natural resources, subject peoples), by inflaming their audiences with appeals to rectify past injuries that are, in fact, nonexistent. The Japanese and Germans were not starving in 1941, but rather were proud peoples who wanted those whom they deemed inferior to serve them.


In truth, Osama bin Laden and the Taliban have very few legitimate grievances against the United States. We intervened in the Muslim world during the last two decades in part for our own interests, but we also saved the Afghanis from communism, the Kuwaitis from the Iraqis, Shiites and Kurds from Saddam Hussein, Somalians from hunger, and Bosnians and Kosovars from Christian Serbians. Millions of Muslims have been butchered on battlefields over the past 30 years, but their killers have been Islamic Iranians, Iraqis, Jordanians, Lebanese, and Afghanis. If Thucydides’ exegesis on war’s causes is still relevant, bin Laden is more correctly seen as an inherently evil man who hates and envies us for our clout and our influence. He may rightly understand that America is the chief obstacle to his wish to lord over a medieval caliphate spanning a united Middle East, under a brand of thirteenth-century Islam that makes decadent Westerners cower in fear. That simple explanation seems to offer more consistent logic than do all the neo-Marxist or Freudian-inspired critiques of our foreign policy, or all the reasons bin Laden himself has proffered for his hatred of America: our military protection of Saudi oil, Israelis on Palestinian land, the hateful modernism of global democracy and capitalism, Jewish American women walking in the land of Mecca, and so on.

What does the past teach us about bin Laden’s undeniable appeal to his followers? Is his magnetism the harvest of real oppression brought on by years of American colonialism and imperialism? Our own history argues against it. Millions in Mexico and Africa are poorer than the hijackers and their followers, but they have not rallied to the cause of an international terrorist. The Ottomans, another Muslim state, ran much of the Middle East from the fifteenth to the early twentieth century, far longer and with a much heavier hand than the British or the French ever did, and Americans had no real foreign role in the Muslim world before World War II.

Have American economic policies more recently impoverished the Arab masses, giving bin Laden a receptive audience? Far more forcefully than either Asia or South America, the Muslim world has rejected the twin forces of global capitalism and democracy. In fact, there is not a single Arab consensual government in existence, and in most countries the state has a near stranglehold on utilities, the media, banks, and industry, ensuring a bloated and ineffective public work force and a complete absence of either foreign or domestic competition. Failure to emulate Western market economies and constitutional governments is probably the chief reason why living standards in the Middle East, despite extravagant oil and natural gas deposits, lag so far behind those of other continents. Revolutionary Islamic movements, which promise Muslim Utopias based on strict adherence to the Koran and the exclusion of foreign ideas, have, in fact, ruined their countries.

What, then, is the allure that millions of Muslims find in bin Laden’s hatred? We know he is a multimillionaire who can hire thousands and reach tens of thousands more through media and public relations. Like a blackmailing Mafia don, he has also received substantial help from governments in Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Egypt, Syria, and, of course, Iraq—all regimes with tightly controlled presses, whose records of bringing freedom, prosperity, and happiness to their populations are dismal. Most of them are terrified of Islamic fundamentalism.