The standard form of political discourse since Sept. 11, 2001 is a giant, tangled Debate Concerning the Middle East. Sept. 11 is what brought our generation into the political sphere. The violence of that day gave birth to the shaken world we know. This coming October will mark another violent anniversary: five nonstop years of the “war on terror.”
Here’s the question: Have we in the United States come very far in our thinking about the “war on terror”? Following the course of the foreign policy debate in various congressional races, the opinion pages of the national dailies, and the Yale papers, it seems we may have made some progress in challenging some of the obvious lies that circulate in this discussion. But still, five years later, many of the deeper, more damaging fallacies of what I am calling the Debate Concerning the Middle East, a blanket term for the confused dialogue surrounding Iraq, terrorism, Israel and the Islamic world. We are far from retiring the discursive distortion produced by Sept. 11. I offer this column as a small contribution toward the clearing the conceptual fog, and in particular a set of oft-heard arguments which I will counter here. Some of these are factual clarifications. Some are analytic points. They cover a range of different but interrelated subjects (whether or not we should disaggregate the different areas of this discussion is a separate argument altogether). Take them or leave them.
1. The Democratic Party does not support terrorism. Unless someone explicitly states support for an act of terrorism, we should simply leave behind this dishonest smear. No one in this debate should have to preface every remark by reiterating the obvious fact that they “do not support terrorism.”
2. The war in Iraq is unpopular. According to CNN’s poll from earlier this month, 58 percent of Americans oppose the war in Iraq. Anyone who takes an unconditional stance in support of the war as it now stands is in the minority.
3. Encouraging the development of clean, renewable energy is a win-win policy for the environment, the economy and America’s position in an interdependent world. The only possible bad reason for supporting clean energy is the most common one — the oft-repeated and xenophobic mantra that “oil comes from the Arabs.”
4. People do not necessarily vote for Islamist parties because they are Islamists. The recent success of such parties throughout the Islamic world has more to do with the failures and corruption of secular opposition and incumbent governments, as well as resentment spawned by the war on terrorism. Moreover, the election of prominent Islamic social movements should not be assumed to be a negative development, even for the West. In attacking Hezbollah and isolating Hamas, we may have lost the chance to allow these organizations to be moderated by the demands of governing people who did not elect them for their extremism.
5. There is no morally significant difference between targeting civilians intentionally and carrying out attacks that are sure to cause civilian casualties. In both cases, civilian deaths serve as a means to an end, whether it be to apply pressure on a government or to take out enemy positions. The imperative to avoid killing civilians applies to every military force.
6. “Islamofascism” is a silly yet damaging concept that has no basis in reality. Islam? Fascism? Really? I have yet to hear an intellectually honest explanation of this term. Moreover, it is obvious the asymmetrical, decentralized “war on terrorism” bears no resemblance to the mass mobilization of the Second World War, or, for that matter, the Cold War between the United States and “godless communism.”
7. There already is a civil war in Iraq. There is no debate about this among the experts. With over a hundred Iraqis dying each day during this summer, there is nothing “low-level” about this war either.
8. Note to U.S. liberals: Condemning the U.S. War in Iraq while cheering on the destruction in Lebanon blurs your message beyond all recognition. Criticizing the doctrine of preemption while arguing that Israel can take “any steps necessary” to defend itself lacks all internal coherence.
9. You can’t claim to support democracy and reject the outcome of democratic processes. However distasteful one finds Hamas or Ahmadinejad, they were elected in relatively free and fair elections, and Israel and the United States should confront them as such.
10. When the government breaks the law, it makes counterterrorism less effective, not more so. Rolling back the Geneva Conventions (not to mention the U.S. Constitution) gives us less legal and political flexibility in prosecuting the crime of terrorism, and makes the United States more hated in the world.
Jared Malsin is a senior in Berkeley College.