From Beslan to Bethlehem

Americans have no trouble thinking clearly about terrorism -- when it happens in Russia.

| Wed Sep. 15, 2004 12:00 AM PDT

In the aftermath of the two-day hostage crisis in Beslan, journalists rifled through their phrasebooks and came up with simple, stark adjectives. "Horrific." "Tragic." And there's nothing more horrific or tragic than a terrorist attack on a school that leaves more than 300 children and adults dead. As after September 11, silence was the only proper response. But in the days after the attacks, as writers began to look more closely at the Chechnya situation and at Vladimir Putin's response, an odd thing happened. Americans began thinking and writing seriously about terrorism -- what it is, where it comes from, what to do about it. This reflective outburst was odd precisely because it happens so rarely when Americans think about their own war against terrorism.

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To be sure, some pundits merely cast about for lofty phrases of disapproval and rage. David Brooks called the terrorists a "cult of death," and condemned the Boston Globe for even looking at Russia's policies in Chechnya. As with much writing on al Qaeda, terrorists are presented as "evildoers" who must be defeated by any means possible. Much of what Brooks said is true -- many terrorists are pathological, and beyond all reason. But in the end, bold words are just that: words. They don't explain much.

Fortunately, most commentators tried to figure out why Beslan happened, and what conditions could possibly provoke Chechen rebels to seize a school and butcher children. Richard Pipes -- hardly a pacifist -- argued in the New York Times that the Chechen rebels in fact fought because of real historical grievances -- most notably their exile in Siberia under Stalin and their thwarted drive for independence. In the Washington Post, Michael McFaul criticized Putin for refusing to consider negotiating with Chechnya, and for conducting a blind and ineffective crackdown on all things Chechen. The Economist, a generally hawkish magazine, opined that "part of the solution in Chechnya must be to break today's nexus of perverse incentives that do so much to keep the war going." It was not enough simply to show resolve; Putin, the Economist suggested, needed to fight a more sensitive war on terror.

Bush administration officials, surprisingly, agreed. True, Secretary of State Colin Powell publicly announced that there "could be no justification for what happened in Russia" and "no compromise in battle." But privately, U.S. officials were suggesting that Putin needs to address Chechnya question through political as well as military channels. What ever happened to zero tolerance towards terror?

In this case, the pundits and officials are right: the political roots of Chechen terror are a genuine factor. Chechens have endured near-continuous persecution since the days of Stalin. Only ten years ago, in 1994, Boris Yeltsin launched a war against Chechnya in part to boost his popularity and stem off an electoral challenge from Communist candidate Gennadi Zygunov. In the ensuing decade, the Russian army razed Grozny many times over and bombed Chechnya senseless. The region has become a criminal state overrun by criminals and Islamist terrorists. But rather than admit that Russia's Checnya policy was a dead-end, Vladimir Putin made a point to campaign in 2000 on his tough stance towards Chechen terrorism. Since becoming president, Putin's brutal tactics -- including detentions of Chechen males and torture-based interrogation centers -- have done little to stop the cycle of violence. It is true that there are no quick solutions to Chechnya. Granting the region independence will hardly fix the failed, terrorist state that has emerged. But pretending that Chechens fight merely because they love violence and hate freedom only exacerbates the problem.

Unfortunately, no one in the Bush administration has yet suggested that such nuance and probity might serve the U.S. well in its own war on terror. Indeed, all of the pundits who were so quick to brush up on Chechen history were equally quick to dispel any parallels between the Beslan terrorists and al Qaeda.

This misses the point -- al Qaeda certainly works off of political and historical grievances, and it is hardly moral cowardice to try to understand this. Michael Schuerer, a veteran CIA analyst and al Qaeda scholar, stressed this in his recent book, Imperial Hubris. Schurer notes that Osama bin Laden remains popular in the Muslim world because he invokes concrete grievances against the U.S., such as our support for Israel and secular Arab dictators. This is not to say bin Laden has morality on his side. Schuerer is simply arguing that the U.S. needs to understand that certain policies -- backing Ariel Sharon's expansion into the West Bank, say, or invading Iraq -- will inevitably cause resentment. That is the stark reality, and it does no good to ignore it.

Since September 11, however, the Bush administration has done everything it could to ignore this reality, and the consequences have been severe. The invasion of Iraq stands out. Al Qaeda, as a supporter of insurgent movements across the globe, has used the invasion of Iraq to rally Muslims to its cause. Samer Shehata, a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, recently told Mother Jones that the Iraq war convinced "many Muslims around the world, perhaps a majority, that the war on terrorism is in fact a war against Islam." And Juan Cole, an expert on Iraq, recently observed, "After the Iraq War, Bin Laden is more popular than George W. Bush even in a significantly secular Muslim country such as Turkey." It is now clear that the Bush administration was wholly unprepared for this backlash, in part because it was wholly unwilling to understand how al Qaeda works and why it remains so popular.

The alternative to a full-blown offensive, of course, is to sit down and actually resolve some of the sources of resentment. Take Israel. Pundits can argue all day about whether Bush is morally right in supporting Ariel Sharon and refusing to negotiate with Yasser Arafat. But the fact remains: if the U.S. ever orchestrated a reasonable settlement in the Middle East, creating a Palestinian state, it would remove a massive source of terrorism and resentment. Hard-line groups like Hamas would no longer garner international sympathy, and it would be harder for Osama bin Laden to build a compelling case against Israel.

The same goes for the Kashmir. The Bush administration has leaned hard on Pakistan's president, Perez Musharraf, to capture al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives residing in the region. This policy certainly furthers our aims in the war on evildoers, but in the long-term, the U.S. might be more secure by using its political capital to resolve the Kashmir conflict. Two years ago, the Christian Science Monitor discovered that al Qaeda was prospering inside Kashmir, feeding off local Muslim resentment towards India. The only way to defuse this movement is by using a bit of diplomatic muscle. If this sounds like another Chechnya, well, it should.

Are there moral problems with addressing terrorist demands? Sure, but the Bush administration has demonstrated again and again that refusing to negotiate can create even greater problems. Recall that when he first got to office, President Bush broke off all negotiations with Kim Jong Il, telling reporters that he "loathed" the North Korea dictator. This sort of moral clarity only served to dissolve the long-standing Sunshine Policy and alienate our allies, including Kim Dae Jung, then-president of South Korea. North Korea, in the end, went full speed ahead with its nuclear program. Likewise with Iran. During the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Iran was perfectly willing to cooperate with Bush, even helping to pull together the Bonn Conference on the future of Afghanistan. But in his 2002 State of the Union Speech, Bush named Iran as a member of the "axis of evil," and promptly tossed aside any hope for rapprochement between the two countries. Now Iran has a nuclear program of its own, and the only chance of disarmament depends on Bush moving past his own moral inflexibility and addressing Iran's strategic concerns.

In Iraq, meanwhile, Bush administration officials all through the spring announced that the insurgents fighting U.S. forces were "dead-enders" or ex-Baathists who would fade away after the capture of Saddam Hussein. They were wrong -- the Sunni and Shiite insurgencies draw heavy support from the local population and have real grievances, such as the devastatingly slow reconstruction process and the constant air-raids on cities like Fallujah. Lately, the occupation forces have tried to address these concerns, through such means as showy reconstruction projects to earn the good-will of the locals. But this all might be too little, too late. The early insistence on fighting war against evil -- as opposed to figuring out why the locals were rising up -- has alienated a good deal of the Iraqi population.

All this proves is that we cannot win a "war on terror" armed only with moral clarity and resolve. Pundits and bureaucrats are willing to tell that to Vladimir Putin. Why is it so rarely mentioned at home?

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