The worst thing that anyone who wants to change the world can do is remain oblivious to the change that’s already happening. As we stand now five years removed from the day that changed everything, inching further into a world that may very well be more dangerous now than it was then, our leaders remain curiously unaware of the very menace they seek to defeat.
Last month, as the Middle East erupted once more, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice maintained that they were not interested in seeking a return to the previous status quo – what they dubbed a “false” peace in the region. They wanted a changed Middle East, and even if it takes a full-scale war to get there, they argue it’s worth it in the long run.
Perhaps they’re right. In a land where peace eludes everyone from Churchill to Clinton in the 20th century – and pharaohs, Roman emperors, popes and prophets before them – it’s probably safe to doubt the vitality of any new cease-fire. But while the president wails and moans about his desire for a new Middle East, he continues to ignore the changes that have already brought a new Middle East about – granted, it isn’t the one he would have wanted.
The beginning of this story, like the beginnings of many stories these days, is terrorism. Sure, the attacks five years ago changed America. They made our nation more vigilant, alert and wiser in at least some ways. But we became these things not out of understanding, but simple, primal – and manipulable – fear.
And so we remain today, five years later, still afraid, still believing that you can only be with us or against us. We remain on guard, but still don’t really understand why. The instinctive response that kicked in immediately following Sept. 11 never gave way to understanding. There was no chance of stepping back and taking in the situation because we were told that this was the first of many attacks, and so we are continually reminded today.
But while taking this overly simplistic worldview undoubtedly makes it easier to conduct war, it prevents us from understanding that which we fight. Thus, even as a new Middle East emerges in the very land our troops patrol, we fail to see its implications.
The 20th century’s Middle East conflicts were nationalist in nature – religion has always been the cover that region’s clashes, never the sole cause in modern history – with leaders like Moammar Gaddafi of Libya and Yasser Arafat of Palestine leading the Arab world’s assertion of political legitimacy through militarism. But those leaders are now diminished, and while war remains in the region, it cannot be dealt with by the same tactics employed in the past.
The fact remains that the region has been permanently altered since America invaded Iraq, since the demise of Saddam Hussein’s secular regime and the resurgence of Shia power there and in Iran. Everyone realizes this fact – except America. Even as the president remains hellbent on bringing democracy to every nook and cranny of the region, one of its most stable existing democracies (Lebanon) has been devastated. No one denies Israel’s right to defend itself, but after weeks of fighting, even Israel now realizes that the stakes have changed and the fight is different.
Anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism still exist in the Middle East and in other parts of the world – that much hasn’t changed – but the reasoning, motives, tactics and ideals of those who fight are a world apart from even just a decade ago. The destruction of Hezbollah is in the best interests of both Lebanon and Israel, but the war Israel conducted reflected a failure to understand the changed stakes. Arab nationalism is dead; Hezbollah fights not for Lebanon, not for the Arabs (Arab nations have actually condemned Hezbollah), but simply for its own political legitimacy.
Five years is much too long for America to childishly cling to the “us vs. them” worldview that’s thrown any semblance of “hearts and minds” prudence far into oblivion. The global war against terrorism is muddled enough to boggle even Napoleon’s mind; there is no continuity among its various parts. We must learn not to generalize about a region, nation or group based on past experiences, or in order to fit them into our vague existing definitions.
Since Sept. 11, President Bush’s aim has been not simply to fight our enemies but to bring about a world order that redefines America’s place. His stubborn refusal to negotiate and unwillingness to acknowledge the political actors his war has brought into being assures that new place won’t be where we want to be.
Syed can be reached at email@example.com.