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Jewish World Review Oct. 17, 2001 / 30 Tishrei, 5762

Michael Kelly

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What the U.S. isn't


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- BECAUSE this war was forced on us, and because it has brought us death and fear, it is natural to see this moment only in terms of painful burden. It is that, but it is also one of extraordinary opportunity.

The best-case scenario is, in the short term, victory. Short-term victory means the destruction of al Qaeda, the defeat of the Taliban and the establishment of a government in Afghanistan that is not hostile to the United States. It means also accomplishing these goals without creating an environment that leads to ancillary disaster, notably the takeover in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia by radical anti-American Islamicists.

This is a result that is not guaranteed but is reasonable to hope for. The early indications in Afghanistan all augur well. The U.S. campaign, largely waged from the air, appears well on the way to destroying much of the Taliban's military infrastructure. With its command centers, its airplanes, its tanks, forts and artillery wrecked, the Taliban may well fall to the forces of the rebel Northern Alliance. The odds of success here are improved by the reports of significant defections from the Taliban ranks.

And, so far, ancillary disaster does not seem to loom. While there have been fairly widespread demonstrations against the United States and in support of al Qaeda throughout the Middle East and even into the Far East, there have not been (yet, at least) any signs of popular unrest sufficient to cause the toppling of any regime.

Cassandras see a victory in Afghanistan as a defeat in waiting. Look, they say, at what happened to the Russians when they tried to run that place with a puppet government. But here is exactly where the opportunity for a transformative moment occurs: The United States is not the Soviet Union.

Specifically, it is not an imperial or colonial power; it has no desire (because its people have no desire) to conquer Afghanistan, to occupy it, to own it by proxy. It simply wants Afghanistan to be run by people who will not use it as a base for terror against the United States. It is perfectly content, after that, to let Afghanistan do with itself what it will -- indeed to help Afghanistan.

The Afghans don't know this, of course, and neither do a lot of other people in the Middle East. The idea of the United States as Europe came to know it -- a great power that was also a good power; a liberator and a protector but not a conqueror or an occupier -- is news still to much of the Eastern world. (For that matter, it is news still to many on the left in the Western world.) Bernard Lewis, the great Islamic scholar and author, argues that, generally speaking, the United States is seen in the Middle East in terms of a continuum that stretches back through several hundred years as just the latest in a series of Western, white, Christian powers (France, Britain, now America) whose interests in the region were materialistic and imperialistic.

In this view, America's interest in the affairs of Arabic and Islamic states is (like that of the European colonial powers) entirely selfish and corrupt, and the proof of this may be found in America's support for selfish and corrupt regimes, notably Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. America (again, like the Europeans) is chronically duplicitous, always willing to betray trusts and allies as its interests shift. And finally, in this view, America is a paper tiger; technologically superior but at bottom cowardly, and thus in the end susceptible to defeat by a more courageous foe.

Lewis believes that the United States had one great chance to show the Middle East that it was different: the Gulf War. Here, America had an opportunity to rescue a captive people -- not the Kuwaitis but the Iraqis -- from a terrible and much-hated regime. In failing to do this, and in the process shamefully betraying the Kurdish and Shiite Iraqis whom it had encouraged to rebel, the United States confirmed the Middle Eastern long view.

The battle of Afghanistan gives America a rare second chance. Start with the radical assumption that Afghans do not like starving in poverty under the rule of psychopaths. What would happen if the United States made it possible for them to live, not under American rule, but under a sane self-rule, with material assistance from this nation? What would happen, in short, if the United States rescued the Afghans?

We have a shot at that here. Long-term victory for the United States lies in convincing the people of the Middle East of the great and simple truth: America is not the Britain of old; it is not the France of old; it is different.

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