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Terrorism discussion should address Washington's policy in Middle East, South Asia

by Gary Olson

January 7, 2010
Originally published in The Morning Call

I wonder how many people have noticed and wondered why al-Qaida or other Isalmic terrorist groups haven't tried to blow up airliners bound for Stockholm, Cape Town, Buenos Aires or Zurich? Might it be because their governments are neither perceived as occupiers nor closely associated with U.S. policy in the Middle East and South Asia?

Why isn't this prickly but crucial issue ever addressed?

Perhaps it's because the answer is assumed to be self-evident. Terrorists: Bad. USA: Good. More ominously, this discussion is avoided because its airing would make it more difficult for our leaders to sell their policies to a more informed, more skeptical public.

First, it's important to grasp that any attempt to understand motives and grievances doesn't mean one condones barbaric behavior visited upon innocent civilians. Washington must do everything possible to prevent our citizens from being attacked.

But second, if U.S. policy in the Middle East and South Asia actually exacerbates terrorism, don't we have a responsibility to ourselves to openly address that possibility? Have we become so fearful, so unsure of ourselves as a people that despite accumulating doubts about our role in the world, we remain silent and obediently follow the official line?

I take no pleasure in asserting that U.S. policy could not be more advantageous to al-Qaida members if they'd drawn it up themselves. As several experts now agree, today's al-Qaida is less in need of geographical safe havens than a durable list of righteous grievances to stoke anger and attract recruits. And the historical record shows that U.S. policy is constantly churning a combustible cauldron of bitter anti-American feelings.

Glenn Greenwald, who blogs on Salon.com, (highly recommended) writes, ''What do we think is going to happen if we continuously invade, occupy and bomb Muslim countries and arm and enable others to do so?'' For example, eight days before the reprehensible ''underpants bomber's'' near miss on Northwest Flight 253, it was reported that 28 children had been killed in a U.S. air attack in Abyan, Yemen. Is it unthinkable that as a consequence some Yemenis might be vexed and sympathize with al-Qaida? In a post to the Islamic Forum, the failed bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab denounced the U.S. ''war on terror'' because of ''the death of thousands of innocent lives and thousands more detained illegally without trial or judgment.''

Washington has long-standing overt, covert and threatened wars and occupations going on in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and Iran -- all Muslim countries. These actions are deeply resented -- hated really -- by some 365 million people in the region. Include U.S. support for tyrannical regimes in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia and unconditional complicity in Israel's brutal apartheid policy in Palestine and the real question is why isn't there more blowback toward us?

Finally, absent any serious discussion of motives and grievances, Washington's policy will continue to enrage and engage more recruits to terrorism, swell the number of pointless U.S. combat deaths and make the world an even more dangerous place for all of us. The future isn't hopeless but unless we remove our ideological blinders and see the world as it actually exists, that future is precarious at best.

Gary Olson is a professor and chair of the political science department at Moravian College in Bethlehem.