The Attack on Humanity: Conflict and Management

The Attack on Humanity of 11 September is captured in two contradictory images. On one hand, it is portrayed as a response to globalization, on the other as religious rage. Both provide insights and implications.

The September attack is the backside of globalization, the first and fiercest reaction of its kind. It was reverse globalization in two senses. First, it was a reaction to the pervasive and invasive presence of Western influence, and its core substance, American influence, on the most sensitive parts of the external world. It is not surprising that that reaction came from the Arabo-Muslim world, which has long felt put upon not just as part of the Third World but as God’s community on earth, defeated by infidels parading as modernizers. In one of many surprising reverses, al-Qaeda sees itself in a Clash of Civilizations, where compromise and tolerance are impossible, war and hatred separate dar al-islam (the land of submission, salvation) from dar al-harb (the land of war), and basic values are irreconcilable. It would take a movement with ideological, indeed inspirational, coherence to mount a well-organized attack, not just resistance, against the more subtle encroachments of globalization. The necessary source of that coherence means that the movement’s spearhead will be narrow, but that the potentiality of a broader, if more passive, support will be present.

Second, the al-Qaeda attack had all the characteristics of globalization itself–a transnational organization peopled by diverse nationalities operating across boundaries with only a skeletal territorial base, a professional culture, and a disregard for the distinction between domestic and international conflict and society. Such characteristics have been the earmark of globalization and suddenly they become the identifying elements of a new, self-declared, anti-globalist enemy. Therein, of course, lies its strength and its weakness.

For, on one hand, globalization still needs a state base and the negative globalism of al-Qaeda is no exception. If globalization is one trait of the contemporary, post-Cold-War world, the resiliency of the state is another. The September Attack against Humanity showed the momentary impotence of the state, but it also showed its importance, and in the longer run, its resilience. Far from either disappearing or withering away, as various theories would indicate, the state is actually becoming stronger, extending its activities into new areas, remaining the aspiration of even anti-state rebellions, and serving as the necessary base for even the forces of anti-globalization. The state base of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is weak and collapsing, and its likely quest for an alternative–in Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan or Somalia–poses a danger but one against which counter-measures are already taken. The fight against al-Qaeda will not end with the elimination of the Taliban movement, but such an outcome will nonetheless greatly weaken al-Qaeda’s operational capabilities.

On the other hand, not only was the globalism of al-Qaeda based on a collapsed state under the protection of a movement that did not function as a government, but its whole message is a negative one of rage and hate, without any positive program. That kind of message is great for a social protest movement, a demonstrative expression of frustration and scape-goating, but it is of no help in building a lasting political organization or even a sustained social following. It is a bigoted, racist, destructive message, not of a religion but of a religious parody and, worse, religious hijacking, the very opposite of what the Free World fought for in the Cold War and World War II, the absolute reverse of Christianity’s message of love (whatever its imperfections of human application). However, a lot of damage can be done before the movement’s vacuity can be demonstrated, as the days of the Taliban have shown.

Social protest movements are symptoms of a problem, but it is important to keep the symptom and the problem separate. Road rage is fully understandable in the frustrating conditions of beltway driving, conditions that are the subject of repeated attempts at alleviation. But no matter how understandable the frustrations, no one condones road rage. A number of problems are cited–by both Osama bin Laden and by Western analysts–as the “root causes” of al-Qaeda’s reaction, sometimes with a tone of self-inculpation by the analysts. Such problems–the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, conditions within Iraq, American troops in Saudi Arabia–deserve attention in varying degrees but they do not excuse the road rage that is the soul of al-Qaeda.The September attack is the backside of globalization, the first and fiercest reaction of its kind. It was reverse globalization in two senses. First, it was a reaction to the pervasive and invasive presence of Western influence, and its core substance, American influence, on the most sensitive parts of the external world. It is not surprising that that reaction came from the Arabo-Muslim world, which has long felt put upon not just as part of the Third World but as God’s community on earth, defeated by infidels parading as modernizers. In one of many surprising reverses, al-Qaeda sees itself in a Clash of Civilizations, where compromise and tolerance are impossible, war and hatred separate dar al-islam (the land of submission, salvation) from dar al-harb (the land of war), and basic values are irreconcilable. It would take a movement with ideological, indeed inspirational, coherence to mount a well-organized attack, not just resistance, against the more subtle encroachments of globalization. The necessary source of that coherence means that the movement’s spearhead will be narrow, but that the potentiality of a broader, if more passive, support will be present.

Second, the al-Qaeda attack had all the characteristics of globalization itself–a transnational organization peopled by diverse nationalities operating across boundaries with only a skeletal territorial base, a professional culture, and a disregard for the distinction between domestic and international conflict and society. Such characteristics have been the earmark of globalization and suddenly they become the identifying elements of a new, self-declared, anti-globalist enemy. Therein, of course, lies its strength and its weakness.

For, on one hand, globalization still needs a state base and the negative globalism of al-Qaeda is no exception. If globalization is one trait of the contemporary, post-Cold-War world, the resiliency of the state is another. The September Attack against Humanity showed the momentary impotence of the state, but it also showed its importance, and in the longer run, its resilience. Far from either disappearing or withering away, as various theories would indicate, the state is actually becoming stronger, extending its activities into new areas, remaining the aspiration of even anti-state rebellions, and serving as the necessary base for even the forces of anti-globalization. The state base of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is weak and collapsing, and its likely quest for an alternative–in Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan or Somalia–poses a danger but one against which counter-measures are already taken. The fight against al-Qaeda will not end with the elimination of the Taliban movement, but such an outcome will nonetheless greatly weaken al-Qaeda’s operational capabilities.

On the other hand, not only was the globalism of al-Qaeda based on a collapsed state under the protection of a movement that did not function as a government, but its whole message is a negative one of rage and hate, without any positive program. That kind of message is great for a social protest movement, a demonstrative expression of frustration and scape-goating, but it is of no help in building a lasting political organization or even a sustained social following. It is a bigoted, racist, destructive message, not of a religion but of a religious parody and, worse, religious hijacking, the very opposite of what the Free World fought for in the Cold War and World War II, the absolute reverse of Christianity’s message of love (whatever its imperfections of human application). However, a lot of damage can be done before the movement’s vacuity can be demonstrated, as the days of the Taliban have shown.

Social protest movements are symptoms of a problem, but it is important to keep the symptom and the problem separate. Road rage is fully understandable in the frustrating conditions of beltway driving, conditions that are the subject of repeated attempts at alleviation. But no matter how understandable the frustrations, no one condones road rage. A number of problems are cited–by both Osama bin Laden and by Western analysts–as the “root causes” of al-Qaeda’s reaction, sometimes with a tone of self-inculpation by the analysts. Such problems–the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, conditions within Iraq, American troops in Saudi Arabia–deserve attention in varying degrees but they do not excuse the road rage that is the soul of al-Qaeda.

Instead, they require renewed attention, not as a response to al-Qaeda’s reaction but as a continuation of American efforts to help the parties to the conflicts resolve their own problems. The problem most frequently cited is the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the subject of efforts at resolution almost as long as the conflict itself. It should be remembered that the Middle East Peace Process, with all its successes and failures to date, is an American invention. It dates from the Israeli withdrawals in the Sinai and the Golan Heights brokered by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger after the October War of 1973 and then the Camp David Agreements of 1978 and the Washington Treaty of Peace between Egypt and Israel of 1979 brokered by President Jimmy Carter, and after the flawed Israeli-Lebanese Peace Treaty of 1983 continues through the Madrid Peace Process started in 1991 by Secretary of State James Baker. When Madrid stalled, the Norwegians provided the auspices for the Oslo Agreements of 1993, but the US returned in various degrees to mediate follow-up agreements at Wye Plantation and then to attempt a last-minute effort at Camp David in 2000-2001. Even the Israeli-Jordanian Peace Treaty of 1994 enjoyed some American assistance and the Israeli-Syrian negotiations some American encouragement.

These efforts have often been imperfect in some way and have fallen short of anticipated results, but such is the nature of politics (if not life), where perfection is a rarity. The important fact is that American efforts have been repeatedly present and necessary. Neither Israel nor the Arab states and territories around it have been able to win war or produce peace by themselves. Yet the parties agree on (only) one thing: they do not want an imposed peace. The US has deployed major efforts to bring the horses to water, but it cannot make them drink. Continuation in those and similar efforts is necessary, for their own sake and for the reasons, which started the Peace Process in the beginning.

The problem is, for the moment, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in no way ripe for resolution, either mediated or negotiated directly. The dynamics that produce a willingness to negotiate or even to be mediated are complex. In the current situation, there is great and understandable pressure to produce a ceasefire, but a ceasefire–a conflict management device–may in fact retard ripeness. The other side of the coin is that continuing violence may produce such deep and open wounds that it too may retard ripeness, by strengthening resolve and hostility. In that dilemma, it is doubtless best for a third party (or as many as possible) to continue conflict management efforts, and at the same time work to ripen the situation nonetheless by encouraging the parties’ perception that they are both hurting in a stalemate. The objective reality is undeniably present, but ripeness is a perceptional matter and the subjective awareness needs to be cultivated. This is in fact what previous mediators–Kissinger, Carter, Baker–did, with success. Success is more elusive at the present moment.

Efforts at management and resolution are also limited by the nature of the basic conflict with al-Qaeda. There are some conflicts that do not resolve readily, or even respond to efforts at management, and there are some conflicts that need to be fought to the finish. European efforts to mediate in the bloody US civil war would certainly have been rebuffed, as were African efforts to mediate in the Biafran war a century later. Efforts to mediate between the Allies and the Axis powers in World War II would also have been rejected, and one may wonder at the course of world events if Woodrow Wilson’s efforts to mediate in World War I had been pursued to success. Negotiation efforts with the Islamic revolutionary regime in Iran in 1979 were impossible until the hostages had no more value for the new regime, and in that case there was indeed something to negotiate about.

Efforts at management are also limited by the purported nature of the “root causes.” Perverse effects of globalization, poverty, weakness in international politics, and defeat at the hands of the infidels are perhaps sad aspects of an imperfect world, but they are unlikely to be removed this side of Heaven, and their removal is certainly not a precondition for the elimination of al-Qaeda-type reactions. Basically, people have to solve their own internal problems rather than using the last remaining superpower as a scapegoat; just as the rise of political Islamic movements at home has been a reaction to the state’s shutting out all other channels for political expression, so the second wave of political Islam in al-Qaeda is a movement looking for external causes when their domestic effectiveness is blocked.

It hard to conceive of an effective conflict management or resolution effort that could be carried out toward al-Qaeda. There is nothing to negotiate about and no inclination to negotiate; moreover, as in Iran, hurt as in a hurting stalemate is a sign of commitment and concession is a sign of weakness. This is not an Islamic matter but a perception of any ideological movement that sees ultimate benefit in martyrdom. Conflict management has its limits; contrary to a popular title, you can’t negotiate everything.

In a situation where neither war nor negotiation is the full answer, what is, and what can conflict resolution suggest? Is it time to turn the other cheek? I don’t think so, although I would like to. Is it time for World War III, or IV? Not that either, although some military action is unquestionably necessary. War is the immediate means of dealing with al-Qaeda; conflict management and, better, resolution is the only but longer-term means of dealing with specific, related conflicts such as the Israeli conflicts with Palestine and Syria.

This leaves only three things to do in the middle run. First, continuing attention needs to be directed to the broad and delicate task of making sure that not only the agents of globalization benefit from it but also the larger populations. Second, it is crucial for the West to continue to maintain itself as an open society, whatever the risks: We must not let Them make Us into Them. Third, the US and its fellow-democracies need to pursue their problem-solving efforts to help others who cannot solve their own problems. We need to stick to our efforts, despite the criticism that the job attracts, but we need to feel humble and not self-righteous about it. Our own efforts need improvement, since we are far from full effectiveness in a business that has no end.