WASHINGTON Nearly a year after the start of America's war on terrorism, that war faces the real risk of being hijacked by foreign governments with repressive agendas. Instead of leading a democratic coalition, the United States faces the risk of dangerous isolation. The Bush administration's definition of the challenge that America confronts has been cast largely in semireligious terms. The public has been told repeatedly that terrorism is "evil," which it undoubtedly is, and that "evildoers" are responsible for it, which doubtless they are. But beyond these justifiable condemnations, there is a historical void. It is as if terrorism is suspended in outer space as an abstract phenomenon, with ruthless terrorists acting under some Satanic inspiration unrelated to any specific motivation.
President Bush has wisely eschewed identifying terrorism with Islam as a whole and been careful to stress that Islam as such is not at fault. But some supporters of the administration have been less careful about such distinctions, arguing that Islamic culture in general is so hostile to the West, and especially to democracy, that it has created a fertile soil for terrorist hatred of America.
Missing from much of the public debate is discussion of the simple fact that lurking behind every terroristic act is a specific political antecedent. That does not justify either the perpetrator or his political cause. Nonetheless, the fact is that almost all terrorist activity originates from some political conflict and is sustained by it as well. That is true of the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, the Basques in Spain, the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the Muslims in Kashmir and so forth.
In the case of Sept. 11, it does not require deep analysis to note — given the identity of the perpetrators — that the Middle East's political history has something to do with the hatred of Middle Eastern terrorists for America. The specifics of the region's political history need not be dissected too closely because terrorists presumably do not delve deeply into archival research before embarking on a terrorist career. Rather, it is the emotional context of felt, observed or historically recounted political grievances that shapes the fanatical pathology of terrorists and eventually triggers their murderous actions.
American involvement in the Middle East is clearly the main impulse of the hatred that has been directed at America. There is no escaping the fact that Arab political emotions have been shaped by the region's encounter with French and British colonialism, by the defeat of the Arab effort to prevent the existence of Israel and by the subsequent American support for Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians, as well as by the direct injection of American power into the region.
This last has been perceived by the more fanatical elements in the region as offensive to the sacred religious purity of Saudi Arabian custodianship of Islam's holy places and as hurtful to the welfare of the Iraqi people. The religious aspect adds fervor to their zeal, but it is worth noting that some of the Sept. 11 terrorists had non-religious lifestyles. Their attack on the World Trade Center had a definite political cast to it.
Yet there has been a remarkable reluctance in America to confront the more complex historical dimensions of this hatred. The inclination instead has been to rely on abstract assertions like terrorists "hate freedom" or that their religious background makes them despise Western culture.
To win the war on terrorism, one must therefore set two goals: first to destroy the terrorists and, second, to begin a political effort that focuses on the conditions that brought about their emergence. That is what the British are doing in Ulster, the Spaniards are doing in Basque country and the Russians are being urged to do in Chechnya. To do so does not imply propitiation of the terrorists, but is a necessary component of a strategy designed to isolate and eliminate the terrorist underworld.
Analogies are not the same as identity, but with that in mind one might consider the parallels between what the United States faces today in regard to Middle Eastern terrorism and the crises that America confronted domestically in the 1960's and 70's. At that time, American society was shaken by violence undertaken by groups like the Ku Klux Klan (often in semi-autonomous klaverns), White Citizens' Councils, the Black Panthers and the Symbionese Liberation Army. Without civil-rights legislation and the concomitant changes in America's social views on race relations, the challenge that those organizations posed might have lasted much longer and become more menacing.
The rather narrow, almost one-dimensional definition of the terrorist threat favored by the Bush administration poses the special risk that foreign powers will also seize upon the word "terrorism" to promote their own agendas, as President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of India and President Jiang Zemin of China are doing. For each of them the disembodied American definition of the terrorist challenge has been both expedient and convenient.
When speaking to Americans, neither Mr. Putin nor Mr. Sharon can hardly utter a sentence without the "T" word in it in order to transform America's struggle against terrorism into a joint struggle against their particular Muslim neighbors. Mr. Putin clearly sees an opportunity to deflect Islamic hostility away from Russia despite Russian crimes in Chechnya and earlier in Afghanistan. Mr. Sharon would welcome a deterioration in United States relations with Saudi Arabia and perhaps American military action against Iraq while gaining a free hand to suppress the Palestinians. Hindu fanatics in India are also quite eager to conflate Islam in general with terrorism in Kashmir in particular. Not to be outdone, the Chinese recently succeeded in persuading the Bush administration to list an obscure Uighur Muslim separatist group fighting in Xinjiang province as a terrorist organization with ties to Al Qaeda.
For America, the potential risk is that its nonpolitically defined war on terrorism may thus be hijacked and diverted to other ends. The consequences would be dangerous. If America comes to be viewed by its key democratic allies in Europe and Asia as morally obtuse and politically naïve in failing to address terrorism in its broader and deeper dimensions — and if it is also seen by them as uncritically embracing intolerant suppression of ethnic or national aspirations — global support for America's policies will surely decline. America's ability to maintain a broadly democratic antiterrorist coalition will suffer gravely. The prospects of international support for an eventual military confrontation with Iraq will also be drastically diminished.
Such an isolated America is likely to face even more threats from vengeful terrorists who have decided to blame America for any outrages committed by its self-appointed allies. A victory in the war against terrorism can never be registered in a formal act of surrender. Instead, it will only be divined from the gradual waning of terrorist acts. Any further strikes against Americans will thus be a painful reminder that the war has not been won. Sadly, a main reason will be America's reluctance to focus on the political roots of the terrorist atrocity of Sept. 11.
Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security adviser in the Carter administration.