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After the 9/11 Attack

September 13, 2001

How should the United States respond to the 9/11 attack? The furious calls for war remind me of an earlier debate over how to deal with the Soviet Union.

During the Cold War, such geopolitical thinkers as George Kennan and James Burnham, both pro-American anti-Communists who saw the Soviet Union as a grave threat to the West, disagreed on grand strategy. Kennan favored a policy of “containment.” He argued that the West should reconcile itself to the loss of Eastern Europe, while preventing the Soviets from making further gains. In time, he said, the Soviet Union would implode without the necessity of all-out war.

Burnham, on the other hand, argued that Kennan’s approach had the fatal flaw of leaving the initiative to the Soviets. He argued for taking the fight to them and actively working to liberate their captive nations. This approach was called “rollback.”

But despite their differences, both anti-Communist strategies were based on realistic assumptions about concrete American interests and the limits of American power. Both Kennan and Burnham knew geography and history and avoided apocalyptic recommendations. They thought in hard specifics, with due prudence.

Contrast those men with today’s hawks, especially among pro-Israel journalists. Once again “Israel’s amen corner in this country,” as Pat Buchanan put it a decade ago, is “beating the drums for war.” Even before it transpired that the 9/11 hijackers seem to have been Arabs, this crowd intuited that the new horrors were an import from the Middle East.

The New York Post, which regards Ariel Sharon the way American conservatives used to regard Ronald Reagan, says our enemy is “radical Islamic fundamentalism” which threatens us with nothing less than “the annihilation of Western culture” and “world domination.” If these terrorists aren’t stopped, pronto, countless Chinese, Brazilians, and Canadians will soon be reading the Koran in Arabic! The author of that editorial belongs in a padded cell.

[Breaker quote: Hawks, old and 
new]Charles Krauthammer, Robert Kagan, and Mark Helprin say we are in a war and should act accordingly, with an enormous military buildup that would dwarf our present armed forces. George Will notes that “Tuesday morning Americans were drawn into the world that Israelis live in every day.... [Americans] are targets because of their virtues — principally democracy, and loyalty to those nations which, like Israel, are embattled salients of our virtues in a still-dangerous world.”

Never mind specific details like American interests, the costs of war, the eventual number of casualties, and other repercussions. This is a simple case of Good versus Evil, Democracy versus Terrorism, Virtue itself versus distilled, ruthless Vice. In the true Manichaean spirit, we must fight this thing anywhere and everywhere, even if the price approaches the infinite. It’s Armageddon, folks.

Even if Israel’s claims were beyond dispute, its cause just, and its virtue unsullied, the question would remain: is it really in our interest to be caught up in a bitter struggle between Muslims and Jews on the far side of the globe? I don’t know about you, but one week like this one was more than enough for me. If our government goes to war, we can expect more of same, but probably worse — along with new curtailments of our freedoms by our own government.

The Israelis do have legitimate interests and grievances. So do their enemies. But so do we. And we have just learned — or should have learned — that even the most powerful and expensive armed forces in the world can’t always defend us against enemies armed with knives. The Pentagon itself has been reduced to a smoldering monument to our folly.

What have we gained by our decades of meddling in the Middle East (or for that matter, the rest of the world)? What do we stand to gain by a war? Our truest interest lies in making peace. At least we needn’t actively make enemies.

So far President Bush has reacted to the 9/11 horror with reasonable restraint. He has issued a little obligatory tough talk, but as a Texas oil man, surrounded by like-minded businessmen, he seems aware that there are other things at stake than Virtue, Democracy, and suchlike noble abstractions. Fortunately, perhaps, it’s hard to be a rich Republican and a devout Manichaean at the same time.

A final note. Let us fall to our knees in thanks that Al Gore wasn’t our president this week.

Joseph Sobran

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Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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