The Bush administration has been waging the global war on terrorism as if terrorism is a movement, an ideology, a political coalition, with little differentiation from case to case. This has distorted our moral view of the world and enabled even Slobodan Milosevic to justify his horrific policies of death and ethnic cleansing.
Terrorism is an instrument, not a movement. It is an immoral means employed by groups, some of which have just causes, some of which don’t.
To reduce its occurrence, it must be internationally delegitimized and the conditions under which it thrives minimized. By definition, legitimacy and illegitimacy cannot be unilaterally decided; when the U.S. goes against the rest of the world, it is U.S. actions that appear illegitimate.
The world supported the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks not because of how we defined the global war on terrorism, but despite it.
We were attacked in the cruelest way by a group that only employs terrorism and whose aim is nothing short of our pain and destruction. There was no possible compromise or political solution. We were neither in conflict with Afghanistan nor did we occupy its territories.
Terrorism aside, our cause was undeniably just. And even as we may have been able to go it alone, we still made sure we received international support at the United Nations and the support of dozens of coalition partners. Our actions were legitimate.
But now, there is a creeping and unfortunate tendency in our debates to compare Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s actions against the Palestinians to the U.S. war in Afghanistan. There is a reason why we stand alone around the world in making this comparison.
The only thread linking the two cases is that terrorism is unfortunately and unacceptably used by Palestinians.
We must continue to reject terrorist means, especially suicide bombings, but we cannot allow this issue to distort our view of reality.
Palestinians and Israelis are parties in conflict. Both have legitimate aims: Israel, peace and security; the Palestinians, freedom from occupation. Unfortunately, both continue to employ immoral and illegitimate means: The Palestinians employ terrorism, and Israel employs collective punishment against civilians and takes land from Palestinians to build Israeli settlements.
It’s a conflict that can be resolved only politically, and that is consequential for regional and global stability.
Even if we sympathize with Israel’s security aims, our inability to see the illegitimacy of the scope and scale of Sharon’s actions in the West Bank undermines the international legitimacy that’s essential for the success of the global struggle against terrorist means. And our narrow focus on the means alone is blinding us to the potential consequences of escalation that the rest of the world deeply fears.
The “go it alone” view that informs the Washington debate today is a dangerous illusion. We have traveled from the most pervasive sense of weakness and vulnerability in American history last September to the most strident sense of self-confidence that followed our early success in Afghanistan.
Neither mood reflects reality, which is that the United States is very powerful today but not powerful enough to confront the global threats alone. And because legitimacy in the end is about consensus, we certainly cannot unilaterally determine what is internationally legitimate.