From Afghanistan to Araby

This article by Martin Kramer appeared in National Review Online on December 10, 2001. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

Will September 11 be remembered as a watershed in the Middle East? The answer to that question now depends on one factor only: the determination of the United States.

As it stands now, the answer is “no.” The terrorist hijackers of 9/11 were Arab Muslims from Saudi Arabia and Egypt — from the Middle East. But the actual conflict has been played out far above the heads of Middle Easterners. Afghanistan is to the Middle East what Alaska once was to North America — a remote and wild frontier, a place people know only by reputation, a redoubt where people go to hide. In the first weeks after the attacks, when the focus was on the hijackers and Islam, the Middle East seethed. But after October 7, when the bombing campaign began, the “war against terror” became an Afghan-U.S. war — and the Middle East tuned out.

While Americans pored over maps looking for Kunduz or Kandahar, people in the Middle East went back to business as usual. In recent weeks, demonstrations have fallen off to zero. The fabled “Arab street” is quiescent. Press reports of the war have been moved to the inside pages. And now that the Taliban are out and Osama is on the run, people are putting a distance between themselves and yesterday’s heroes. After all, the Taliban and Osama have been defeated. You don’t get idolized in the Arab world by losing.

Of course, there have been repercussions. The United States is asking Arab governments to freeze the funds of terrorist-supporting organizations. But the banking system in these countries is hardly transparent, and there isn’t any sure way to know whether the terrorists’ funds are really drying up. Yes, the United States is demanding that incitement be stopped in the religious schools in places like Saudi Arabia. But who is going to enforce and monitor this? Yes, Americans talk of political reform in the closed polities of the region. But who is going to press hard for change, when political openings seem most likely to benefit Osama look-alikes?

There is nothing here the Arabs can’t avoid by the usual combination of prevarication, obfuscation, and procrastination. They managed to torpedo a “new Middle East” engineered by America and based on peace with Israel. They can foil a “new Middle East” promoted by America and structured around the war against terror. And let there be no doubt: The Arabs have no interest in seeing their world reorganized around the needs and requirements of this war. The Arabs are always accused of terror, and so they are unenthusiastic about acknowledging America’s right to define it. A prime motive for their joining the coalition has been to influence that definition, and deflect it from themselves.

So 9/11 is not regarded in the Middle East as a great watershed. It is just another trial or tribulation to be endured until things can get back to normal — if there is anything normal about the combination of despotism, religious incitement, and tolerance of terror that is unique to the Middle East.

Well, you say, that isn’t good enough. They had better recognize that we are in a new ballgame, and that the rules have changed. They had better realize that if the United States went to the trouble of removing a regime 7,000 miles from its shores, in a remote and landlocked country, then the United States means business.

To which the Arabs say: Maybe — but it has yet to be proven in the Middle East. The Taliban have been kicked out? So what? America is much more cautious in the Middle East. Just look around the region, which is full of serial defiers of America, people who were once “enemy number one” and who still walk free. At the top of the list is Saddam Hussein, the living and breathing monument to defiance of America. Next is the Iranian regime, or those within it, and their allies in Hezbollah, who hit America time and again in the 1980s. Then comes Libya’s Qaddafi (exactly one Libyan operative went to jail for the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie).

The American victory in Afghanistan has made the Arabs uneasy, no doubt about it. But they reassure themselves by saying: Arabs aren’t Afghans. The Taliban were loathed as barbarians, and sat in the middle of nowhere. But the Arabs have friends everywhere; there is a lot of oil under their feet; and the Americans want stability and quiet. They won’t dare to push us too far.

Making 9/11 a turning point in the Middle East will require a lot more than the demonstration effect of the Afghan victory. (And that victory, by the way, isn’t complete until Osama’s head is on a pike.) For 9/11 to count in the Arab world, the United States is going to have to show its determination in the Middle East itself. In particular, it’s going to have to do two things: first, prove that it won’t tolerate rogues going about unsupervised while they plan some future Armageddon; and second, show that the terrorists flourishing in the dark corners of the Middle East and working against the region’s stability are no safer than the al Qaeda crowd.

To achieve the first, spiking the guns of the rogues, the United States has no alternative but to turn up the heat on Saddam Hussein. If 9/11 is to mean anything in the Middle East, it has to mean something for the future of Saddam. No one knows for sure whether Saddam had anything to do with 9/11, but it doesn’t matter. If he is not dealt with now, the day might come when the entire Middle East will have to place an emergency call to Washington. Saddam may be the only leader in the region with the will, the way, and the lack of restraint needed to plunge the region into a cataclysm. The United States has an advantage now, and it should not fail to press it. The Arabs and the Europeans will whine and warn through the build-up to D-Day. But if the United States is resolute, they will fall into line. They usually do.

Then there is the second goal: getting the terrorists out of the Middle East itself. By the Arabs’ account, there are no terrorists in the Middle East. There are only “resistance” groups — like Hezbollah and Hamas and Islamic Jihad. When they kill civilians with suicide bombers, this is merely legitimate struggle against occupation.

If the United States allows the so-called “Arab street” to define what is and is not terrorism, then to the Middle East, 9/11 will have changed nothing. The American definition should be unequivocal: These three groups are terrorists with a global reach. In the case of Hezbollah, the case is clear enough — less than a decade ago, they brought down two buildings in another “American” city, Buenos Aires, killing hundreds. But if anyone thinks that a suicide bomb in Jerusalem or Haifa is not felt around the globe, they haven’t heard yet about globalization. The actions of these groups undermine the stability of the entire region, because they bring it closer to war. And a Middle East closer to war is likelier to become a Middle East where Americans and American interests will be endangered.

In this respect, the Palestinian response to the terror attacks in Jerusalem and Haifa is not just a test. It’s the final exam. We have now seen the first major wave of post-September 11 terrorism. The Arabs are poised on the edge of their seats to see whether anything has changed, or whether the “resistance” can go on blowing up Israeli Jews as usual.

If it can, then General Zinni might as well pack his bags. The United States should hold a “victory in Afghanistan” parade on Fifth Avenue, and then try to forget the whole episode. But if the war against terrorism is about anything, it is about zero tolerance for paradise-obsessed suicide bombers taking themselves and innocent victims to fiery deaths. And the people who have to acknowledge this are not Brazilians or Australians. First and foremost, they are the Arabs, whose societies have tolerated the creation of production lines for suicide terrorists. The message of the United States on this point has to be unequivocal: Hamas and Jihad are Osama and the al Qaeda. Whoever allows such terrorists to flourish under his roof will be Talibanized. Not next year. Not next month. Now.

Will 9/11 be a watershed in the Middle East? If the United States leaves it to the Middle East, the answer will be “no.” But it might become a “yes” — if America only shows the same resolve in Araby that it has shown in Afghanistan.