Blame the West’s interventions for today’s terrorism

Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched last year from the USS Philippine Sea against targets in Syria. - EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY/FILE
Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched last year from the USS Philippine Sea against targets in Syria. – EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY/FILE

Outside powers have been crashing into the Middle East for more than a century. At first we presumed that people there would not mind, or even that they would welcome us. Ultimately we realized that our interventions were provoking hatred and violent turmoil. We took refuge in another comforting illusion: That no matter how awful the reaction was, it would be confined to the Middle East.

At least since the 9/11 attacks 14 years ago, it has been clear that this is fantasy. Terrorism and mass migration are bitter results of outside meddling in the Middle East. They will intensify.

Interventions multiply our enemies. Every village raid, every drone strike, and every shot fired in anger on foreign soil produces anti-Western passion. Some are shocked when that passion leads to violent reaction. They should not be. The instinct to protect one’s own, and to strike back against attackers, is older than humanity itself.

Horrific terror assaults cannot be justified as any kind of self-defense. Their savagery is inexcusable by all legal, political, and moral standards. But they do not emerge from nowhere. In countries that have been invaded and bombed, some people thirst for bloody revenge.

It was never realistic for the West — the invading world — to imagine that it is an impregnable fortress, or an island, or a planet apart from the regions its armies invade. This is especially true of Europe, which is literally just a long walk from the conflict zone. Now that Russia has joined the list of intervening powers, it too is vulnerable. So is the United States. We are further away and protected by oceans, but in the modern world, that is not enough. Blowback is now global.

Violent intervention always leaves a trail of “collateral damage” in the form of families killed, homes destroyed, and lives wrecked. Usually this is explained as mistaken or unavoidable. That does nothing to reduce the damage — or the anger that survivors pass down through generations.

A new terror attack inside the United States is likely. When it happens, how will Americans respond? If the past is any guide, we will clamor to fight the evil-doers. This will be described not as aggression, but as reaction and forward defense.

A strategy based on invading or bombing might make sense if the number of militants were finite. It is not. Terror groups in the Middle East are attracting recruits faster than they can process them. Killing some creates more, not fewer.

Countries, nations, and peoples must shape their own fates. Often they do so by reacting to oppression. Religion kept Europe in the Dark Ages for a thousand years. Russians and Chinese accepted brutal Communist rule for generations. Violent extremism in the Middle East will end only when people who live there end it. That cannot begin to happen until outsiders leave the region to its own people. The Middle East will not stabilize until its people are allowed to act for themselves, rather than being acted upon by others.

Watching cruel terror in Middle Eastern countries — or in Western capitals — is painful. It stirs our emotions. We want to avenge the victims, and imagine that in doing so, we will also be protecting ourselves. Too often, though, we fail to realize that Western power, vast as it is, cannot smash cultural patterns that have existed for longer than the United States or any European nation. Emotion overcomes sober reasoning. It naturally intensifies after horrific attacks. That is dangerous. Emotion pushes us toward rash and self-defeating choices. It is always the enemy of wise statesmanship.

Fanatics are trying to draw the United States back into Middle East quicksand. If we fall into that trap, we will not only intensify the war that is raging there, but bring it home.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.

3 Responses

  1. Dov Ronen
    Dov Ronen at | | Reply

    Excellent article. Read it in the Boston Globe a few days ago. In a future article you could highlight that not Muslims as such are rebelling (reacting) but human beings. (You may have written about that earlier–but I missed.)

  2. Jean Ranc
    Jean Ranc at | | Reply

    How about documenting this with an update of your book “Overthrow”: how our US agenda of “regime change” beginning with covert action to destabilize countries (such as Guatemala, Chile, etc.) resulting in coups, assassinations but now failing & resulting ultimately in various terrorist groups taking over. There are those who claim this secret US strategy has been behind the coup in Ukraine resulting in their on-going civil war plus our conflict with Russia and that the US attempt to remove Assad precipitated the civil war and chaos in Syria…in addition to the obvious blow back from our failed invasions of Afghanistan & Iraq plus latest our “humanitarian intervention” in Libya. How quickly we forget “Freedom Fries” being served in the Congressional cafeteria and elsewhere across the country together with French wine being poured down the drain in the rage against France standing up against our invasion of Iraq. And now the people of Paris are paying for it. A psychologist, I was living in Chapel Hill when I heard on NPR of the “Freedom Fries” origin at a cafe on the NC coast and immediately called the owner to protest but in his stupidity & arrogance, he was thrilled to be the center of media attentions & with the TV cameras coming through the door, he dismissed me & hung up. More recently, I’ve tried to get our Senator Leahy to lead an investigation and “On Point” to delve into it or at least put you, John Mearsheimer and/or David Bromwich on their show…to no avail.

  3. Samuel "Yana" Davis
    Samuel "Yana" Davis at | | Reply

    Completely brilliant analysis. One correction suggested: actually the West first intervened in1199 CE when the First Crusade was launched. Middle Easterners have long memories. Today’s interventionists are often referred to as “Crusaders” by political and religious leaders, and in the media, in the region.

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