Before and After: U.S. Foreign Policy and the September 11th Crisis, by Phyllis Bennis. Foreword by Noam Chomsky. New York: Olive Branch Press, 2002. xvii + 227 pages. Notes to p. 238. Index to p. 246. $17.95 paper.
Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge, by Alan M. Dershowitz. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. 228 pages. Notes to p. 260. Acknowledgments to p. 261. Index to p. 271. $24.95 cloth
In the quest to understand violence in the Middle East and the role the United States plays and should play, a plethora of books have appeared ranging from the sublime to the ludicrous, from thoughtful critiques of U.S. policy to right-wing apologetics. Recent books by political analyst Phyllis Bennis and Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz illustrate the range of titles that recently have become available.
In Before and After, Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies elucidates a number of troubling aspects and implications of U.S. policy about which even well-read critics of the U.S. role in the Middle East may not be fully aware. The opening third of the book looks at the first eight months of the administration of George W. Bush as well as the antecedents of Clinton administration policy. The bulk of the text by this leading foreign policy critic examines the dangerous trends in U.S. Middle East policy since the tragedy of September 11th.
By focusing on the before and after, Bennis shows that while the hawks of the Bush administration were able to take advantage of the fear, anger, and sense of nationalism experienced by the American public in the wake of 9/11 to pursue a particularly dangerous series of actions, the roots to the tragedy of U.S. policy in the Middle East were already well in place. Bennis also analyzes how the United States, despite having received unprecedented sympathy in the international community in the wake of 9/11, subsequently has found itself increasingly isolated.
Although the less-than-complete footnoting, occasional sloppy editing, some repetition, and a few minor factual errors detract from the quality of the book, Before and After is far from being simply a leftist polemic. It is powerful and persuasive, and should be considered must reading for those wishing to get a better grip on contemporary U.S. policy in the Middle East. For example, one significant point is that U.S. efforts at "coalition-building" are based on the assumption that the role of allies is to "bolster U.S. strategic decisions, not to participate in making them" (p. 86). The early reassuring rhetoric of global participation, says Bennis, soon gave way to the "fiercest unilateralistic instincts of the most hawkish elements of the administration" (p. 97).
This arrogance of being the world's sole remaining superpower can be illustrated, according to Bennis, in how the United States insists that its adversaries strictly abide by UN resolutions and other principles of international law while "it holds itself accountable only to a separate law of empire which applies to the U.S. alone" (p. 104). Furthermore, "In the context of September 11, U.S. arrogance takes the form of hypocrisy. The U.S. purports to champion democracy as the linchpin of U.S. foreign policy, while continuing to prop up governments famous for denying any hint of democracy to their own people" (p. 104). Indeed, as I argue in my own book, Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism, America has become the target of extremists not because of its freedom and democracy, but because U.S. Middle East policy has had little to do with freedom and democracy.
Particularly significant is Bennis's emphasis on the relationship between the United States giving itself sweeping authority to conduct military operations in the name of anti-terrorism and its giving an essentially blank check to Israel to increase its repression in the occupied territories. Under the Bush administration, the central issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become how to end Palestinian violence, not how to end the Israeli occupation that has spawned it. Contrary to the dominant criticism of Bush administration policy on Israel and Palestine, what is needed is "Not more engagement but an entirely different kind of engagement" (p. 202). Similarly, none of the emissaries that President Bush sent to Israel could succeed because there was "no mandate to seriously dictate terms to Israel" (p. 206), which--as the occupying power--bore the onus for compromise.
In contrast to Bennis's thoughtful critique of America's "war on terrorism," Alan Dershowitz--the flamboyant and controversial defense attorney of such celebrity defendants as O.J. Simpson, Mike Tyson, and Claus von Bulow--chastises those who seek to understand the root causes of violence in the Middle East as essentially playing into the hands of terrorists. His book Why Terrorism Works is a collection of essays that starts with an ahistorical and misleading account of the use of terror in the Palestinian national struggle and concludes with some highly controversial proposals for the U.S. government to employ in its fight against the threat of terrorism.
In reviewing the history of Palestinian terrorism in the 1970s, Dershowitz assumes a level of control by PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat over radical Marxist-Leninist PLO factions--such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine--that he simply never had. The author even tries to link subsequent terrorist acts committed by such anti-PLO groups as Abu Nidal and Hamas to the Palestinian leader.
The basic myth encapsulated in Dershowitz's book is that the use of terror in the course of the Palestinian struggle was so successful as to inspire others, most prominently Osama bin Laden, to embrace terrorism to advance their own political causes, a tactical decision he implies otherwise never would have been made. Indeed, the front cover of the book--primarily consisting of the faces of Arafat and Bin Laden--probably was designed to further connect the Palestinian president with the notorious Saudi terrorist in the minds of American readers.
Dershowitz's underlying assumption is that the apocalyptic mega-terrorism of the al-Qa`ida network was a direct outgrowth of the alleged appeasement of Arafat by the United Nations, the Europeans, the Nobel committee, and the pope. He can make such a claim, however, only by ignoring both the role of U.S.-backed Israeli militarism, repression, and obstinacy in provoking Palestinian terrorism as well as the distinct origins of al-Qa`ida out of Saudi Wahhabism and the Afghan struggle.
More fundamental, however, is the fact that terrorism actually has hurt the Palestinian cause far more than it has helped it. The use of terror in the Palestinian resistance not only has been morally reprehensible, but it has also given the Israelis the excuse to maintain their brutal and illegal occupation and successive U.S. administrations the rationalization for supporting Israel.
Despite being considered by many to be a civil libertarian--at least when it comes to Americans--Dershowitz openly advocates torture against terrorist suspects, arguing that "[t]he simple cost-benefit analysis for employing such non-lethal torture seems overwhelming" (p. 144). Even putting aside the moral and constitutional questions, there are, in reality, serious reasons to question the effectiveness of torture. As Egyptian social scientist Sa'ad Eddin Ibrahim--who knows first-hand about how governments can violate basic human rights--has demonstrated in his research, Islamist suspects actually have tended to become more prone to commit acts of terrorism as a result of such torture.
Dershowitz also calls for a national ID card for American residents and citizens and has advised the Israeli government to destroy entire Palestinian villages in response to terror attacks. Advocacy for such draconian tactics is particularly ironic from a man who once defended terrorists of the Jewish Defense League who bombed the office of impresario Sol Hurok, a blast that killed a young Jewish woman as she arrived at work.
Unfortunately, it is the analysis presented by Dershowitz, not Bennis, that has received greater attention from the media and policymakers. Such attention is a reminder of the difficulty faced when advancing a rational, moral, and effective policy to respond to the threat of terrorism.
Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of politics and chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. He is Middle East editor for the Foreign Policy in Focus Project (www.fpif.org) and author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2002).