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Where are we now?

William Miller | Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ten years ago the United States went through a transformative moment. When the Twin Towers fell, the Pentagon was struck and a plane crashed in Pennsylvania, we all knew that the world would never be the same. However, it was hard to imagine then what would happen next. The United States has subsequently embarked on a campaign to rid the world of al Qaeda and organizations like it. In doing so we have gone to war in Afghanistan, launched an invasion of Iraq, cracked down on Hamas and Hezbollah, used drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia and engaged militants in the deserts of North Africa.

However, it is far from clear that the benefits of this massive endeavor have outweighed the costs. Although al Qaeda has been weakened, it continues to operate in lawless areas of Somalia and Yemen, as well as the tribal areas of Pakistan. Hamas and Hezbollah maintain a firm grip on Gaza and southern Lebanon, respectively, and continue to hamper efforts to negotiate a sustainable peace between Palestine and Israel. Meanwhile, a new generation of terrorists seems to have emerged. Known colloquially as the “Lone Wolf Terrorist,” these individuals, as exemplified by Nidal Malik Hasan (the Fort Hood shooter), are inspired by the example set by radical extremists elsewhere and seek to copy their methods. Although these individuals are not capable of striking on a large scale, they are also much more difficult to identify and track.

This leads us to an important fact: The War on Terror is not about fighting any one organization. It is a war of public opinion, a battle to convince people around the world, and in the Middle East in particular, that the means used by terrorists like al Qaeda are not legitimate and should be disavowed. Ironically, al Qaeda has been its own worst enemy in this battle. By killing innocent Muslims in terrorist attacks around the world, al Qaeda has delegitimized itself in the eyes of many. In fact, large majorities of citizens across the Middle East ranked Islamic extremism as one of their top concerns in a recent poll by the Pew Research Center.

Alarmingly, however, large majorities also said that al Qaeda was not responsible for the attacks of 9/11. Reconciling these two viewpoints can be difficult. The evidence for al Qaeda’s involvement in 9/11 is overwhelming, and deep down most Muslims in the Middle East probably know this. The problem is that while most Muslims are anti-al Qaeda, they are certainly not pro-U.S. This is because many people across the Middle East believe that the United States has acted only in its best interests and has disregarded the opinions and interests of ordinary citizens in the region.

So where do we go from here? The answer is a three-step process. First, the United States must broker a peace deal between Israel and Palestine. The only way to do this is to pressure Israel to give up its settlement building in the West Bank while simultaneously coercing the Palestinians into recognizing the legitimacy of Israel. The U.S. holds all the cards in both cases. Israel relies on the U.S. for weapons, and a U.S. threat to not deliver them would force the Israelis to cave. Palestine, meanwhile, wants to be recognized as a state by the United Nations, but an American veto at the Security Council will prevent this from happening. As a result, the U.S. can set the terms for ending this conflict.

Second, the United States must encourage regimes in the region to liberalize their political processes. Doing so would open up the political spectrum to youth-led political organizations, which tend to idealize western values but lack the opportunity to broadcast their message. These groups have the potential to transform the region and to introduce new ideas and norms into a stultified political scene, but they will only get that chance if the United States puts pressure on its clients, such as Jordan and Kuwait, to allow this to happen.

Finally, the U.S. must be much more careful in applying force around the region. I am by no means suggesting that the U.S. cannot use force at all; raids such as the one that killed Osama bin Laden are justified when your enemy seeks to kill innocent civilians and fights by no rules. However, we have to be smart about when we strike. Killing low-level operatives in Pakistan creates more enemies than it disables, since the civilian casualties these strikes inevitably lead to spark local outrage and create new opponents.

Following these steps will not end terrorism, but they could create circumstances in which terrorists’ means become delegitimized in the eyes of the Muslim world. This would strike a deathblow to organizations like al Qaeda, which rely on popular support and funding to exist and operate. America is safer now than it was ten years ago, but it can be safer still if we take positive steps to end the Israel-Palestine conflict, liberalize the region’s political systems and prevent unnecessary loss of life.

William Miller is sophomore majoring in Arabic and political science. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily that of The Observer.