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Global Terrorism, Domestic Order, and the United States

Section 1


1. The Terrorist Attack on America and Its Consequences

Throughout most of the twentieth century, citizens in the United States enjoyed a unique orientation toward the rest of the world. Although the country became a superpower in international politics, its citizens stood largely isolated from direct conflict with people of other nations. The eastern and western borders of the United States were protected by great oceans. Its northern and southern borders were safe thanks to friendly neighbors: Canada to the north and Mexico to the south. Although the U.S. had fought wars with both nations in earlier times, each border was militarily undefended on both sides throughout the twentieth century.

In contrast to Europe, where most nations had fought two world wars with neighboring states--citizens and politicians in the United States were blessed by splendid isolation from international aggression. As a result, they could more clearly separate domestic politics from international politics. Both Democrats and Republicans in office separated politics and home from politics abroad with the simple claim, "Politics stops at the water's edge." Few countries elsewhere in the world could segregate foreign policy from domestic life so effectively.

The attack: Why?

On September 11, 2001, the United States became more like other nations by suffering a foreign attack on its land. It was attacked, however, not by a foreign state but by foreigners of various middle eastern nationalities. They were assumed to be operating under the direction of Al Qaeda, a terrorist organization of radical muslim extremists based in Afghanistan and led by Osama bin Laden, a Saudi. By crashing huge airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., the terrorists killed themselves and almost 3,000 innocent people, mostly Americans but also hundreds of other nationals.[1]

Many Americans were almost as baffled as shocked by the attack. They could not understand what caused the foreign terrorists to hate us enough to sacrifice their lives to inflict such damage on America. Prior to the attack, almost 75 percent of the public thought that the U.S. was viewed "favorably" by the rest of the world, and only 4 percent thought that it was viewed "very unfavorably."[2] Speaking to a joint session of Congress for the first time after the attack and addressing the nation over television, President George W. Bush asked the baffling question and gave this answer:

Americans are asking, why do they hate us? They hate what we see right here in this chamber--a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms- our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.[3]

Of course that was a simple, misleading explanation, but not entirely untrue. Clearly the freedom of expression in our mass media allows for plenty of material consumption, violence, and nudity. The American lifestyle--which was widely advertised through the global media--was resented and even hated in deeply religious lands, where it was perceived many muslims in the Middle East as impious, if not profane. But a more adequate explanation of the terrorists' motive lies in the United States' international reach and role: its foreign policies and its global economic and military power. One American reporter offered three reasons why many foreigners hate the United States:[4]

1. Despite upholding democracy as an ideal, Americans support authoritarian governments when it serves their interests--e.g., during the Cold War, when even dictators were included in the "Free World" as long as they were anti-communist; and even now, when nations possess something that the United States wants, such as oil.

2. On almost every important conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis, the United States sides with Israel, which also receives--on a per capital basis--the highest share of U.S. foreign aid.[5]

3. American culture, spread world-wide through mass media, tends to infect and smother other cultures, and--especially for non-European societies--it represents the worst form of cultural "Westoxication."

In truth, American foreign policy had always affected American society in important ways, but the linkage was generally unclear to the average citizen, who grasped the connection only under war-like conditions (hot or cold). Absent an identifiable foreign enemy, most citizens drew few connections between foreign affairs and their personal lives. Given that there were 15 Saudis among the 19 hijackers who commanded the airplanes in the September 11 attack and that the al Qaeda network was also headed by Saudi Osama bin Laden, many Americans began re-examining the United States' relationship with Saudi Arabia--a major source of oil for the U.S.

Drunk on foreign oil: With only about 5 percent of the world's population, the United States, consumes about 25 percent (19 million barrels) of the total daily consumption of 76 million.[6] (Compare this to Russia, where 150 million people, representing roughly 3 percent of the world's population, use only about 2.4 million barrels percent of the world's oil, just about 3 percent.)[7] The United States is itself a major oil producer, accounting for about 12 percent of the world's output in 2000 (about the same as Saudi Arabia).[8] However, the U.S. consumes virtually all of its production and depends on foreign sources for more than what it produces.[9]

Astute observers of American politics have long recognized the price paid for its dependence on foreign oil. In addition to the cost of oil itself, the U.S. pays dearly for the military defense of oil-exporting Middle Eastern countries. A letter to the Editor of the New York Times, notes additional costs "in terms of America's international reputation and moral credibility: our appetite for foreign fossil fuels has created a long history of unsavory marriages of convenience with petrodespots, generalissimos and fomenters of terrorism."[10]

If not the most unsavory of its marriages for oil, the U.S.'s wedding with Saudi Arabia was the grandest of its unsavory marriages. When oil was discovered in the Arabian peninsula around 1930, the United States began courting the desert kingdom. American companies helped create the state oil company, Aramco, and American influence returned after the 1973 Arab oil embargo. Indeed, in 1991 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the U.S. moved quickly against Iraq in large part to protect Saudi Arabia--and its marriage for oil. Prior to the September 11 attack, the U.S. and Saudi governments had a cozy relationship: the Saudis even sold oil to the United States below world prices to retain diplomatic favor- despite the world economic downturn and falling oil prices.[11] Since the attack, angry young Saudis outside the ruling family became more outspoken in blaming their country's economic deterioration on the U.S., while fundamentalist muslims (there are many among the Saudis) cursed the presence of the infidel American troops based there during the war with Iraq. An uneasy royal family, which has maintained its autocratic rule despite the wave of democracy across the world, began to speak of their separate interests, particularly with regard to their opposing positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Demanding more to drink: Why do we Americans consume so much oil? We burn it mostly for transportation, which consumes 65 percent of all domestic usage--mostly in passenger vehicles. Indeed, American cars and sport-utility vehicles alone consume about 10 percent of the global daily consumption of oil. In part, because the United States has neglected the development of efficient travel by rail, personal travel in American society is mostly by automobiles, which are are notoriously large and fuel-inefficient. Travel by personal automobiles is encouraged by low taxes on gasoline, which makes fuel quite cheap. In April 2001, Americans paid about $0.41 for a liter of gasoline, which was about half the cost per liter in European countries like France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Britain. Nevertheless, a survey in May 2001 found that 60 percent of the U.S. public thought the price of gasoline was "a major problem" and 19 percent saw it as a "crisis" for the country. When asked who is to blame for the high price of oil, most Americans pinned a "great deal" of the blame on those who produced the oil (52 percent cited U.S. oil companies and 44 cited foreign countries), but only 22 percent blamed "American consumers"--those who guzzled the oil in the first place.

Fueling patriotism: During the last decade, for instance, few knew that their gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles were economically viable largely because the United States reliably obtained nearly twenty percent of its oil from Saudi Arabia, an undemocratic monarchy and religiously intolerant state. A reporter for the New York Times interviewed people filling their SUVs at a small-town gas station in Wayne, New Jersey. When informed that American dependence on oil might indirectly promote terrorism, one woman said, "I never thought of it that way--that we should be conserving more." Another said, "I don't think it's unpatriotic to use so much gas. It's very patriotic. It's our way of life." Fortunately, political leaders are beginning to speak out on the linkage between American dependence on foreign oil and our current problem with international terrorism. Edward L. Morse, former assistant secretary of state for international energy policy in the 1980s under President Reagan, said, "The stark truth is that we're dependent on this country [Saudi Arabia] that directly or indirectly finances people who are a direct threat to you and me as individuals." Since September 11, some leading thinkers have proposed that the U.S. should turn away from Saudi Arabia and toward Russia for its major source of oil abroad.

Linking policy abroad to life at home: Although most Americans may still be only dimly aware of linkage between our demand for Middle East oil and our status as a target for Middle East terrorists, the number of citizens who think about the consequences of our foreign involvements has increased since September 11. A unique pre-post comparison of public opinion comes from two national surveys of citizens' views on international affairs. The PEW Research Center had conducted a survey of 2,002 people from August 21 to September 5, 2001. After the September 11 attack, PEW arranged for a call back during October 15-21, and reinterviewed 1,281 of the same respondents. Overall, the researchers found "a new internationalist sentiment among the public." For example, before September 11, only 48 percent of the respondents said that the U.S. should take into account its allies' interests in its foreign policies, but after September 11, 59 percent (of the same respondents) favored taking into account the views and interests of its allies.

A later poll taken on November 1-4, found that 81 percent of respondents favored the U.S. taking "an active part" in world affairs, "the highest level since the end of World War II." Moreover, despite the United States' squabbles with the United Nations, which led to the U.S. government's failure to pay over $500 million in back dues to the U.N., 70 percent of the respondents also agreed that "the United States should cooperate fully with the United Nations." In fact, just two weeks after the September 11 attack, the House of Representatives quickly, and by a voice vote, passed a bill (which had been stalled in Congress for months) to release the money that the U.S. owed to the U.N. Suddenly, U.S. lawmakers also became more supportive of international cooperation.

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