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Know your enemy and know yourself;
in a hundred battles, you will never be defeated.

- Sun Tzu

It has come to my attention that large numbers of US citizens appear to have quite misunderstood why so many people - Arabs in particular - dedicate so much of their lives to fighting American power, and long for the eventual downfall of the United States. They believe, apparently, that their enemies hate the USA because they hate its freedom, and because they are fundamentally cold-hearted, evil people. Like the old chestnut about English people opposing American power because we're bitter about losing an empire that most of us are too young to remember, this is such an obvious self-serving myth that it's slightly scary in and of itself that people seem to take it seriously. Of course, it's not that many Arabs don't despise the decadence that seems to come with US-style freedom, and disapprove of the status afforded to women and so on; but these are not the main things that lead people to fight the USA with such devotion, and to make out that they are looks very much like a tactic to dehumanise the enemy with little or no basis in fact.

But if it's not America's freedom these people are so vehemently against, then what? What could a peace-loving country like the United States possibly have done to offend them? Well, three points in particular seem to stick in the craw of many Arabs, leaving aside for now the current war in Afghanistan:

  1. The United States' constant, unhesitating support of Israel while claiming to be an impartial party, only trying to help. Now, this is a complicated issue of course, and there is no shortage of good reasons for propping up Israel, but all the same one can't help but wonder if things would have got quite this bad if the States had made its massive military aid conditional on some kind of respect for human rights, or even UN resolutions. Conversely, if the US is indeed quite prepared to defend Israel no matter what, wouldn't it be wise to step back and allow someone who doesn't donate billions of dollars of military supplies to Israel every year play the part of honest broker?
  2. The sanctions and bombing regime against Iraq. Now, nobody's defending Saddam Hussein here; certainly he shoulders a substantial measure of the blame for what has been happening. Still, it is hard to escape the conclusion that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children and other civilians have died who would not have done were it not for America's insistence on sanctions which have seen many supplies vital for public health denied to the Iraqi people - chlorine for water-sterilisation, a wide range of medical supplies, and so on.
  3. The presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia. Around 5,000 US soldiers - imperialist infidels, some would say - are stationed in the holy land of Saudi Arabia, which contains most of Islam's most sacred sites. Apart from the problem some people have with their holy sites being guarded by people who are not members of their religion (and in many cases appear to have to hold said religion in contempt), the troops also help to prop up the ruling Saudi royal family, which many see as corrupt and decadent, funneling the region's oil wealth into their own pockets and the pockets of foreigners, largely Americans.

I am neither an Arab nor a Muslim, so what is said here is based on second-hand impressions. I wouldn't presume to speak for anyone if I wasn't pretty sure I could paint a much clearer picture of the true situation than anything the Bush administration or most of the mainstream media are willing to put forward. Now, why should Americans even care why these people want to kill them, or at least end their country's involvement with their own, when the USA is the most powerful country in the world by such a large margin? Well, know your enemy pretty much sums it up; but more specifically:

  1. If you leave the root causes untouched and simply try to fight all the terrorists you can find into submission, all you're doing is lopping heads off the hydra. The body still remains, and for every head messily severed - for every group of people slain or imprisoned in this fight - many more will step forward, disgusted at the murder of their friends and family, to take their place. You might succeed in wrong-footing a particular group, disrupting their communications, but how long can this be kept up when new parties are joining the struggle all the time? If there's one thing Britain's experience with Northern Ireland taught us, it's that killing people recruits for the enemy in the long run - increasing, not decreasing their numbers and determination.
  2. The United States is spending a great deal of money on this 'War on Terrorism', and placing substantial restrictions on the civil rights of its citizens, in the name of security. This looks set to continue for as long as there are people around who violently oppose to the American hegemony - which is to say, for the indefinite future so long as the USA does nothing to address the grievances that lead to this kind of terrorism.
  3. Many people who have looked into these grievances come away feeling that, actually, they have a point, and US foreign policy as it applies to the Middle East in particular is in fact morally reprehensible. If you've looked into it carefully and concluded your country is doing nothing wrong there, that's fair enough. However, US citizens who do not believe that their country's foreign policies are ethically sound are of course under a moral obligation to at least try to change the situation - regardless of the pragmatic arguments I have presented here - and those who really haven't looked into the question but defend the status quo all the same really aren't living up to their duties as citizens of a powerful democracy.

I guess it's worth saying something about the United States' other enemies, too; Muslims are certainly not the only ones the country has pissed off. The refusal of the world's biggest polluter to do anything to reduce emissions in the face of potentially disastrous global warming; its implacable opposition to international conventions for the control of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons; its insistence on free market economics for the poor countries of the world while it continues to place tariffs on imports and subsidise its farmers and other industries; its general insistence on involving itself in the affairs of everyone in the world while maintaining an insular outlook best summed up by the three lines of world news at the bottom of CNN.com's front page; its largely indiscriminate arms dealing; its legally dubious embargo on Cuba; all of these are losing it friends and making it enemies around the world. For the time being, the USA can still count most of Europe as its allies; but the relationship grows ever shakier, and our governments are a lot friendlier than our populations. If George W. Bush is allowed to continue on his present tack the United States may find itself without a friend in the world. The questions to ask at that point are: Can the USA continue to buy the co-operation of other governments indefinitely? And to what extent can it get by without it?

Note: None of this is meant to excuse terrorism in any way. I probably shouldn't need to say that. What I am trying to do is to explain the magnitude of anti-American feeling among Arabs and others, because without understanding this I don't believe that the United States has any hope of countering it, and in the long run I very much doubt that it is going to prove possible to suppress the results of it by force alone. I do not think the grievances people have against the USA justify the slaughter of civilians - but neither do I think the grievances the USA has against people living in Afghanistan justify the ongoing slaughter of civilians there, the death count of which long ago exceeded that of the WTC destruction.

In case this isn't already clear, all of the major points here are directed specifically at the United States government, not at its people. I for one have nothing against American people, except inasmuch as they are responsible for the actions of their government, and I believe that this is true of most people who oppose the USA's foreign policies; I suspect that even those who resort to terrorism against the States are doing so out of rage against and frustration with the policies of the US government, not out of a personal antipathy towards Americans; but perhaps they really do blame the people for the actions of the government, as well as despising their lifestyle. Either way, killing civilians apparently seems to them the most effective way to fight their fight. It's a filthy tactic, but I'm not convinced that it's really on a different moral plane from pursuing policies which one knows very well will kill thousands of civilians, while claiming to do 'everything possible' to avoid civilian casualties, which are 'always very regrettable'.

Please do not make the mistake of supposing that to be appalled by the actions and policies of your government is in any way equivalent to hating your population. Thank you for listening.

President Bush's speeches: http://www.whitehouse.gov/
Questions and answers about the causes of anti-US terrorism: http://www.terrorismanswers.com/causes/
A piece about US aid to Israel: http://www.wrmea.com/html/usaidtoisrael0001.htm
Excellent interview with Harold Pinter: http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,3604,781544,00.html