America’s role requires clear, united leadership

  • Jim Hoagland / Washington Post columnist
  • Saturday, September 15, 2001 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — The world looks at the United States differently in the wake of its unspeakable day of horror and carnage. Americans should return that regard with a new awareness of their changed role and responsibilities in the global civil war that has now reached America’s shores.

This is not a war between nations, religions or classes. It is a broad conflict that pits moderates against extremists within Islam; revolutionaries against royalists in the Middle East and Persian Gulf; those who believe in open societies against those who believe in revenge and chaos instead of civilization. Understanding these dichotomies is the great challenge, and the great opportunity, for the United States now.

The United States has stumbled into these merging conflicts without a clear vision of the consequences of its sustained engagement. In addition to strength and resolve, Americans must also deploy discernment and discrimination in this battle.

That is, the American approach to fighting the cancer of international terrorism must be specific, not overreaching. Responses must be focused on systematically halting those governments and individuals who would destroy Americans because they are Americans. And the United States must identify, incorporate into a coalition and lead nations whose interests and values are aligned with its own.

Strategists say that the first rule of getting involved in civil wars is simple: Don’t. The airborne attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon remove the opt-out option for the United States. Washington must now observe the second, more difficult rule: If you get involved, be on the winning side.

But victory in civil war is different than it is in wars between countries. Its aftermath must be an integral part of the strategy. Attention must be paid to what must be preserved as well as to what must be destroyed.

The initial clues linking this day of atrocities to the multiple conflicts of the Middle East and Persian Gulf will stir deep, conflicting emotions for many Americans. Some will stereotypically blame the Jews and argue that America’s support for Israel is at fault and should be ended. This is as dishonorable in intent as it is mistaken in analysis.

Others will call for a massive military response to punish all of America’s perceived Muslim enemies in the region, even in the absence of clear links to the crimes of Sept. 11. They brandish the same vicious blunderbuss of hatred as those who target Arab-Americans at home for persecution on the basis of their ethnicity or religion.

Even a tragedy as enormous and heinous as this will be used by many to reinforce and repackage existing prejudices and motives. Vladimir Putin’s expressions of sympathy carried an undertone of self-justification for Russia’s war on "fundamentalists" in Chechnya. Putin’s statement smacked of an appeal for a crusade against Muslim extremists.

The United States must be wary of such opportunism as it sets out to prepare its response and to ready the world for the costs that the response will inevitably bring. The difference in the way the world looks at the United States now was underscored on Wednesday, when the 18 other member nations of NATO described the terrorist assault as an attack on the alliance as whole.

The world was turned upside down with that statement: For half a century the United States deployed its troops and weapons to protect Europe from invasion. Now Europe extends solidarity to America under assault.

The NATO declaration is the first essential building block in the political and military coalition the United States must lead — with Russia, China and Arab nations also offering active support for a more focused military and diplomatic strategy.

The United States in the 1980s intervened repeatedly if at times unconsciously in the conflict within Islam triggered by the Iranian revolution of 1979. Washington in 1990 intervened more openly in the Arab civil war triggered by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, but failed to push that war to the finish. Feeding — but not creating — these struggles is the long, intermittent Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which now burns with new intensity.

It was not democracy or Western civilization that the bombers attacked on Sept. 11. It was the United States they struck, for specific (twisted) reasons that almost certainly have roots in the Persian Gulf. America’s national political leadership must be united and clear in treating this as a moment of truth, for America’s friends as well as its enemies.

Jim Hoagland can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200 or

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