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Did 9/11 Make Peace Passé?
Peace has never been a particularly popular word in Washington, DC. This is, after all, the home of the Pentagon and the major military contractors, not to mention all the think tanks and congressional lapdogs that lie in the king-size family bed with them. But the word "peace" has acquired such a negative reputation inside the Beltway that the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), which saw Congress nearly ax all its funding over the summer, is now considering a name change.
"Peace," the Institute's president Richard Solomon recently told The Washington Post, "is too abstract and academic." One alternative he is proposing: the U.S. Institute for Conflict Management.
Excuse me? "Conflict management" is less academic and abstract than "peace"? Get that man a thesaurus.
What Solomon really means is that "conflict management" is considerably more ambiguous than "peace." USIP, which already gets funding from such dubious sources as Lockheed Martin, could probably extract even more loot from arms manufacturers with a deft name change. Conflict "management" sounds so dour and corporate next to its more hopeful cousins, conflict resolution and conflict transformation. Management is what you do to a disease when it resists all other medical interventions. Management is all about learning to live with the problem.
Unfortunately, Solomon is simply reflecting the shift in the Obama administration itself. Running for president, Obama flirted with the title of the peace candidate for opposing the war in Iraq and calling for early withdrawal of U.S. troops. Once ensconced in the White House, however, Obama has been firmly in "conflict management" mode. Indeed, in his Nobel Prize speech, he emphasized that he would resort to the instruments of war to preserve the peace, and he has subsequently deployed such tools as intervention, escalation, and targeted assassination. Obama generally eschews the Bush swagger and declarations of missions accomplished. A consummate technocrat, he believes that task forces and white papers and parboiled rhetoric can give the outward impression of adult supervision even as his administration expands the use of drones and the Joint Special Operations Command.
The presidential superego is in charge of the speeches. The presidential id, meanwhile, is in charge of the arsenal.
In Washington, at least, peace might seem to be a quaint artifact of the pre-9/11 era, of that decade of heightened expectation that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. Terrorism has become the problem that won't go away, the conflict that the Obama administration is now tasked with managing. The Bush team did what it could to make this conflict as unmanageable as possible by pouring money into the Pentagon and playing up external threats as part of a substantial overhaul of U.S. foreign and military policy. From a president with a legendary drinking problem came Binge Militarism.
Ten years later, we are still dealing with the hangover. The aftereffects have been so extreme – the lost lives, the wasted money, the opportunity costs – that even some early enablers have recognized the problem. Journalist Anne Applebaum was gung ho about the Iraq War, faulting the Bush administration only for its inept arguments for the intervention. Today, as a Washington Post columnist, she laments all that America has neglected over the last decade in the relentless pursuit of global terrorism: the rise of China, the transformation of Russia, the dollars that could have been invested at home. Too bad she couldn't have figured this out earlier, for instance, by reading the analyses in Foreign Policy In Focus, among other publications. Her colleague Richard Cohen at least manages a muted mea culpa for his role in stoking the fires of war, but then goes on to "blame us all for going along with it and then rewarding incompetence with another term" (jeez, the least you could do, Richard, would be to acknowledge the huge peace movement that didn't fall in behind your banner).
Like most commentators reflecting on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Applebaum and Cohen both fall prey to the "it's all about us" syndrome. By putting the United States at the center of all things, analysts confer on Washington the power and responsibility to manage the world's conflicts. We either do it well or we do it poorly, and this becomes the yardstick for evaluating the legacy of the Bush administration and the conduct of the Obama White House.
But 9/11, for all the shock and horror the attacks caused here in the United States, was primarily not about us. "Al-Qaeda was certainly devoted to rolling back U.S. influence in the Islamic world, particularly in Saudi Arabia," I write in an Other Words op-ed. "But its primary audience was Muslims. Its radical objective of recreating a global caliphate was part of a debate on how to engage with modernity that has been taking place among Muslims for at least 150 years."
Al-Qaeda decisively lost that debate, even before 9/11. The vast majority of Muslims rejected al-Qaeda's brand of Islam, its style of politics, and its approach to geopolitics. From Indonesia to Palestine, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the protestors in Syria, there has been indeed a great upheaval in the Muslim world that emphasizes ballots not bullets, that draws on an impressive history of nonviolence (check out Amitabh Pal's recent book on the subject), and that rejects both the authoritarian allies of America and the imagined caliphate of Osama bin Laden.
Neither the U.S. war on terror nor U.S. policies in general toward the Muslim world made the big difference here. Washington has consistently alienated public opinion among Muslims, whether by invading and bombing predominantly Muslim countries, backing unpopular leaders, or continuing to supply economic and military aid to Israel regardless of what it does. The United States has kept up the attack on al-Qaeda for the last decade, but it was Muslims themselves that drove the stake through the heart of the terrorist organization. The Arab Spring happened despite, not because, of 10 years of grinding U.S.-sponsored war in the Muslim world.
So, if 9/11 was not really about us, if al-Qaeda is even more marginal today than it was a decade ago, if the world today is actually becoming less violent, peace should not be passé. The problem isn't out there. It's right here, in the minds of those who believe that the United States is essential to managing these conflicts.
In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs of all places, Melvyn Leffler makes the case that the Binge Militarism following 9/11 was not an aberration but entirely consistent with mainstream U.S. foreign policy up to and including the Obama era: "The United States' quest for primacy, its desire to lead the world, its preference for an open door and free markets, its concern with military supremacy, its readiness to act unilaterally when deemed necessary, its eclectic merger of interests and values, its sense of indispensability – all these remained, and remain, unchanged."
The last ten years of conflict enhancement and conflict management have been a disaster. Perhaps it's finally time – and please pardon the hopelessly passé sentiment – to give peace a chance.