PARIS -- The calls for war that have come from Washington since Tuesday's catastrophes - for "war" against terrorism, against evil, against enemies of civilization - answer the psychological demands of the hour, the leaders' need to seem to lead. But they are wrong. Without tangible content, they fall short. They cannot satisfy. They risk actions that will make things worse, blows that hit people who had nothing to do with these attacks, thus adding to the numbers of those who hate the United States and are willing to die to do it harm.
The riposte of a civilized nation, one that believes in good, in human society and does oppose evil, has to be narrowly focused and, above all, intelligent.
Missiles are blunt weapons. These terrorists are smart enough to make others bear the price for what they have done, and to exploit the results.
A maddened U.S. response that hurts still others is what they want: It will fuel the hatred that already fires the self-righteousness about their criminal acts against the innocent.
What the United States needs is cold reconsideration of how it has arrived at this pass. It needs, even more, to foresee disasters that may lie in the future.
Osama bin Laden, peremptorily but plausibly accused of responsibility for the attacks, is in a position of power today because of past U.S. policies that focused on the short term and were indifferent to the future. The United States does not need more of that.
Mr. bin Laden is the product of revolutionary and anti-American forces in the Islamic world that remain, for the most part, subterranean but which exist in his own country, Saudi Arabia. They are the same forces that produced a revolutionary and anti-American upheaval in Iran.
The fact that the Saudi monarchy is the most important U.S. ally in the Arab world has disguised from most Americans how fragile it is. Mr. bin Laden belongs to a generation of well-educated younger members of the Saudi ruling elite and its mercantile middle class who consider the monarchy's accommodation to the U.S. alliance a great betrayal.
They are faithful to the source of Saudi identity, the 18th-century Wahhabi Muslim reform movement, which holds that all changes or accretions to Islam since the 9th century are illegitimate and must be expunged. This doctrine, conceived among austere desert Arabs, is the official religion of an enormously rich state, in which many of the ruling figures' private lives blatantly contradict the Wahhabi condemnation of luxury and ostentation. The psychological, as well as social, tensions this has produced over the last 50 years in the consciences and psychologies of the new generation, the sons and grandsons of the desert Wahhabis, may easily be imagined.
The Saudi elite has appeased the alienated generation by subsidizing radical Wahhabi movements abroad. Saudi Arabia paid for the Mujahidin of the Afghan resistance. It subsidizes the Taleban. It paid for the Mujahidin who fought in Bosnia, and now it subsidizes Wahhabi movements in Central Asia and Africa.
Yet Saudi Arabia's own tortured compromise between alliance with the United States - capital of materialism - and its professed Islamic fundamentalism, to which the Saudi masses are attached, must one day collapse, just as the Shah's regime in Iran collapsed.
Mr. bin Laden, 44, an engineer by training, is a committed Wahhabi Muslim whose first political engagement was at the side of the CIA in fighting the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Like many of the Mujahidin, he refused demobilization when Russia abandoned the Afghan war. He had a new war to fight, to save his own country, and his religion, from the United States.
Mr. bin Laden hates the United States because he believes that America is an enemy of Islam and has polluted the Islamic holy places. Washington took advantage of the Gulf War in 1991 to obtain Saudi acquiescence in permanent U.S. bases inside Saudi Arabia.
Mr. bin Laden's cause is an Arabia free of foreign soldiers, purged of "infidel" influence, under fundamentalist Wahhabi rule. He wants to "destroy" the United States because it is, to him, what it was to the Iranian revolutionaries: a source of literal evil in today's world.
Clearly, the United States needs to deal with Mr. bin Laden's terrorist organization, but that is essentially a police and intelligence problem.
Long-term United States interests cannot afford a "war" that risks toppling Saudi Arabia and other conservative Islamic regimes into alliance with the radical movements already powerful in Iran, Sudan, Algeria, and influential in Egypt, Pakistan, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. That, though, is the risk.
Copyright © 2001 the International Herald Tribune