Speaking the hard truth in Washington
Had America been Pakistan and Bush its president, Chas Freeman could well have been locked up. He continues to be almost the lone voice of sanity on the US-led war in Iraq and the never-to-be-concluded war on “global terrorism.” But fortunately for Freeman, a retired US ambassador, he lives in Washington, where despite Bush and the Department of Homeland Security, citizens still have their civil liberties and rights. Freeman, who was the American ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, heads the Middle East Policy Council, a shoestring operation, which is understandable, since it is the only group in Washington that takes an even-handed view of the Middle East, the Palestinian question and America’s relations with Muslim countries. There are no donors for such a cause here, including those millionaire Pakistanis who make contributions to congressional and presidential campaigns, not because they believe in any of the candidates, but because of one-upmanship. The more piety-ridden among them will happily give thousands of dollars for the building of yet another mosque, which will only intensify the already fierce clerical infighting, rather than contribute a red cent to an effort such as Chas Freeman’s.
The other day Chas Freeman (I take it Chas stands for Charles, but since he favours Chas, so be it) spoke to the American Academy of Diplomacy at Los Angeles on, among other things, the “war on terrorism,” which, he reminded his audience, was begun by Bill Clinton nine years ago. He said, “The terrorists who threaten us are a loose network of crazed fanatics inspired and sometimes directed by unkempt men living in caves in Waziristan. Remarkably, the cavemen think they’re winning. Even more remarkably, they may be right. For the United States and the American people, the world is now an increasingly dangerous place.”
Freeman said that while US enemies have a strategy, the US does not. He called American foreign policy towards the Middle East “diplomacy-free,” relying almost exclusively on military means. But that was demonstrably not working because worldwide, the production of anti-American fanatics was up. He said al Qaeda leaders understand that this is a war of wits, not brawn. They are fighting for the minds of the Muslim faithful. “Armed forces specialise in killing and capturing the enemy. But killing, incarcerating, or otherwise humiliating Arabs and other Muslims who sympathise with al Qaeda does not defeat the enemy; it aids him. Every instance of perceived injustice and humiliation creates a dozen new enemies, determined to kill Americans,” he stressed.
Freeman told his audience that when Bush was asked in Australia recently how the US was doing in the “global war on terrorism,” he replied with evident satisfaction, “We are kicking ass.” Cathartic as that act may be, the former envoy pointed out with deadpan humour, it is not a strategy. As for Afghanistan, Freeman observed, neither the Taliban nor the conservative Pashtuns from whom they draw their support took part in planning or executing the atrocities of 9/11. The original US objective was to punish them, not to ban them from a role in Afghan politics. The subsequent designation and pursuit of the Taliban as enemy has restored to them their international legitimacy as an Islamic and nationalist resistance movement, which it had forfeited by its pre-9/11 association with terrorists, he pointed out. US military intervention had failed to put an effective government in place in Kabul, but it had made the country “safe for poppy cultivation” and put al Qaeda and the Taliban into funds.
Freeman said – and it is just such things that the establishment finds unacceptable – that “we embraced Israel’s enemies as our own,” which led to Americans being equated with Israelis as enemies of the Muslims. The US, he noted, had abandoned the role of Middle East peacemaker to back Israel’s efforts to pacify its captive and increasingly ghettoised Arab populations. “We wring our hands while sitting on them as the Jewish state continues to seize ever more Arab land for its colonists. This has convinced most Palestinians that Israel cannot be appeased and is persuading increasing numbers of them that a two-state solution is infeasible.”
Freeman said there is now a strong American preference for solving problems by militaristic, unilateralist and scofflaw behaviour rather than diplomacy, cooperation with other nations, or the promotion of legal norms. He declared, “We condemn terrorism as criminal but reserve the right to respond to it with actions we ourselves previously considered criminal. This has dismayed our allies and friends in the industrial democracies and divided them from us even as it has greatly reduced the numbers of those in the Muslim world and elsewhere who view us as worthy of emulation. We are increasingly isolated and friendless. The restoration of faith in the United States and our commitment to international law and comity is among the most urgent tasks before us. As it is, when we are next struck (as we surely will be), we must be prepared for the likelihood that, this time, there will be more schadenfreude overseas than solidarity with our distress.”
According to Freeman, al Qaeda draws its strength and its recruits from the grievances of Arabs and other Muslims. Whether or not these grievances are justified, denial will not cure them. It is in American interest both to analyse them and to reduce them to the lowest possible level. This cannot be done without honest examination of how US actions appear to those they affect, unimpeded by prejudice, stereotypes, or the enforcement of political taboos. America needs to understand what it is up against as it is, not as it is politically expedient to explain. Only then can it hope to develop policies that reduce tensions and end the conflicts in the Holy Land, Iraq and Afghanistan, not aggravate or perpetuate them.
Freeman urged the US to make a serious effort to understand its enemies rather than simply caricature and malign them. Instead of examining them and their doctrine, they have been associated with convenient analogies with Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Instead of addressing al Qaeda’s case against direct and indirect American interventions in the Arab and Islamic worlds, Washington has ascribed to it an ideology that does not exist.
“Islamofascism” is a word invented in America, he pointed out, “redolent with politically evocative overtones of the European holocaust, and totally disconnected from both Islam and Arab history.” Rather than analysing the aims that al Qaeda and its allies profess, namely freeing the realm of Islam of US presence, “we ascribe to them an objective of world conquest similar to that of our past Eurasian enemies. Ignorance, confusion, and self-indulgence have led us to impose unfounded stereotypes on Muslims and to mistake Arab friends for Arab enemies – and, no doubt, vice versa.”
The only question is: will Freeman’s sane voice prevail in Washington? Not today, of course, but for all our sakes, let’s hope it will do so tomorrow.