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Is Ron Paul Right: Did Al Qaeda Attack Us Because of Our Policies?

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Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, academics, politicians and opinion-makers have waged a fierce debate. The debate has been over whether or not U.S. foreign policy has contributed, caused or in someway been responsible for terrorism against the United States and her allies. Some on the far right or far left even say there is no debate as the other extreme is not in touch with reality. Debate and dialogue are good since no one person, group or perspective has all the answers.

At almost every Republican Presidential debate, candidate and U.S. Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) says that we were attacked on 9/11 because of our policies. Candidate and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) completely disagrees (he offers a meaningless explanation as to why we were attacked that is the polar opposite of Ron Paul's.) Who is right?

Let me say up front, if U.S. policies are the 'cause' of terrorism, since we have a lot of policies, we would have a lot more terrorism. Actual terrorists and terrorist acts are rare -- but people who hate the U.S. are everywhere.

Our policies are often the cause of resentment in the Middle East towards the United States, but our policies are not the cause of terrorism.

Our Policies

A lot of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East from the end of WWII to 1991 was the result of Soviet containment. Since the dissolution of the USSR, U.S. policy has sought to maintain inexpensive oil. There is nothing wrong with either broad goal. However, some policies that the U.S. has embraced, which have resulted in resentment among the people of the Middle East, include but are not limited to:

  • 1948 -- The U.S. recognized the State of Israel, which was considered anti-Muslim
  • 1953 -- U.S. coup in Iran removed a democratically elected leader and installed a leader who then oppressed the people of that country until 1979
  • 1967 -- The U.S. supported Israel's actions in the Six Day War, which was considered anti-Muslim
  • 1973 -- The U.S. provided material support to Israel in what might have been an Arab victory
  • 1980-2011 -- The U.S. supported Egyptian President Mubarak, a dictator
  • 1982 -- The U.S. gets involved with a civil war in Lebanon, which was considered anti-Muslim
  • 1990 -- The U.S. stationed troops in Saudi Arabia, which was anti-Islam in the eyes of many
  • 1993 -- The U.S. stationed troops in Somalia, which was considered anti-Muslim
  • The 1990s -- U.S. sponsored sanctions on Iraq are said to cause the starvation of Iraqi children
  • 2003 -- The U.S. war on Iraq based on no evidence (there was no evidence; it was only speculation of WMDs and group think)
  • 1931-present -- The U.S. recognizes and supports the Saudi Monarchy, which is considered by Islamists to be weak or even non-faithful Muslims

There have been unintended consequences of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East through the experience of those who resent the United States, through the eyes of those who commit terrorism against the United States, and through policy analysis of unintended consequences. This premise does not mean that it agrees with the rationales of those who commit terrorism, but that there are stated reasons offered by people of the Middle East region as to why U.S. policy is resented.

Making good policy decisions is difficult. But there are always third alternatives to pursue that can lead to less resentment.

Know Thy Self (And Know Thy Enemy)

The Army conducts after action reviews. Doctors try to avoid iatrogenic artifacts. The CIA tries to avoid blowback. Social scientists (sociologists, economists, psychologists) try to avoid unintended consequences. Self reflection is not about accepting whether grievances are legitimate or not. This is not about a decision to appease terrorists or not. What we must examine is our enemy in Toto, including what they say about us; knowing all aspects of thy enemy is a good thing. But more importantly, we must not fail to examine ourselves; knowing thy self is a good thing. Nations don't grow resting on laurels; they strive to be better tomorrow than they were yesterday.

This notion that we examine our enemy and ourselves does not mean that the terrorists are right and we are wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is done in the spirit of being thorough. When working with complex foreign cultures, everything must be on the table, including self reflection.

If for a moment we consider that we have to win the hearts and minds of the people in the region, we can not embark on policies that push the people of the region away from us. For example, the drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a reason for much resentment towards the U.S.; U.S. policy in Israel, another reason for much resentment; and the perceived U.S. influence in Iraqi elections.

If the U.S. is to have a good reputation in the Middle East, which is important to getting the support we need to stop terrorism, we have to be mindful of the way the U.S. is perceived in the region. We can't be received well if we are not perceived well.

Ron Paul takes his argument too far. U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East didn't cause 9/11, and it won't cause terrorism in the future. Right or wrong -- policies can only cause resentment. That which causes terrorism is something entirely different and not the point of this article.

Paul Heroux lived and worked in Saudi Arabia in 2003, has a Master's in International Relations from the LSE, and is a Master's graduate of the Harvard University JFK School of Government. This article is adapted from his fourth coming book "The Aftermath of Intention: Power, Politics and the Legacy of America's Wishful Thinking in the Middle East". He can be reached at PaulHeroux.MPA@gmail.com.