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Cheney's Terrorism Blunders: Should Take Lessons from Zbigniew Brzezinski

05/25/2011 12:00 pm ET
  • Steve Clemons Washington Editor at Large of The Atlantic and founder and senior fellow of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation.

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Vice President Cheney was off in Missouri yesterday (coincidence?) at a rally for the B-2 bomber forces at Whiteman Air Force Base.

As usual, Cheney's remarks reinforce mistaken notions about terrorism. He suggests to the bomber forces that only taking the fight to terrorists can turn the tide.

Cheney doesn't talk about stealing the audience from terrorists or robbing from them the ability to exploit grievances that many in the Middle East feel.

Terrorists are performers on a stage -- attempting to look legitimate in the eyes of people throughout the Middle East. If the grievances were reversed, terrorists would be marginalized. If America and Europe did more to connect to the aspirations of the broad public in the Middle East, then at least there would be real competition for legitimacy -- and the acts of terrorists could be morally undermined in the eyes of Muslims.

One wonders if Cheney ever gives this sort of talk to the many NGOs who are in the Middle East trying to help people in the region construct better societies -- or whether this plays only for the folks whose job it is to bomb.

Cheney stated in his speech at Whiteman Air Force Base (not yet posted on the White House website):

In this new era, Americans have learned that oceans do not protect us, and threats that gather thousands of miles away can now find us here at home. We have learned that there is a certain kind of enemy whose ambitions have no limits, whose cruelty is only fed by the grief of others. These enemies don't assemble standing armies or navies to confront us. Instead they operate in small cells; they dwell in the shadows; and they hide in caves on the other side of the world. And yet they are driven by an ideology of violence, and they are absolutely determined to cause great harm to the United States of America.

The terrorists hate this country and everything we stand for -- human freedom, democratic government, respect for life. They seek ever deadlier weapons, and they would use those weapons against us without hesitation. With the terrorists, there can be no negotiations, or appeals to reason or conscience. We have only one option, and that's to take the fight to the enemy.

A sensible, enlightened treatment of what drives terrorism and how to confront it was written by Zbigniew Brzezinski in September 2002 in the New York Times, "Confronting Anti-American Grievances." It's worth reading every few months just as a benchmark of how poorly the Bush administration has done in curbing terrorists and their violence.

Here is a teaser from the Brzezinski essay, but read the whole thing:

Missing from much of the public debate is discussion of the simple fact that lurking behind every terroristic act is a specific political antecedent. That does not justify either the perpetrator or his political cause. Nonetheless, the fact is that almost all terrorist activity originates from some political conflict and is sustained by it as well. That is true of the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, the Basques in Spain, the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the Muslims in Kashmir and so forth.

In the case of Sept. 11, it does not require deep analysis to note -- given the identity of the perpetrators -- that the Middle East's political history has something to do with the hatred of Middle Eastern terrorists for America. The specifics of the region's political history need not be dissected too closely because terrorists presumably do not delve deeply into archival research before embarking on a terrorist career. Rather, it is the emotional context of felt, observed or historically recounted political grievances that shapes the fanatical pathology of terrorists and eventually triggers their murderous actions.

American involvement in the Middle East is clearly the main impulse of the hatred that has been directed at America. There is no escaping the fact that Arab political emotions have been shaped by the region's encounter with French and British colonialism, by the defeat of the Arab effort to prevent the existence of Israel and by the subsequent American support for Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians, as well as by the direct injection of American power into the region.

While there is a place for a military response to those who engage in violent attacks against innocent people, that alone worsens the problem -- particularly when other innocent people are killed in the response.

But what Brzezinski reveals is the requirement of incorporating into any anti-terrorism strategy the operating methodologies behind terrorism.

Cheney's pound the chest and thump the podium strategy alone assures that America will face more, not less, terrorism and insurgency problems in the future.

-- Steve Clemons is Senior Fellow and Director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note