by Austin Bay
June 29, 2005
"War is hell," Gen. Billy Sherman said. The hell of the American Civil War ended slavery and settled a constitutional question regarding a state's right to secede from the Union.
Nominally over in 1865, civil rights activists of the 1960s knew the social and economic injustices they confronted were the unfinished business of Shiloh and Gettysburg. For a century, the Ku Klux Klan used terror tactics to murder innocents. The KKK's fire bombings and lynching-assassinations pre-figure the tactics employed by Saddam's holdout henchmen in Iraq.
For three decades, Sherman's hell ruled Afghanistan. Communist invasion, Taliban tyranny and Al Qaeda-backed terror -- the people of Afghanistan knew only oppression and destruction. Last week, I talked with Afghan farmers in a village near Bagram. They spoke of water and wheat. New elections loom. The economic and political battles -- however difficult -- point the way to peace.
The tyrannical grip of Saddam Hussein brought perpetual war to Iraq. The internal wars waged by his Tikriti elites against Shias and Kurds were hideous and merciless. The Iran-Iraq War, with its poison gas and human-wave attacks, echoed World War I at its worst. Recall Saddam started that war in 1980 with a quick tank strike, the same trick he tried a decade later in Kuwait.
But for 9-11, Afghanistan and Iraq would have stayed in thrall to tyranny, terror and war. And just perhaps, America would have remained asleep, jarred occasionally by the bombs of Islamo-fascist radicals, taking a Khobar Towers here, a USS Cole there, until ...
Until Osama bin Laden acquired a nuclear weapon or took power in a country with global economic and political import, such as Saudi Arabia.
Of course, Al Qaeda began its long war against the United States with the World Trade Center attack of 1993. In 1998, Al Qaeda attacked American embassies in East Africa. Washington responded with cruise missiles; bin Laden gained confidence and built political momentum.
In the late 1990s, bin Laden exploited an odd pressure created by America's commitment to enforce U.N. sanctions against Saddam. The presence of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia primed Al Qaeda's recruiting appeals. The Muslim street seethed with anger that infidel troops were "near Mecca." If the United Nations were to mean anything in terms of mitigating war on this planet, then Security Council Resolution 687 -- which boxed Saddam -- had to be enforced. But that put America in a long war against Saddam, enforcing no-fly zones in Iraq's north and south.
But Al Qaeda's biggest recruiting tool was -- and is -- the political failure of the Arab Muslim world. In this dysfunctional world, tyranny and terror reinforce one another, with the people of the Middle East the inevitable victims.
A few historians point to the West's complicity in tyranny. In 1919 at Versailles, democracy was deemed too complex for tribal, backward Arabs. In this respect, World War I continues to dog us -- but in Bin Laden's psychopathic mind, so does 1492, when Spain drove its Muslim conquerors back into Morocco.
What is to be done? For 20 years, I've heard Arab moderates say -- so softly -- "We cannot reform because the radicals hold the guns to our heads." The radicals are the tyrants and terrorists.
Toppling Saddam not only enforced the U.N. resolutions of 1991 -- which are of crucial import to those of us committed to a stable, just international system -- but it jerked the radicals' guns away from the moderates' heads. Witness the January vote in Iraq and the democratic surge in Lebanon.
Prying the pistol from the killers is a tough process. Like the KKK, they don't go easy. But that's what's required in this long and necessary war, a war where our own survival is intimately linked to extending political justice and wealth creation to the hard corners.
Removing Saddam began the reconfiguration of the Middle East, an arduous process that lays the foundation for true states, where the consent of the governed creates legitimacy and where terrorists are prosecuted, not promoted.
A large order? So was World War II, when heavy history fell on The Greatest Generation. It's this generation's turn to accept the challenge or face the hell of destructive consequences.