October 5, 2001

Brookings Fellow Offers a U.S. Foreign Policy Critique

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Shibley Telhami offered a guarded message of hope and promoted a more sensitive strategy for combating terror yesterday at the Peace Studies Program seminar in Uris B-08.

Telhami, former director of the Near Eastern Studies Program at Cornell, is currently a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution, a highly influential Washington think tank. He also holds the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and has served in various advisory positions for U.S. foreign relations teams.

Among the Cornell speakers discussing the Sept. 11 tragedy and the Middle East, Telhami criticized American public discourse and the U.S. government for overlooking the predictability of terrorism and called for a closer examination of its strength and its roots. Telhami also emphasized the importance of Arab-Israeli peace for the success of a united front against terror.

In his lecture titled “Can the Arab-Israeli Peace Process be Revived?” Telhami digressed from the lecture topic to discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict in the context of Sept. 11. He decried military maneuvers to eradicate Osama Bin Laden’s El-Qa’ida and other terror groups as only marginally and temporarily effective, urging a more nuanced, diplomatic approach.

“There is an enormous danger that [U.S. efforts in the Middle East] will end very quickly, our priorities will shift, and we will mistake the lull [in terrorism] that follows the shock of war for a lasting change,” Telhami said.

Rather, Telhami stressed, popular support for terrorism is deeply embedded in Muslim societies living under economic hardship and brutal authoritarian regimes. “There’s a lot of legitimate opposition to Middle Eastern regimes, with no political outlet. There is tremendous despair, frustration and anger,” Telhami said.

Muslims frustrated with Arab regimes “have no choice but to go to social organizations [which often operate terrorist wings]. The option of peaceful political dissent simply doesn’t exist,” he said.

Telhami objected to the causes of American shock and befuddlement following the terror strikes, driven by the assumption that the attacks were completely unforeseeable and cloaked in mysterious motives. Perpetrators of the attack were deemed unlikely, by both their high level of education and by their exposure to the West. This seeming randomness, combined with the shroud of faith and extremist martyrdom, “made the attack doubly terrifying,” Telhami said.

“[The attack] is evil, but it is not unpredictable,” he added.

Although the leaders of the terror groups have agendas that are irreconcilable with Western systems or morality, such as destroying a world order and destabilizing law and government, they are exploiting a high degree of public anger and despair that is legitimate — with disastrous consequences, he said.

The resentment and anger is directed toward the U.S., Telhami explained, for a number of grievances, but primarily because “they see that there is a political order they can do nothing about — that is imposed on them by the world community. They see U.S. power as the anchor of that world they don’t like.”

As a result, Telhami sadly noted that terrorism may be on the rise in the short term, as “these groups show people that they can create change, and deliver a powerful message, with only a few men with knives. It is an empowering message to groups that want to see change at any cost.”

Methods to combat terror must take on “both the supply and demand sides to terror,” Telhami said, meaning that U.S. strikes against terrorist organizations must be accompanied by strategies to reduce or air grievances of the Arab public — which would dry up the groups’ public support and pools for recruitment of martyrs.

As Islamic extremism monopolizes the political opposition in Middle Eastern regimes, governments try to maintain power above anything else and fail to put forward new ideas justify themselves and legitimate their authority. “There is no war of ideas. That’s been missing. There needs to be an infusion of hope, and of an alternate vision that can capture the imagination and inspire the public.”

Telhami also spoke of the necessary reduction of violence among Palestinians and Israelis for the success of a broad U.S.-led coalition against terror. He cited research data he gathered that showed that over 60 percent of Arabs mentioned the conflict as the top issue that affected them.

Telhami backed the recent Bush administration policy shift, announcing support for the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Telhami, as one of the formulators of the policy, said Bush was set to declare his new perspectives before Sept. 11, but put off the announcement until now.

The U.S., which claims to be highly invested in promoting an Arab-Israeli peace, must make significant progress in order to draw solid support for its anti-terror campaign. Telhami blames both Palestinian and Israeli mindsets, as well as a U.S. discourse diverging from the objectiveness of the investigative Mitchell Report, which blames both sides for the recent year-long Palestinian uprising.

Pointing to the Israeli and Palestinian peace camps, Telhami saw seemingly irreconcilable differences between the two sides, which have been aggravated by violence. He emphasized that each peace camp, in promoting the negotiations, advanced pragmatic and strategic reasons for concessions, “the Palestinians say ‘we’re weak now, so we have to accept this’ and the Israelis say ‘[the West Bank] is impossible to defend’ or argue that without giving up some territory, the demographics will put Jews at a minority.”

Telhami said that both approaches failed to address the legitimate and moral claims of both sides, of Palestinians’ right to a state and self-determination, and of Israelis’ need to allay a powerful psychology of fear: as Jews in a hostile world and as hated occupiers of a land that will not be accepted as their own. Additionally violence must first be reduced, since, “going from funeral to funeral each day for Palestinians and Israelis does not create an atmosphere conducive to negotiations,” he said.

Finally, Telhami warned that the U.S. must resist the temptation to readily accept brutal, unpopular regimes into their coalition, brushing off human rights concerns, and extending to them aid to bolster their regimes.

“There are governments that are there to maintain themselves in power above anything else. States have an incentive to minimize terrorism, which thrives in anarchy and lack of central authority,” Telhami said.

Therefore, “since states want to monopolize power, they are ready allies for the U.S. We want to say, ‘let’s strengthen the states, let’s not ask questions, let’s get them on board.’ That’s all well and good until you think about the increasing public anger over the regime. Something’s got to give somewhere.”

The seminar audience gathered in Uris Hall consisted mostly of faculty and Ithaca community members, who praised Telhami for his objectivity and well-reasoned arguments.

About the Israeli-Arab conflict, Prof. David Powers, Near Eastern Studies, said, “He was about to see and articulate both sides of the issue, without praising or criticizing either view. That was very unusual.”

“He promotes an idea that isn’t being put forward by many people — that Israeli will never secure peace in the Middle East without creating a Palestinian state that is economically viable. The status quo is impossible,” said Prof. Elizabeth Saunders, Government.

Archived article by Yoni Levine