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America's Next Move: In ME schools

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America's Next Move : The war on terror will be won not only on the battlefield but in schools.

by Max Boot

05/20/2003 12:00:00 AM

THERE IS SOME IRONY, though not of the pleasant sort, in the fact that last week's suicide bombing in Riyadh occurred shortly after it was announced that the remaining American troops would be withdrawn from Saudi Arabia. This move was designed to remove one of the grievances held by Al-Qaeda and its ilk. But Washington seemed to overlook the fact that no matter what happens with the troops, 40,000 American civilians remain in the country.

Perhaps these, too, can be evacuated (though only at the cost of crippling the Saudi monarchy). But what about the Americans in Kuwait? Or Indonesia? Or, for that matter, Britain? Pretty much all of the estimated 3.8m Americans living abroad are inviting targets for terrorism. So are the 291m at home.

There is nothing that the US and its allies can do to mollify Islamist terrorists.

Their fundamental objection is not to this or that policy; it is to the very existence of a modern, secular West, whose leading champion is the United States.

Since appeasement won't work, the West must seek victory. But how? The obvious, if ambitious, answer lies in transforming the Middle East, the breeding ground of this particular brand of savagery. And that is precisely what the Bush administration has set out to do.

In the administration's view, we are in a war, and, while a few battles (Afghanistan, Iraq) have been won, the conflict is far from finished. This is not a war like the second world war that will be won entirely on the battlefield. It is more like the cold war, which must be won by a combination of measures, only some of them military.

The first and most pressing priority is to develop an alternative to the dictatorships that paralyze development in the Arab world. Iraq presents the best opportunity to achieve that goal--but only if the occupation proves as effective as the war that preceded it.

So far, the outlook is far from positive. The Bush administration did astoundingly little planning for the post-war environment. The result is violence and chaos. To its credit, the administration fairly quickly recognized that things were off course and brought in the tough-talking former diplomat Paul Bremer to replace the soft- spoken former general Jay Garner as viceroy.

But tangled lines of authority remain a problem: Bremer promised last Tuesday that U.S. troops would start shooting looters, only to be contradicted the next day by U.S. generals. This is symptomatic of a larger problem: the American military's deep reluctance to undertake peacekeeping, which it views as sissy's work.

American generals complain that they don't have enough troops to police Iraq even though they have more than 160,000 allied soldiers, including 45,000 in Baghdad.

Contrast this with the heyday of empire, when there were never more than 79,000 British soldiers to guard all of India, which is 10 times bigger than Iraq.

Yet even as the coalition struggles to transform Iraq, it cannot lose sight of its neighbors. Iran and Syria are two of the leading sponsors of terrorism in the world and both are said to be acquiring weapons of mass destruction--chemicals and germs in the case of Syria; nukes, chemicals and germs in the case of Iran.

The Bush administration's post-war sabre-rattling may already have had an impact on them. Damascus appears to have reduced its attempts to hinder U.S. forces in Iraq. Tehran is still trying to exert its influence over the Iraqi Shiites, but it is doing so peacefully; it has not started a terrorist campaign against coalition troops.

But it's not enough simply to deter Iran and Syria from overt acts of aggression.

The West can never breathe easy as long as such criminal regimes remain in control of such vast resources. And it's not just our enemies that represent a problem. So do our ostensible friends, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, whose citizens seem to make up the bulk of al Qaeda's recruits.

There is only one solution to this problem, and it is called liberal democracy.

Spreading freedom in the Arab world is no easy task, of course, but if democracy could take root in eastern Europe, east Asia and Latin America, there is no theoretical reason why it shouldn't work in the Middle East.

This will ultimately be up to the local people, but America can give them a helping hand, as it has helped other democrats from Poland to the Philippines. The West should heed the eloquent plea issued last week by the Egyptian dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim to "assist the democratic transformation of the region".

Many people, including apparently Ibrahim himself, seem to think this means emphasizing the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process", but that would be a big mistake. The vaunted "road map" leads nowhere. Or rather it leads precisely where the Oslo process did: to mutual recriminations.

Those who think that Israeli concessions can buy peace from Islamic Jihad and Hamas (or even from Yasser Arafat's own al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades) make the same mistake as those who think that US or British concessions can buy peace from al Qaeda.

The fundamental problem in the Palestinian Authority is the same as in the rest of the Middle East: lack of liberalism. Developing democratic institutions isn't as sexy as pushing a "peace process", but it must be the West's primary emphasis in the region. Sometimes this will involve forcible regime change, as in Iraq. More often, subtler measures are called for.

Here's one example. Saudi Arabia is notorious for spreading Wahhabism, the most intolerant, hateful breed of Islam, around the world. It spends an estimated $3 billion to $4 billion a year on activities that give rise to terrorism. Many poor parents in the Islamic world send their children to Saudi-funded madrasah schools, which preach Wahhabism, simply because they have no alternative education system.

Riyadh can afford to do this because it's rich (GDP: $241 billion). But America is much, much richer (GDP: $10 trillion). Why doesn't the US use a few odd billion dollars to pay for secular schools in the Islamic world that teach the skills needed to succeed in the modern world?

This is the kind of unconventional strategy that America must pursue if it is to win this long war against Islamist terror. Military success is important, but it's not enough.

Max Boot is Olin senior fellow at the influential American government think tank the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power."

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