Standing Alone With Our Views on
By Shibley Telhami
Los Angeles Times
April 19, 2002
The Bush administration has been
waging the global war on terrorism as if terrorism is a
movement, an ideology, a political coalition, with
little differentiation from case to case. This has
distorted our moral view of the world and enabled even
Slobodan Milosevic to justify his horrific policies of
death and ethnic cleansing.
Terrorism is an instrument, not a movement. It is an
immoral means employed by groups, some of which have
just causes, some of which don't.
To reduce its occurrence, it must be internationally
delegitimized and the conditions under which it thrives
minimized. By definition, legitimacy and illegitimacy
cannot be unilaterally decided; when the U.S. goes
against the rest of the world, it is U.S. actions that
The world supported the United States after the Sept. 11
attacks not because of how we defined the global war on
terrorism, but despite it.
We were attacked in the cruelest way by a group that
only employs terrorism and whose aim is nothing short of
our pain and destruction. There was no possible
compromise or political solution. We were neither in
conflict with Afghanistan nor did we occupy its
Terrorism aside, our cause was undeniably just. And even
as we may have been able to go it alone, we still made
sure we received international support at the United
Nations and the support of dozens of coalition partners.
Our actions were legitimate.
But now, there is a creeping and unfortunate tendency in
our debates to compare Israeli Prime Minister Ariel
Sharon's actions against the Palestinians to the U.S.
war in Afghanistan. There is a reason why we stand alone
around the world in making this comparison.
The only thread linking the two cases is that terrorism
is unfortunately and unacceptably used by Palestinians.
We must continue to reject terrorist means, especially
suicide bombings, but we cannot allow this issue to
distort our view of reality.
Palestinians and Israelis are parties in conflict. Both
have legitimate aims: Israel, peace and security; the
Palestinians, freedom from occupation. Unfortunately,
both continue to employ immoral and illegitimate means:
The Palestinians employ terrorism, and Israel employs
collective punishment against civilians and takes land
from Palestinians to build Israeli settlements.
It's a conflict that can be resolved only politically,
and that is consequential for regional and global
Even if we sympathize with Israel's security aims, our
inability to see the illegitimacy of the scope and scale
of Sharon's actions in the West Bank undermines the
international legitimacy that's essential for the
success of the global struggle against terrorist means.
And our narrow focus on the means alone is blinding us
to the potential consequences of escalation that the
rest of the world deeply fears.
The "go it alone" view that informs the Washington
debate today is a dangerous illusion. We have traveled
from the most pervasive sense of weakness and
vulnerability in American history last September to the
most strident sense of self-confidence that followed our
early success in Afghanistan.
Neither mood reflects reality, which is that the United
States is very powerful today but not powerful enough to
confront the global threats alone. And because
legitimacy in the end is about consensus, we certainly
cannot unilaterally determine what is internationally
Shibley Telhami, a professor of
government and politics at the University of Maryland and
a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is co-editor
of "Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East"
Copyright © 2002,
Los Angeles Times