Five years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, the global war on terror initiated by the world’s only superpower is still in a dark tunnel, and no ray of hope has yet appeared. In October that year, the U.S. started war in Afghanistan to put down Taliban Islamic fundamentalists. It started another war in Iraq in March 2003, wrongly assuming that the Middle Eastern country had links with the 9/11 terrorist network and that its regime under Saddam Hussein was secretly armed with weapons of mass destruction. Washington thought, optimistically, that with its military might it would not be so difficult to help establish stable and viable democracies in these two countries. But things have not been going as the U.S. hoped. Plagued by sectarian violence and ethnic divisions, Iraq is sliding into civil war and Afghanistan is far from attaining stability.
Sept. 11 lowered the world’s terror threshold. A sad fact about the war on terror is that it set off a chain reaction of violence, rather than stopping the tide of violence or eradicating its source — much less producing trust among peoples and nations: Bali, Madrid, London, and more if terrorist attacks and plots not clearly linked to al-Qaida, the group responsible for the 9/11, are included.
While executing the war on terror, the U.S. allowed actions that ran counter to its ideal of upholding human dignity: Long confinement of suspects of terrorism at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; torture and abuse of prisoners of war at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and “special renditions” of suspects of terrorism to secret prisons in Europe run by the Central Intelligence Agency.
In his Sept. 5 speech on the national strategy for combating terrorism, U.S. President George W. Bush said, “These al-Qaida terrorists and those who share their ideology are violent Sunni extremists. They’re driven by a radical and perverted vision of Islam that rejects tolerance, crushes all dissent and justifies the murder of innocent men, women and children in the pursuit of political power.” It is clear that he is trying to avoid lumping together Muslims per se. But unfortunately for Mr. Bush, many Muslims regard the U.S.’ actions in its war on terror and a series of related political events as ones directed against Muslims. One of the big factors contributing to this perception is the failure of the U.S. to solve the long-standing problem of Palestinians. U.S. opposition to the Hamas government, a result from a free election among Palestinians, has also raised a suspicion that the democracy the U.S. is trying to spread is not a universal principle but an expediency the U.S. can exploit to push its own world strategy.
The way people around the world view the U.S. has radically changed between the days immediately after 9/11 and now. The terrorist attacks caused a surge of worldwide sympathy and support for the U.S. But over the past five years, this perception of and attitude toward the U.S. has changed.
According to a survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project conducted from March 31 to May 14 among nearly 17,000 people in the U.S. and 14 other nations, favorable opinions of the U.S. have dropped in most of the countries. In 2002, one year after 9/11, more than 60 percent of people polled in France, Germany, Russia and Indonesia had favorable opinions. But in 2006 this has dropped to between 30 percent (Indonesia) and 43 percent (Russia).
The change in Turkey, a traditional U.S. ally, is remarkable. The rate went down from 52 percent with favorable opinions in 2000 to 30 percent in 2002 and to 12 percent in 2006. The rate in Japan is still high at 63 percent and the corresponding rate in Britain is 56 percent. But Japanese people’s support for the U.S.-led war on terror is waning. Only 26 percent are in favor, down from 61 percent in the summer of 2002. The war on terror receives majority support only in India and Russia. In Indonesia, the support dropped from 50 percent a year ago to 39 percent. In Spain, which suffered some 200 deaths from train bombings in March 2004, three out of every four people (76 percent) oppose the war on terror, while only one-fifth of those polled (19 percent) support it. Similarly, 77 percent of Turks oppose it, up from 56 percent in 2004.
Characterizing the war on terror as “both a battle of arms and a battle of ideas,” Mr. Bush said, “Not only are we fighting our terrorist enemies on the battlefield, we are promoting freedom and human dignity as alternatives to the terrorists’ perverse vision of oppression and totalitarian rule.” But the U.S. may have committed critical errors in terms of ideas. While vigilance against violence must not be slackened, more imagination and intellectual power must be mobilized to eradicate the root cause of Islamic extremism — poverty, alienation and despair among Muslim communities.
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