Americans must ask why radical Islamists hatred of the United States is so great that they would spend money and resources to kill innocent civilians in a faraway land. Asking this question is sensitive when 3,000 innocent Americans lay dead on our own soil. But, to put it bluntly, if the United States wants to lessen the chance of future attacks, some of which could make the September 11 strikes look mild, it needs to explore such motivations.
The American foreign policy establishment which regards the world as a geostrategic chessboard-maintains that the United States is the target in almost 50 percent of the worlds terrorist attacks because of who we are that is, our free political and economic system and our unique culture. But the rest of the world can more objectively assess why we are disproportionately attacked. According to a recent survey of political, business and media elites on five continents, the United States is admired as the land of opportunity and democratic ideals. But a majority of the elites outside the United States said U.S. policies and actions in the world were responsible for the September 11 attacks. In contrast, only a small number of U.S. elites thought so. As for U.S. culture, Osama bin Laden has never railed against pornography, Hollywood movies, or the drug culture, according to Peter Bergen, a CNN correspondent who interviewed Osama bin Laden.
If we want to understand why Islamists go out of their way to attack the United States, we should just read what they write. Bin Laden, a Saudi, is riled mainly by the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, which he believes desecrates the holy sites of Islam within its borders, and U.S. support for what he believes is the corrupt and apostate Saudi Arabian government. (His stated opposition to U.S. support for Israel and U.S.-led economic sanctions against Iraq have been afterthoughts.)
So do we really need a military presence in Saudi Arabia and such a cozy relationship with a medieval and oppressive Saudi government? The U.S. national security community, media, and much of the public is enamored with the myths that cheap oil is somehow vital to the U.S. economy and that the U.S. military needs to defend its flow from the Persian Gulf. Unfortunately, no one asks economists what they think about those issues. Before the Gulf War, an economic analysis by David Henderson, an energy economist formerly on President Reagans Council on Economic Advisors, showed that if Iraq had invaded Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Kuwait, the oil price increases that Saddam could have garnered would have reduced U.S. gross national product by only one half of one percent. At the time, two Nobel laureates in economics the liberal James Tobin and free marketer Milton Friedman agreed with that analysis and noted that the economic ill-effects of Saddams likely price rises were not severe enough to justify a war. More recently, Don Losman, an economist at the National Defense University, shows that increasing oil prices alone will not destroy a modern economy: From late 1998 to late 2000, Germany experienced a 211 percent increase in oil prices, but economic growth with falling inflation and unemployment-continued. Losman also notes that 80 percent of U.S. imports of semiconductors come from East Asia, a region which is also unstable and has regimes hostile to the United States. In contrast, only about 20 percent of U.S. imports of oil come from the Persian Gulf. No one ever talks about defending semiconductors, but they do about securing oil.
Even if oil is a strategic commodity and we must defend it, do the modest forces stationed in Saudi Arabia contribute significantly to that end? The biggest threat to the oil flow would be an uprising in Saudi Arabia that causes radical Islamists try to drain the Saudi regimes lifes blood by destroying the oil fields. U.S. forces stationed in Saudi Arabia only contribute to Islamist resentment, which could make this scenario more likely. Furthermore, in 1990, the United States defended the Saudi oil fields against a far more capable Iraqi military without having a prior military presence there so why is it needed now? And if the Saudis no longer perceive a threat from an Iraqi military decimated by the Gulf War, then why should the United States-a nation a half a world away?
Is the United States to blame for the attack on September 11? No, Al Qaeda killed innocent civilians and should be exterminated. But should the United States paint a bulls eye on its forehead for future attacks by radical Islamists? Should you buy an expensive car and declare haughtily that you will park it in a high crime area overnight. The people who then steal your car have illegally violated your property rights and should be punished severely. But wouldnt it be smarter to park the car in your safe garage at home? Similarly, if the Saudi government wants U.S. forces out of its territory, the United States should take advantage of that desire and use it as a cover to quietly withdraw them. Thats not appeasing radical Islamists, its a common sense way to remove a lightning rod for future terrorism.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
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