George W. Bush, in his global war on terror, has specifically avoided the clash of civilizations hypothesis, holding that the United States is not waging a war against the religion of Islam. However, the president has backed into the hypothesis by saying that terrorists “hate us because we are free.” The president, that is, has essentially made the argument that they hate America for “what it is.” We are not, Bush once said, “facing a set of grievances that can be soothed or addressed.” After September 11, this argument proved extremely seductive to the American political classes, media, and public, all of whom perceived that American values were under attack by the alien and villainous values of the Islamists. The argument has provided, for four years, the entire philosophical basis for how the U.S. government is fighting terrorism.

Yet the argument is wrong. Had people bothered to scratch below the surface, they would have seen warning signs that Bush’s aphorism was false and even dangerous. To start with, public opinion polls in Islamic nations repeatedly show that people in those countries actually admire America’s political and economic freedom. They also admire American wealth, technology, and even culture. So some other factor must be generating anti-U.S. hatred in these parts of the world.

Furthermore, Bush’s grand plan to reduce terrorism by spreading freedom and democracy to Islamic nations—thereby eliminating the hatred of such values—is not based on any empirical evidence that oppression causes terrorism. Spreading democracy doesn’t reduce terrorism and, if anything, actually may make it worse. F. Gregory Gause III, a political scientist at the University of Vermont who reviewed terrorism statistics and the academic literature, noted that the State Department’s own statistics from 2000 to 2003 reported 269 major terrorist incidents in countries Freedom House classifies as “free,” 119 in “partially free” nations, and 138 in “not free” countries. These data corroborate an earlier well-known study by William Eubank and Leonard Weinberg, professors at the University of Nevada, Reno, which found that most terrorist attacks happen in democracies—with both the victims and the attackers usually being citizens of democracies. Gause also notes that recent elections and public opinion polls in Arab countries indicate that the advent of democracy would probably generate Islamic governments that would be much less likely to cooperate with the United States than their authoritarian predecessors. Those Islamic governments might also be more likely to sponsor terrorism.

Iraq provides a current example of democratization leading to more terrorism. During the authoritarian reign of Saddam Hussein, Iraq provided some limited assistance to selected Palestinian groups attacking Israel, but did not fund groups that focused their attacks on the United States. Terrorism now runs rampant in a more democratic Iraq, which, according to the U.S. intelligence community, threatens to become an even more significant training ground for worldwide Islamist jihad than Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.

Finally, and most importantly, the evidence is startlingly clear that Bush’s war on terror has actually made things worse. According to the State Department’s data, the number of major terrorist incidents worldwide increased from 121 in 2001 to 175 in 2003, a 21-year high. Then, in 2004, the number skyrocketed to 655 significant attacks. Richard Clarke, the chief counterterrorism advisor to both Presidents Bill Clinton and Bush, has noted that terrorism in the three years after 9-11 exceeded that during the three years preceding it.

If evidence indicates that Bush’s broadly constructed war on terror is counterproductive, what can be done to get better results? To respond adequately to terrorism, the U.S. government and American people need to know why the terrorists are motivated to give up their time, money, and sometimes even their lives to attack the targets of a faraway land. To deny or delude ourselves about the true causes of such terrorism is dangerous. And the facts about terrorism lead us to the conclusion, controversial and difficult to accept as it may be, that the terrorists don’t hate the United States for “what it is.” They hate the United States for what it does.

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Let’s take another look at those public opinion polls in Islamic countries. Although people in most of those nations admire U.S. political and economic freedoms, wealth, technology, and culture, the poll numbers plummet when respondents are asked if they approve of U.S. foreign policy toward the Arabic and Islamic world. A recent poll conducted by Zogby International and the University of Maryland asked 3,617 respondents in six Arab nations: “Would you say that your attitudes toward the United States are based more on American values or on American policy in the Middle East?” More than 75 percent of respondents specified policies, while just 11 percent objected more to American values.

Empirical evidence indicates that a primary cause of terrorism is the U.S. government’s foreign policy. In a 1998 report entitled “Does U.S. Intervention Overseas Breed Terrorism?: The Historical Record,” I cataloged more than 60 terrorist attacks against U.S. targets; all were perpetrated in retaliation for U.S. foreign policy. For example, since the 1970s, terrorists have struck U.S. targets in retaliation for, among other things, support and aid for the Shah of Iran and for Israel; aid and military advisors sent to the Salvadoran government; our military presence in Honduras, Panama, Japan, the Philippines, and the Persian Gulf; hostile actions toward Libya; involvement in the civil wars in Lebanon, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Somalia; and prosecution of the first Gulf War and the use of Turkish bases to do so.

In the report, the most noteworthy instances of such retaliatory terrorist attacks are:

  • In 1968, Robert Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan, who regarded Kennedy as a collaborator with Israel. Sirhan was born to Palestinian parents and felt betrayed by Kennedy’s support for Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.

  • In 1979, supporters of new Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took hostages in retaliation for the long-time U.S. support of the Shah. The Iranians also sponsored many other terrorist attacks against American targets around the world.

  • In the early 1980s, an Iranian-sponsored Shiite Hezbollah group struck U.S. embassy buildings and military facilities in Lebanon and kidnapped Americans in retaliation for U.S. military support of the Christian government against Muslim militias. In what was ostensibly a U.S. peacekeeping mission, the United States supported factions that were the friendliest to Israel. The culmination of Hezbollah’s anti-U.S. campaign was the suicide bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks, which killed 241 U.S. troops and caused President Ronald Reagan’s ignominious withdrawal of U.S. forces from Lebanon.

  • U.S. provocations in the Gulf of Sidra led to Libya’s covert campaign to strike at U.S. targets in retaliation. In August 1981, shortly after coming to power, Reagan decided that Muammar Quaddafi was acting as a Soviet agent and was a terrorist. The terrorist attacks sponsored by Quaddafi focused on European targets, but Reagan decided to invade Libya’s claimed airspace and territorial waters in the Gulf of Sidra. U.S. jets entered the gulf and shot down two Libyan aircraft. In late March 1986, Reagan sent the largest peacetime U.S. naval armada into the gulf to challenge Quaddafi again. Predictably, Libya shot missiles at the armada, and the United States destroyed a missile site and three Libyan naval craft. On April 5, 1986, in retaliation for this, Quaddafi sponsored the bombing of the La Belle nightclub in West Berlin, which was frequented by U.S. military personnel. On April 15, 1986, the tit-for-tat continued with U.S. retaliation for the La Belle bombing: air strikes on Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya, which bombed Quaddafi’s tent and killed his daughter. The conventional wisdom is that these air strikes intimidated Quaddafi from committing further acts of terrorism. In fact, according to the Defense Science Board, quite the opposite happened. Quaddafi began a secret campaign of anti-U.S. terrorism that sometimes involved hiring other groups, such as the Japanese Red Army, to launch attacks. Quaddaffi’s campaign culminated in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all on board. In short, much like President Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Reagan’s bellicosity against Libya created blowback terrorism where none had existed before.

  • During the Persian Gulf War, from mid-January to mid-February 1991, anti-U.S. attacks spiked around the world. During that war, the attacks numbered 120, compared to 17 during the same period in 1990. In 1993, a group of Iraqis was arrested in Kuwait and charged with an Iraqi government plot to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush. A large car bomb and weapons were confiscated. Saddam Hussein had vowed to assassinate Bush for his prosecution of the war.

    In early 1993, Islamic extremists attempted to kill 250,000 people by toppling the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Ramzi Yousef, the leader of the group, claimed that the intent was to cause casualties on the order of the atomic bomb blast at Hiroshima in order to punish the United States for its support and aid for Israel. But the car bomb, placed in the parking garage under one of the towers, did not topple them. (The perpetrators had considered augmenting the bomb with chemical or radiological agents that would have increased the casualties.) Later in 1993, as a follow-up to the World Trade Center attack, the same group planned to assassinate Senator Al D Amato of New York and destroy several New York landmarks in one day, but they were caught before they could carry out the plot. Yousef himself was arrested before he could carry out yet another plot to simultaneously bomb 12 jumbo jets and kill 4,000 passengers.

    In 1996, Hezbollah of Saudi Arabia (which differs from Hezbollah of Lebanon) attacked the U.S. military apartment complex at Khobar Towers near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The attack killed 19 U.S. airmen and wounded 515 people. The perpetrators, rather than despising America per se, had a very specific, realpolitik goal: They wanted to compel the withdrawal of the U.S. military from Saudi Arabia.

    Also, in October 2003, a U.S. diplomatic convoy was attacked in Gaza. Three U.S. security guards were killed. A day earlier, Israel had arrested suspects from a rogue Palestinian militant group. A senior U.S. official believed the attack on the convoy was motivated by growing anti-American resentment in Palestinian areas caused, in part, by U.S. policy in the region.

    My report also described several al-Qaeda–related attacks. In late 1993, Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda fighters trained Somalis who conducted an ambush of U.S. forces in Somalia. The ambush caused the downing of two helicopters, the deaths of 19 U.S. soldiers, and eventually a U.S. withdrawal from Somalia. A criminal indictment of bin Laden’s followers noted that al-Qaeda believed that the “infidel” United States planned to occupy Islamic countries, as shown by its involvement in Somalia and the first Gulf War. Al-Qaeda has also been implicated in bombing attacks against a U.S. military complex in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 1995 and the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, which caused more than 200 deaths. The attacks on U.S. military facilities in Saudi Arabia were designed to compel the withdrawal of non-Islamic U.S. forces from the nation containing Islam’s holiest shrines.

    * * *

    Since the release of my study, al-Qaeda and affiliated groups have attacked several U.S. and Western targets: the U.S.S. Cole, a warship that was refueling in Aden, Yemen, in 2000; the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in 2001; the U.S. consulate in Pakistan in 2002; four trains in Spain in March 2004; the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in December 2004; the subway system in London two times in 2005; and three American chain hotels in Jordan, also in 2005. After the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, President Clinton implicitly acknowledged that U.S. foreign policy was the cause of the attack: “If their intention was to deter us from our mission of promoting peace and security in the Middle East, they will fail utterly.” The attacks on the Spanish trains and British subway system were also related to U.S. foreign policy. Al-Qaeda wanted to drive a wedge between the United States and the only other countries in the world that provided significant forces to invade and occupy Iraq. The group was hoping to attack the home territories of those two nations to compel them to withdraw their troops from Iraq.

    In January 2002, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi—a Pakistani group linked to al-Qaeda’s Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (the mastermind of the 9-11 attacks), Mohammed’s nephew Ramzi Yousef, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq—kidnapped and beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. Mohammed is believed to have been involved in the beheading. The group’s demands were an immediate end to U.S. presence in Pakistan, release of all prisoners at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the return of Pakistani prisoners to Pakistan, and delivery of F-16 fighter aircraft that Pakistan had paid for but the United States never delivered. The group proclaimed, “We asure [sic] Americans that they shall never be safe on Muslim land of Pakistan.” This statement indicates that one of its major goals is not about freedom at all, but is quite specific—to remove the “infidel” presence from Muslim lands.

    Zarqawi has the same motivation when he attacks U.S. and allied forces (for example, the Italians in Nasiriyah) in Iraq. Although Zarqawi supplies only a small percentage of Iraq’s rebels, his forces account for a disproportionate share of the carnage because of their numerous and effective suicide attacks. In November 2005, Iraqis linked to Zarqawi launched suicide bombings against three American chain hotels in Amman, Jordan, in retaliation for U.S. military attacks on Fallujah, Iraq.

    * * *

    U.S. leaders would prefer to muddle bin Laden’s motives for attacking the United States. Yet if they want to know why bin Laden has dedicated his life to killing Americans and their allies, they don’t even need to ask him. He has written many manifestos and has done interviews with Western media. From these writings and interviews, one can conclude only that bin Laden’s major grievance is with U.S. foreign policy. According to Peter Bergen, one of the few Western journalists to interview him, bin Laden rarely condemns permissive U.S. culture. Also, he rarely speaks of the evils of democracy as such. Instead, he is especially incensed by U.S. support for corrupt regimes in the Islamic world and the U.S. military presence in the Islamic lands of the Persian Gulf, a presence he would like to dislodge. A lesser issue is his opposition to U.S. support and aid for Israel. Recently, al-Qaeda also has attacked U.S. allies, but only to drive a wedge between them and the United States in order to stymie U.S. overseas intervention—especially in Iraq.

    In a recent study on suicide bombing, Robert A. Pape, an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago—and a conservative—agrees that bin Laden’s primary reason for attacking the United States and its allies is to drive “infidels” out of Muslim lands. Although the constant use of the word “infidels” seems to indicate that religion is driving bin Laden’s efforts, Pape recognizes that bin Laden’s is really a nationalistic attempt to drive a democracy out of his homeland. He also notes that many other suicide bombing campaigns—such as the Sikhs’ attacks against the Indians in the Punjab province of India, the Tamil Tigers’ strikes against the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s attacks against the Turks—have had nothing to do with Islam and are also attempts to oust a democratic intruder from a national homeland.

    Recent publicity surrounding Pape’s study has given much needed, but belated, exposure to the sensitive thesis that the United States is attacked for “what it does” rather than “what it is.” The evidence has overwhelmingly pointed in this direction for some time. Pape’s results are the latest to be added to the pile.

    But mere logic should indicate that the United States is usually not attacked for “what it is.” Like the United States, many nations are wealthy, have corporations with a global business presence, export their technology and culture along with their products, and allow political, economic, and religious freedoms, but they are not prime targets for terrorists. The United States’ use of a dominant military and a covert action arm (the CIA) to intervene in the affairs of other nations all over the world is its unique attribute. If logic is not enough, on October 29, 2004, bin Laden—frustrated with Bush s allegation that al-Qaeda strikes the United States because of its freedom—created a videotape specifically mentioning as the reasons for his attacks U.S. meddling in Muslim lands and supporting corrupt rulers there:

    Contrary to Bush’s claim that we hate freedom & why don’t we strike Sweden? & We want to restore freedom to our nation & Bush is still engaged in distortion, deception and hiding from you the real causes & The events that effected my soul in a direct way started in 1982 when America permitted the Israelis to invade Lebanon. And the American Sixth Fleet helped them to that & And as I looked at those demolished towers in Lebanon, it entered my mind that we should punish the oppressor in kind—and that we should destroy the towers in America in order that they taste some of what we tasted, and so that they be deterred from killing our women and children. We found it difficult to deal with the Bush administration, in light of the resemblance it bears to the regimes in our countries, half of which are ruled by the military and the other half of which are ruled by the sons of kings and presidents & Your security is in your own hands. And every state that does not play with our security will automatically guarantee its own security.
    Paradoxically, the larger and more capable the U.S. military becomes (as a result of recent defense budget increases) and the more the U.S. “defense” perimeter is expanded, the less secure Americans will be. In other words, empire does not equal security and, in fact,, undermines it. Before doing anything else, the first responsibility of any government should be to provide security for its people and the territory they live in. The U.S. government, however, has not only neglected such homeland security but has actively undermined it by making unnecessary enemies abroad. For example, during the latter part of the Cold War, to give the rival Soviet superpower another Vietnam, funding militant Islamic opposition fighters in the remote backwater nation of Afghanistan seemed like a great idea. But overseas meddling can have unpredictable and usually unfavorable consequences. The radical Islamists—supported by U.S. funds—morphed into al-Qaeda, turned on their benefactor, and became one of the most severe strategic threats to the U.S. homeland in American history.

    If, during the Cold War, U.S. interventions in faraway nonstrategic countries were questionable, the demise of the rival superpower has made the benefits of copious U.S. interventions overseas even less obvious. And the costs of such interventions have increased dramatically. All empires have experienced blowback, but modern transportation, communications, and weaponry—including possibly nuclear, biological, chemical or radiological devices—could make it catastrophic, as demonstrated on 9-11. Thus, the militaristic, activist U.S. foreign policy is out-of-date and should be changed.

    A more restrained foreign policy is crucial because improved intelligence and homeland security can only do so much. Officials in the intelligence community agree that intelligence is not perfect (the understatement of the decade, after the failure to detect the 9-11 plot and Iraq’s lack of significant nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and programs), and that future successful terrorist attacks are likely. The United States is a large, wealthy, free country with porous borders and many lucrative targets to hit—for example, skyscrapers, ports, schools, sports stadiums, and chemical and nuclear plants. Furthermore, the recent reorganizations of government intelligence and homeland structures added bureaucracy that may actually impede the government’s ability to counter small, agile terrorist groups, which don’t have to fill out piles of forms to accomplish their mission. Given the vulnerability of the country to terrorism and the government’s inability to protect everything, reducing the motivation for terrorists to attack the United States is crucial. Using military force only as a last resort in times of genuine peril to the nation would reduce the size of the bull’s eye that the U.S. government has painted on the backs of its people.

    If doubt exists that a change in policy toward more restraint would have the desired result, history shows that Hezbollah of Lebanon drastically curtailed its attacks on U.S. targets after the United States withdrew military forces from there, and that Libya’s anti–U.S. attacks tapered off after the Reagan administration and its provocations of Quaddafi ended.

    This policy change was not made by either the Clinton or Bush administrations before the inevitable happened on September 11. After 9-11, even though Bush had promised “a more humble foreign policy” during the 2000 presidential campaign, he turned 180 degrees and did the worst possible thing by using the tragedy in New York and Washington as an excuse to invade another Muslim country—this one containing Shiite holy shrines. It’s a pretty good bet that the aggressive Bush administration foreign policy has helped cause the post–9-11 spike in terrorist activity.

    * * *

    Does attributing the primary cause of anti–U.S. terrorism to U.S. foreign policy and advocating military restraint overseas implicitly blame the victim for the attack and indicate that we should appease terrorists? Neither is the case. The terrorists’ killing of innocent civilians is heinous, and the short-term U.S. policy should be to punish terrorist groups that attack the United States, whether apprehending their members by using intelligence and law enforcement methods or killing them with the quiet and surgical use of military force (to avoid inflaming anti-U.S. hatred as much as possible). Thus, a policy of swift punishment meted out to anti-U.S. terrorist groups, especially al-Qaeda, cannot be misconstrued as appeasement.

    But in the long-term, Americans must realize that although the terrorists are wrong for killing innocents, their own government bears some of the blame for creating the underlying grievances motivating terrorists to attack in the first place. Over the longer horizon, the U.S. government should quietly narrow its conception of vital interests and adopt a policy of military restraint. Also, a more restrained foreign policy, by changing how Arabs think about America, could dramatically lessen whatever popular support terrorists have in Islamic countries.

    A more humble U.S. foreign policy would include removing U.S. support for despotic Arabic governments, such as those in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other Persian Gulf countries; eliminating the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf; terminating the more than $3 billion in aid given to the wealthy state of Israel and adopting a more neutral policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian dispute; and avoiding antagonistic—overt or covert—behavior toward groups that don’t focus their attacks on the United States, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, all of which concentrate on striking Israel. Although these significant departures from existing U.S. policy may be difficult to achieve soon, Americans should realize that adopting them would dramatically reduce terrorists’ motives to attack the United States. If Americans want to continue such policies anyway, they should at least be aware of the high cost.

    Far from appeasement, these policy changes would benefit the United States whether or not anti–U.S. terrorists launch attacks. Costs in U.S. lives and money would be reduced dramatically, the U.S. military would not be in its currently overstretched condition, and imperial overextension would be eliminated—all reducing the likelihood of American decline as a great power. Furthermore, resisting the urge to strike groups and countries that aren’t attacking the United States is more in keeping with the values of a republic (rather than those of an empire).

    A policy of military restraint overseas merely goes back to the traditional U.S. foreign policy adopted by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the other founders and followed (with sporadic deviations) until after World War II. The founders realized that the United States had intrinsic security because of separation by two great oceans from the world’s centers of conflict. Despite advances in transportation and communications, the U.S. is still relatively immune from conventional attack or invasion, especially with the deterrent effect of our modern nuclear weapons. The only threat that such distances and military capability cannot defeat or deter is the terrorist threat. Because the intrinsically good U.S. security situation has always allowed the United States the option of staying out of most foreign conflicts, the age of catastrophic terrorism now makes imperative that course of action.

    The founders also realized what many modern-day politicians have forgotten: Constant warfare undermines the republic. As Rome’s territory grew, power passed from the assembly to the aristocratic Senate to the dictator to the emperor. Similarly, in the United States, the aberrant post-World War II interventionism overseas has concentrated power in an imperial president and is undermining the nation’s civil liberties. U.S. interventionism provokes terrorist attacks, which in turn lead to the constriction of civil liberties—for example, the USA Patriot Act and unconstitutional executive actions by the Bush administration. A more restrained U.S. foreign policy would eliminate the security-civil liberties trade off—America could have both. So as advantageous as lower costs and lower casualties (to U.S. troops and indigenous peoples overseas and American civilians at home) of a more humble foreign policy would be, the greatest benefit would accrue to our cherished and unique constitutional system. The U.S. empire threatens the American republic itself.