Michael Chertoff, President Bush’s secretary of Homeland Security, desperately tried to refute Zbigniew Brzezinski’s cogent charge that the administration has hyped the “war on terror” to promote a “culture of fear,” in a recent Washington Post op-ed. In addition to shamefully smearing Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s former National Security Advisor, by associating him with the fringe opinion that the administration plotted the 9/11 terrorist acts, Chertoff also declared, “Al-Qaeda and its ilk have a world vision that is comparable to that of historical totalitarian ideologues but adapted to the 21st–century global network.” This rhetoric makes it seem as if al-Qaeda is more dangerous than Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin. When comparisons are made to these villainous titans, we should be suspicious.

The same kinds of comparisons have been used before. When Bill Clinton wanted to bomb Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, he compared both leaders to Hitler. In the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush also used the same comparison. Yet, the small countries of Serbia and Iraq, as well as the rag-tag group al-Qaeda, have nowhere near the resources of a Nazi Germany and have not tried to completely overrun an important and wealthy continent.

Chertoff’s overheated rhetoric doesn’t stop there. He adds yet another implicit comparison—to communism. He opined, “Today’s extreme Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda do not merely seek political revolution in their own countries. They aspire to dominate all countries. Their goal is a totalitarian, theocratic empire to be achieved by waging perpetual war on soldiers and civilians alike.” Here the implicit comparison is to the universal communist movement, which tried to spread its revolution around the world.

Although Osama bin Laden does try to kill both soldiers and civilians—and is justifiably deemed a vicious terrorist—his real objective is not to dominate “all countries” by fomenting an Islamist revolution. If bin Laden had this as a genuine goal, it would be laughable to think that he could get any significant public support in Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, or Hindu countries for a revolution to convert them to draconian Islamic rule. In fact, his officially stated goal of recreating a caliphate that would put all of the diverse Islamic countries under one ruler is preposterous enough on its own. Even Chertoff admits that the Islamist extremists’ intent is “grandiose.” Should bin Laden ever create such a caliphate, it would not have the economic or military power of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. Chertoff himself acknowledges that his own comparison is weak: “To be sure, as Brzezinski observes, the geographic reach of this network does not put them [sic] in the same group as the Nazis or Stalinists when they achieved first-class military power.”

Despite bin Laden’s inflated rhetoric, his real aims—which are also supported by many mainstream Muslims—are to remove a non-Muslim military presence from Islamic lands and compel the United States to stop supporting what bin Laden sees as corrupt regimes in the Middle East. Most mainstream Muslims, however, reject bin Laden’s despicable means of targeting civilians to achieve his goals.

Non-Muslim intervention in and occupation of Muslim lands has driven Islamist violence in Chechnya, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan (during both the Soviet and current U.S. occupations), and Lebanon (during Israeli invasions and the U.S. nation-building mission during the Reagan administration). The U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf initially motivated bin Laden to strike U.S. targets, eventually resulting in the horror of 9/11.

The 9/11 attacks were treacherous acts of terrorism, but Chertoff and the Bush administration, the U.S. foreign policy establishment, and the American media act as if they were the beginning of history. Only in religion and quantum physics are there events without cause. Most Americans are unaware of their government’s history of unnecessary and profligate meddling in the affairs of countries throughout the Middle East. For their own safety and security, Americans cannot continue to ignore that the Islamist venom resulting in 9/11 was rooted in this U.S. interventionist and quasi-imperial foreign policy.

Instead of perpetuating the myth that the United States is at war with “fanatics” who have a reflexive hatred of America, the nation’s homeland security chief could better spend his time examining the real motivator for such terrorism—U.S. foreign policy—and recommending a policy of military restraint in the Middle East to reduce the chances of terrorist attacks at home. If there is any doubt that this strategy would work, the case of Lebanon during the early 1980s should be examined. After the bombing of the Marine barracks and Ronald Reagan’s withdrawal of U.S. forces from that country, the number of anti–U.S. attacks by the Islamist group Hezbollah plummeted. But perhaps creating a “culture of fear,” as Brzezinski put it, is more politically useful to the Bush administration than actually carrying out what should be the first and foremost responsibility of any government—the protection of its people.