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Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, published throughout the Middle East with the International Herald Tribune.
I heard then read President George Bush's speech on the war on terror last Thursday while my wife and I enjoyed a wonderful two-day, two-night train journey across most of the United States, from Chicago to San Francisco. But I only fully grasped the meaning of Bush's "global war on terror" when I arrived here and had a useful discussion with one of my sons on the fantasy football league that he and my other son in Beirut are deeply engaged in.
For readers who may not follow these things closely, fantasy football is a virtual world over the Internet in which individuals create their own teams by choosing real players from the existing rosters of the National Football League. Every week the performances of the real players are tallied to give the fantasy team a score, and the fantasy team with the highest score at the end of the season wins. The exciting week-to-week interaction between the actual and imagined worlds makes it hard to separate fantasy from realityŠ which brings me back to George Bush's speech and policy on terrorism.
My conclusion after this rich week of travel and conversation is that sensible middle class Americans get on with the hard work of making a living in challenging times, while their federal government in Washington conducts a fantasy foreign policy based more on make-believe perceptions and imagined realities. The latest public opinion poll figures here bear this out, showing that about one-third of Americans approve of Bush's handling of the Iraq war, while nearly two-thirds disapprove -- a sharp reversal of the situation two years ago.
The long train ride through the American heartland was an opportunity to visually see the varied beauty of this land and the socio-economic variety of its inhabitants, and to engage a small sample of ordinary Americans about the problem of terrorism and how they relate to it in their everyday lives. The Americans I spoke to -- a computer engineer from Denver, a train service employee from Chicago, a retired professor from Omaha, a seminary student from South Carolina, a young university engineering graduate from Alabama, among others -- expressed lingering anger about 9/11 and concern about a future attack. They also seemed perplexed about two important points: why this terror threat remains so vivid, and why so many people around the world criticize the United States.
I sensed a great disconnect in America today between the sentiments and perceptions of ordinary citizens and the rhetoric and foreign policies of their federal government, articulated again last week by Bush's cosmic speech about fighting the new global threat of Islamist jihadi terrorism. Bush and his ideological warhorses in Washington want to take this fight to the enemy in Iraq and elsewhere and keep fighting until freedom prevails everywhere. Ordinary Americans would settle for a more effective, productive policy that makes them feel safer at home and less opposed around the world. Bush's speech at the National Endowment for Democracy last week reaffirmed to me that Washington's policy to fight terrorism is a mishmash of faulty analysis, historical confusions, emotional anger, foreign policy frustrations, worldly ignorance, and political deception, all rolled into one. The fundamental flaw is that Bush confuses and conflates a range of separate issues that have very different causes and consequences. As a result, he formulates an ineffective or even counter-productive strategy on the basis of distorted analysis and a wrong reading of the symptoms and causes or terror.
He sees the Islamist jihadi movement of Osama Bin Laden, Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi as a global totalitarian threat in the same tradition as Communism and fascism, and sees all acts of terror, against American, Arab, European or Asian targets, as emanating from a single, common inspiration. This is nonsense taken to peculiarly Texan heights of intellectual contortion and confusion.
He completely ignores the impact of American, Israeli and other foreign policies on the mindsets of hundreds of millions of people in the Arab-Asian region, whose degraded political and economic environment eventually spawns the desperate and futile criminality of terrorism. This is willful political blindness that makes the analytical basis of American foreign policy a laughing stock around the world.
He correctly notes that more democratic, prosperous and free societies in the Arab-Asian region would spawn fewer terrorists, but he refuses to acknowledge that America's war-making, military-based approach to promoting democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq is more feared than admired in our troubled region, and creates more resistance to, than embrace of, America's rhetoric and policies.
He wildly exaggerates the capacity of Bin Laden-style jihadi terrorists to achieve their goals, which he correctly identifies as ejecting the U.S. and other foreign armies from the region, toppling Western-supported Arab regimes, and imposing their vision of Islamic rule. He also grossly misdiagnoses the relationship between the jihadi terrorists and regimes such as Syria and Iran, both of which have established records of political enmity and warfare against such Islamist movements.
Bush keeps making the same speech about fighting terror and promoting freedom around the world month after month, but with progressively less credibility with his own citizenry on every occasion. The cautious, sensible wisdom of ordinary Americans is challenging the emotional zealotry and reckless global militarism of the Bush foreign policy team. This is because Bush's policies have proved less effective than the rousing rhetoric of his speeches, and after a while Americans prefer genuine security to perpetual warfare, and reality to fantasy.