The Other Evil
The war on terrorism won't succeed without a war on poverty.
History has often boiled down to the word versus: Athens versus Sparta, Rome versus Carthage, Imperial Britain versus Napoleonic France or Czarist Russia. For most of the second half of the 20th century, the Great Versus was capitalism versus communism. During the first decade after the end of the Cold War, there were hints (sometimes gruesome and portentous, as in the Balkans and Africa) of what was coming next: the forces of integration versus those of disintegration; the effort to build a New World Order -- a still-serviceable catchphrase from Bush I -- versus the New Jihad, with its implicit doctrine of "worse is better" and its celebration of mayhem and slaughter.
History has often boiled down to the word versus: Athens versus Sparta, Rome versus Carthage, Imperial Britain versus Napoleonic France or Czarist Russia. For most of the second half of the 20th century, the Great Versus was capitalism versus communism. During the first decade after the end of the Cold War, there were hints (sometimes gruesome and portentous, as in the Balkans and Africa) of what was coming next: the forces of integration versus those of disintegration; the effort to build a New World Order — a still-serviceable catchphrase from Bush I — versus the New Jihad, with its implicit doctrine of "worse is better" and its celebration of mayhem and slaughter.
Underlying the long-term challenge of the post-September 11 era is much more than Islamic defiance of the Great Satan. There is a growing divide between what we’ve traditionally thought of as the haves and the have-nots, but who might better be described as those who feel like winners in the process of globalization and modernization and those who feel like losers.
There are about 6 billion people on the earth today. About half of them are struggling to survive on less than $2 a day and have never seen a personal computer or, for that matter, ever made a telephone call. That fifty-fifty ratio is unstable. It’s tipping in the wrong direction in two respects: The numbers of poor are growing faster than the numbers of rich, and the gap between rich and poor is widening. When self-perceived losers outnumber self-perceived winners, it’s lose-lose for everyone.
We must distinguish between, on the one hand, the assassins and those who mastermind and abet their operations and, on the other hand, their constituencies — those millions who feel so victimized by the modern world that they want us to be victims, too; those who see Osama bin Laden as a combination avenging angel and Robin Hood. As the mug shots and bios of the suicide pilots emerged, it became apparent that for the most part they did not come from the ranks of the world’s desperate and aggrieved. Their fanaticism, like bin Laden’s, was nurtured in privilege and in individual madness. During the immediate aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington, the focus has rightly been on that species of menace, difficult to fathom, find, or deter, yet utterly deserving eradication.
However, the other set of images so memorable from September 11 — Palestinians and Pakistanis dancing in the streets — is a reminder of a parallel challenge. Disease, overcrowding, undernourishment, political repression, and alienation breed despair, anger, and hatred. These are the raw materials of what we’re up against, and they constitute a check on the willingness of Arab and other regimes to take effective action against networks of conspirators.
The principal way to address those conditions is through economic aid, refugee relief, public health campaigns, democracy promotion, and diplomacy as the first line of defense against communal and regional conflict. There will have to be not only more international development assistance but also better strategies for making the money work. That, in itself, will require urgent and concerted rethinking and reform. Throwing money at good causes has too often lined the pockets of bureaucrats and politicians — and not only in the countries receiving foreign aid. Traditional approaches must be supplemented, and in some cases replaced, by innovative ones, such as microcredit projects and programs aimed at empowering women as a force for social, economic, and political advancement.
In addition to rethinking and reform, there will have to be vastly increased commitments from treasuries, first and foremost that of the United States.
Yet exactly the opposite seems to be in prospect. Programs that are instrumental in getting at the roots of terrorism are more in jeopardy now than they were two months ago. The blank check that Congress seems willing to write is for enhancing military defenses (including a national anti-missile system), improving intelligence-gathering and covert action, keeping airlines in business, and reinforcing airport and onboard security.
The United States will throw itself into meeting those priorities just as the nation says goodbye to its hard-won surplus and heads into what threatens to be a severe recession. In the budget crunch ahead, there will be a temptation to squeeze down the very programs that will allow us to move from reactive, defensive warfare against the terrorists to a proactive, prolonged offensive against the ugly, intractable realities that terrorists exploit and from which they derive popular support, foot soldiers, and political cover. That’s why another phrase from America’s political past needs to be dusted off, put back in service, and internationalized: the war on poverty. Only if the long struggle ahead is also fought on that front will it be winnable.
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