Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistan-born U.S. citizen who tried and failed to detonate a car bomb in Times Square, was not simply trying to inflict a fresh horror on a city that still bears the scars of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He was also trying to deliver a message to which American public officials—who place great emphasis on the importance of listening to the Muslim world—have been notably deaf: If you try to kill someone, they are likely to try and kill you back. The fact that the bomb-o-gram malfunctioned is not an excuse to disregard the message it was intended to convey.
Shahzad was not a “one-off,” a frustrated Muslim immigrant pushed over the edge by the sinful American way of life or radicalized by the treatment of Muslims in Chechnya or Israel’s wars in Lebanon and Gaza. Rather, as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder admitted this weekend, he was an emissary of the Pakistani Taliban, a group with which the United States is quietly—here, but not over there—at war. “We know that they helped facilitate it,” Holder said of Taliban support for Shahzad’s operation. “We know that they probably helped finance it. And that [Shahzad] was working at their direction.”
It is notable that the initial news coverage of Shahzad’s failed effort offered nearly a dozen psycho-religious explanations for his behavior—he lost his mortgage, he lost his wife, he is a madman, he is a religious fanatic, he is a crazy jihadi—all of which may or may not be true but pale next to the obvious fact: The United States is at war with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is not clear why the ancient historical principle of lex talonis—an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth—is lost on us, as if there is no price to pay for killing people in war, both militants and civilians. If one of the chief goals of the Obama Administration’s counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is to protect that country’s civilian population, it suggests that something is deeply wrong with a strategy that has now made U.S. civilians vulnerable to mass murder at home. The reason that American civilians are endangered here, and that U.S. troops are at risk in Iraq and Afghanistan, is that we have killed tens of thousands Muslims in those countries, which we continue to occupy.
This is not, one must add, because of Israeli actions in the West Bank. Last week this column looked at the theory of linkage, or the idea that every problem in the Middle East is inextricably linked to the Arab-Israeli conflict. I detailed the concept’s history, identified some of its proponents, explained its strategic values for successive U.S. governments, and showed how it has tied our fate to that of our Arab allies. One Tablet reader contended that I had overstated the case, commenting that linkage is simply another way “to blame everything on Jews.” He wrote: “Judeophobia/anti-Semitism is a motivating factor for linkage.”
After some deliberation, I concluded that couldn’t be right. Sure, it’s true that 2,000 years of anti-Semitic narratives holding the Jews responsible for everything from the murder of Jesus to the black plague to Sept. 11 could easily pave the way for a theory attributing the myriad problems of the Middle East to the Jews. But it’s hard to believe that large segments of the foreign-policy establishment of a country that overwhelmingly supports the Jewish state could hold a conviction that is at its core anti-Semitic. That’s the stuff of medieval thinking, and the United States is the engine of historical, and moral, progress. After all, a country that once went to war over slavery has elected an African-American president, thanks in no small part to the energies of our intellectual classes in the press and the academy—many of whom also subscribe to the idea of linkage. So, the idea that people who are anti-racist could also promote narratives that are anti-Semitic is irrational.
Nonetheless, it’s true that over the last year linkage has seemed to figure much more prominently in U.S. Middle East policy than ever before. So, this week I wanted to explore some of the reasons why, with reference to the Shahzad case.
The first and most obvious reason linkage is in the news of late is that the concept will always be more of an issue under those U.S. administrations to whom the peace process is most vital. For the Democratic Party, the peace process is always important. As Steven Rosen, director of the Middle East Forum’s Washington Program, told me, “The peace process is a part of the Democrats’ DNA.” That is to say, when the Middle East is relatively calm, the peace process is important, but, as the apostles of linkage explain, it is never more urgent than when other issues in the region are heating up. Successful peace processing turns the temperature down across all the Middle East.
So, what are the major regional issues? As I discussed last week, our Arab allies and Israel agree that the threat of a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran is the chief concern in their region. However, Washington does not concur. Rather, U.S. officials from both this White House and its predecessor believe that the most pressing concern for the United States is its two theatres of combat in the Middle East: Iraq and Afghanistan. Where the Bush Administration was eager to win Iraq and, according to its critics, took its eye off the ball in Afghanistan, the Obama team just wants to get out of Iraq as quietly as possible while it devotes more resources to winning the war in Afghanistan, which the president has told the American public is not a war of choice but a war of necessity.
The robust war that we are now waging in Afghanistan includes a troop surge, firefights in towns and cities, and drone strikes—53 in 2009 alone, more than during Bush’s entire tenure. Indeed, drones have become such a part of the popular consciousness that the president made a drone joke at the annual White House Correspondents’ dinner. In some corners of the world, the president’s joke probably didn’t go over too well: A report from the New America Foundation argues that in the 123 drone strikes in northwest Pakistan between 2004 and 2010, as many as 1,285 people—about the same number of Lebanese nationals killed when Hezbollah and Israel went to war in July 2006—have been killed, one third of them civilians.
In the last nine months, U.S.-led coalition troops have also shot and killed 28 Afghan civilians at checkpoints—for no apparent reason, except that the soldiers who ask Afghan drivers for their papers appear to have itchy trigger fingers. No U.S. soldiers have been brought to trial for killing Afghans at checkpoints, and there has been no expression of international outrage at American cruelty and incompetence, which have been publicly admitted to by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan—in the apparent confidence that his admissions would have no legal consequences whatsoever for himself or for the nervous soldiers under his command. Had IDF troops been responsible, it would’ve been a war crime, but with U.S. forces in the lead it’s something else. “It’s really a challenge to the leadership,” says Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the operational commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. “It’s a challenge to discipline.”
It is frightening to contemplate, within the framework of linkage theory, how much more radical Palestinians would be if Israeli troops killed an average of 40 Palestinians a year at checkpoints in the West Bank for no evident reason at all and the perpetrators were never charged with any crime. Checkpoints are a key part of the linkage lexicon—the sites where Palestinians are ostensibly humiliated on a daily basis and reportedly radicalized. It is hard to imagine how the kind of wanton bloodshed that the United States is currently inflicting on innocent Afghans would radicalize the Middle East if Israelis were responsible; but then again it’s equally hard to imagine an Israeli leader cracking jokes in public about targeted assassinations of Palestinian militants.
But Israel is not the United States. The former is led by a right-wing government that has shown little interest in making concessions in order to push the peace process forward. The latter is headed by a Democratic president who, in ostensibly stark contrast to his predecessor, has professed a desire for comity with the Muslim masses. The United States does nation-building in Muslim lands, while the Israelis are preventing the birth of a Palestinian state. Israel kills Muslims that it has radicalized through its own actions, while the United States fights in Muslim lands in order to secure its national interests. For example, since October 2002, American forces have killed thousands of Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan in an ongoing hunt for one man, Osama Bin Laden, who may very well be deceased. There is no oil in Afghanistan, and if we are fighting there just to avoid being labeled a paper tiger by our adversaries, then we empower our enemies to determine our strategy, by drawing lines in the sand anywhere in the world and daring us to cross them.
It’s also possible the Obama Administration is just waging war in Afghanistan for the same reason that James Jones—a Marine general who, lacking the tact to refrain from telling Jewish jokes to a Jewish audience, has the president’s ear on sensitive issues—is the national security adviser. Lacking hawkish credentials, the Obama White House is vulnerable to attacks from the GOP, who apparently are also apt to confuse U.S. national security with domestic politics. In any case, the president is ambivalent about owning his war of necessity, and the proof is not just that he set a date for troop withdrawal at the same time he announced his surge.
While it is impossible to know what percentage of Muslim deaths are directly attributable to U.S. force in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fact is that over the last three decades American wars in the Middle East entailed the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Muslims, fighters as well as civilians, and Obama’s cosmetic speeches about respecting Islam’s contribution to the world will do little to hide casualty figures that would make all but the most vicious Middle Eastern regimes blush. It’s hardly surprising then that we are now taking a page out of the Arab regime playbook. Don’t blame us, the linkage theorists say: Look at what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians.
The Obama Administration is obsessed with linkage because it wants to have it both ways. They want to wage war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the strategic value of which is hard to ascertain, without taking moral or political responsibility for that war. The upshot of this cowardice is a form of magical thinking in which the United States evades responsibility for its own actions by shining the spotlight on the Jewish state instead. But it’s not Israel’s checkpoints on the occupied West Bank that compelled the Taliban to dispatch one of its foot soldiers to Times Square last week to kill American civilians. It’s our own war.