Fight the Root of Terrorism With Bombs, Not Bread
By Alex Epstein (San Francisco Chronicle, August 14, 2005)
In light of the recent suicide bombings in London, and the general inability of the West to prevent terrorist attacks, there is much talk about fighting the "root cause" of terrorism. The most popular argument is that terrorism is caused by poverty. The United Nations and our European and Arab "allies" repeatedly tell us to minimize our military operations and instead dole out more foreign aid to poor countries--to put down our guns and pick up our checkbook. Only by fighting poverty, the refrain goes, can we address the "root cause" of terrorism.
The pernicious idea that poverty causes terrorism has been a popular claim since the attacks of September 11. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has repeatedly asked wealthy nations to double their foreign aid, naming as a cause of terrorism "that far too many people are condemned to lives of extreme poverty and degradation." Former Secretary of State Colin Powell agrees: "We have to put hope back in the hearts of people. We have to show people who might move in the direction of terrorism that there is a better way." Businessman Ted Turner also concurs: "The reason that the World Trade Center got hit is because there are a lot of people living in abject poverty out there who don't have any hope for a better life."
Indeed, the argument that poverty causes terrorism has been central to America’s botched war in Iraq--which has focused, not on quickly ending any threat the country posed and moving on to other crucial targets, but on bringing the good life to the Iraqi people.
Eliminating the root of terrorism is indeed a valid goal--but properly targeted military action, not welfare handouts, is the means of doing so.
Terrorism is not caused by poverty. The terrorists of September 11 did not attack America in order to make the Middle East richer. To the contrary, their stated goal was to repel any penetration of the prosperous culture of the industrialized "infidels" into their world. The wealthy Osama bin Laden was not using his millions to build electric power plants or irrigation canals. If he and his terrorist minions wanted prosperity, they would seek to emulate the United States--not to destroy it.
More fundamental, poverty as such cannot determine anyone's code of morality. It is the ideas that individuals choose to adopt which make them pursue certain goals and values. A desire to destroy wealth and to slaughter innocent, productive human beings cannot be explained by a lack of money or a poor quality of life--only by anti-wealth, anti-life ideas. These terrorists are motivated by the ideology of Islamic Fundamentalism. This other-worldly, authoritarian doctrine views America's freedom, prosperity, and pursuit of worldly pleasures as the height of depravity. Its adherents resent America's success, along with the appeal its culture has to many Middle Eastern youths. To the fundamentalists, Americans are "infidels" who should be killed. As a former Taliban official said, "The Americans are fighting so they can live and enjoy the material things in life. But we are fighting so we can die in the cause of God."
The terrorists hate us because of their ideology--a fact that filling up the coffers of Third World governments will do nothing to change. What then, can our government do? It cannot directly eradicate the deepest, philosophical roots of terrorism; but by using military force, it can eliminate the only "root cause" relevant in a political context: state sponsorship of terrorism. The fundamentalists' hostility toward America can translate into international terrorism only via the governments that employ, finance, train, and provide refuge to terrorist networks. Such assistance is the cause of the terrorist threat--and America has the military might to remove that cause.
It is precisely in the name of fighting terrorism at its root that America must extend its fist, not its hand. Whatever other areas of the world may require U.S. troops to stop terrorist operations, we must above all go after the single main source of the threat--Iran. This theocratic nation is both the birthplace of the Islamic Fundamentalist revolution and, as a consequence, a leading sponsor of terrorism. Removing that government from power would be a potent blow against Islamic terrorism. It would destroy the political embodiment of the terrorists' cause. It would declare America's intolerance of support for terrorists. It would be an unequivocal lesson, showing what will happen to other countries if they fail to crack down on terrorists within their borders. And it would acknowledge the fact that dropping bombs, not food packages, is the only way for our government to attack terrorism at its root.
Alex Epstein was a writer and a fellow on staff
at ARI between 2004 and 2011.