Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Teaching About the War on Terrorism

Teaching About the War on Terrorism

  • Paul Dickler
  • February 20, 2002
  • Center for the Study of Terrorism
  • Other History Institute Programs

The events of September 11, 2001 have placed the subject of terrorism and the war against it, front and center in the lives of Americans and in the classrooms of America. There are many important issues and concepts which need to be addressed, to deal with this subject in an effective manner. The following ten areas explore the background, present, and future of this War on Terrorism.

1. Unilateralism vs. Internationalism in U.S. Foreign Policy

Throughout much of American History, “unilateralism” dominated U.S. foreign policy. However, beginning with World War II, “alliances and international pacts” have become the norm. Nevertheless, a streak of unilateralism has always accompanied these international agreements. The War on Terrorism provides a good example of both elements. Effective historical antecedents for this discussion may include the U.S. war with the Barbary Pirates (1801-1805) and World War I (1914-1918).

2. The Appropriate Conduct of War and the “Endgames” of War

The Hague and Geneva Conventions of War, among other agreements, have served as a framework for U.S. behavior in wartime, during the past 50 or so years. In the “War on Terrorism,” alliances often include cultures where wartime behavior is practiced with different ground rules. Foreigners fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan, for example, were treated as convicted terrorists and often executed by segments of the Northern Alliance (United Front). Should the U.S. change its “no-assassination” policy from the 1970s? In essence, it already has, at least since President Clinton gave orders to kill Osama bin Laden in 1998, and in the present war where President George W. Bush wants bin Laden “dead or alive.”

The U.S. has often had difficulty at the end of wars. Compare the present situation in Afghanistan with the endings of WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf War. For example, did the U.S. stop prematurely before removing Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, or was the U.S. practicing good “balance of power” politics in the Middle East?

3. Superpower Status

What are the obligations to the world, if any, from a Superpower, especially when there is only one? Should it be a fully engaged world policeman? Should it be a leader in the context of the United Nations? Should it stop genocide? Should it preserve the global status quo? Should it look after its own interests, exclusively? Should it disengage as much as possible from military adventures? Should it seek new coalitions? Should it embrace other powers in a new alliance, such as one including Russia and China?

4. Security and Freedom

What is the proper balance between security and freedom? Military tribunals were used in the Civil War and World War II by the United States. Are they proper in the War on Terrorism? Compare security provisions in twentieth century U.S. wars. Does the executive branch wield too much power in war, or is that due to the very nature of war? Does the War on Terrorism change some of the rules? Is detaining several hundred immigrants and/or suspects, in any way equivalent to the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II? The U.S. fights many wars in the name of freedom, yet gives up certain freedoms for the war effort. Were security sacrificed, would there be no freedom to defend?

5. Culture Clash

It is the dominance of U.S. popular culture and economic influence that has so angered many other cultures and nations. The U.S. is often hated for being a “cultural imperialist.” Osama bin Laden hates the U.S. not just for its troops in Saudi Arabia (so close to Mecca and Medina), but also for simply being what it is.

The U.S. pursues policies which advance democracy and capitalism in the process of furthering U.S. interests throughout the world. Yet wars make strange bedfellows. From Syria in the Gulf War, to the Northern Alliance and Pakistan in the War on Terrorism, vital U.S. interests will come before its ideological and cultural goals. Pakistan’s previous “democratic”government most advanced the Taliban.

President Bush has made it overwhelmingly clear that the U.S. is at war with terrorists, not Islam, but the often prophesized “clash of civilizations” at times seems to loom large. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda want a religious and cultural war. Will the U.S. be able to prevent this?

6. World Religions

Ignorance of the major tenets of a people’s faith can lead to faulty political, military, and cultural policies. American students (and Americans in general) need to know more about other faiths. Attacks on Sikhs in the U.S. — mistaken for Arabs and Muslims— show the depth and severity of the problem. Few Americans know about Sunni vs. Shia, or about Wahabbism. The complex connections between Jews, Christians, and Muslims need to be explored. The differences between Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims should also be pursued if the Taliban destruction of sacred Buddhist sites, and if the Kashmir War, is to be understood. (See our conference report on “Teaching World Religions.”)

7. Sovereignty

As September 11, 2001 has shown, an individual or an organization can have more impact on the United States than a sovereign nation. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda have been a most negative force, while Ted Turner’s billion-dollar-plus donation to the United Nations has been a positive force. The 21st century calls for new strategies and new rules in meeting potential threats.

8. National Missile Defense (NMD)

The Clinton Administration chose to delay NMD, in part, because of questions about its effectiveness, and in part due to international considerations. The Bush Administration was pursuing it full speed ahead at least until the September 11 attack. It has now signaled full speed ahead once again. Is NMD worth pursuing? Would it work as a defense measure against a “rogue state” such as North Korea? Does it pose a threat to Russia and China? To protect the U.S. ten years from now during a campaign such as the one in Afghanistan, NMD could offer protection to the U.S. from many countries with limited missile attack capacity. Are the political, international, and monetary costs of pursuing NMD worth it?

9. Biological, Chemical, and Other Nuclear Threats

As the recent anthrax terrorism has reminded Americans, security can be challenged by a variety of threats. Had the anthrax episode occurred before the September 11 attack, it might have been responded to in the manner that the Tylenol tampering or the Unibomber cases were. However, the renewed awareness of “Homeland Security” has made Americans eager to respond more forcefully.

Should all Americans receive smallpox vaccinations? Fifty suicide smallpox terrorists could infect the 50 largest urban areas in the U.S. killing millions, unless the population is vaccinated. Of course, some Americans, perhaps 700, would die of smallpox because of vaccinations. For each biological and chemical threat, a potential response can be made. How many billions should be spent on this prevention? How many vaccinations should be prepared?

Plutonium, especially in the former Soviet Union, can no longer be fully accounted for. Even a tiny dose of plutonium placed in a truck bomb, could have devastating results. Which would be more deadly— the September 11 attack or the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, if plutonium were in the bomb? Again, what would it cost and how much effort should be expended to track down stolen or unaccounted nuclear materials?

10. Post-Afghanistan Options for the War on Terrorism

As of this writing, the Bush Administration has not decided “who’s next” in the war on terrorism, In the meantime, the war in Afghanistan is far from over. Stabilizing Afghanistan and capturing major terrorists is a big job. How big a role should the U.S. play in Afghanistan and for how long? We know that foreigners are not welcome for long if at all.

The Al Qaeda network reached into sixty countries including major U.S. allies and friends. This work too is not finished. Sooner or later, the President has implied that the U.S. will take on Iran, Iraq, and North Korea before they can use weapons of mass destruction. Should the U.S. be prepared to fight more than one regional war against terrorism simultaneously? What if the U.S. attacks Iraq and loses Russian and Chinese support? If China turns up the heat at Taiwan, what military moves would come next? What is our plan for a new OPEC embargo if OPEC nations disapprove of U.S. actions?

Teaching about war is always a challenge. In a better world there would be no wars. The basic causes of war— imperialism, nationalism, imbalance of power, alliances, revenge and ideology or belief systems— can be taught, but understanding human behavior in a national, societal, cultural, or religious context is much more complex. The War on Terrorism has already posted several victories, yet no one believes that terrorism will be eradicated. Over 90% of Americans have supported this war, a testament to the fact that a direct attack on the homeland is the most elemental justification for a response. The ultimate challenge now is for students to understand the changing complexity of the war on terrorism.