The Roots of Terrorism, the Logic of Humanitarian Intervention, and the Reality of American Engagement

Flower at September 11 Memorial
The Roots of Terrorism, the Logic of Humanitarian Intervention, and the Reality of American Engagement - Michael Heimbinder


How American discourse defines terrorism and identifies the factors responsible for its genesis and evolution has a significant impact on U.S. foreign policy. Since the events of September 11th the Bush administration has made a conscientious effort to establish the denigration of human rights as the root of terrorism. The narrowness of this formulation has had a negative impact on the development and deployment of an effective national security strategy.


How American discourse defines terrorism and identifies the factors responsible for its genesis and evolution has a signifi­cant impact on U.S. foreign policy. Since the events of September nth the Bush administration has made a conscientious effort to establish the denigration of human rights as the root of terrorism. Emerging from the intersection of terrorism and human rights has been the logic of humani­tarian intervention. Accordingly, the U.S. can reduce the likelihood of future terrorist attacks by engaging nations that fail to respect human rights.

However, the foreign policy prescriptions of the U.S. executive have consistently failed to reduce terrorist activity against American targets, and the U.S. record on promoting human rights abroad is, at best, mixed. This is the result of both miscalculation regarding the dynamics of terror­ism and the preference of the executive for humanitarian intervention using the weapons of war. The emphasis on the psychology and political economy of terrorism distracts from its structural and technological components and the logic of humanitarian intervention is betrayed by the reality of its implementation under the auspices of the U.S. military. Ultimately, the inability of the American political establishment to accurately model the threat of terrorism or honestly intervene to promote human rights will lead to a misallocation of resources in the "War on Terror" and increasing political, social, and economic instability outside oft he core industrialized nations.

The Roots of Terrorism

Since the events of September 11th there has been an enormous mental effort to come to terms with the motivations of those who perpe­trated the attacks. This soul searching has popularly been framed as: "Why do they hate us?". The rhetoric oft he President provides one answer: "They hate our freedoms"; the clash of civilizations is upon us. More sophisticated but no less racist observers, such as Samuel Hunting­ton, come to similar conclusions, stressing the irreconcilable differences between distinct and stable cultural entities which are naturally at odds with one another: "The peoples to the east and south of...the eastern boundary of Western Christianity in the year 1500... are Orthodox or Muslim; they historically belonged to the Ottoman or Tsarist empires and were only lightly touched by the shaping of events in the rest of Europe; they are generally less advanced economically; they seem much less likely to develop stable democratic political systems."1 Others focus on dependency theory or more accurately the "perceptions of injustice that motivate political violence."2 Accordingly, if Arabs blame a "foreign power or foreign culture for undermining their society and causing their condition, they may mobilize against that foreign power."3 Still others sympathize with the marginal social circumstances of those who fall prey to the ideologies of terrorism. These latter critics focus on the limited employment opportunities available in "the narrow oil-based economies of many Muslim countries" and the "the closed and authoritarian re­gimes" which prevent "reform or a broad array of roles in politics".4

Each explanation regarding the roots of terrorism has the potential to catalyze different modes of American engagement. If the clash of civilizations is accepted as reality then an argument may be made for disengaging. If the presence of American military installations in the Middle East is stoking the ire oft he Arab world and transforming men into terrorists then the bases should be removed. Continuing to engage the Middle East under these circumstances will promote counterbalanc­ing. The result will be an escalation in terrorist violence directed towards undermining American hegemony. "Disengagers ... argue that U.S. engagement increases incentives for others to balance substantially over what they would do to counter 'disengaged' U.S. potential."5

If the structure of economic and political relations between nations is viewed as a major constraint to the independent development of countries outside of the core industrialized nations, and if this perception of an inequitable world system is fomenting terrorist rage in the periph­ery, then perhaps the solution is engagement along an alternative axis. Efforts should be made to redesign the architecture of global governance to minimize perceptions of injustice. The U.S. should make a concerted effort to reform international financial institutions such as the World Bank and IMF and international governing bodies such as the U.N. in order to make them more responsive to the demands of traditionally less influential populations. In addition, the U.S. should modify the unilateralist stance of the Bush administration, either couching dissent within the language of diplomacy or incorporating the concerns of those without direct access to the President and his foreign policy advisors.

Generally speaking, the first two explanations have been manipu­lated and subsequently dismissed by the Bush administration. The clash of civilizations has been turned on its head and reformulated not as a clash between the Western world and the Middle East, but as a clash "inside a civilization, a battle for the future of the Muslim world."6 On one side are the extremist fundamentalist "Baath party loyalists" or "foreign terrorists" and on the other are the moderate Muslims for whom faith in the universal doctrine of human rights as promulgated by West­ern powers binds them to loyally support U.S. foreign policy initiatives. In the words of Condoleezza Rice, the present National Security Advisor, "We are aggressively attacking the Baathist remnants and foreign terror­ists. And increasingly, Iraqis are fighting alongside our troops to secure their own freedom. The numbers of Iraqis now risking their lives to defend their nation is over 85,000 and growing. Together, we continue to discover arms caches, thwart attacks, track down killers, and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure."?

The same logic is applied to dismiss perceptions of injustice in the structure of the world system. It is "suggested that an American-domi­nated international order... best guarantee[s] the expansion of democ­racy and secures[s] the liberty of all nations."8 Dissent is the false path to prosperity of the irrational and uninformed; in the words of George Bush "Instead of dwelling on past wrongs and blaming others, governments in the Middle East need to confront real problems, and serve the true interests of their nations."9 And oddly enough the "true interests" of the nations of the Middle East, according to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, are identical to U.S national interest; "When we guard our own interests, when we protect the very things that make America what it is, we help shape a secure and peaceful world."10 Suddenly oppo­sitions that were significant (between East and West, core and periphery) and likely to erupt into violent conflict, are absorbed, distorted, and redefined as in line with American values and U.S. foreign policy.

By blurring the boundary between its own position and those of the opposition the Bush administration has rerouted the roots of terrorism eliminating those arguments that might implicate the American lifestyle or the exercise of American power abroad as contributing factors in the escalation of terrorist violence. So what's left? Only the correlation between autocratic regimes and popular discontent. Accordingly, the explosion of terrorist activity is the responsibility of delinquent dictators and miscreant monarchs. Their intransigence in supporting human rights leaves the population festering with unmet demands-demands that have no peaceful outlet and therefore come to be expressed in the deeds of terrorists. These authoritarian regimes will not accept responsi­bility for the violence that results from their abuse of human rights, thus the United States must intervene. Ultimately, the roots of terrorism dictate an extended American engagement formulated as humanitarian intervention.

The Logic of Humanitarian Intervention

"During the Cold War period, peacekeeping was based on the as­sumption that wars were of the Clausewitzian type. The job of peace­keepers was to separate the warring parties and to monitor cease-fires on the basis of agreements. Peacekeeping was sharply distinguished from peace enforcement, which was equated with war fighting, i.e. intervening in a war on one side"11. Since the end oft he Cold War peacekeeping operations have undergone radical change. The U.S. has emerged as the world's sole superpower and is no longer inhibited by the counter-agenda oft he Soviet Union. With the balance of power firmly on its side U.S. foreign policy actors can afford to openly promote peacekeeping as a means to political ends without encountering stiff opposition. The need for clandestine CIA operations to counter the emergence of communist leaders has now been supplanted by the legitimate and open use of peacekeeping forces to achieve similar political ends; namely the expan­sion of liberalism, but this time against a different enemy: regional and global instability.

"The new tasks for peacekeepers include the protection of safe havens, where civilians can find refuge, the protection of convoys deliver­ing humanitarian assistance, disarmament, and demobilization, provid­ing a secure environment for elections or the return of refugees or dis­placed persons, or capturing war criminals."12 Both the ethics and suc­cess of peacekeeping operations are complicated by these "new tasks ". Peacekeeping under such conditions has a political component and normally involves taking sides, providing humanitarian and military assistance to friends and disarming and demobilizing foes. In addition, since peacekeeping operations are often directed towards countering instability and resolving civil war, forces are frequently inserted into situations in which it is difficult to discern ally from enemy and the methods of military engagement are unorthodox. The aim of war under conditions of domestic instability are no longer "achieved through the military capture of territory and victory in battle... rather the aim is to expand the networks of extremism ". The "warring parties use techniques of terror, ethnic cleansing, or genocide as deliberate war strategies... Violations of humanitarian and human rights laws are not a side effect of war but the central methodology of newwars."13 Under such conditions it is vital that peacekeeping forces avoid adding fuel to the fire. They must be assigned discrete objectives and provided precise intelligence in order to minimize the possibility of providing safe haven to military operatives or arms and assistance to those parties seeking to sow chaos.

Prior to the terrorist attacks of September nth the U.S. role in humanitarian intervention was extremely contentious. Because the risks of intervention under conditions of regional instability are severe and the likelihood of success slim, the U.S. was often reticent to make peacekeep­ing commitments during the 1990's. This led to heated debate and a division among foreign policy elites. "In Bosnia, Haiti, Northern Iran, Kosovo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan and elsewhere in the past decade American foreign policy elites have expressed differing normative beliefs about where and when the United States should intervene. These competing beliefs appear to rotate around the selective engager and liberal humanitarian axis."14

The selective engagers dominated the American national security apparatus during the years of the Cold War. They maintained that "humanitarian emergencies were by nature political events, and thus one side or another would balk at international assistance. This meant that intervention would ultimately require taking sides-and this would inevitably create a threat to U.S. forces."15 Furthermore, peacekeeping under such conditions was considered not just dangerous but foolhardy, as it was likely to antagonize the Soviets, thereby inviting their presence into the region and escalating nuclear tensions. According to the selec­tive engagers, the U.S. should only intervene in situations where there was a clear and present danger to American national security.

With the end of the Cold War the cogent threats to American na­tional security seemed to dissolve. Kenneth Waltz characterized the situation as follows, "The absence of serious threats to American national security gives the United States wide latitude in making foreign policy choices."16 The necessity and urgency of action is gone, "A dominant power acts internationally truly when the spirit moves it."17 Thus, the post Cold War status of the United States opened up a window of oppor­tunity for liberal humanitarians. The effort was underway to move the "spirit" of American foreign policy and its central image was the abuse of the innocent by the powers that be. The call for U.S. troops to intervene in foreign countries and halt human rights abuses became increasingly vocal.

Central to the debate between the two parties was the ability of the government to recognize and control sources of instability. Could those perpetrating human rights abuses be identified and stopped? Did they represent the actions of "deliberate, highly coordinated, and politically driven"18 actors, as liberal humanitarians believed, or were the differ­ences between people that inspired human rights abuses "pre-given and primordial"19 as the selective engagers claimed; the brutal result of "spontaneous bottom-up hatreds"?20

Unfortunately, the debate between selective engagers and liberal humanitarians has been eclipsed, but not resolved, by the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Selective engagers

drew a bright line between geographical areas im­portant to the national interest and those parts of the world that were insignificant from the standpoint of in­terests. Now that attacks against the United States can be planned and fostered within countries formerly viewed as insignificant, this bright line has been blurred. One of the implications of this blurring of lines is that the dis­tinction between self-defense and humanitarian interven­tion may become less clear.21

This is clearly illustrated by the recent U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Did the U.S. invade to counter the threat of terrorist attacks and halt the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or did they inter­vene to remove a dictator who was committing atrocious human rights abuses? National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice offers the answer, both. "The world has an obligation to confront squarely the threats of our time, and President Bush is determined to meet that obligation. But, of course, we must do more than just confront problems. We also have an historic opportunity to make the world better by fighting poverty, by fighting disease, and by ending hopelessness."22

When two planes collided with the World Trade Center towers on the morning of September nth a new threat had emerged. The looseness that had characterized U.S. foreign policy during the 199o's and opened up the debate between selective engagers and liberal humanitarians ended. An old threat had been identified anew, global terrorism, and over the course of the next few months the Bush administration was to articulate a different kind of foreign policy, war as humanitarianism. In his own words "If we must use force, the United States and our coalition stand ready to help the citizens of a liberated Iraq. We will deliver medi­cine to the sick, and we are now moving into place nearly 3 million emergency rations to feed the hungry"23. In order to provide a legitimate platform for these strange new foreign policy bedfellows, military force and humanitarian aid, boundaries had to be reconfigured. The roots of terrorism had to be confined and strictly correlated to the abuse of human rights by foreign autocratic regimes and peacekeeping had to be transformed from an exercise in separation and negotiation carried out by a disinterested third party into a politically motivated act of moral reform. The logic of war as humanitarian intervention is the bridge that connects the roots of terror to the reality of American engagement.

The Reality of American Engagement

By redefining the discourse on terrorism and peacekeeping, the Bush administration has successfully recast war as humanitarian inter­vention. This development has created a superficial consensus between selective engagers and liberal humanitarians that hides a deep and widening schism and an odd reversal of roles. For the selective engagers the perpetrators of human rights abuses, those fueling terrorist activity, can now be identified effectively. The United States can use high-tech munitions, laser guided smart bombs and patriot missiles, to execute precision strikes against known enemies. In addition, allies can be identified, the KLA in Kosovo, the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, and the Kurds in Iraq, and armed as proxy fighters.

These efforts at humanitarian intervention alarm the liberal hu­manitarians who have switched positions and now claim that the situa­tion is more complex; that the enemy is too elusive for the instruments of war to effectively target; and the arming of allies too indiscriminate to offer true solidarity with American ends. The liberal humanitarians now claim that American intervention is self-serving and ultimately runs counter to the long-term interests of the United States.

The chain of events from the U.S.a rming and train­ing of Afghan and Pakistani mujahedeen to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, to the Taliban and Al Qaeda and its international networks, including fighters sent to Bosnia­ Herzegovinia, Somalia, Chechnya, and Central Asia, is direct. The U.S. government's 'lift and strike' policy (lift the arms embargo and bomb Serb positions) that used covert operations to arm the Bosnians and the Kosovo Albanians, was an international copy of the original Af­ghan policy.... One consequence in both instances was to spread the instruments of war... and the trafficking networks far beyond their initial geographical focus ... and to undermine the assumptions as well as the prac­tice of a Western policy of containment.24

What the liberal humanitarians have discovered is that war and humanitarian intervention are incompatible, that the "logic of war wins out every time over concurrent policies, particularly diplomatic negotia­tions and humanitarian goals."25

The reality of U.S. engagement is not stability and security. Rather, war as humanitarianism creates chaos. The volatility of the engaged region peaks and the opportunity to "spread the networks of extremism" through human rights abuses multiply. Strategic bombing kills civilians and disrupts the lives of those who survive by destroying essential health and transportation infrastructure. "Similarly, the American strategy of relying on local armies for the ground component of the military cam­paign is directly in conflict with the political goals of diplomatic negotia­tions for a postwar state…Control over territory trumps all normative theories about the best political arrangements to achieve postwar recon­structions and a stable government."26


Many framed the response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th as a choice between "doing something versus doing nothing". Something was chosen over nothing. Action was considered to be morally impera­tive and pre-emption became the order of the day. Military plans were drawn up, precision munitions were guided from the doorstep of the White House into the caves and bunkers of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Northern Alliance and the Kurds were armed as proxies.

The problem with this approach is that it undermines the effective­ness of alternative options. The choice is not between doing something or doing nothing. Rather the choice involves an entire spectrum of options. The administration's efforts to redefine the roots of terrorism and reshape the logic of humanitarian intervention obviated potential solutions that were less overt and telegenic than T.V. guided bombs and embedded reporters. This does not bode well for the future stability of those countries struggling to provide opportunity and security for their people nor does it effectively address the phenomenon of global terror­ism. If the United States continues to rely exclusively on "military power and bilateral trade deals rather than also on economic assistance, trade benefits, and efforts at cultural understanding" the costs will include "estrangement from our democratic allies and hatred of the United States in much of the world. Ultimately, such a vision of national interest is a recipe for isolation and continual conflict."27

The emphasis on the correlations between authoritarianism, the "freedom deficit", Islamic fundamentalism, and global terrorism distracts from issues of greater pertinence to the "War on Terror". As is evidenced by the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City by homegrown terrorists and the sarin gas attack carried out by a Japanese cult on a Tokyo subway, terror may glean sustenance from a range of different environments. The terrorist transformation requires neither the tenets of radical Islam nor the deprivations of life under an authoritarian regime.

What is of essential importance to the "War on Terror'' is not the culture of terrorism but the technologies of terror. Terrorism has a greater impact today because the geographical and technological con­straints of an earlier era have been suspended. Porous national borders along with the spread of information and communications technology have enhanced the mobility and reach of networks of extremism. This phenomenon has coincided with the proliferation of nuclear material, the relatively low cost and negligible technical capacity required to manufac­ture certain deadly biological and chemical agents, and the effectiveness and ease with which soft targets and civilians can be attacked. Thus, counter-terror tactics should focus on networks and technologies, not the failure of authoritarian regimes to uphold human rights.

Finally, if the "War on Terror" is to succeed the U.S. must reverse the momentum of its present foreign policy. Authoritarianism does not breed terrorism and neither does instability. However, they do create spaces which are opaque to American intelligence and therefore provide unique opportunities for the organization and consolidation of terrorist networks. Thus, in addressing terrorism over the near-term the U.S. government should look to foster stability in the periphery, giving prefer­ence to financial and diplomatic means over the use of force, and over the long-term it should begin to invest significant time and effort towards establishing institutions of international governance that can contain and convert wayward regimes.


Michael Heimbinder is a master's degree candidate in international affairs at the New School University in New York.