Crimes like those in Paris, New York, London, and Madrid – attacks on countless cafes, malls, buses, trains, and nightclubs – affront our most basic human values, because they involve the deliberate murder of innocents and seek to spread fear throughout society. We are wont to declare them the work of lunatics and sociopaths, and we feel repulsed by the very idea that they may have an explanation beyond the insanity of their perpetrators.
Yet, in most cases, terrorism is not rooted in insanity. It is more often an act of war, albeit war by the weak rather than by organized states and their armies. Islamist terrorism is a reflection, indeed an extension, of today’s wars in the Middle East. And with the meddling of outside powers, those wars are becoming a single regional war – one that is continually morphing, expanding, and becoming increasingly violent.
From the jihadist perspective – the one that American or French Muslims, for example, may pick up in training camps in Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen – daily life is ultra-violent. Death is pervasive, coming as often as not from the bombs, drones, and troops of the United States, France, and other Western powers. And the victims are often the innocent “collateral damage” of Western strikes that hit homes, weddings, funerals, and community meetings.
We in the West hate to acknowledge – and most refuse to believe – that our leaders have been flagrantly wasteful of Muslim lives for a century now, in countless wars and military encounters instigated by overwhelming Western power. What is the message to Muslims of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003? More than 100,000 Iraqi civilians – a very conservative estimate – died in a war that was based on utterly false pretenses. The US has never apologized, much less even recognized the civilian slaughter.
Or consider Syria, where an estimated 200,000 Syrians have recently died, 3.7 million have fled the country, and 7.6 million have been internally displaced in a civil war that was stoked in no small part by the US, Saudi Arabia, and other allied powers. Since 2011, the CIA and US allies have poured in weapons, finance, and training in an attempt to topple President Bashar al-Assad. For the US and its allies, the war is little more than a proxy battle to weaken Assad’s patrons, Iran and Russia. Yet Syrian civilians are the cannon fodder.
Long before there was Islamist terrorism in the West, the United Kingdom, France, and the US relied on diplomatic chicanery and launched coups, wars, and covert operations in the Middle East to assert and maintain Western political control over the region. Historians know this sordid story, but most Westerners do not (in no small part because many of the interventions have been covert). Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire a century ago, Western powers have sought to control the Middle East for a variety of reasons, including claims on oil, access to international sea routes, Israel’s security, and geopolitical competition with Russia in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.
The US now has more than 20 military bases in six countries in the region (Afghanistan, Bahrain, Djibouti, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Turkey) and large-scale military deployments in many others, including Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. It has funded violence for decades, arming and training the mujahedeen (in effect building the precursor of Al Qaeda) in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets; stoking the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s; invading Iraq in 2003; trying to topple Assad since 2011; and waging relentless drone attacks in recent years.
The fact that jihadist terrorist attacks in the West are relatively new, occurring only in the last generation or so, indicates that they are a blowback – or at least an extension – of the Middle East wars. With very few exceptions, the countries that have been attacked are those that have been engaged in the post-1990 Western-led military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. The terrorists themselves cast their actions in political terms, even though we rarely listen; indeed, the terrorists’ words are typically reported only briefly, if at all. But the fact is that almost every terrorist attack in the West or against Western embassies and personnel has been accompanied by the message that it is in retaliation for Western meddling in the Middle East. The Paris terrorists pointed to France’s operations in Syria.
To be clear, Western actions do not provide Islamist terrorism with a scintilla of justification. The reason to point out these actions is to make clear what Islamist terrorism in the West represents to the terrorists: Middle East violence on an expanded front. The West has done much to create that front, arming favored actors, launching proxy wars, and taking the lives of civilians in unconscionable numbers.
Ending the terror of radical Islam will require ending the West’s wars for control in the Middle East. Fortunately, the Age of Oil is gradually coming to an end. We should make that end come faster: climate safety will require that we leave most fossil-fuel resources in the ground. Nor do the other ancient motives for Western interference apply any longer. The UK no longer needs to protect its trade routes to colonial India, and the US no longer needs a ring of military bases to contain the Soviet Union.
It is time for the West to allow the Arab world to govern itself and to choose its path without Western military interference. And there are heartening reasons to believe that a self-governing Arab Middle East would wisely choose to become a peaceful global crossroads and a partner in science, culture, and development.
The Arab world has played that beneficent role in the past, and it can do so again. The region is filled with talented people, and the overwhelming majority in the region want to get on with their lives in peace, educate and raise their children in health and safety, and participate in global society. Their objectives – prosperity and human security – are our own.
Jeffrey D. Sachs is Professor of Sustainable Development, Professor of Health Policy and Management, and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.