Last month I had the great pleasure of participating in a panel on Islam and America at the Lory Center. The dialogue was part of a great democratic tradition of Americans taking seriously their role as informed citizens and voters.
But one student in attendance, Rocky Mountain Collegian columnist Trevor Sides, missed the point entirely. In his Oct. 5 column “America the Terrible,” Sides misrepresented my remarks, perpetuated claims that are inaccurate, and attributed behavior to me that I did not display. I would like to set the record straight.
First, “putting oneself in another person’s shoes” when trying to understand why many Muslims in the Middle East feel that American policies are inconsistent and target the region is certainly not na’ve. Rather, it is an approach that can help someone understand the view and concerns of another.
Second, Sides confused several examples I provided to make his own mistaken claims. I did not compare the invasion of Iraq with Pakistan and India; I said that many people in the Middle East wonder why the West is applying so much pressure on Iran’s nuclear program when it is known or believed that countries such as Israel, Pakistan and India already have these capabilities.
I stated that some Middle Easterners question why we invaded Iraq when it was known that North Korea actually had WMD capabilities. Sides writes that no North Koreans were involved in the 9/11 attacks, but guess what – neither were any Iraqis. The 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia (15), Egypt (1), Lebanon (1) and the United Arab Emirates (2).
Regarding Sides’ claim that India and Pakistan are too “self-absorbed” in their own arms race and the Kashmir issue to care about other matters: far from it. Pakistan is an important ally in the war on terror and the US government is helping India with its nuclear program both for security and economic reasons.
I also shared what I was told by a member of the Defense Department who helps our troops develop tactics to fight the insurgency and how they can be counterintuitive. For example, insurgents may fire from the middle of a crowd of civilians, knowing full well that a natural response is to shoot back. Even though our troops know intellectually that firing back is a response that will cause more negative publicity for the American military, it’s only natural to want to fire back after you’ve been shot at several times and have seen comrades wounded or killed. That is not a criticism of our troops; rather it is an acknowledgment of how this war is so different from “traditional” military battles and more difficult to fight. I also stated the fact that most casualties in this type of warfare are civilians, not combatants.
Sides also misconstrued my portrayal of Hezbollah and Hamas. What I shared is that we need to understand why these organizations have support within the region. One reason is they provide social services to the poor. As much as we might want to characterize these groups as simply violent, the fact is they also provide food, medical care and monetary assistance to some of the poorest citizens in Lebanon and Palestine. And remember that the election of Hamas in Palestine was democratic.
Many intelligent, concerned people from across the political spectrum believe, as does the Stanley Foundation, that dialogue, engagement and multilateral initiatives are necessary to find sustainable, peaceful solutions to today’s conflicts. This is not the sole domain of liberals. Both Senator Chuck Hagel. R-Neb., and the former head of the U.S. Military’s Central Command, General Anthony Zinni, have favored engagement, understanding of cultural perspectives and multilateral solutions in their own remarks and publications. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about General Abizaid, current leader of Central Command. General Abizaid – who speaks Arabic and received one of his degrees from a Middle Eastern university – understands the value of winning hearts and minds and is encouraging development initiatives in the Horn of Africa in an effort to diminish the influence of groups like Al Qaeda.
Finally, at no time during my presentation did I “rail” against U.S. security policy and warfare as reported by Sides; the tone of the entire event was that of a calm discussion.
It is precisely this type of name-calling, factual distortion and misattribution that is limiting intelligent, balanced discussion upon which successful policy development relies. Citizen initiatives such as the “Hope Not Hate” event provide forums for people of differing viewpoints to speak with and understand one another – which in turn facilitates the formation of informed, constructive policies and solutions. My thanks to the CSU students who sponsored this event for helping move us farther along this path.
Kathy Gockel is a program officer in Policy Analysis and Dialogue with the Muscatine, Iowa-based Stanley Foundation.