In the aftermath of the tragedy of September 11, General Charles Horner, the retired Air Force commander of the Gulf War, was one of the few to raise the question of why anyone would be motivated to attack the United States.
The answer is not that they "hate our freedoms," as President Bush argued in his speech to Congress. Nor is it envy or resentment of America's wealth and economic success, as the media has suggested. The opposite is much more the case: American movies, TV, music and sports are readily devoured by billions.
And many people throughout the world have friends or relatives who have lived in the United States. There was a tremendous outpouring of sympathy for Americans in the wake of the attack.
But unfortunately we also have a terrible history of our political leaders imposing their will, often through force and violence, throughout the globe. This is what will have to change, if we are to prevent further terrorism against Americans.
When I was in Nicaragua in the late 1980s, the United States was financing a dirty war -- which, like the terrorism we are now fighting, targeted mostly civilians -- in order to overthrow the elected government of that country. Most of the people I met there had lost family members who would still be alive if not for the intervention of the United States. If anyone in the world had reason to hate America, they did.
Yet I never encountered any resentment against Americans. Nicaraguans, from illiterate poor people to university graduates, had learned to distinguish between the Americans that they encountered and the American government that was destroying their country.
There have been many Nicaraguas, and many millions who have lost their lives because they were unfortunate enough to live in countries whose governments chose political or economic paths not approved by Washington. Outside the United States, these facts are well known. In the Middle East, there is much hatred for our government's support for Israel's illegal occupation of Palestinian territory. We are also seen as the major force behind various corrupt, dictatorial Arab governments, such as the feudal monarchy of Saudi Arabia. And the U.S.-led sanctions and bombing in Iraq have also aroused deep resentments.
From this region comes an enemy that does not distinguish between our government and the American people, and indeed sees us -- the people -- as mere "collateral damage," to be blown to shreds when it serves their purposes. For the first time in more than half a century, our government is about to take military action in response to an attack on the United States. In Vietnam, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Indonesia, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Chile -- the list is almost endless -- the terrible crimes of our government were committed for imperial purposes, under various pretexts. But no one could honestly claim that the United States was responding to any attack against us, or even a security threat.
Now we have a real security threat, but it will not be resolved with bombing raids. Our leaders cannot even tell us clearly who they are fighting against, or what they are fighting for. Osama Bin Laden is widely held to be responsible for the attacks, but evidence of his complicity is lacking. Some of the President's top advisors want to overthrow the government of Iraq, while others want to bomb Afghanistan. The ruling Taliban of Afghanistan has offered to talk with the United States, but George W. Bush has refused. This indicates that he has chosen war as the only option.
If there were a government responsible for last week's atrocity, he would have a stronger case. Still it would not justify killing innocent people in Afghanistan, many of whom are already near starvation from years of war and drought. And we must remember that Bin Laden built up his army, currently estimated in the thousands, with the help of our own CIA. So the CIA must share responsibility with the Taliban for these attacks, if indeed Bin Laden was involved.
All of which indicates that the American people are going to have to pay more attention to our foreign policy. Those who are currently running the show will not necessarily put our now very real security concerns ahead of their own global ambitions. If we are not careful, they could take us down a path of escalating violence and retaliation.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (www.cepr.net), in Washington, DC.