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Experts Explore Root Causes of Terror Attacks - 2001-12-26

People in the United States are still struggling to come to terms with the terrorist attacks of September 11. The questions, "How did this happen?" and "What can we do to prevent it from happening again?" remain in the forefront of American minds. These questions have been tackled by some of the country's top foreign policy and security experts at a recent round table discussion in New York City.

The panelists agreed that instability and poverty in the Middle East are conditions that foster religious extremism and terrorism. But Michael Moran, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, was quick to point out another contributing factor: U.S. action - and inaction - in the Middle East over the past 10-20 years, particularly in Iraq, has led to growing anti-American sentiment in the region.

"The perception in the Middle East is that we called on the Iraqi people in 1991 to rise up to throw out Saddam Hussein, and when they did rise up, we sat there with our Army and did nothing, and that showed that we were concerned with eliminating the threat to our specific American interests, but not concerned at all about the welfare of the Iraqi people," said Prof. Moran. "People in the Middle East see this as a metaphor for our attitude toward Arabs and Muslims, that we don't have any concern for them, just for oil and our interests."

Mr. Moran and the panel also say a colossal failure of US national security played a key role in the worst-ever terrorist attack against the United States. U.S. intelligence agencies, they say, have been allowed to wither on the vine. But Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council On Foreign Relations and a former Coast Guard Commander, was equally concerned about another weakness: America's 6,000-kilometer border with Canada, 3,000-kilometerborder with Mexico, and 150,000 kilometers of shoreline.

Mr. Flynn says 489 million came across America's borders last year. "Officially. That doesn't count the eight million who are here that didn't get here officially. As I conducted the study for the council, I marched along the U.S.-Canada border, and the U.S.-Mexico border, and many seaports and airports interviewing frontline agents and asked, "How are you doing this job of filtering the bad from the good, given this volume and velocity?" and they basically said, 'We're not. And we can't.'"

The U.S. government will obviously be pouring significant resources into tending its fences. But the consensus of the panel is that the most important task facing the United States is that of forging a new, healthier relationship with the beleaguered Muslim World.

Brian Jenkins, Senior Advisor at the RAND Corporation, put it this way: "The only thing we did with military action was buy ourselves some time to address the more fundamental issues. If we don't address the fundamental issues, then we'll be dealing with bin Laden, the son of bin Laden, the grandson of bin Laden, and so on," said Mr. Jenkins.

The panelists made it clear: U.S. foreign policy has a massive job to do. But what of the American people? How can they be involved? According to Michael Moran, it's simple: The American people need, first and foremost, the desire to be involved.

"Everybody keeps asking me, 'How can we disengage? How much do we have to pay at the pump in order to not to be involved in the Middle East?' And I don't think that's an option. The only thing for us to do is to learn more about it, and that's an effort that's going to have to take place on many different levels: academic, the government, and so on. ... We have to make a decision to engage this part of the world, we have to understand that we have engaged this part of the world, and will be engaged. We have to make a decision to understand it in all its complexities."

All of the panel members contributed essays to a new book published by the Council on Foreign Relations, "How Did This Happen: Terrorism and the New War."