By Nina L. Khrushcheva
Earlier this month, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, a 24-year-old US citizen of Middle Eastern descent, opened fire at two military sites in Chattanooga, Tennessee, killing five.
This act of local horror was also one of national significance, for it vindicated the late US diplomat and strategist George F. Kennan’s warning that American foreign policymakers should hold in check their urge to act, especially militarily. One can never know when the blowback will come, Kennan warned, but it will.
Indeed, unforeseeable consequences were precisely what concerned Kennan when the United States charged into Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq two years later. After all, it was no coincidence that many of those the US was fighting in Afghanistan, including Osama bin Laden himself, had been associated with the Mujahedeen, the guerilla-style units of Muslim warriors whom US forces trained as insurgents during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation. Likewise, the US had armed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to go to war with Iran in the 1980s.
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans asked, “Why do they hate us?” Yet, though the US has experienced no attack on its soil since then, US President George W. Bush’s administration pursued, virtually unchecked, the destruction of two Muslim countries – and the devastation has continued beyond Bush’s tenure with an ever-intensifying campaign of drone strikes.
These policies have helped push Afghanistan to the precipice of state failure, while opening the way for the Islamic State to take over more than one-third of Iraq’s territory. The resulting discontent in those countries and across the Muslim world has increasingly been felt in Europe – and now is emerging in the US, too.
To be sure, US criminal investigators have not officially identified the motives of the Kuwaiti-born Abdulazeez, who does not seem to have belonged to a terror network. But there is plenty of precedent for an alienated and disenchanted young man, brought up in the West (Abdulazeez attended high school and college in Chattanooga), to seek a cause worth fighting for – and to find it in the perceived humiliation of Islam by America and the West.
Of course, as soon as the word “Islam” appears, Western media start painting such “lone wolves” as agents of some vast Islamic conspiracy, rather than deeply wounded and desperate individuals. Such an interpretation makes the act easier to understand: a cog in a terrorist network would be compelled, even brainwashed, to mount such an attack. But when the attacker is a solitary individual – an American citizen, no less – it raises serious questions about the system from which he or she (though almost always a he in these cases) emerged.
According to some press accounts, Abdulazeez felt a sense of failure at his inability to meet America’s standard of success, of which money is the primary measure. Though he did not appear deeply religious, he allegedly praised the late Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born al-Qaeda cleric and an advocate of attacks on “hypocritical” America, as a model of triumph over failure.
Another question about the US system stems from the refusal of Abdulazeez’s health insurer to approve his participation in an in-patient drug and alcohol program. This is far from the first time the US has experienced a mass murder by someone whose mental-health issues, including addiction, had been overlooked. Does this reflect a systemic failure? More fundamentally, does it controvert America’s principles?
Rather than considering such questions, the US remains focused on the external scourge of Islamic terrorism. Kennan recognized this tendency decades ago, when he warned that shortsighted policies at home and abroad had already put America in a vulnerable position. Instead of basking in its own superiority, he advised, the US should learn from the mistakes of its enemies, including Russia.
In the 2000s, Kennan compared the Bush administration’s “global war on terror” to Russia’s wars against Chechen separatists in the North Caucasus. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first president, promised its subjects “as much sovereignty as they can swallow.” The Chechens, who had sought independence from Russia for centuries, took this promise as an opportunity for self-determination. But Yeltsin, unwilling to lose any more territories after the Soviet Union’s initial breakup, reneged on his pledge.
In 1993, the first Chechen war erupted. Russia managed to defeat the separatists and maintain control over Chechnya. But it was a Pyrrhic victory, given that it drove many disillusioned and angry Chechens toward religious fundamentalism.
As a result, when the second Chechen war began in 1999, the fight was no longer just about Chechen independence from Russia; it was a fight for Islam, waged against Christians everywhere. Russia, under Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, defeated the separatists again, restoring federal control over the territory. Fifteen years later, Chechen extremists are fighting alongside the Islamic State.
One might object to comparing America’s desire to export democracy at the barrel of a gun to Russia’s imperial death spasms under Yeltsin and Putin. But, whether we like it or not, there is a strong parallel between them: both countries are perceived to be dictating to Muslims.
And, in fact, it was Kennan who first drew my attention to this similarity, when in a private conversation about 9/11, he noted that, for many Muslims, Russia and the West were becoming indistinguishable. Both were viewed as secular states antagonistic to Islam.
Kennan warned that, just as the first Chechen war bred national and individual resentment, America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would only fuel more hatred and frustration – which would eventually blow back onto the US. “The failure to fit the system makes people attack that system,” he said, “so it is never wise to bomb nations to freedom.”
Nina L. Khrushcheva is a dean at The New School in New York, and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, where she directs the Russia Project
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
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