Lessons for President-Elect Obama From Mumbai

Our new president-elect is surely as apprehensive as the rest of the world about the threat of new Mumbai-type attacks spreading around the globe. What then are the policy insights that he should derive from this recent tragedy? The answers to this question are particularly significant in light of the new openness of the Muslim world to the election of America's first Black president with the middle name of Hussein and the unique opportunity that this presents.

Many experts will predictably cite the need for tighter anti-terrorist security as the primary lesson. Others will focus on the urgency of addressing Indian-Pakistani tensions.

These are all critical issues, but this writer believes that the deeper lessons lie elsewhere. In fact, they lie in answering the question asked by so many Americans after the 9/11 attacks: "Why do they hate us so much?"

Besides the slaughter of hundreds of innocent Indians, the focus of the Mumbai raiders on Western style targets and on singling out American, British and Jewish victims reveals a central lesson for the incoming administration. The teaching begins with American, and to a lesser degree, British conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These war were initially an alleged response to the attacks of 9/11, although other justifications such as the Iraqi possession of weapons of mass destruction and bringing democracy to the Middle East were later tacked on. But as effective strategies for stemming terrorism and capturing its perpetrators, these have been among the major failures of the Bush administration.

In Iraq close to 100,000 civilian deaths, the arbitrary arrest and detention of thousands, the unprecedented use of officially sanctioned torture and the creation of millions of refugees have made this war an abomination to the Moslem world. The recent reports of grave American misuse of the funds destined for Iraqi reconstruction along with new outbreaks of popular resentment against the occupation again serve as reminders of the grave wounding of the war against the Iraqi people.

In Afghanistan we find a bloody quagmire so hopeless that ordinary Afghanis are not sure who to fear more -- the American occupiers or the often ruthless Taliban. The latter conflict seems to be edging closer to earlier humiliating defeats suffered by the Soviets and the British before us.

Ultimately, these wars are inextricably connected to the central source of violence in the Middle East- the four-decade long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Arab perception of US credibility as an honest broker has diminished each year. Famine and despair sweep across Gaza, the West Bank settlements expand and the occasional Hamas missile still flies across the green line.

These are the provocations being poured as veritable political gasoline on the growing flames of Islamic fundamentalism around the world along with the ordinary daily human Muslim pain, humiliation and anger. With each repetition of these policies young men and women in villages and universities across the Muslim world are being recruited as new Jihadis who now flood into Afghanistan or who present themselves as willing candidates for future 9/11's and Mumbais.

A more effective way of addressing violent jihad might be the pouring of the healing balm of nonviolent, intelligent reconstruction on these war torn and desperate societies. A set of policies based on principles of social and economic justice might help to create a moral context from which religious extremism and violence in Islam and in other faith traditions would be condemned.

Our new president with all of his promise will ignore these lessons at all of our peril. The victims of Mumbai and 9/11 now summon Mr. Obama to the difficult but imperative tasks of withdrawal from Iraq and eventually Afghanistan and the principled support of a just Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Even initiating these courageous steps would send a powerful message to the world of Islam. In an earlier war in Lebanon the New York Times reported a Lebanese citizen as saying: "There will be peace when we love our children more than we hate our enemies." This may be the principal lesson of Mumbai for our new president elect.