Looking Ahead in a New World, Page 3

From Power Plants to Power Struggles
Five alumni offer prescriptions for protecting our country
by Doug McInnes ’70

Fight for Human Rights

The United States has pushed a tough human-rights agenda with countries such as China and Pakistan. With others, such as Saudi Arabia, it has let the issue slide, but when federal investigators unraveled the identities of the September 11 hijackers, 14 of the 19 were Saudis.

On the surface, religious extremism was the motivating factor behind the attacks, with Osama bin Laden employing his own brand of Islam to motivate his followers. But William F. Schulz ’71, executive director of Amnesty International USA, believes that Americans should delve deeper, focusing particularly on human rights violations in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

“The fact that there have been so few democratic institutions in many of those countries is what has made religious extremism attractive,” says Schulz, author of In Our Own Best Interest (Beacon Press, April 2000). “Without human rights and democracy, you build a situation in a country like Saudi Arabia in which the average person on the street becomes extremely alienated from his or her government. Extremists are seen as speaking for the average person.

“The truth is that extremism, whether it be of a religious or political nature, finds fertile ground when there are not other mechanisms through which people can express their dissatisfaction.”

The U.S., acting from expediency, has let the human-rights issues in such countries slide, Schulz believes. “We have chosen not to confront the Saudis about their abysmal human-rights record because we are concerned about the supply of oil. We have been unwilling to confront Egypt about its violations because we see Egypt as a stabilizing influence in the Middle East.”

In the long run, he says, the policy is far from expedient because it fosters the very terrorism we seek to prevent. “I’m not offering this in any way as an excuse for what happened. The September attacks were criminal. But if one is to prevent future crimes against humanity, one needs to understand the milieu from which those crimes arose.
“It comes down to this,” he adds. “Support for human rights is not only idealistic, but pragmatic and in our own best interest.” By this standard, the U.S. will be tested again and again, including in Afghanistan, where American forces have mounted more than 100 air strikes a day.

Schulz says the American handling of the Afghan war and the kind of government that takes over afterward will determine whether Afghanistan continues as a haven for terrorism. “If the next Afghan government is respectful of human rights, it will be a more stable government and far less likely to harbor terrorists,” he says. “If we don’t solve Afghanistan’s human-rights problems, extremism will continue to fester.”

Support Some Arab Interests

Does the Arab population harbor a deep hatred for the United States? The issue is complex, says Bill Rugh ’58, former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and the United Arab Emirates. Some people of Arab descent do find American foreign policy hard to swallow, but only on some issues, he says. Their opposition lies in the United States’ failure to support democratic reforms in the Middle East, a pro-Israel policy tilt, and sanctions on Iraq, which many Arabs blame for triggering starvation and disease among Iraqi civilians.

Rugh is president of American-Mideast Educational and Training Services, which promotes understanding between Americans and the people of the Middle East and North Africa. He explains that dislike of American national policy does not extend automatically to Americans themselves. “The Arab people could very well say to an American, ‘I like you as a person, but how can your government be so hostile toward us?’ Or they may wonder why our government supports dictatorship abroad, while working as a democracy at home. But these same people send their children to America to study. They listen to American music. They buy American technology. They vacation at Disneyland.”

Life under authoritarian regimes may satisfy some, but others want change and find the United States’ failure to support democracy particularly perplexing, he says. Our country labored for decades to free Eastern Block countries from Soviet dominance; why not the same for Middle Eastern dictatorships?

“We have other interests in addition to our love of democracy,” says Rugh. “Economic, strategic, and political reasons. Also, we really do believe in national self-determination and are reluctant to try to change domestic political systems. It’s easy to say we ought to support the good guys, but how do we do that? Do we provoke a revolution? Do we send in the Marines to support an opposition group? Then, if the opposition wins power, we wonder if they are tainted by our support.”

As a practical matter, says Rugh, U.S. support of anti-government groups in the Middle East “could antagonize the government in power, which could punish us by, say, cutting off oil. So it’s not simple.” But there is a price to be paid for supporting demagogues if they lose power, such as when the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran was toppled in the Iranian revolution.

He says that the U.S. could change its policy in Iraq and Israel—for example by lending strong support to a freeze on Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas. “Lending support doesn’t mean meeting every Arab demand, but it does call for adjustments that support American interests while showing some understanding of Arab interests. We should also look at the proposal to deploy international observers to the West Bank and Gaza Strip to monitor violence,” he says. “The U.S. failed to support that proposal simply because Israel rejected it. These are examples that reinforce the Arab perception of American bias.”

Want Better Intelligence? Read the Tea Leaves

Mike Pfister ’57 joined the U.S. Army the year he graduated from Oberlin, when Middle Eastern terrorists confined their violence to their own region and the Pentagon had not a single guard at the door. “Terrorism wasn’t on the radar screen, not in the international sense,” says Pfister, who rose to the rank of major general within 30 years and served as director of intelligence for the U.S. Central Command, responsible for the Middle East and South Asia.

Pfister served in Vietnam, witnessed the collapse of the communist block, and watched the spread of terrorism to the United States. Now retired, he emphasizes that military operations are just one aspect of the protracted conflict that our country faces; improving U.S. intelligence is also critical. “In the intelligence business, it’s not just about discovering our enemies’ capabilities, it’s about finding out how tenaciously they will fight for their beliefs.”

It’s easy to be wrong. “Consider the Cold War. There were very few analysts who predicted the fall of the Soviet Union,” he says, adding that our government also underestimated the will of the North Vietnamese and Vietcong in the face of growing domestic opposition and discontent. “The North Vietnamese were more determined than we gave them credit for, and they outlasted us. The U.S. did not envision itself as a colonialist, but to the North Vietnamese, we were just the successors to the colonial regime. This accounted for some of their staying power.”

Intelligence efforts, he says, include seeking out warnings of terrorist intentions without help from the terrorists themselves. “It is highly unlikely that we will ever recruit from the inner circle of a suicide group,” says Pfister. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t find out what they’re up to. There will be clues.” A case in point: one of the September 11 suicide pilots reportedly conveyed to his instructor at an American flight training school that he didn’t need to learn how to take off or land the plane, a tell-tale remark that wasn’t relayed to authorities.

“The question then becomes, ‘Can we organize our own intelligence to pick up enough clues to read the tea leaves?’” asks Pfister. “And can we do it without becoming a society in which neighbors inform on neighbors?”

A further challenge, he says, is for the president to keep our country united, despite disagreement within the population about how to administer a war against terrorism. “The real lesson from Vietnam that is applicable today is not tactical, but a lesson in politics and civics. We need to orchestrate domestic and congressional support and have the staying power, the national will, to deal with the problem.”

Rethink Electrical Power: Is Smaller Better?

It is an unofficial American motto: bigger is always better. Massive factories dot our landscapes. The vast Mall of America is a city unto itself. The electric power grid is the marvel of the industrial world. Each of these things seems to make economic sense. So, too, did the World Trade Center.

The equation for what makes economic sense may have changed, for the bigger something is, the more its loss will be felt. For that reason, electricity in the U.S., which is based on giant plants, giant dams, and a giant power grid is particularly vulnerable to terrorism, says Hisham Zerriffi ’95, who works at creating models that are more efficient and less susceptible to terrorism.

As a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon, Zerriffi had been rethinking electric power generation, envisioning radically different electric systems for war-torn areas such as Lebanon. Although he was aware that the U.S. power system was vulnerable to terrorism, September 11 pushed the issue to the top of his agenda. “We were in a state of shock the first few days,” he recalls. “Afterwards we sat back and realized that our research obviously had to change. We have to think about the implications of developing more robust power systems in the United States.”

Our current power grid—a network of transmission lines that is particularly vulnerable because of its size—is susceptible to both a direct terrorist attack and cyber-manipulation, Zerriffi says. “It would be impossible to protect every mile.” Knocking out one section of line can cause a neighboring section to fail. “If the person triggering the blackouts understands where key transmission lines are located, he could start the dominoes toppling.”

One solution would be to create many small generating plants located where the power is used. Because each plant would be small and in populous areas, the transmission network would be easier to protect, and the loss of any one plant would have a minimal impact. In addition, heat generated by electric production could easily be tapped for other industrial processes. In large power complexes, currently isolated in rural areas, huge quantities of heat energy are simply lost into the air.

“Electric power runs our economy,” Zerriffi says. “You would see massive disruptions of the economy if the power system were hit repeatedly and in an intelligent way by terrorists. The physical structure needs to be rethought. One way is to make the power system more of a fortress. The other way is to change it. Now is the time to look at the second option.”

Contend with American Ignorance

In the Palestinian territories, conversations commonly begin with the question, “How is the situation?” Translated, it is a way of asking if violence has erupted again. It was also a phrase heard over and over again by Maren Duke Zerriffi ’95 during the six months she spent in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The question was not, however, one she expected to hear in the United States. Then came September 11, and email from concerned Palestinian friends arrived with the heading, “How is the situation in America?”

“That my country, which has been so tranquil, now suddenly warranted this question was very strange and troubling to me,” says Zerriffi, a doctoral candidate in political science with a focus in Middle East comparative politics and a minor in Islamic studies at McGill University in Quebec.
Zerriffi resolved to focus on the Islamic world following the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. A high-school senior at the time, she helped to organize a teach-in to help Americans sort myth from fact regarding the misunderstood region. At Oberlin, she wrote her honors thesis on U.S. policy toward Islamicism in the Middle East and Central Asia. Today she seeks to educate Americas about the Islamic world as part of her job as community outreach director at the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh.

Zerriffi has found considerable interest among Americans in learning more about the Islamic world, although there are exceptions. While at her hairdresser she overheard a salon employee comment that Arabs had failed to evolve. The words stung. Zerriffi’s husband, Hisham ’95, and father-in-law, Ali Zerriffi ’69, were born in Morocco. Seeking to fight such ignorance with facts, Zerriffi counters the notions that Islam and terrorism go hand in hand and that most of the Islamic world hates America. “There’s this whole idea of ‘them’ and ‘us.’ It lends itself to the idea that there is a conflict between Islam and the West. That’s inaccurate. There are approximately six million Muslims in the United States,” she says.

“Even if there is a degree of grievance with U.S. foreign policy, it does not mean that Muslims support the terrorist attack. It’s more accurate to say that any religion can be perverted and misused by a small group of people who do not have support of the mainstream religion. It’s improper to draw conclusions about Islam from bin Laden and his perversions.

“That’s the horror that many Muslims feel—that somebody has so perverted their religion that the world now views that perversion as representing Islam,” she adds. “Their hearts broke over how many people died September 11. That somebody who claimed to be a Muslim did this broke their hearts a second time.”

Doug McInnes is a freelance science writer in Casper, Wyoming.

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