Fear, hatred of U.S. culture


September 26, 2001

Walter LaFeber is a professor of American history at Cornell University. He has written or co-written nearly 20 books, many of them examining America's influence in the world - not just its military might, but also the "soft power" of its widely exported culture and values. The global reach of Hollywood, McDonald's and Nike, promoted by advanced American communications technology, breeds anger among our allies and hate among our enemies, he warns. In its extreme, this hate can lead to a full-blown "cultural war." Such a conflict - in which he believes we now find ourselves - will be much different from any war the nation has ever fought. He was interviewed by Sun staff writer Jon Morgan.

Q: We need to be cautious about jumping to conclusions about who is responsible for [the Sept. 11] disaster. But there are indications that it is the work of Saudi exile Osama bin Laden's group or ones like it. Does that mean we are in a "cultural war?"

A: If it is Osama bin Laden or a group like it, then quite clearly it is a cultural war. There is a wing of Islamic thought that is reacting very strongly against American values in the Middle East and other places. Bin Laden protested so strongly against the American, not only military presence in Saudi Arabia, but the American cultural presence [during the Persian Gulf war], that the Saudis exiled him. That's how he ended up in Afghanistan. It's quite clear that since 1990 bin Laden has been driven by this crusade against the United States not only in terms of American military power but in terms of American cultural influence in the Middle East. ... American military power and American soft power are closely related in the eyes of many of these people and consequently when you are attacking one you are attacking the other.

Q: You've made the point in the past that the wars of the future won't necessarily be conventional military wars, but cultural ones, with a military component.

A: I think it's pretty clear [since the attacks] that what we've seen is the first war of the 21st century. It is a war that involves not so much strategic interests as cultural interests, the clash of cultures. I want to be clear here: I don't mean the clash of civilizations - that idea was very popular throughout the 1990s and it over-generalizes. This is not a clash between Christianity and Islam. There are many people within Islam who condemn what has gone on and what is going on now. It seems to me this is much more specific and subtle. There is a particular part of Islamic civilization, a very small part actually, which is striking out against the United States and Western cultural influences as well as military and, obviously with the attack on the twin towers, economic power, too.

Q: How do you differentiate a cultural war from conventional warfare against strategic targets?

A: Strategic wars are the kinds that Americans understand best. You have a target, you go and destroy it, and go home and supposedly live happily ever after. These kinds of wars are much more complex. ... It's not, as the president said the other day, simply good versus bad. ... Even the Persian Gulf war was a much more black-and-white kind of war. This is going to be very different, and it's going to be much more demanding on America to understand other cultures and to understand the effect that we and our technology have on other cultures before we begin to strike out.

Q: Is there any winning a cultural war for either side?

A: I don't think so. I don't think there can be. Culture is something that by definition is very deeply imbedded. ... So I think this is going to go on in a kind of action-reaction circle and there is not going to be any final, August 1945 type of peace to end this war. I don't think we can think of it in those terms. It's going to be more complex, much more ongoing, and we're going to have to be much smarter and much more aware of what's going on in other parts of the world than we've been in the past.

Q: There's some sentiment that if we can get bin Laden our problems will be solved.

A: Every time we strike at something like this, there is going to be a number of other people who sympathize with bin Laden, who will be there to take up the cause. ... We know that the bin Laden operation is in, I believe, 60 different countries. ...

What we're going to have to do is not only strike at bin Laden and whatever states are behind him, but also understand the kind of cultural problems and economic and military and political problems that have led to this and change the nature of the way we think about the world, and our understanding of how what we do affects the rest of the world. That's a long-time educational process. That's not taken care of by a military campaign.

Q: Can we expect that the attacks will boost the organization or organizations involved, attracting resources and volunteers?

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