Al Gore has opened a bold new front in the war against terror, with enthusiastic support from other prominent liberals.

Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, the fabled nerve center of America’s foreign policy elite, the former vice president offered generalized support for George W. Bush, but demanded more attention to the purported “root causes” of terror. “There is another axis of evil in the world: poverty and ignorance; disease and environmental disorder; corruption and political oppression,” he declared.

Never mind that “ignorance” and “environmental disorder” represent less specific and vulnerable targets than North Korea or Iraq, Al Gore wanted to endorse a resonant clich? and to prove in the process that he remained more visionary than his one-time rival. “We may well put down terror in its present manifestations. But if we do not attend to the larger fundamentals as well, then the ground is fertile and has been seeded for the next generation of those born to hate the United States of America.”

This dubious notion that terrorism flows inevitably from human misery has received such frequent repetition in recent weeks that few commentators even bother to question it. Speaking at Brown University the night before Gore’s New York address, Ted Turner drew condemnation for his description of 9-11 terrorists as “brave,” but earned scant criticism for his insipid “explanation” of the attacks: “The reason that the World Trade Center got hit is because there are a lot of people living in abject poverty out there who don’t have any hope for a better life.”

With only slightly more sophistication, two scholars at the Institute for National Strategic Studies made a similar point in the New York Times. “To crush this threat, we need a program of tightly focused foreign aid to address the economic, political and social conditions that will otherwise continue breeding new terrorists,” wrote Richard Sokolsky and Joseph McMillan. “Our foreign assistance should go up by at least $4 billion to $5 billion annually to finance programs that promote modernization and economic opportunity in the Islamic countries of the Middle East and Central and South Asia.”

In other words, Muslim societies have proven so much more hostile and troublesome to the West than other Third World nations that we must reward their belligerence with specially targeted largesse. This approach never suggests how to explain such favoritism to the even more destitute societies of sub-Saharan Africa which have, for the most part, kept themselves too busy with their internal agonies to send out terrorists to kill Americans.

The African example exposes the idiocy of the entire “poverty causes terror” equation. The most impoverished nations on earth seldom produce international terrorists, but the relatively pampered kingdom of Saudi Arabia has proven as rich in suicidal maniacs as it is in oil reserves. Dozens of countries suffer worse economic and political conditions than nations of the Middle East, but Islamic societies uniquely feed the current network of anti-American terrorism.

Even within the Muslim world, you can’t predict levels of terrorist activity by measuring financial development or levels of U.S. aid. Pakistan has made greater economic progress, and received higher levels of American assistance, than the other Islamic state in the region, Bangladesh. Yet Pakistan remains a seething incubator of anti-American activism, while the perpetually starving Bangladeshis scarcely register on our anti-terror radar screen.

Where have we ever seen evidence that lavish humanitarian aid packages serve to eliminate terrorist threats? Osama himself long ago benefited from an anti-poverty program of singular generosity: an estimated $300 million inheritance from his plutocratic poppa. The 19 hijackers he recruited for his September atrocities also came from privileged backgrounds; Mohammad Atta was the expensively schooled son of a lawyer in Egypt – the nation that already receives the second largest annual U.S. aid package in the world.

If Al Gore ever succeeded in his Messianic goal of making war against “poverty and ignorance; disease and environmental disorder,” why should we assume that this progress would eliminate senseless violence? After all, some of the most deadly terrorist cells of the 1970’s sprung up in the wealthiest, least oppressed societies on earth – including Germany and Italy, the United States and Great Britain.

The best part of the leadership of President Bush involves his unflinching, fiercely realistic focus on achievable goals, and his consistent warnings against expectation of quick, painless victory. The worst part of the pious platitudes of Al Gore and company is their desire to shift attention from a fight against the temporary aberration of terrorism, to a can’t-win struggle against the timeless troubles of all mankind. Aiming a new effort on a grand scale against inevitable elements of the human condition (poverty, after all, remains a relative concept), only serves to ensure that we will experience defeat on an equally grand scale.


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