After Charlie Hebdo, a new foreign policy


The smoke had hardly cleared from the Manhattan skyline before the quest for justice began. While police officers and firefighters pulled lifeless bodies from the rubble, the country called for retaliation. As the world mourned the victims of the attack, Washington prepared for war.

On the day after the September 11 attacks, President Bush put before Congress an Authorization for the Use of Military Force. The bill called for the authorization of “all necessary and appropriate force” by the President against “the nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks.” Democrats and Republicans in Congress were decisively unified in their support of the authorization, and the bill passed the Senate unanimously. But in the House of Representatives, one person – Democratic Representative Barbara Lee of California – stood in stark opposition to the otherwise unanimous military fervor.

Speaking on the House floor, Lee warned against passing a “blank check” for the President that did not include specific military actions or time parameters. Citing “my conscience, my moral compass, my God,” she begged Congress to “take a step back,” saying that “we don’t know what the implications of our actions will be.” In the end, the authorization passed the House by a vote of 420 to one, with Barbara Lee casting the lone “nay” vote in Congress.

Now, more than 13 years after Barbara Lee voted no to the War on Terror, history has repeated itself.

On January 7, 2015, France faced its worst terrorist attack in decades when two gunmen attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine – a controversial publication known for its satirical caricatures of Islam – in Paris, killing twelve editors and two police officers; two days later, those same gunmen were killed in a shootout with police, while another connected gunman was killed by police after a severe hostage situation in a Paris kosher supermarket. The leader of the al-Queda branch in Yemen has claimed responsibility for planning and funding the attack, saying that France belongs to “the party of Satan” and warning of more “tragedies and terror.” But the evil within the attackers did not stem directly from Yemen – rather, the attackers had been radicalized as inmates in French prisons, where the seeds of hatred were planted within them.

As the American people did after the September 11 attacks, the French – and the world – have stood together, strong and unified, after this atrocity. On Sunday, January 11, more than 1.6 million people, including forty world leaders, marched in solidarity, holding oversized, paper-machie pencils as a symbol for freedom of speech. Furthermore, people around the world have taken to the streets, chanting calls for peace and holding signs that read “Je Suis Charlie” in protest of these threats to free expression. And in the French Parliament, a moment of silence transformed into a moment of song, as the National Assembly spontaneously began singing “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem.

But also in the French Parliament on that day, the National Assembly voted on a bill extend their bombing campaign on the Islamic State. Again, like the vote in the U.S. Congress after September 11, waves of nationalism morphed into storms of militarization, with people calling for a new anti-terrorism campaigns, a renewed war on terror. And like the vote in the U.S. Congress, one person in the French Parliament stood in the way of an otherwise unanimous decision to pass the bill – the final vote: 488 to one.

Perhaps it is time to follow these lone voices of opposition. After all, to make these important decisions about the future of Western relations in the Middle East, we must look to the past; and as the experiences of the past tell us, further military aggression in the Middle East will do more to continue this perpetual cycle of violence than stop it. We must not let the Charlie Hebdo attack justify the continuation of this flawed military strategy.

When the US completed Operation Desert Storm, our first military campaign in Iraq, in 1991, it was considered a military success – and it was, as the mission of stopping the advance of Saddam Hussein into Saudi Arabia was completed. But from that point, the unintended consequences of this military campaign have dragged us into further conflict and engrossed us in continued turmoil. Consider, for example, our further involvement in Iraq. When Western countries throw their military forces upon a nation with the intent of forcing out it’s current leader, as the US did with Saddam Hussein, it creates a failed state left in the palm of our hands – but at that point, we cannot pull our support out from behind them. This only drags us into further military intervention, with rival groups forming in opposition to continued Western presence.

This creates a vicious cycle, as there are always new causes to fight for, new conflicts to solve. The consequence of this, though, is the continued killing of soldiers who bravely volunteered to fight. Whenever we are putting on a military front, it is our responsibility to them and their families that we question our motives, examine our purpose, and evaluate whether or not they should – or have to – be there. But even if we resort to a technological strategy and avoid putting boots on the ground, we still are putting the lives of innocent civilians at risk. When we target enemy nations with bombs and drone strikes, civilian lives are lost – as shown in a video released by Reuters of the remains of homes that were destroyed by an American airstrike that were not in enemy territory. As I’ve said before, war’s most devastating effects fall on the people whose lives are threatened each day because of it – both the soldiers and the civilians.

When will this cycle of vengeance, of retaliations, of counter-productive violence, finally end? If we are to truly solve this problem, alleviate the world of terror, and establish productive foreign relations, then we must establish a new foreign policy, one that aims at peace through respect, not peace through military strength. The time has come for change; let us hope that people will listen.


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