A striking lesson of this tense first month of the war against terrorism is how suspicious people from elsewhere can be of US motives.

Who, to be particular about it, can explain expressions of concern from the Arab Middle East that imperialism lurks behind US attacks on Afghanistan?

This writer has traveled a number of times around in the oil-producing countries of the Middle East and thinks he harbors a respectful appreciation for the perspectives of people in that part of the world.

He was surprised, however, by a question from a group of Middle Eastern journalists visiting his office this week.

Would this writer not acknowledge, one of the visitors asked through an interpreter, that the US military action in Afghanistan is really part of a plan to take over Iraq for its oil reserves?

Well, no, he wouldn't acknowledge anything of the kind. In fact, he strongly believes there is no political support in the US for such a thing. The military action is about terrorism. That's all.

Listening to those answers, the Arab journalist scowled as though certain he was being lied to.

Maybe the guy's just particularly skeptical. But his question fits a pattern. Conspiracy theories seem to run wild in the Middle East.

But a US takeover of Iraq? Good grief.

It turns out, sad to say, that the theory isn't peculiar at all.

An article in the Oct. 10 Houston Chronicle described a similar experience by Fawaz A. Gerges, professor of Middle East and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY.

Fawaz had attended a conference in Beirut on how Arabs and Muslims should respond to the campaign against terrorism. He described attendees as "leading political activists and politicians representing the broad spectrum of public opinion in the Muslim world."

They believe, Fawaz wrote, "that the United States has an overarching strategy that includes control of the oil and gas resources in Central Asia, encroachment on Chinese and Russian spheres of influence, destruction of the Iraqi regime, and consolidation of America's grip on the oil-producing Persian Gulf regimes."

Obviously, the Arabs and Mulsims at the conference don't believe US President George W. Bush's careful explanations of US behavior any more than the Arab journalist believed this writer's disapproval of the idea that the US wants to conquer Iraq.

What do you do when people simply refuse to believe you?

In his article, Fawaz calls for a diplomatic push in the Middle East, with investment in social infrastructure and an end to what the professor calls a "bunker mentality" of diplomats.

Those sound like good ideas. But you have to wonder: Would more-aggressive diplomacy really make Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East less inclined than they seem to be now to assume the worst about Americans?

It seems unlikely. Terrorists obviously linked to networks based in Afghanistan murder thousands of innocent people in New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania. Their ringleader appears on television to praise the abomination and to call for further killing of Americans.

That's all the motivation anybody should need for a military strike on the parts of Afghanistan that hide and support the terrorists. Americans face a demonstrated threat and need to eliminate it.

They don't need Iraq. They don't want it.

Arab Muslims who think otherwise are missing a very important point.

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