March 09, 2021
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Wars On Terror

A senior defense analyst gave a simple gloss: others will 'respect us for our toughness and won't mess with us'. That stand has many precedents too, but in the post-9/11 world it gains new force.

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Wars On Terror

[Written before the "war" on Iraq, originally published in New Political Science, Volume 25, Number 1, 2003, reproduced, courtesy, Znet. An earlier, shorter, version of this appeared in Outlook as Mirror Crack'd]

It is widely argued that the September 11 terrorist attacks have changed the world dramatically, that nothing will be the same as the world enters into a new and frightening "age of terror"—the title of a collection of academic essays by Yale University scholars and others, which regards the anthrax attack as even more ominous.[1]

It had been recognized for some time that with new technology, the industrial powers would probably lose their virtual monopoly of violence, retaining only an enormous preponderance. Well before 9/11, technical studies had concluded that "a well-planned operation to smuggle WMD into the United States would have at least a 90 percent probability of success—much higher than ICBM delivery even in the absence of [National Missile Defense]."  That has become "America’s Achilles Heel," a study with that title concluded several years ago. Surely the dangers were evident after the 1993 attempt to blow up the World Trade Center, which came close to succeeding along with much more ambitious plans, and might have killed tens of thousands of people with better planning, the WTC building engineers reported. [2]

On September 11, the threats were realized: with "wickedness and awesome cruelty," to recall Robert Fisk’s memorable words, capturing the world reaction of shock and horror, and sympathy for the innocent victims. For the first time in modern history, Europe and its offshoots were subjected, on home soil, to atrocities of the kind that are all too familiar elsewhere. The history should be unnecessary to review, and though the West may choose to disregard it, the victims do not. The sharp break in the traditional pattern surely qualifies 9/11 as an historic event, and the repercussions are sure to be significant.

The consequences will, of course, be determined substantially by policy choices made within the United States. In this case, the target of the terrorist attack is not Cuba or Lebanon or Chechnya or a long list of others, but a state with an awesome potential for shaping the future. Any sensible attempt to assess the likely consequences will naturally begin with an investigation of US power, how it has been exercised, particularly in the very recent past, and how it is interpreted within the political culture

At this point there are two choices: we can approach these questions with the rational standards we apply to others, or we can dismiss the historical and contemporary record on some grounds or other.

One familiar device is miraculous conversion: true, there have been flaws in the past, but they have now been overcome so we can forget those boring and now-irrelevant topics and march on to a bright future. This useful doctrine of "change of course" has been invoked frequently over the years, in ways that are instructive when we look closely. To take a current example, a few months ago Bill Clinton attended the independence day celebration of the world’s newest country, East Timor. He informed the press that "I don’t believe America and any of the other countries were sufficiently sensitive in the beginning … and for a long time before 1999, going way back to the ‘70s, to the suffering of the people of East Timor," but "when it became obvious to me what was really going on … I tried to make sure we had the right policy."

We can identify the timing of the conversion with some precision. Clearly, it was after September 8, 1999, when the Secretary of Defense reiterated the official position that "it is the responsibility of the Government of Indonesia, and we don’t want to take that responsibility away from them." They had fulfilled their responsibility by killing hundreds of thousands of people with firm US and British support since the 1970s, then thousands more in the early months of 1999, finally destroying most of the country and driving out the population when they voted the wrong way in the August 30 referendum—fulfilling not only their responsibilities but also their promises, as Washington and London surely had known well before.

The US "never tried to sanction or support the oppression of the East Timorese," Clinton explained, referring to the 25 years of crucial military and diplomatic support for Indonesian atrocities, continuing through the last paroxysm of fury in September. But we should not "look backward," he advised, because America did finally become sensitive to the "oppression": sometime between September 8 and September 11, when, under severe domestic and international pressure, Clinton informed the Indonesian generals that the game is over and they quickly withdrew, allowing an Australian-led UN peacekeeping force to enter unopposed.

The course of events revealed with great clarity how some of the worst crimes of the late 20th century could have been ended very easily, simply by withdrawing crucial participation. That is hardly the only case, and Clinton was not alone in his interpretation of what scholarship now depicts as another inspiring achievement of the new era of humanitarianism.[3] There is a new and highly regarded literary genre inquiring into the cultural defects that keep us from responding properly to the crimes of others.

An interesting question no doubt, though by any reasonable standards it ranks well below a different one: why do we and our allies persist in our own substantial crimes, either directly or through crucial support for murderous clients? That remains unasked, and if raised at the margins, arouses shivers of horror.

Another familiar way to evade rational standards is to dismiss the historical record as merely "the abuse of reality," not "reality itself," which is "the unachieved national purpose." In this version of the traditional "city on a hill" conception, formulated by the founder of realist IR theory, America has a "transcendent purpose," "the establishment of equality in freedom," and American politics is designed to achieve this "national purpose," however flawed it may be in execution.

In a current version, published shortly before 9/11 by a prominent scholar, there is a guiding principle that "defines the parameters within which the policy debate occurs," a spectrum that excludes only "tattered remnants" on the right and left and is "so authoritative as to be virtually immune to challenge." The principle is that America is an "historical vanguard." "History has a discernible direction and destination. Uniquely among all the nations of the world, the United States comprehends and manifests history’s purpose." It follows that US "hegemony" is the realization of history’s purpose and its application is therefore for the common good, a truism that renders empirical evaluation irrelevant. [4]

That stance too has a distinguished pedigree. A century before Rumsfeld and Cheney, Woodrow Wilson called for conquest of the Philippines because "Our interest must march forward, altruists though we are; other nations must see to it that they stand off, and do not seek to stay us." And he was borrowing from admired sources, among them John Stuart Mill in a remarkable essay.[5]

That is one choice. The other is to understand "reality" as reality, and to ask whether its unpleasant features are "flaws" in the pursuit of history’s purpose or have more mundane causes, as in the case of every other power system of past and present. If we adopt that stance, joining the tattered remnants outside the authoritative spectrum, we will be led to conclude, I think, that policy choices are likely to remain within a framework that is well entrenched, enhanced perhaps in important ways but not fundamentally changed: much as after the collapse of the USSR, I believe. There are a number of reasons to anticipate essential continuity, among them the stability of the basic institutions in which policy decisions are rooted, but also narrower ones that merit some attention.

The "war on terror" re-declared on 9/11 had been declared 20 years earlier, with much the same rhetoric and many of the same people in high-level positions.[6]  The Reagan administration came into office announcing that a primary concern of US foreign policy would be a "war on terror," particularly state-supported international terrorism, the most virulent form of the plague spread by "depraved opponents of civilization itself" in "a return to barbarism in the modern age," in the words of the Administration moderate George Shultz.

The war to eradicate the plague was to focus on two regions where it was raging with unusual virulence: Central America and West Asia/North Africa. Shultz was particularly exercised by the "cancer, right here in our land mass," which was openly renewing the goals of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, he informed Congress. The President declared a national emergency, renewed annually, because "the policies and actions of the Government of Nicaragua constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States."

Explaining the bombing of Libya, Reagan announced that the mad dog Qaddafi was sending arms and advisers to Nicaragua "to bring his war home to the United States," part of the campaign "to expel America from the world," Reagan lamented. Scholarship has explored still deeper roots for that ambitious enterprise. One prominent academic terrorologist finds that contemporary terrorism can be traced to South Vietnam, where "the effectiveness of Vietcong terror against the American Goliath armed with modern technology kindled hopes that the Western heartland was vulnerable too." [7]

More ominous still, by the 1980s, was the swamp from which the plague was spreading. It was drained just in time by the US army, which helped to "defeat liberation theology," the School of the Americas now proclaims with pride.[8] In the second locus of the war, the threat was no less dreadful: Mideast/ Mediterranean terror was selected as the peak story of the year in 1985 in the annual AP poll of editors, and ranked high in others.

As the worst year of terror ended, Reagan and Israeli Prime Minister Peres condemned "the evil scourge of terrorism" in a news conference in Washington. A few days before Peres had sent his bombers to Tunis, where they killed 75 people on no credible pretext, a mission expedited by Washington and praised by Secretary of State Shultz, though he chose silence after the Security Council condemned the attack as an "act of armed aggression" (US abstaining).

That was only one of the contenders for the prize of major terrorist atrocity in the peak year of terror. A second was a car-bomb outside a mosque in Beirut that killed 80 people and wounded 250 others, timed to explode as people were leaving, killing mostly women and girls, traced back to the CIA and British intelligence. The third contender is Peres’s Iron Fist operations in southern Lebanon, fought against "terrorist villagers," the high command explained, "reaching new depths of calculated brutality and arbitrary murder" according to a Western diplomat familiar with the area, a judgment amply supported by direct coverage.

Scholarship too recognizes 1985 to be a peak year of Middle East terrorism, but does not cite these events: rather, two terrorist atrocities in which a single person was murdered, in each case an American.[9] But the victims do not so easily forget.

Shultz demanded resort to violence to destroy "the evil scourge of terrorism," particularly in Central America. He bitterly condemned advocates of "utopian, legalistic means like outside mediation, the United Nations, and the World Court, while ignoring the power element of the equation." His administration succumbed to no such weaknesses, and should be praised for its foresight by sober scholars who now explain that international law and institutions of world order must be swept aside by the enlightened hegemon, in a new era of dedication to human rights.

In both regions of primary concern, the commanders of the "war on terror" compiled a record of "state-supported international terrorism" that vastly exceeded anything that could be attributed to their targets. And that hardly exhausts the record. During the Reagan years Washington’s South African ally had primary responsibility for over 1.5 million dead and $60 billion in damage in neighboring countries, while the administration found ways to evade congressional sanctions and substantially increase trade. A UNICEF study estimated the death toll of infants and young children at 850,000, 150,000 in the single year 1988, reversing gains of the early post-independence years primarily by the weapon of "mass terrorism." That is putting aside South Africa’s practices within, where it was defending civilization against the onslaughts of the ANC, one of the "more notorious terrorist groups," according to a 1988 Pentagon report.[10]

For such reasons the US and Israel voted alone against an 1987 UN resolution condemning terrorism in the strongest terms and calling on all nations to combat the plague, passed 153–2, Honduras abstaining. The two opponents identified the offending passage: it recognized "the right to self-determination, freedom, and independence, as derived from the Charter of the United Nations, of people forcibly deprived of that right … , particularly peoples under colonial and racist regimes and foreign occupation"—understood to refer to South Africa and the Israeli-occupied territories, therefore unacceptable.

The base for US operations in Central America was Honduras, where the US Ambassador during the worst years of terror was John Negroponte, who is now in charge of the diplomatic component of the new phase of the "war on terror" at the UN. Reagan’s special envoy to the Middle East was Donald Rumsfeld, who now presides over its military component, as well as the new wars that have been announced.

Rumsfeld is joined by others who were prominent figures in the Reagan administration. Their thinking and goals have not changed, and although they may represent an extreme position on the policy spectrum, it is worth bearing in mind that they are by no means isolated. There is considerable continuity of doctrine, assumptions, and actions, persisting for many years until today.

Careful investigation of this very recent history should be a particularly high priority for those who hold that "global security" requires "a respected and legitimate law-enforcer," in Brzezinski’s words. He is referring of course to the sole power capable of undertaking this critical role: "the idealistic new world bent on ending inhumanity," as the world’s leading newspaper describes it, dedicated to "principles and values" rather than crass and narrow ends, mobilizing its reluctant allies to join it in a new epoch of moral rectitude.[11]

The concept "respected and legitimate law-enforcer" is an important one. The term "legitimate" begs the question, so we can drop it. Perhaps some question arises about the respect for law of the chosen "law-enforcer," and about its reputation outside of narrow elite circles. But such questions aside, the concept again reflects the emerging doctrine that we must discard the efforts of the past century to construct an international order in which the powerful are not free to resort to violence at will. Instead, we must institute a new principle—which is in fact a venerable principle: the self-anointed "enlightened states" will serve as global enforcers, no impolite questions asked.

The scrupulous avoidance of the events of the recent past is easy to understand, given what inquiry will quickly reveal. That includes not only the terrorist crimes of the 1980s and what came before, but also those of the 1990s, right to the present. A comparison of leading beneficiaries of US military assistance and the record of state terror should shame honest people, and would, if it were not so effectively removed from the public eye. It suffices to look at the two countries that have been vying for leadership in this competition: Turkey and Colombia. As a personal aside I happened to visit both recently, including scenes of some of the worst crimes of the 1990s, adding some vivid personal experience to what is horrifying enough in the printed record. I am putting aside Israel and Egypt, a separate category.

To repeat the obvious, we basically have two choices. Either history is bunk, including current history, and we can march forward with confidence that the global enforcer will drive evil from the world much as the President’s speech writers declare, plagiarizing ancient epics and children’s tales. Or we can subject the doctrines of the proclaimed grand new era to scrutiny, drawing rational conclusions, perhaps gaining some sense of the emerging reality. If there is a third way, I do not see it.

The wars that are contemplated in the renewed "war on terror" are to go on for a long time. "There’s no telling how many wars it will take to secure freedom in the homeland," the President announced. That’s fair enough. Potential threats are virtually limitless, everywhere, even at home, as the anthrax attack illustrates. We should also be able to appreciate recent comments on the matter by the 1996–2000 head of Israel’s General Security Service (Shabak), Ami Ayalon. He observed realistically that "those who want victory" against terror without addressing underlying grievances "want an unending war." He was speaking of Israel–Palestine, where the only "solution of the problem of terrorism [is] to offer an honorable solution to the Palestinians respecting their right to self-determination." So former head of Israeli military intelligence Yehoshaphat Harkabi, also a leading Arabist, observed 20 years ago, at a time when Israel still retained its immunity from retaliation from within the occupied territories to its harsh and brutal practices there.[12]

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