—by Robert Elias September 25, 2001
Professor of politics at University of San Francisco, California
he US has suffered terrible crimes from the terrorist attacks two weeks ago. They have taken a horrible toll in lost lives, and have shaken the nation to its foundations. We’ve felt a rush of emotions, including horror, fear, grief, sorrow, anger and even calls for revenge. As a person from New York, I take the terrorism very personally. I have family, friends and acquaintances there, and I’m still not sure about all of them. I’m very angry about the senseless deaths.
These terrorists and their acts are despicable, and the perpetrators must be brought to justice.
In response to these acts, our emotions are understandable, and we should do nothing to belittle these feelings. It almost seems blasphemous to suggest that we add to these emotions a part of us that also thinks about what happened and why. And yet there’s a need, beyond our feelings, also to understand. Why did this happen to us? Our leaders in Washington have rushed in with their response, and there’s the danger that we, the people, will be left behind or left completely susceptible to Washington’s lead rather than making up our own minds about why this happened, and what to do.
Unfortunately, in trying to understand why this terrorism has occurred, we’ve been given little help by those upon which we rely for information. Our educational system has provided us neither the history nor the critical perspective to understand. Our officials refuse to ask the question “why,” except in terms of stereotypes that divert us from the causes and focus us instead on the symptoms. And most crucially, our mainstream media has almost exclusively parroted official analyses and solutions, acting not like watchdogs but rather like lapdogs. Officials and our media operate essentially under the assumption that there can be no question of “why,” since there’s nothing we could have conceivably done that has anything to do with provoking terrorism.
To the extent that “why” is considered at all, it’s almost completely superficial. Our officials tell us that: “The terrorists hate us, they are different from us, they are evil, they want to hurt or destroy us for no good reason, and we—the strongest and most armed nation in the world—have nevertheless been too weak in defending ourselves, and must respond with war to root out the perpetrators and make sure this never happens again. We deplore this and all acts of violence, officials tell us, and we will violently retaliate against this outrage.” And our media repeat this level of non-analysis and contradiction almost verbatim. As media critic I.F. Stone once said, “The Washington press corps is like a group of stenographers with amnesia,” dutifully printing official handouts and reporting events with little or no historical or critical perspective.
So we need to think for ourselves. And to do this will require a great deal of courage. If, as President Bush has suggested, America is a strong and great nation, then we can afford to have the courage to ask difficult questions and to consider new ways of thinking about and acting in the world. A part of doing so will require that we examine American foreign policy.
In subsequent meetings, America’s economic and other policies abroad will be considered. Today we’d like to focus on some of our foreign, military and human rights policies. We’d like to consider the possibility that there’s a relationship between some of our policies abroad and acts of terrorism committed against us. It’s true that many peoples around the world hate us but the reasons are far more complicated than the simplistic explanations that officials and the media have been giving us. So we must ask why.
But by asking why, and by trying to truly understand, we must remember that acts of terrorism like the ones we’ve just experienced can never be justified. I repeat: nothing we’ve ever done, none of our policies, no matter how questionable, can ever justify terrorism. But if terrorism can never be justified, that does not mean that it cannot be explained or understood. No matter how apparently extreme we might find the views of terrorists, we’re not talking about people who act for no reason. What are the reasons, and why do many people outside the US hate us?
Another caveat for our discussion today. If we shed a critical light on American policies, shall we be viewed as unpatriotic, or even as traitors? If we view patriotism as blindly waving the flag, as supporting the nation right or wrong, and as America, love it or leave it, then the answer is “yes.” But I’d like to suggest a more enlightened view of patriotism, as stated by the Nobel Prize writer Albert Camus, who said that “The true patriot is one who gives his highest loyalty not to his country as it is, regardless of what it does, but rather to what it can and ought to be.” In other words, the real patriot insists that his or her nation live up to its ideals.
Americans are a great people. But what are we great for? For the amount of violence we’re capable of delivering? For the wars we’ve decided to fight? For the level of revenge we’ve sought and accomplished? Is this what makes us great? We keep hearing how Americans are “strong” but strength is inconsequential compared to a people who are decent, generous, caring, heroic, courageous and compassionate. And those things we are! Those are things we should be proud of.
But can we say the same for our foreign policies? Are these policies compassionate and courageous, or something quite different? Most Americans would be shocked if they really knew or if they really comprehended and felt the violence that has been done abroad by US foreign policy in their name.
Most officials, however, are well aware of our past and present policies. In the rare instance when they are reminded of the shady aspects and negative consequences of those policies, there’s almost never any debate about the facts. Most of our underhanded policies were revealed by the US Congressional Hearings chaired by Senator Frank Church, and have been corroborated by many other official and non-official sources. Actually, there’s a widespread agreement among both the proponents and the opponents of US foreign policy about the kinds of actions we’ll be describing for you today.
The disagreement instead stems from the rationale for our policies, and whether those policies—no matter how distasteful—are nevertheless justified. Defenders of US foreign policy argue that our actions are warranted. Generally speaking, they subscribe to what has been called, in international relations, the “realist” school of thinking. That perspective argues that of course the US has done unsavory things abroad but it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and everyone is doing unsavory things. We’ve done, they argue, what we’ve done not only to survive but also to make sure we’re the top dog in the world—and it’s a good thing that peace and freedom-loving people like us are the ones directing the show. For example, in 1992, George Bush Sr. observed that: “A world once divided into two armed camps now recognizes one sole and preeminent power, the USA. And they regard this with no dread. For the world trusts us with power, and the world is right. They trust us to be fair, and restrained. They trust us to be on the side of decency. They trust us to do what’s right.”
The realist school further argues that anything other than an “ends justify the means” approach to world politics makes the false presumption that peoples and nations will be more good than evil. That, according to the realists, is a mistakenly positive view of human nature. Anyone, they argue, who believes that human nature is basically good, or that humans can be induced to act good, and that peoples and nations can peacefully and freely coexist is hopelessly idealistic.
Of course, the critics of US foreign policy, or the idealists, see things differently. They believe we can and should take peace and human rights seriously. For this, they are labeled as unrealistic and even utopian. But the idealists argue that those who are truly the utopians, in the sense of believing something that cannot come true, are actually the realists, since the realists harbor pie-in-the-sky notions that we can keep pursuing violent and underhanded policies without our having to pay some consequences or without the world eventually blowing itself to bits. The idealists argue that the realists make unnecessarily negative assumptions about people and the world, and then adopt cutthroat policies that turn those assumptions into self-fulfilling prophecies.
And the debate between the two sides rages. But while the debate continues, the policy battles have always been won by the realists, who justify our often-violent policies. So, if you’re happy about the world you see, then thank the realists. If, however, you have some concerns about our policies and about the state of our nation and the world, then you might want to consider some alternatives.
This may be painful for us to hear but let’s begin examining the history of our foreign policy by stating the bottom line: more than any other tool, the US has used violence as the main vehicle of its policies toward peoples and nations abroad. For example, in its little more than 200 years of history, the US has intervened militarily in other nations about 200 times; about once a year. The interventions have varied from minor to outright war but most of them have been serious. Now if this sounds like someone’s wild-eyed ravings, keep in mind that in the early 1980s, President Reagan admitted to 125 US military interventions, and his government added several more during his time in office. Reagan not only acknowledged this number of interventions, he bragged about them. One of the major studies of US military intervention was conducted again not by some wild radical but rather by Republican Senator Jacob Javits in the 1970s, and by his count we were already up to 150 military interventions by then. It would be interesting to examine each of these interventions but that would take far too much time. Instead, we’ll focus on the period since 1945.
Unfortunately, the shorter time period won’t improve the picture. From 1945 to 2000, for example, the US attempted to overthrow more than 40 foreign governments, usually successfully, and crushed more than 30 populist movements struggling against dictatorships, killing several million people in the process, and condemning millions more to a life of misery. Those are shocking numbers but keep in mind that defenders of US foreign policy rarely quarrel with these numbers but rather only try to show why they were necessary. Beyond these actions abroad, it’s also instructive to examine US policies that have created terrorists, carried out torture and assassinations, developed death squads, provided training manuals for repression, granted safe haven for terrorists and war criminals, used weapons of mass destruction against civilian populations, promoted and used chemical and biological weapons, perverted foreign elections and otherwise intervened in foreign political systems, and undermined hundreds of UN resolutions and treaties (with the US often the only dissenting vote among the world’s nations).
Woodrow Wilson, who was elected President based on a platform that promised to keep the US out of World War I, nevertheless pushed the US into the War after his election, and justified our participation, arguing that the goal of US foreign policy was to “make the world safe for democracy.” Perhaps if we try hard we can find instances where our policy has produced democracy but it’s far easier to find endless examples where our policy has undermined it. This may be because the real objective of our foreign policy has instead been “making the world safe for capitalism,” and for the US to control as much of the world as possible, shaping it into the American image. In that, our policies have been very successful. In 1997, Der Spiegel, Germany’s leading newsmagazine, editorialized that: “Never before in history has a country dominated the earth so totally as the United States does today… America is the Schwarzenegger of international politics: showing off muscles, intrusive, intimidating… The Americans, in the absence of limits put to them by anybody or anything, act as if they own a kind of blank check in their very own “McWorld.”
In 1996, the Annual Report of the world’s leading human rights organization, Amnesty International, concluded that: “It is a paradox that a nation that did so much to articulate and codify human rights in its foundation documents has so consistently resisted and undermined the effective functioning of an international framework to protect these principles and values.” “…repression, torture and terror has occurred disproportionately among countries in the American sphere of influence.” “Throughout the world, on any given day, a man, a woman, or child is likely to be displaced, tortured, killed, or “disappeared” at the hands of governments or armed political groups. More often than not, the United States shares the blame.” How can Amnesty International say these things about us?
Many years ago, the Chinese writer Moh-Tze said: “To kill one person is murder. To kill thousands is foreign policy.” This seems to be reflected in American policies abroad. So let’s quickly review the list of offenses.
US Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction
The indiscriminate use of bombs by the US, usually outside a declared war situation, for wanton destruction, for no military objectives, whose targets and victims are civilian populations, or what we now call “collateral damage.”
|Japan (1945)||China (1945–46)||Korea & China (1950–53)|
|Guatemala (1954, 1960, 1967–69)||Indonesia (1958)||Cuba (1959–61)|
|Congo (1964)||Peru (1965)||Laos (1964–70)|
|Vietnam (1961–1973)||Cambodia (1969–70)||Grenada (1983)|
|Lebanon (1983–84)||Libya (1986)||El Salvador (1980s)|
|Nicaragua (1980s)||Iran (1987)||Panama (1989)|
|Iraq (1991–2000)||Kuwait (1991)||Somalia (1993)|
|Bosnia (1994–95)||Sudan (1998)||Afghanistan (1998)|
|Pakistan (1998)||Yugoslavia (1999)|
US Use of Chemical & Biological Weapons
The US has refused to sign Conventions against the development and use of chemical and biological weapons, and has either used or tested (without informing the civilian populations) these weapons in the following locations abroad:
Bahamas (late 1940s–mid-1950s)
China and Korea (1950–53)
Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia (1961–1970)
Cuba (1962, 69, 70, 71, 81, 96)
And the US has tested such weapons on US civilian populations, without their knowledge, in the following locations:
Watertown, NY and US Virgin Islands (1950)
SF Bay Area (1950, 1957–67)
St. Louis (1953)
Washington, DC Area (1953, 1967)
Savannah GA/Avon Park, FL (1956–58)
New York City (1956, 1966)
And the US has encouraged the use of such weapons, and provided the technology to develop such weapons in various nations abroad, including:
US Political and Military Interventions since 1945
The US has launched a series of military and political interventions since 1945, often to install puppet regimes, or alternatively to engage in political actions such as smear campaigns, sponsoring or targeting opposition political groups (depending on how they served US interests), undermining political parties, sabotage and terror campaigns, and so forth. It has done so in nations such as
|China (1945–51)||South Africa (1960s–1980s)|
|France (1947)||Bolivia (1964–75)|
|Marshall Islands (1946–58)||Australia (1972–75)|
|Italy (1947–1975)||Iraq (1972–75)|
|Greece (1947–49)||Portugal (1974–76)|
|Philippines (1945–53)||East Timor (1975–99)|
|Korea (1945–53)||Ecuador (1975)|
|Albania (1949–53)||Argentina (1976)|
|Eastern Europe (1948–56)||Pakistan (1977)|
|Germany (1950s)||Angola (1975–1980s)|
|Iran (1953)||Jamaica (1976)|
|Guatemala (1953–1990s)||Honduras (1980s)|
|Costa Rica (mid-1950s, 1970–71)||Nicaragua (1980s)|
|Middle East (1956–58)||Philippines (1970s–90s)|
|Indonesia (1957–58)||Seychelles (1979–81)|
|Haiti (1959)||South Yemen (1979–84)|
|Western Europe (1950s–1960s)||South Korea (1980)|
|Guyana (1953–64)||Chad (1981–82)|
|Iraq (1958–63)||Grenada (1979–83)|
|Vietnam (1945–53)||Suriname (1982–84)|
|Cambodia (1955–73)||Libya (1981–89)|
|Laos (1957–73)||Fiji (1987)|
|Thailand (1965–73)||Panama (1989)|
|Ecuador (1960–63)||Afghanistan (1979–92)|
|Congo (1960–65, 1977–78)||El Salvador (1980–92)|
|Algeria (1960s)||Haiti (1987–94)|
|Peru (1965)||Albania (1991–92)|
|Dominican Republic (1963–65)||Somalia (1993)|
|Cuba (1959–present)||Iraq (1990s)|
|Indonesia (1965)||Peru (1990–present)|
|Ghana (1966)||Mexico (1990–present)|
|Uruguay (1969–72)||Colombia (1990–present)|
|Chile (1964–73)||Yugoslavia (1995–99)|
US Perversions of Foreign Elections
The US has specifically intervened to rig or distort the outcome of foreign elections, and sometimes engineered sham “demonstration” elections to ward off accusations of government repression in allied nations in the US sphere of influence. These sham elections have often installed or maintained in power repressive dictators who have victimized their populations. Such practices have occurred in nations such as:
Dominican Republic (1962)
El Salvador (1984)
Panama (1984, 89)
Nicaragua (1984, 90)
Haiti (1987, 88)
US Versus World at the United Nations
The US has repeatedly acted to undermine peace and human rights initiatives at the United Nations, routinely voting against hundreds of UN resolutions and treaties. The US easily has the worst record of any nation on not supporting UN treaties. In almost all of its hundreds of “no” votes, the US was the “sole” nation to vote no (among the 100–130 nations that usually vote), and among only 1 or 2 other nations voting no the rest of the time. Here’s a representative sample of US votes from 1978–1987:
US Is the Sole “No” Vote on Resolutions or Treaties
For aid to underdeveloped nations
For the promotion of developing nation exports
For UN promotion of human rights
For protecting developing nations in trade agreements
For New International Economic Order for underdeveloped nations
For development as a human right
Versus multinational corporate operations in South Africa
For cooperative models in developing nations
For right of nations to economic system of their choice
Versus chemical and biological weapons (at least 3 times)
Versus Namibian apartheid
For economic/standard of living rights as human rights
Versus apartheid South African aggression vs. neighboring states (2 times)
Versus foreign investments in apartheid South Africa
For world charter to protect ecology
For anti-apartheid convention
For anti-apartheid convention in international sports
For nuclear test ban treaty (at least 2 times)
For prevention of arms race in outer space
For UNESCO-sponsored new world information order (at least 2 times)
For international law to protect economic rights
For Transport & Communications Decade in Africa
Versus manufacture of new types of weapons of mass destruction
Versus naval arms race
For Independent Commission on Disarmament & Security Issues
For UN response mechanism for natural disasters
For the Right to Food
For Report of Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination
For UN study on military development
For Commemoration of 25th anniversary of Independence for Colonial Countries
For Industrial Development Decade in Africa
For interdependence of economic and political rights
For improved UN response to human rights abuses
For protection of rights of migrant workers
For protection against products harmful to health and the environment
For a Convention on the Rights of the Child
For training journalists in the developing world
For international cooperation on third world debt
For a UN Conference on Trade & Development
US Is 1 of Only 2 “No” Votes on Resolutions or Treaties
For Palestinian living conditions/rights (at least 8 times)
Versus foreign intervention into other nations
For a UN Conference on Women
Versus nuclear test explosions (at least 2 times)
For the non-use of nuclear weapons vs. non-nuclear states
For a Middle East nuclear free zone
Versus Israeli nuclear weapons (at least 2 times)
For a new world international economic order
For a trade union conference on sanctions vs. South Africa
For the Law of the Sea Treaty
For economic assistance to Palestinians
For UN measures against fascist activities and groups
For international cooperation on money/finance/debt/trade/development
For a Zone of Peace in the South Atlantic
For compliance with Intl Court of Justice decision for Nicaragua vs. US.
**For a conference and measures to prevent international terrorism (including its underlying causes)
For ending the trade embargo vs. Nicaragua
US Is 1 of Only 3 “No” Votes on Resolutions and Treaties
Versus Israeli human rights abuses (at least 6 times)
Versus South African apartheid (at least 4 times)
Versus return of refugees to Israel
For ending nuclear arms race (at least 2 times)
For an embargo on apartheid South Africa
For South African liberation from apartheid (at least 3 times)
For the independence of colonial nations
For the UN Decade for Women
Versus harmful foreign economic practices in colonial territories
For a Middle East Peace Conference
For ending the embargo of Cuba (at least 10 times)
In addition, the US has:
Repeatedly withheld its dues from the UN
Twice left UNESCO because of its human rights initiatives
Twice left the International Labor Organization for its workers rights initiatives
Refused to renew the Antiballistic Missile Treaty
Refused to sign the Kyoto Treaty on global warming
Refused to back the World Health Organization’s ban on infant formula abuses
Refused to sign the Anti-Biological Weapons Convention
Refused to sign the Convention against the use of land mines
Refused to participate in the UN Conference Against Racism in Durban
Been one of the last nations in the world to sign the UN Covenant on Political &
Civil Rights (30 years after its creation)
Refused to sign the UN Covenant on Economic & Social Rights
Opposed the emerging new UN Covenant on the Rights to Peace, Development & Environmental Protection
Sampling of Deaths From US Military Interventions & Propping Up Corrupt Dictators (using the most conservative estimates)
|Korea||4 million dead|
|El Salvador||63,000 dead|
|Iraq||1.3 million dead|
|Dominican Republic||10,000 dead|
|South Africa||10,000 dead|
|Indonesia||1 million dead|
|East Timor||1/3–1/2 of total population|
|Cambodia||1 million dead|
|Congo||2 million dead|
|Vietnam||1.5 million dead|
Other Lethal US Interventions
CIA Terror Training Manuals
Development and distribution of training manuals for foreign military personnel or foreign nationals, including instructions on assassination, subversion, sabotage, population control, torture, repression, psychological torture, death squads, etc.
Specific Torture Campaigns
Creation and launching of direct US campaigns to support torture as an instrument of terror and social control for governments in Greece, Iran, Vietnam, Bolivia, Uruguay, Brazil, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Panama
Supporting and Harboring Terrorists
- The promotion, protection, arming or equiping of terrorists such as:
- Klaus Barbie and other German Nazis, and Italian and Japanese fascists, after WW II
- Manual Noriega (Panama), Saddam Hussein (Iraq), Rafael Trujillo (Dominican Republic), Osama bin Laden (Afghanistan), and others whose terrorism has come back to haunt us
- Running the Higher War College (Brazil) and first School of the Americas (Panama), which gave US training to repressors, death squad members, and torturers (the second School of the Americas is still running at Ft. Benning GA)
- Providing asylum for Cuban, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Haitian, Chilean, Argentinian, Iranian, South Vietnamese and other terrorists, dictators, and torturers
Assassinating World Leaders
Using assassination as a tool of foreign policy, wherein the CIA has initiated assassination attempts against at least 40 foreign heads of state (some several times) in the last 50 years, a number of which have been successful, such as: Patrice Lumumba (Congo), Rafael Trujillo (Dominican Republic), Ngo Dihn Diem (Vietnam) Salvador Allende (Chile)
Arms Trade & US Military Presence
- The US is the world’s largest seller of weapons abroad, arming dictators, militaries, and terrorists that repress or victimize their populations, and fueling scores of violent conflicts around the globe
- The US is the world’s largest provider of live land mines which, even in peacetime, kill or injure at least several people around the world each day
- The US has military bases in at least 50 nations around the world, which have led to frequent victimization of local populations.
- The US military has been bombing one Middle Eastern or Muslim nation or another almost continuously since 1983, including Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Iran, the Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq (almost daily bombings since 1991)
This, then, is a sampling of American foreign policies over the last 50 years. The FBI uses the following definition for Terrorism: “The unlawful use of force or violence committed by a group or individual, who has some connection to a foreign power or whose activities transcend national boundaries, against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” This sounds like the terrorism we just experienced. It also sounds a lot like the US policies and actions since 1945 that I’ve just described.
In response to these policies, it wouldn’t be surprising if eventually the US suffered some backlash. In fact, US officials have a word for the repercussions: “blowback,” which describes the way questionable and often deplorable policies often come back to haunt us. Even former US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger admitted, a few years ago, that: “We’ve presented to the rest of the world a vision of the bully on the block who pushes a button, people out there die, and we don’t pay anything except the cost of a missile… that’s going to haunt us in trying to deal with the rest of the world in the years ahead.”
In one of its recent, official reports, the US State Department concludes that if the people of a rogue nation experience enough suffering, they will overthrow their rulers, or compel them to adopt more sensible behavior. This view has been used by the US to promote suffering and subversive policies from Nicaragua to Iraq. But now the policy has apparently been turned against us: Islamic fundamentalists have concluded that Americans need to begin suffering in order to change US policies towards the Muslim world.
If the recent terrorism was carried out by Osama bin Laden, then why has he struck? Describing bin Laden is a long story that will be told, in detail, in a subsequent session of this forum. Briefly, we know that bin Laden is a fanatical Islamic fundamentalist who was not created by the US but who, along with a legion of terrorist followers, was nevertheless trained, equipped, and financed by the CIA to oppose the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. These followers, the mujahedeen (mujahidin), numbered between 15,000 and 50,000 people, and they went on to play a terrorist role in Chechnya, Bosnia, China, France, the Philippines, the Middle East, and elsewhere. They are a good example of blowback from US policy.
While President, Ronald Reagan welcomed members of the Mujahadin to the White House in 1985, and about them he said: “These are the moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers.” (Earlier, he had said the same thing about the contra terrorists the US created to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.) In effect, then, we are about to go to war, in Afghanistan, against the moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers!
Bin Laden and his followers are fascists. But they also oppose corrupt and repressive Middle East regimes (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Egypt) supported by US, the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, the genocide against Bosnian Muslims, the Indian occupation of Kashmir, the US military bases in Saudi Arabia, the US war against Iraq, and the daily humiliation suffered by Palestinians and other Arabs, who have seen their resources stolen, their lands taken, and their lives jeopardized by war and other violence.
Interestingly enough, a very recent Wall Street Journal interview of prominent Muslims and other Middle Easterners, including bankers, businessmen, professionals, and many with close ties to the US, shows that the grievances of these “non-terrorists” were almost identical to those of bin Laden and his followers. Apparently, it doesn’t take a crazy terrorist to recognize these injustices.
President Bush claims that America is the “brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world,” but to the contrary, the US is seen by tens of millions of people abroad as the main enemy of their human and democratic rights, and the main source of their oppression. Right now, many Americans want revenge for the deaths we’ve suffered from the recent terrorism; so, too, do some of the people who have been the victims of our violence also want revenge.
President Bush claims that terrorists attack us because they oppose freedom, but others believe, to the contrary, that we’re targets because our policies deprive other peoples of the freedom they so desperately want. In his speech the other night, Bush actually said that terrorists were envious of our democratically elected government! I’m sure Al Gore would wholeheartedly agree! Bush claims the terrorism was an attack on “civilization” but what kind of civilization commits its own terrorism, and designs its response to the terrorism committed by others in terms of “blood revenge?” Our policy is riddled with double standards, and only perpetuates the cycle of violence. When they attack, they’re terrorists. When we attack, we’re only retaliating. When they respond to our retaliation with further attacks, they’re terrorizing us again. When we respond with further attacks, we’re only retaliating again. And on and on.
Former US Senator J. William Fulbright warned us, during the Vietnam period, against the “arrogance of power” in US foreign policy. Now, at the start of the 21st century, the US is the most heavily armed nation on earth, and yet our arms and our persistent, violent use of them has not prevented us from now feeling more vulnerable than ever to outside attack. What went wrong? The explanation has to be more complicated than merely our failure to fight outside violence with enough violence of our own.
Despite the abuses of American foreign policy, we could take the realist view, and conclude that it was all somehow necessary. Even so, shouldn’t we expect some consequences? Is this really the best we can do? It’s time to repeat what I said earlier: Nothing can ever justify terrorism. But can’t we learn something from this incident, not only about how best, strategically, to respond to the recent terrorism but also how to respond intelligently to the problem, generally?
Some have argued that for some strange reason the historic violence of US foreign policy had nothing to do with the particular motives bin Laden had for the terrorism we just experienced. We’ll hear more about bin Laden and US Middle East policy in one of our subsequent forums, but does this sound plausible to you? Even if true, isn’t it likely that some other acts of terrorism will be forthcoming against us for policies such as the ones we’ve pursued?
One of the best ways of adding to the US policy of violence would be, of course, to pursue the war that US officials have begun to launch. It’s the wrong thing to do, and will likely make the situation much worse. The hardline, conservative Institute for Strategic Studies in Great Britain, for example, has argued that: “Going after the Taliban regime in Afghanistan will likely destabilize its friendly neighbor Pakistan and throw a nuclear-armed country into the hands of the militants.” Former Soviet military leaders have warned us against an invasion of Afghanistan; guerilla and terrorist forces defeated Russia’s best soldiers. We risk another Vietnam-style quagmire against an elusive target that can never be defeated militarily. And we risk the possible re-establishment of the military draft in the US, and the sacrifice of another generation of Americans to a fruitless war. Even if we care nothing for other peoples, we should be concerned about the senseless deaths of our own soldiers, which are likely to come.
Going to war, such as by bombing or invading Arab and Muslim states, and thereby potentially killing thousands of innocent people, will only convince more people that bin Laden is right about the US, and create thousands of new volunteers for anti-American terrorism. Collateral damage doesn’t just kill innocent people; it also creates martyrs and fanatical avengers. Besides, military strikes can never be effective in successfully targeting mobile terrorist headquarters.
We already had a war on terrorism in the 1980s, and back then we worried about Latin American terrorists as much as Middle Eastern. That war failed because terrorism is a political not a military problem, and because the US refused to honestly examine the sources of the violence. During our war on terrorism, the US was itself creating and arming terrorists in Nicaragua, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Critics have argued that we lost the last war on terrorism because the CIA was handcuffed; but to the contrary, the CIA remains one of the main sponsors of terrorism around the world.
It’s curious that when Timothy McVeigh bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, we didn’t declare war on all right-wing fascist groups in the US, and chalk up to collateral damage any others who might have gotten killed or injured in the process of conducting that war. Yet that’s what we’re prepared to do in Afghanistan and other nations. Is that because American fascists are not as evil as Islamic fundamentalist fascists? (One doesn’t have to endorse fascist views—any more than fundamentalist views—to recognize that McVeigh’s actions had causes: the government’s assaults at Waco and Ruby Ridge and its contamination of its own soldiers in the Gulf War—in which McVeigh served.)
President Bush is right in using the word, “justice,” but war and militarism can never accomplish justice. This terrorism is a crime against humanity, and that’s how it should be pursued: as a crime against which we and the international community must bring all the forces of law enforcement and criminal prosecution to bear. This is a job for international police work not the military.
Let’s get tough on terrorism. The only way to do this is by examining the sources and not merely the symptoms of terrorism, even if means admitting our own role in the violence. For all the warmongering and saber-rattling, Washington’s proposed actions provide only a weak and superficial response that will never get to the roots of the problem and will instead only multiply the symptoms. That takes no courage whatsoever.
I love America for many things, but I don’t love it for its foreign policies; I don’t love it for the way we’ve treated other peoples and nations. I would love America more if we were to fundamentally change those policies. Albert Einstein once said that: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we used when we created them.” Those words hold two insights: first, that we must change the way we think about and act in the world, and second, that we must look at ourselves and not merely at others. If we’re a great nation, then we should be strong enough for self-examination. If we value life and freedom so much, then we need to act like it. We need real courage, which is not a matter of knee-jerk revenge but rather of having the guts to reexamine what we’ve been doing in the world while we also take seriously the symptoms and the perpetrators of the horrible terrorism that has struck us.