Going down the wrong path

Why full-scale retributive attacks will fail— and what we can do to stop the cycle of violence

George Wright is professor emeritus, Department of Political Science, California State University, Chico. He has taught international politics for 32 years.

We’re going to become guilty, in my judgment, of being the greatest threat to the peace of the world. It’s an ugly reality, and we Americans don’t like to face up to it. I hate to think of the chapter of American history that’s going to be written in the future in connection with our outlawry in Southeast Asia.
—Sen. Wayne Morse, Oregon, 1968

We are planning a broad and sustained campaign to secure our country and eradicate the evil of terrorism, and we are determined to see this conflict through.
—President George W. Bush, Sept. 15, 2001

On Sept. 11, world civilization changed forever when a well-organized terrorist cabal flew three jumbo-jet planes into the World Trade Center’s towers and the Pentagon. The actions caused more than 5,000 deaths, destroyed incalculable amounts of property, and further destabilized an already weakened global economy. The horrific images of the human suffering and devastation that followed will stay locked in our minds the rest of our lives.

Those responsible for that international criminal act should be found, tried, and prosecuted for crimes against humanity.

Nevertheless, I am very concerned about how the corporate-owned mass media are presenting this crime to the public. I am even more concerned about what President Bush might do in retaliation. The key phrase of his administration’s response to the attacks has been that “states harboring terrorists will also be held responsible for these acts.” That statement implies that thousands of innocent people will be killed in our nation’s desire for revenge.

We must realize that hard evidence as to who planned and orchestrated those horrific acts has yet to be presented. However, the Bush administration has already pointed the finger at conservative Islamic leader Osama bin Laden as the mastermind of the attacks. Moreover, Afghanistan has been singled out for harboring the exiled-Saudi Arabian bin Laden.

If bin Laden is responsible, he and his accomplices should be apprehended and tried in a court of law. Certainly, no more innocent civilians should pay with their lives. To go beyond that point is more than you and I should tolerate.

Nevertheless, the Bush administration is making the verbal case that Saddam Hussein is also responsible, which may not be factual. Therefore, Iraq will be implicated and targeted for retaliation as well, allowing Bush to finish his father’s business. And I assume a pretense will be constructed to attack Libyan leader Mu’ammar Qaddhafi also.

If we find that bin Laden is guilty, should going after him give the United States carte blanche to attack its other enemies, and the civilians in those countries? The rest of the world is demanding our evidence in the case against bin Laden and expects evidence of the guilt of Iraq and Libya. Shouldn’t you and I make the same demands as well? We are not a vengeful people; we are a people who demand justice.

Has this terrorist attack occurred in a vacuum, as the Bush administration and the media imply? How should we understand what has happened? And will a military retaliation by the United States end “terrorism” once and for all?

We are being told that the suicide bombings were an attack on “our way of life” and “our values.” That is simply not true. This was an attack on U.S. foreign policy. The very choice of targets—the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, both explicit symbols of U.S. global military and economic power and policies—tells us that.

U.S. military policies include the maintenance of a huge military presence throughout the world and direct military interventions, the most recent being daily bombing of Iraq; covert intervention in Colombia; the U.S.-NATO assault on Yugoslavia; and arming and training eight of the nine civil-war belligerents in the Republic of the Congo.

Globalized economic policies, called “neo-liberalism,” based on social-spending cuts, deregulation and privatization, are enforced by the U.S.-controlled International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. Those policies have impoverished the vast majority of the world’s population and contributed to extreme polarities of wealth and income between the industrialized nations and the Third World. According to World Bank statistics, the wealthy countries have 15 per cent of the world’s population and control 79 per cent share of the world’s income, while Third World countries have 78 per cent of the world’s population and 17 per cent of the world’s income.

If the enemy in this war against terrorism seems to be amorphous and universal, it is because desperate (and angry) victims of neo-liberalism are everywhere in the world.

If the Sept. 11 attacks are derived from the Middle East, there are reasons why. The United States is hated there because of its militarized and duplicitous policies in that region. The fundamental question asked by the Arab peoples in the Middle East is: Why did the United States come down brutally on Saddam Hussein for his invasion of Kuwait (Operation Desert Storm killed an estimated 200,000 people) and maintain genocidal sanctions against the Iraqi people and bomb that country almost daily, while at the same time the U.S. gives Israel carte blanche to carry out expansionist policies against the Palestinians and its regional neighbors?

The sanctions against Iraq have caused the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million people, 700,000 of them children, since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Also, the maintenance of U.S. military troops in Saudi Arabia, which contains Islam’s holiest shrines, is seen as a blatant example of U.S. control over repressive client states in the region.

Moreover, U.S.-promoted neo-liberal economic policies have not escaped the Middle East. The social injustice these policies cause are amplified there because of the oil wealth. The majority of people in the region are subject to deteriorating economic conditions; the hardest hit are youth under 16, representing 60 percent of the region’s population, an obvious pool for future militants. Most of the people in the Middle East understand that the United States is directly responsible for their growing economic insecurity, political repression and social disintegration.

We have also been told that the terrorist attacks were a “declaration of war” against the United States by Islamic forces. That also is not true. The United States and the people of the Middle East have been at war since the late 1940s, with the formation of our ally, Israel. In those 50 years the United States has occupied, bombed, armed belligerents, staged coup d’etats and carried out economic sanctions against Islamic peoples in our objective to protect Western control of oil and to forestall Soviet “expansionism.”

Those operations span the entire region, including Libya, Lebanon, Palestine, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, with the cost in lives in the millions. The New York and Washington terrorist attacks should be seen as a response to U.S. domination of their lands.

Also, the corporate-owned media have failed to tell us that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency fostered and funded Osama bin Laden in our war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan during the 1980s. The United States’ objective was to make Afghanistan the Soviet Union’s “Vietnam.” The United States trained and supplied Arab-Afghans, as they were called, through bin Laden to the sum of $3 billion to $4 billion.

The Arab-Afghans numbered approximately 100,000 men and were from over 40 countries. They joined the fight because the Soviets were atheists and were subduing Moslems. They fought alongside the CIA-financed mujahadeen against the Soviet forces there. Afghanistan’s economy was basically destroyed, helping to create the conditions for the ascendancy of the extremist ruling Taliban.

Moreover, once the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, the CIA deserted bin Laden and the Arab-Afghan “freedom fighters.” At that point, bin Laden and the Arab-Afghans began to oppose the U.S. role in the Middle East, because its policies were also killing and suppressing Moslems. They were specifically angered by U.S. aggression against Iraq in the Persian Gulf War; support of United Nations sanctions against Iraq; on going bombing of Iraq; and support for Israel’s assault on the Palestinian people.

They are also opposed to any regime that harbors U.S. military personnel in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia.

Of course, this is not the first time that a former client has turned against the United States and had to be punished. Manuel Noriega, Omar Torrijos and Saddam Hussein quickly come to mind.

The Bush administration is poised to launch a bloody attack on Afghanistan, probably Iraq and possibly Libya, as well as into Central Asia. This would allow the United States to gain control of oil and natural-gas reserves (and pipelines) from northern Africa through Kosovo to the Caspian Sea all the way to Kazakhstan.

If our society endorses this attack, we must also be prepared to understand that military retaliation will not stop Middle East-derived “terrorism.” What a military retaliation will do, at the very least, is to “anoint” thousands of people in the Middle East as the next generation of “terrorists,” to continue the cycle of violence that the West’s thirst for Middle Eastern oil has bred.

What Bush could also do is provoke a land war, drawing in U.S. ground troops and all the countries of the region, causing untold lives to be lost and ending civilization as we know it. Already Congress has given Bush a blank check to wage a dangerous war against an ill-defined “international terrorist network,” at the expense of major domestic social priorities. We are also experiencing an accelerated erosion of our domestic civil rights and civil liberties in the name of “security.” Moreover, tragically, Arab-Americans have been attacked and harassed all over the country.

Three years ago this month, after President Clinton launched retaliatory strikes against a pharmaceutical company in Sudan and “terrorist” camps in Afghanistan in reprisal for the August 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, I wrote the following for this newspaper:

“Carrying out a unilateral military strike against bin Laden is not the way to curtail or eliminate terrorism. On the contrary, if the United States really wants to diminish Middle East-derived terrorism, it should do the following: 1) Encourage the United Nations Security Council to lift economic sanctions against Iraq; 2) withdraw U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia; and 3) find a truly impartial mediator between Israel and the Palestinians. Moreover, terrorism should no longer be presented to the United States public by the president and the mainstream media as if it occurs in a vacuum. This manipulation only fuels the costly military option and suppresses democratic debate.

“Tragically, it is too late for Clinton to retract his declaration of war against Islam. For the rest of us, that means the United States has moved one step closer to being a totalitarian society. It also means that Clinton’s war against Islam could result in the disintegration of United States global hegemony and hurl the world into chaos.”

I wish our leaders would realize that the way to make people in the United States secure is by helping to make Third World peoples secure. That could be done by terminating neo-liberalism and implementing redistributive and environmentally sustainable economic policies, promoting "fair" trade, and cooperating with international treaties, such as the Kyoto climate agreement, the convention on the rights of children, and the anti-personnel land mines treaty. But that is not the path that the Bush administration has chosen.