The “War on Terror” Rhetoric of Overreaction and Unforeseen Consequences
By Gary Crethers
The Bush administration initiated the ‘War on Terror’ in the wake of the 9/1l attack. It has resulted in the United States becoming embroiled in the longest conflict in U.S. history, in Afghanistan, a misdirected application of excessive force in attempting to subdue the al Qaeda terrorists. Due in part to its hubris as a hegemonic imperial power, and in part to a racist and irrational fear of the Islamic world, the U.S. has drastically altered the domestic landscape and instilled increased levels of fear in its populace. As the U. S. implements policies that attract a reaction from those peoples affected by them, it becomes the target of attacks such as 9/11. By reacting with overwhelming force, the US has overreacted to an asymmetrically much smaller threat such as al Qaeda, out of an irrational fear of these small forces and in the process has done exactly what it was expected to do by al Qaeda planners, weakening the American position at home and abroad as a consequence.
Just as the British overreacted to the Irgun in Palestine, and the French overreacted to the FLN in Algeria, so the USA has overreacted to al Qaeda in the bombings of 9/11/2001. As David Fromkin wrote in his seminal article “The Strategy of Terrorism,” regarding the primary purpose of terrorism “First the adversary would be made to be afraid, and then predictably, he would react to his fear by increasing the bulk of his strength, and then the sheer weight of that bulk would drag him down” (Fromkin 8). The essence of this form of warfare is psychological (13), and is intended to draw a superior force into self-defeating action. That is what al Qaeda did on 9/11 drawing the US into its chosen battlefield, Afghanistan, a place that has historically been a borderland battle zone between various imperial powers. In the 19th century the Russians and British tried using Afghanistan as a pawn in the ‘Great Game’ much to detriment of the British who were defeated in several attempts to occupy the country. More recently as a proxy between the Soviets and Americans, in which the Soviets came out badly, as Ahmed Rashid writes in his book about the most recent Afghan war Descent into Chaos (7-11). Now the US has engaged in a long and costly war in Afghanistan attempting to root out al Qaeda’s base of support.
The USA fell for the tactic of Osama Bin Laden’s group, responding in a manner that has had economic, social and political consequences eroding American strength, political capital, domestic freedoms and draining resources from other urgent needs. The War on Terror may have dispersed al Qaeda and killed Osama Bin Laden but at an unacceptable price, and the same ends could have been accomplished if the USA had not overreacted and played into Al Qaeda’s hands. The attack on the US becomes a form of ‘blowback,’ a CIA term for not only unintended consequences but consequences that have their underlying cause obscured in the public mind. Chalmers Johnson writes in The Nation, soon after the 9/11 attacks:
On the day of the disaster, President George W. Bush told the American people that we were attacked because we are “a beacon for freedom” and because the attackers were “evil.” In his address to Congress on September 20, he said, “This is civilization’s fight.” This attempt to define difficult-to-grasp events as only a conflict over abstract values—as a “clash of civilizations,” in current post-cold war American jargon–is not only disingenuous but also a way of evading responsibility for the “blowback” that America’s imperial projects have generated (Johnson Blowback).
Going back a bit in time to the late 1970’s and 1980’s, the US supported the Mujahedeen terrorists in Afghanistan who were opposed to the communist government in the capital, Kabul backed by the Soviet Union. Osama Bin Laden was one of those mujahedeen. David Carlton, senior lecturer in International Studies at University of Warwick, states “The historian, therefore, need not hesitate before asserting categorically that the United States as a state was deeply involved, courtesy of Pakistan, in encouraging and sponsoring terrorism in Afghanistan.” He goes on to say “There was thus a fundamental lack of integrity and consistency in the US position that makes it extremely difficult for George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11 to preach convincingly at other states about the evil of sponsoring terrorism across national boundaries” (Carlton 175-176). Carlton speaks to the ‘blowback’ issue noting that the US “in a purely practical way did much to create the actual terrorist forces that hit at US interests in later years. In short, the United States during the 1990’s and after reaped what the Reagan administration had sowed by funding and arming the mujahedeen” (177). The USA should have been reexamining its policies and international relationships after 9/11, instead it reacted violently.
Clearly seeing how the US as a great power not used to being threatened in its homeland would react, Rashid quotes Pakistani President Musharraf who said, upon learning of the terrorist assault on the US in a meeting with his security advisors, “The U.S. will react like a wounded bear and it will attack Afghanistan” (Rashid 27). The US committed itself to war, and not only war on a single entity that had attacked, but the politicians flailed out at all enemies, all evil doers, and President Bush declared a War on Terror.
King David Hotel after Irgun bombing
Remember Fromkin’s position that the essential point of terrorist strategy is to use the very size and power of the enemy against itself. The historical example of the Irgun, Jewish terrorists in then British ruled Palestine of the 1940’s, who seeking to gain an independent Israel bombed targets such as the King David Hotel in which over 100 persons were killed in an attempt to entice a British overreaction. The British people were in no mood for more wars, having just gone through World War 2. The Irgun anticipated that the weight of the British reaction to their actions would result in the public’s disenchantment with further British involvement especially in the light of revelations of the Nazi genocide (Fromkin 7-8). Fromkin also examines how a small party such as the FLN seeking independence for Algeria from French colonial rule in the 1950’s, was able to redefine the attitude of the Algerian indigenous public. The French considered Algeria to be a part of France. A series of terrorist bomb attacks by the FLN, resulting in a harsh and evidently racist French backlash on the mostly Islamic native populace, was able to convince the vast Islamic majority that they were not French citizens but colonial subjects, winning support for the cause of an independent Algeria (9-10). These examples lead up to the strategy of al Qaeda.
French Officer assassinated in Algerian War of Independence
Responding to the US bombing attack on Afghanistan in October 2001, Rashid reports that in a “prerecorded video aired on Qatar’s Al Jazeera television, promising more terrorist attacks on America, [Osama Bin Laden states] ‘Neither America nor the people who live in it will dream of security before we live it in Palestine and not before all the infidel armies leave the land of Mohammed’” (Rashid 80). This was a clear message, from a group that could be addressed with a specific response. Leaving Saudi Arabia was in the realm of possibility, but Osama bin Laden knew that the US was incapable of negotiating at that point and that these demands would involve the unraveling of the Gordian knot of US policy, the Israeli-Palestinian question. Even though the US might have been loath to negotiate, grounds existed at the time for a calibrated and deliberate response.
Instead, as Gideon Rose states in the introduction to The U.S. V. al Qaeda, “The Bush team’s lowered tolerance for risk, combined with a desire to act vigorously in the Middle East, led it to settle on Iraq as its next target. To justify its actions the administration developed a new doctrine of preventative war” (Rose x). This was an entirely hubristic and misdirected response to the al Qaeda attack, indicating that there was more going on in the Bush policy planning than simply responding to the terrorist attack. Due in part to the extent of the support for Israel and the ascendency in the new Bush administration of a distinctly activist foreign policy tendency, the US did not even consider negotiating. There existed, and to a degree still exists, a distinct perceptual problem that clouded the issue further related to attitudes towards Islam and the people of the Middle East on the part of Westerners in general and the US elite in particular.
Rape of Jerusalem by Crusaders 1099
This has been called a crusader mentality. Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism discusses aspects of the western relationship with the Middle East with regards to the consolidation of media control in the hands of a few corporate entities, there has been an “institutionalized tendency to produce out-of-scale trans-national images that are now reorienting international discourse and process” (Said 309). Creating a mystique of terrorism coupled with fundamentalism “derived entirely from the concerns and intellectual factories in metropolitan centers like Washington and London…The fear and terror induced by the overscale images of ‘terrorism’ and ‘fundamentalism’ - call them the figures of an international or transnational imaginary made up of foreign devils – hastens the individual’s subordination to the dominant norms of the moment. The irony is that far from endowing the western ethos with the confidence and secure ‘normality’ we associate with privilege and rectitude, this dynamic imbues ‘us’ with a righteous anger and defensiveness in which others are finally seen as enemies, bent on destroying our civilization and way of life” (Said 310). This written back in the early 1990’s before Al Qaeda or a specific threat to the American homeland had emerged.
Third Crusade of Richard the Lionhearted, not so successful
Exemplifying some of the attitudes that Said attacks is Samuel Huntington who in his 1993 Foreign Affairs article “The Clash of Civilizations?” states, “It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future” (Huntington 22). This view had become virtual cannon in the world of the neocon intellectuals who had become a force in the Bush administration policy making apparatus.
Summarizing this position, Niall Ferguson in his Colossus The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, succinctly states this position “the majority of the new imperialists are neoconservatives, and it was their views that came to the fore during and after the invasion of Iraq… [and] even called for the United States to establish a Colonial Office, the better to administer its new possessions in the Middle East and Asia” (Ferguson 5). The reasonable response to the 9/11 attacks by an assault on al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan and punishing the Taliban for their support had been usurped in the minds of influential policy makers into an American empire. Ferguson quotes James Kurth, who writing in a special “Empire” issue of National Interest, “Today there is only one empire, the global empire of the United States. The US military… are the true heirs of the legendary civil officials, and not just the dedicated military officers, of the British Empire” (5). This view, prevalent in a certain sector of the conservative policy establishment, has been justified due to the chaos in the current world situation with failed states unable to act against terrorist groups within their own borders, thus the argument is made for a strong American presence willing to take matters in hand.
Yet the War on Terror has become more than a rational policy, developing into something else. Michael Welch, in Scapegoats of September 11th Hate Crimes & State Crimes in the War on Terror, states “The war on terror, as fiercely echoed in the speeches of President Bush and other political leaders, represents a continuation of a more ancient campaign against evil….grounding the war on terror within a mystical framework generates considerable popular support from people who view the world as a dangerous place with evil lurking in our midst, that way of talking and thinking about political violence undermines the formulation of sound counterterrorism policies” (Welch 4). The US as a contrite imperial power is simply not in the picture. Neither has been treating the attack as a police matter for the intelligence services to handle. President Bush had laid down the gauntlet, “the gloves came off” as Welch says in his discourse on scapegoating and the Bush administration’s decision to treat 9/11 as a war on evil (Welch 8-9).
Welch sees the emergence of a form of bunker mentality or as he states “The regrettable effects of the ‘dangerous world’ perspective already have been realized in the few years following 9/11: most notably the roundups, detentions, and deportations of Middle Eastern men proven not to have any links to terrorism, along with injustices at Guantanamo Bay, and, of course the invasion of Iraq. Still, scholars are concerned about the long-term effect that the fear is likely to have on American political structures” (Welch 7). This written in 2005 indicates the corrosive effect of the war on terror on the American psyche, already prone to manipulation and charged with fear of the other, especially the Arab fundamentalist terrorist, as Said states. In the context of Huntington’s clash of cultures a critique accepted by many neoliberals, what has emerged since 9/11 is a perfect storm of irrational policy decisions bolstered by vested interests in the American war machine among others. For Welch, “The irrationality of fear over terrorism coexists with – and in certain circumstances, encourages – government policies that are equally irrational in their formation and implementation…[T]the war on terror… is irrational for the nation since terrorism is not an enemy in the conventional understanding of war” (6). Welch sees the linking up of political action and public fear as a deliberate policy of sloganeering to replace discourse as well as a mask for domestic problems, but specifically the language is designed to feed into public anxieties.
This emergence of the irrational in policy has led to what Torin Monahan in his book Surveillance in the Time of Insecurity describes a scenario where citizens are being recruited in a surveillance state “A new kind of citizen, the insecurity subject, is being constructed by the reigning discourses of homeland security… the very concept of the public sphere is being militarized…. a host of agencies that previously did not have ‘security’ as their primary mandate were absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003, where they have been restructured and reoriented to prioritize security functions above all others” (Monahan 19-20). He goes on to list the Coast Guard, FEMA and what used to be called the INS as examples, noting one reason for the failure of the Katrina disaster support by FEMA being the result of this transformation of its mission from general disaster relief to the war on terror (20).
Moreover Monahan describes attempts to recruit citizens in programs such as the Justice Department’s “Terrorism Information and Prevention System (TIPS)” which enrolled postal carriers and private industry such as cable installers to monitor their customers. There was a backlash that caused this program to be canceled. Under the “Highway Watch” program truckers were to keep track of suspicious drivers, so far according to Monahan it has resulted in more racial profiling than anything useful. The attempt to force librarians to play cop, resulted in a strong move by the American Library Association to oppose provisions in the USA PATRIOT Act which resulted in a partial rollback of provisions in the 2006 reauthorization of the act (20-21). He concludes that the “macro-power structure is one where decision-making is consolidated high up on the hierarchy of the state, while the burden of those decisions fall squarely on the most vulnerable populations in society (25). Examples such as the reaction to Katrina, and the various flu pandemic scares, come to mind on the domestic front. The preparedness planning, with the devolution of responsibility on the individual citizen, as in emergency preparedness kits, and checklists, all go into creating what he calls the “insecurity subject” (23). Profit goes to contractors, responsibility to the citizenry (22).
Terrorism is a complex issue in which “religious extremism, state’s foreign policies, failure of states, sense of injustice and inequality and globalization are major ones” (Ozern and Gunes 6). Understanding of “the underlying causes of terrorism poverty, inequality, social status in a given society, immigration, and alike” and taking concrete actions to alleviate these conditions are more likely to have a profound effect on eliminating terrorism as well as “multinational security cooperation and effective supranational lawful regulations as the fundamentals in overcoming this new kind of terrorism” (6). This indicates a direction for the U. S. to move forward, and it seems to be one that the Obama administration is with noteworthy exceptions such as its instance upon maintaining the onerous provisions of the PATRIOT act and its inability to dismantle the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
What is required in the war on terror is not a massive military machine, but as Phillip Heymann states in Terrorism Freedom and Security, “The critical capacities – ability to recruit agents that not only can speak the language, but can also pass easily in the communities that terrorists share with supporters – are largely in the hands of foreign intelligence agencies and our CIA. Building a separate military capability here is hard to justify” (Heymann 29). Small discrete action by intelligence operations with the cooperation of the special forces of the various military departments, are what finally eliminated Osama bin Laden. They are what the U.S. uses in Yemen and Somalia. This could have been how the U.S. handled 9/11, a measured response what Rose describes as the British approach, “Keep calm and carry on” (Rose xiii).
British Response to Terrorism
Granted the massive US military machine, which has been called into play in Afghanistan, was able to quickly demolish the Taliban state apparatus, remove the Al Qaeda training camps and secure the urban areas. But the enemy had no need for what little urban infrastructure Afghanistan had left after two decades of continuous warfare. Bombing missions over Afghanistan, after the October 2011 American invasion, quickly ran out of targets and the troops on the ground were unable to capture Osama Bin Laden or the Taliban leaders in such a vast forbidding environment. The US ended up spending at this point some 13 years, the longest military action in US history, in Afghanistan with no real accomplishments other than propping up a corrupt local regime.
From UN report on Corruption in Afghanistan
The U.S., backing anti-democratic states like Saudi Arabia, historically participating in destabilizing efforts such as the overthrow of the democratic rule in Iran in the 1950’s and stanchly backing Israel, has created a situation where the U.S. it has become the object of mass dissatisfaction in the Middle East, seen as the puppet master behind so much that goes on, even though this can only be said to be partially true. The US has been transformed from the beacon of light to the embattled national security state like some reinvented Roman Empire building walls around its borders in a vain attempt to keep the dangerous world out, an impossible task on the face of it. The American people’s psyche, now fearful, manipulated by market and governmental forces that have failed and lied, leading the country into costly and debilitating wars, a ruinous recession and now a seemingly dysfunctional heath care plan, with onerous debt, a political class in disarray and Congress in stalemate. Hamstrung by the debt from the wars and mishandling the economy, it will be years before the US recovers its predominant position, if ever with the changing world political scene. America the embattled is the resulting mental state from the War on Terror.
The U.S. must continue to re-examine the use of its military power, participate in multilateral approaches to problems, as the recent Libyan campaign demonstrated even with its flaws. The recognition of and mitigation of racist stereotypical attitudes is essential to a clear headed approach to the region. Reviewing the reaction in the Middle East to Obama’s election in 2008, the U. S. gained much credibility, simply because Obama, as a non-white European, raised hopes that he would take a much more nuanced and understanding approach to the world. The excessive costs of the recent wars and the exhaustion of the American public with more entanglements in the Middle East as the recent resistance to an incursion in Syria would indicate, should warn policy makers that a change in direction is needed. Tend to one’s own garden as Candide said, in Voltaire’s classic tale, a lesson the U. S. should consider seriously. Certainly there are enough issues in the American domestic house that cry out for attention.
Will the U.S. take care of pressing domestic issues and renounce its hegemonic position in the world? The affirmative position is that the U.S. is making moves to extricate itself from the disastrous policies of the last decade, ratcheting down from a War on Terror rhetorically to one of police activity, has aided in a return to a more normal posture vis a vie the use of extraordinary powers. An institutionalization of eroded civil liberties and freedom in the U.S. will accomplish al Qaeda’s work for them, reducing the U.S. to merely being just another state jostling for power and control. If America is to retain its exceptional position as a beacon of hope and freedom, then it must not allow that to happen.
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