U.S. Government Must Take a Consistent Stance Against Terrorism

Last Friday’s terrorist bombing outside the Tomb of Ali in the Iraqi city of An-Najaf was the deadliest such attack against a civilian target in Middle East history. It recalls a similar blast in the southern outskirts of Beirut in March1985, which until last week held the region’s record for civilian fatalities in a single bombing.

There are some striking parallels between the two terrorist attacks: both were the result of a car bomb that exploded outside a crowded mosque during Friday prayers and both were part of an assassination attempt against a prominent Shiite cleric that killed scores of worshipers and passers-by.

There is a key difference, however: While no existing government is believed to have been behind the An-Najaf bombing, the Beirut bombing was a classic case of state-sponsored terrorism: a plot organized by the intelligence services of a foreign power.

That foreign power was the United States.

The 1985 Beirut bombing was part of an operation, organized by CIA director William Casey and approved by President Ronald Reagan, to assassinate Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, a prominent anti-American Lebanese cleric. More than 80 civilians were killed and over 200 wounded, though Ayatollah Fadlallah escaped serious injury.

Few people today are aware of this major terrorist incident. Not only did Casey, Reagan, and other officials responsible never face justice for the crime, it is as if the tragedy has completely disappeared from history.

It is conspicuously absent from most lists of major terrorist attacks in the Middle East and is rarely mentioned by the so-called “experts on terrorism” who appear on radio and television talk shows. Often when I refer to the incident during the course of an interview, my credibility is suddenly placed into question.

The attack and the U.S. role in it is not, however, a matter of historical debate. Major American daily newspapers not only made the bombing itself front-page news, but when the CIA connection came to light several weeks later, that too made the lead headlines. In addition, award-winning Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward examines the incident in detail in his best-selling 1987 book Veil.

Despite increased corporate control of the media, there is very little outright censorship of the news in this country. There is, however, a kind of selective historical memory that makes it difficult to even recall events which go beyond what the noted M.I.T. linguist Noam Chomsky has referred to as the “boundaries of thinkable thought.”

As Thomas Kuhn describes in his classic work The Structure of Scientific Revolution, if something occurs outside the dominant paradigm, it — for all practical purposes — did not really happen because it is beyond the comprehension of those stuck in the old ways of thinking. In this case, if the dominant paradigm says that terrorism is the exclusive province of movements or governments the United States does not like and the United States is the world leader in fighting terrorism, there is therefore no such thing as U.S.-backed terrorism.

Unfortunately, even if one restricts the definition of terrorism to exclude acts of violence against civilians by official police and military units of established governments, the United States has a long history of supporting terrorism.

Much attention has been given to the ultimately successful U.S.-led effort to force the extradition of two Libyans implicated in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. Few Americans, however, are aware that the United States has refused to extradite four terrorists — right-wing Cuban exiles trained by the CIA — convicted over twenty years ago in Venezuela for blowing up a Cuban airline in 1976.

The United States has also refused to extradite John Hull, an American CIA operative indicted in Costa Rica for the 1984 bombing of a press conference in a Nicaraguan border town which killed five journalists.

Similarly, the United States refuses to extradite Emmanuel Constant for trial in Haiti. The former military officer, who had worked closely with the CIA, is believed to be responsible for the murder of upwards to 5000 people under the Haitian dictatorship in the early 1990s.

Perhaps the most significant U.S.-backed terrorist operations in recent decades involved the Contras — a paramilitary group composed largely of Nicaraguan exiles in Honduras — who were armed, trained and financed by the U.S. government. They are believed to have been responsible for the deaths of more than 20,000 civilians in a series of attacks against villages and rural cooperatives in northern Nicaragua during the 1980s. A number of prominent Reagan Administration officials directly involved in supporting such terrorist activities are now in prominent positions in the Bush Administration. Among these is the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Negroponte, who — as President Reagan’s ambassador to Honduras during the1980s — actively supported the Contra terror campaigns across the border.

Yet despite all the attention given to international terrorism in the two years since the 9/11 attacks against the United States, this sordid history is rarely raised in the mainstream media or on Capitol Hill.

This does not mean, when faced by very real threats from mega-terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and while Israeli and Iraqi civilians are being blown up by extremists, that critics of U.S. policy should simply respond with an attitude of, “Well, we do it, too, so what’s the big deal?” Pointing out hypocrisy and double-standards alone does not address the very real and legitimate fears that Americans, Israelis, Iraqis and others have from terrorist violence.

There must be decisive action by the international community to stop such attacks, both through challenging policies that breed terrorism — such as military occupations and support for dictatorial regimes — as well as through improved intelligence, interdiction and, where necessary, well-targeted paramilitary operations aimed at the terrorists themselves.

At the same time, the refusal by the U.S. government and media to acknowledge the U.S. role in international terrorism raises serious questions as to whether the United States really is waging a “war on terrorism” or a war limited only to terrorism that does not support U.S. strategic objectives. Until the U.S. government is willing to come out categorically against all terrorism, it will be difficult to find the international cooperation necessary to rid the world from this very real threat.


A New Path to Peace

The tragic events of September 11 have created unprecedented challenges for the peace movement, anti-interventionist forces, and other progressive activists. For the first time in the lives of most Americans, the U.S. has found itself under attack.

After more than fifty years of fabricated and exaggerated threats to national security put forward by the U.S. government, academia, and the media to justify military interventionism abroad, even many traditional critics of U.S. foreign policy now acknowledge that there does exist a very real threat to U.S. security. Indeed, there is little question that Osama Bin Laden’s ideology is apocalyptic and his methods are genocidal. Furthermore, his worldview is closer to that of the European fascists of the 1930s than of the progressive third world revolutionaries of the 1970s who inspired many progressives in the West.

A significant minority of Americans, however, seriously question the wisdom of the U.S. military response. Some of these dissidents come from the pacifist tradition, taking a principled position in opposition to all war. They support nonviolent alternatives and argue that violence necessarily begets more violence. Other opponents of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism come from the far left. They argue that — given the nature of the U.S. role in the world and the powerful special interests that possess an inordinate amount of influence on policymaking — any such military intervention is inherently imperialistic. Still others emphasize utilitarian arguments against the use of large-scale bombing and other blunt instruments of power when dealing with a decentralized network of underground terrorist cells, where more targeted police or commando operations might be more appropriate.

Part of the difficulty in building an antiwar movement has been the nature of the Bush administration’s military response thus far. On the one hand, few progressives would have objected to a limited and targeted paramilitary action under international auspices, or even bombing raids targeted exclusively at Al-Qaeda facilities and nearby antiaircraft batteries. On the other hand, massive attacks against a series of Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries with the concomitant large-scale civilian casualties would have created such a backlash that the self-defeating nature of the U.S. military response would have created a credible antiwar opposition. Instead, the U.S. response has been somewhere between the two: excessive enough to raise serious moral, legal, and political objections, but limited enough so that the immediate negative consequences are not readily apparent to most Americans. Indeed, despite the failure to capture Osama Bin Laden and destroy the Al-Qaeda network, U.S. military operations have at least partially crippled the operations of the terrorist group and succeeded in overthrowing what was perhaps the most brutal totalitarian regime on the planet. While U.S. military operations were not as quick or successful as many in the Bush administration hoped, dire predictions from the left that the United States would be dragged into a quagmire comparable to the Soviet experience of the 1980s also proved to be incorrect.

Yet there are still strong utilitarian arguments against war. Given that terrorism is an international problem, it needs international solutions. This means vigorously and collaboratively pursing diplomatic, investigative, and international police channels to identify, track down, arrest, and bring to justice members of terrorist cells responsible for these crimes. Precipitous and inappropriate military action makes many nations — particularly in the Middle East, whose support is needed to track down terrorists hiding within those countries’ borders — reluctant to cooperate in antiterrorism efforts.

The United States is good at dropping bombs, firing missiles, and other displays of military force. However, even Bush administration officials acknowledge that the most important aspects of the campaign against terrorism are non-military, including good intelligence on, interdiction of, and disruption of the financial networks which support terrorists, all of which goals require cooperation with other nations. Unfortunately, the apparent U.S. military victory in Afghanistan and threats to expand the war elsewhere is likely to make the far more important political struggle all the more difficult.

For years, progressive voices in this country called for the withdrawal of American troops from the Middle East, a more even-handed position between the Israelis and Palestinians, a cessation of support for repressive governments, an end to the punitive sanctions against the people of Iraq, and a halt to the massive arms shipments to that already overly militarized region. If those in power had heeded these demands, it would have likely prevented the rise of anti-American terrorism in the Middle East; thousands of Americans and others killed on September 11 would still be alive today. It is ironic, then, that the very militarists whose policies led to the current crisis have successfully manipulated the threat they helped create to their own political advantage while marginalizing the prophetic progressive voices who warned that such consequences might be forthcoming if such misguided policies continued.

Those supporting peace and seeking alternatives to military intervention must find a way out of this conundrum.

Short to Medium-term Strategies for the Peace Movement

The September 11 attacks have placed traditional critics of U.S. militarism and interventionism in a bind. In refusing to support military action, such critics can easily be portrayed as naively acquiescing to dangerous forces that have demonstrated both the willingness and the ability to do enormous harm to many thousands of innocent people in our own country.

As a result, many former peace activists — even while cautioning against the more large-scale military actions advocated by administration hawks — are, for the first time, endorsing at least some sort of military response. At the same time, there are still very real moral and legal questions regarding certain aspects of military action, even among non-pacifists. Furthermore, supporting military action feeds the very militarization of U.S. foreign policy that helped create the backlash so frighteningly manifested in the Al-Qaeda movement and other extremist activities.

Perhaps the greatest contribution progressives can make to the current situation in the short- to medium-term is exposing how the Bush administration is using the crisis to advance its right-wing ideological agenda. For example, no other country besides Taliban-ruled Afghanistan has been shown to have harbored or given any other kind of direct support to Al-Qaeda. However, there have been a series of threats by the Bush administration to extend the war to Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere, in an apparent desire to use counterterrorism as an excuse to punish regimes it doesn’t like and to extend American military power. Such attacks would create a widespread anti-American backlash in the region that would severely compromise the non-military but more crucial counterterrorism efforts on which the United States must concentrate at this stage. Those opposing further U.S. military intervention must emphasize that the struggle against terrorism is too important to be sabotaged by ideologues wishing to settle old scores.

Another example regards the enormous increase in military spending advocated by the Bush administration — with apparent support from leading congressional Democrats — that has been justified as necessary to fund the war on terrorism. However, the vast majority of the proposed spending is for weapons systems and other expenditures having nothing to do with counterterrorism; indeed, many were originally designed to counter Soviet weapons that no longer exist. Activists can point out that, at a time of national crisis where a singularity of purpose is required, the two major parties are taking advantage of the American people and their hard-earned tax dollars to subsidize the arms industry. For example, if the terrorist attacks of September 11 proved anything, it is the folly of the assertion that a nuclear missile defense can protect us. The use of missiles, bombers, and other heavy high-tech equipment may have been partially successful in Afghanistan, where there were some tangible, if limited, targets in the form of training camps for Al-Qaeda and other military installations belonging to the allied Taliban regime. However, such weapons will be of little use against the majority of Al-Qaeda that remains intact as a network of decentralized, underground cells. As a result, antiwar activists can point out that the emphasis on heavy high-tech weaponry in the proposed federal budget is based not on its need to protect Americans from terrorism but because such weaponry is extremely profitable for arms manufacturers.

From fiscal policy to civil liberties to trade issues to environmental concerns, the entire agenda of the political right is being advanced in the name of fighting terrorism. Indeed, many progressives barely had time to grieve the tragedies of September 11 before we had to start worrying about the frightening political implications of our government’s response. In addition to the threat of war, few progressives could doubt that there would soon be assaults on such areas as civil liberties, immigrant rights, saner budget priorities, human rights, international law, and arms control. Antiterrorism has become what anticommunism was during the cold war: the manipulation of an outside threat to pursue a right-wing agenda, including the suppression of legitimate dissent. Also as during the cold war, most prominent liberals have timidly accepted many of the assumptions and policies put forward by right-wing Republicans and thereby made thoughtful debate of the policies that resulted in this terrorist threat extremely difficult.

At the same time, few things make people angrier than being taken advantage of in time of genuine need. Progressives must acknowledge the reality of the terrorist threat and the necessity of a strong and effective response from our government, while at the same time exposing the perfidy of the Bush administration in cynically manipulating our genuine need for security for the sake of its rigid ideological constructs and its wealthy financial supporters.

Longer-term Strategies

In most previous cases of U.S. military intervention abroad, it was generally enough to simply demand the U.S. stay out. The current crisis, however, does require some credible alternatives to the Bush administration policy. Successful activism against war has to proceed from good policy prescriptions to introduce this shift. In previous campaigns regarding military intervention, antiwar forces have been mostly reacting to U.S. policy. To win this struggle, those desiring a more enlightened foreign policy must also be on the offensive.

Whatever the most appropriate U.S. response may be in the short term, the most important thing the United States can do to prevent future terrorism is to change its policies toward the Middle East. There can not be a successful peace movement without a movement to change U.S. Middle East policy. Such changes will certainly not satisfy the Bin Ladens and other extremists. A more rational Middle East policy, however, will seriously reduce their potential following and, by extension, their capacity to do damage. The United States should certainly not change any policy for the sake of appeasing terrorists. But progressives must push for policy changes that should be made anyway for moral or legal reasons that would simultaneously reduce the threat from terrorism. For example, it would be wrong to call for an end to the American commitment to Israel’s legitimate security needs in order to appease anti-Jewish terrorists. However, peace activists should demand an end to the unconditional U.S. military, economic, and diplomatic support for Israel’s rightist government and its occupation and colonization of the West Bank and Gaza Strip — not only because it fuels the fires of anti-American extremism but also because it is wrong to support any government that violates basic principles of international law and human rights.

Building a U.S. Middle East policy based more on the promotion of human rights, international law, and sustainable development and less on arms transfers, support for occupation armies and dictatorial governments, air strikes, and punitive sanctions would make the United States much safer. It is, therefore, appealing to enlightened self-interest — consistent with the professed values with which most Americans identify — that can build a progressive alternative to current U.S. policy. Indeed, claims by President George W. Bush to the contrary, the United States has not become a target because of our freedom and democracy, but because U.S. Middle East policy is not about freedom and democracy. We are not hated because of our values, but because we have strayed from those values.

The emphasis on a largely military response to the threat of terrorism ignores the fact that it has been the dramatic militarization of the Middle East in recent decades, encouraged by successive U.S. administrations, that has helped create this violent anti-American backlash. Indeed, the more the U.S. has militarized the region, the less secure the American people have become. All the sophisticated weaponry, brave fighting men and women, and brilliant military leadership the United States may possess will do little good if there are hundreds of millions of people in the Middle East and beyond who hate us. Even the tiny percentage that may support Osama Bin Laden’s methods will be enough to maintain dangerous terrorist networks as long as his grievances resonate with the majority. Even should there be an initially successful outcome of the military response to Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network, there will be new terrorists to take their places unless there is a critical examination of what has prompted the rise of such a fanatical movement.

There are those who argue that Osama Bin Laden’s political agenda should not be taken any more seriously than those of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, late 1960s cult leader Charles Manson, or any other mass murderer. Certainly anyone who would be willing to sacrifice thousands of innocent lives for any reason is clearly a pathological killer and is unlikely to be reasoned with or appeased through negotiations.

An important distinction should be made, however. Terrorist groups whose political grievances have little political appeal — such as the far left and far right terrorist groups which have periodically arisen in relatively open societies like those in Western Europe and the United States — can be suppressed relatively easily. By contrast, terrorist groups whose agendas reflect those of systematically oppressed populations — such as Palestinian Arabs, Sri Lankan Tamils, or Northern Ireland Catholics — are far more difficult to control without also addressing the underlying political grievances. Osama Bin Laden and his network may be more like the latter, only on a regional scale. Indeed, with the dramatic rise of radical Islamic movements worldwide and the growing Arab diaspora, the threat is on a global scale.

As most Muslims recognize, Osama Bin Laden is certainly not an authority on Islam. He is, however, a businessman who — like any good businessman — knows how to take a popular fear or desire and use it to sell a product: in this case, anti-American terrorism. Although very few Muslims support his ideology and tactics, the grievances expressed in his manifestoes — the ongoing U.S. military presence in the Gulf, the humanitarian consequences of the U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq, U.S. support for the Israeli government, and U.S. support for autocratic Arab regimes — have widespread appeal in that part of the world. For the struggle against terrorism to be successful, the United States must redefine security from the current militarist paradigm to one that addresses the root causes. This is where a strong progressive movement must take the lead.

The so-called “terrorism experts,” like the “strategic analysts” of the cold war, are disproportionately right-wingers who have their own ideological agenda. The more narrow the focus on terrorism, the more it feeds the militarists. At the same time, simply pointing out the hypocrisy in U.S. counterterrorism policy (including U.S. support for terrorist groups over the years) is not enough. We must also offer solutions.

The Potential for Building a Movement

Support for U.S. military action is a mile wide and an inch deep. Given the nature of the threat, the vast majority of Americans believe that military action is necessary. Yet there is also a realization by many millions of Americans that Al-Qaeda was at least in part a result of a series of misguided U.S. policies over the years. Simply addressing the security aspects of terrorism, as U.S. policy currently does, is merely confronting the symptoms rather than the cause. The struggle against terrorism cannot be won until the U.S. also ceases its pursuit of policies that alienate such large segments of the international community, particularly in the Middle East and elsewhere in the third world.

The U.S. is a target of terrorists in large part due to our perceived arrogance, hypocrisy, and greed. Becoming a more responsible member of the international community will go a long way toward making the U.S. safer and ultimately stronger.

There was nothing karmic about the events of September 11. No country deserves to experience such a large-scale loss of innocent lives. Yet the willingness of Americans to recognize why some extremists might resort to such heinous acts is necessary if there is to be any hope of stopping it in the future. To raise these uncomfortable questions about U.S. foreign policy is difficult for many Americans, particularly in the aftermath of the attacks. However, doing so could not be more important or timely.

A widespread assumption is that concerned citizens must focus on electing those supportive of change if they are to change policy. While backing candidates with more enlightened views toward the U.S. role in the world certainly has its merits, history has shown that who is elected political leader is less important than what choices a well-mobilized citizenry gives those elected once they’re in office. Currently, if anything, the Democrats are somewhat to the right of the Republicans on some key Middle East policy issues. It will be hard to change the policies of the Bush administration if, for example, the majority of the Progressive Caucus and the Human Rights Caucus in the House of Representatives continue their current support for the status quo.

This can change, however. The history of U.S. foreign policy in recent decades has been shaped markedly as a result of popular demands by large numbers of people putting pressure on elected officials through congressional lobbying, legal protests, civil disobedience, and public education campaigns. The Democratic Party had a pro-Vietnam War platform and nominee from the incumbent war-making administration in 1968 only to be replaced by a strong antiwar platform and antiwar nominee in 1972. In the four years in between, there were massive antiwar mobilizations by hundreds of thousands in Washington, DC and elsewhere, as well as large-scale civil disobedience campaigns, widespread draft resistance, and other forms of opposition. Similarly, in 1980, Vice-President Walter Mondale and others in the Carter administration strongly opposed the call for a freeze in the research, testing, and development of new nuclear weapons systems; by the time he ran for president in 1984, however, Mondale was an outspoken supporter of the Freeze campaign. In the intervening four years, the Nuclear Freeze Campaign and disarmament activists mobilized grass roots initiatives across the country, including the massive 1982 protest in New York City. In 1978, Andrew Young — the African-American clergyman and former aide to Martin Luther King who served as Carter’s ambassador to the United Nations — vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for sanctions against South Africa. By 1986, the Republican-dominated Senate joined the Democratic-led House of Representatives to override a presidential veto and to impose sanctions on the apartheid state — which was instrumental in the downfall of white minority rule.

Massive protests against the U.S. military role in Central America in the 1980s forced the U.S. government to accept the Arias peace plan, which brought an end to the bloody civil wars and led to more democratic governance in a region then-dominated by dictatorial regimes. In the 1990s, a popular movement supporting self-determination for East Timor forced a reluctant Clinton administration to cut off military aid to Indonesia, playing a key role in forcing a withdrawal by Indonesian occupation forces and eventual independence.

The key to a successful peace movement in our current situation will be to build a popular movement to change Middle East policy comparable to these successful precedents. So far, such a movement has been relatively small compared to the others, which is ironic given what is at stake. As with other movements, there are elements of the far-left and others that adhere to rigid ideological models based upon little empirical information about the conflict in question, often greatly simplifying complex historical dynamics and sometimes even buying into bizarre conspiracy theories. On some Middle East issues, certain elements within the far right can infiltrate various campaigns; for example, there is often a risk of anti-Semites becoming involved in campaigns challenging U.S. policy supporting the Israeli government. However, the biggest problem has been the timidity of the peace and human rights movements to become more involved. For example, it is very unlikely that the dozens of prominent liberals who support the bombing of Iraq or military aid to Ariel Sharon’s government in Israel would do so if faced with the kind of mobilization that took place opposing U.S. policy in Central America.

Indeed, the failure of pro-peace and anti-interventionist forces to address the Middle East with the same kind of moral fervor demonstrated in campaigns regarding Southeast Asia, Central America, and Southern Africa is what has allowed the U.S. government to pursue policies that have resulted in the current crisis.

There are many opportunities for a movement for peace and justice in the Middle East to build upon existing popular movements. Those challenging the neoliberal model of globalization can observe how the economic stratification and declining access to basic needs by the Middle East’s poor majority, resulting from policies of the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization have contributed to the rise of extremist groups. Human rights campaigners can note the tendency of Islamic extremists to emerge in countries where open and nonviolent political expression is suppressed. Peace activists can emphasize how the arms trade has contributed to the militarization of the region and the resulting propensity to violence.

Public opinion polls indicating popular support for U.S. Middle East policy does not mean that most Americans support that policy. It merely means that they support what they think that policy is. Many Americans actually believe their government’s rhetoric that the United States actually supports democracy, international law, demilitarization, economic development, and Israeli-Palestinian peace. The challenge for the American peace movement is to expose the real nature of U.S. policy. Once this is done, the popular support for such a movement will already be there to mobilize the kind of resistance that has forced a change toward a more ethical foreign policy in previous conflicts. The threat from terrorism has in certain ways made this more difficult, as so many Americans have become angry and defensive about critiques of U.S. policy in the face of such violence and rage from foreign extremists. In other ways, however, the very seriousness of the threat has opened people up to learn more about the Middle East, why so many people in that part of the world might hate us, and what might be in the real security interests of the nation.

The Chinese character of “crisis” is a compound word consisting of “danger” and “opportunity.” The dangers of the current situation are obvious. No less important are the opportunities now available for those who want to change the direction of United States policy in the Middle East and work for peace and justice.


Somalia as a Military Target

The east African nation of Somalia is being mentioned with increasing frequency as a possible next target in the U.S.-led war against international terrorism. Somalia is a failed state–with what passes for the central government controlling little more than a section of the national capital of Mogadishu, a separatist government in the north, and rival warlords and clan leaders controlling most the remainder of the country. U.S. officials believe that cells of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network may have taken advantage of the absence of governmental authority to set up operation.

Before the U.S. attacks that impoverished country, however, it is important to recognize how Somalia became a possible haven for the followers of Osama bin Laden and what might result if America goes to war.

A Cold War Pawn

As one of the most homogeneous countries in Africa, many would have not predicted the chronic instability and violent divisions that have gripped Somalia in recent years. During the early 1970s, Somalia was a client of the Soviet Union, even allowing the Soviets to establish a naval base at Berbera on the strategic north coast near the entrance to the Red Sea. Somali dictator Siad Barre established this relationship in response to the large-scale American military support of Somalia’s historic rival Ethiopia, then under the rule of the feudal emperor Haile Selassie. When a military coup by leftist Ethiopian officers toppled the monarchy in 1974 and declared the country a Marxist-Leninist state the following year, the superpowers switched their allegiances–with the Soviet Union backing Ethiopia and the United States siding with the Barre regime in Somalia.

In 1977, Somalia attacked the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia in an effort to incorporate the area’s ethnic Somali population. The Ethiopians were eventually able to repel the attack with large-scale Soviet military support and 20,000 Cuban troops. Zbigniew Brzezinski, then-National Security Adviser under President Jimmy Carter, has since claimed that the conflict in this remote desert region was what sparked the end of detente with the Soviet Union and the renewal of the cold war.

From the late 1970s until just before his overthrow in early 1991, the U.S. sent hundreds of millions of dollars of arms to the Barre regime in return for the use of military facilities that had been originally constructed for the Soviets. These bases were to be used to support U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. The U.S. government ignored warnings throughout the 1980s by Africa specialists, human rights groups, and humanitarian organizations that continued U.S. support of the dictatorial Barre government would eventually plunge Somalia into chaos.

These predictions proved tragically accurate. During the nearly fifteen years of support by the U.S. and Italy, thousands of civilians were massacred at the hands of Barre’s increasingly authoritarian regime. Full-scale civil war erupted in 1988 and the repression increased still further, with clan leaders in the northern third of the country declaring independence to escape the persecution. In greatly centralizing his government’s control, Barre severely weakened traditional structures in Somali society that had kept civil order for many years. To help maintain his grip on power, Barre played different Somali clans against each other, sowing the seeds of the fratricidal chaos and mass starvation to come.

Meanwhile, by eliminating all potential rivals with a national following, a power vacuum was created that could not be filled when the regime was finally overthrown in January 1991, barely noticed outside the country as world attention was focused upon the start of the Gulf War. With the end of the cold war and with the U.S. granted new bases in the Persian Gulf countries, Somalia fell off the radar screen of U.S. foreign policy.

There is widespread understanding among those familiar with Somalia that had the U.S. government not supported the Barre regime with large amounts of military aid, he would have been forced to step down long before his misrule splintered the country. Prior to the dictator’s downfall, former U.S. Representative Howard Wolpe, then-chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa, called on the State Department to encourage Barre to step down. His pleas were rejected. “What you are seeing,” observed the congressman and former professor of African politics, “is a general indifference to a disaster that we played a role in creating.”

A U.S. diplomat who had been stationed in the Somali capital of Mogadishu acknowledged, “It’s easy to blame us for all this.” But, he argued, “This is a sovereign country we’re taking about. They have chosen to spend [U.S. military aid] that way, to hurt people and destroy their own economy.”

As the U.S. poured in more than $50 million of arms annually to prop up the Barre regime, there was virtually no assistance offered that could help build a self-sustaining economy that could feed Somalia’s people. In addition, the U.S. pushed a structural adjustment program through the International Monetary Fund that severely weakened the local agricultural economy. Combined with the breakdown of the central government, drought conditions, and rival militias disrupting food supplies, there was famine on a massive scale, resulting in the deaths of more than 300,000 Somalis, mostly children.

Humanitarian Mission Goes Awry

In November 1992, the outgoing Bush administration sent 30,000 U.S. troops–primarily Marines and Army Rangers–to Somalia, in what was described as a humanitarian mission to assist in the distribution of relief supplies that were being intercepted by armed militias without reaching the civilian populations in need. The United Nations Security Council endorsed the initiative the following month.

Many Somalis and some relief organizations were grateful for the American role. Many others expressed skepticism, noting that the famine had actually peaked that summer and the security situation was also gradually improving. As U.S. troops began arriving, the chaos limiting food shipments was constrained to a small area, with most other parts of the country functioning as relatively peaceful fiefdoms. Most food was getting through and the loss from theft was only slightly higher than elsewhere in Africa. In some cases, U.S. forces essentially dumped food on local markets, hurting indigenous farmers and creating greater food shortages over the longer term. In any case, few Somalis were involved in the decisions during this crucial period.

Most importantly for the U.S., large numbers of Somalis saw the American forces as representatives of the government that had been the major outside supporter of the hated former dictatorship. Such a foreign presence in a country that had been free from colonial rule for only a little more than three decades led to growing resentment. Contributing to these concerns was the fact that the U.S. troops arriving in Somalia were elite combat forces, and were not trained for such humanitarian missions. (Author and journalist David Halberstrom quotes the U.S. Defense Secretary telling an associate, “We’re sending the Rangers to Somalia. We are not going to be able to control them. They are like overtrained pit bulls. No one controls them.”) Shootings at U.S. military roadblocks became increasingly commonplace, and Somalis witnessed scenes of mostly white American forces harassing and shooting black countrymen.

In addition, the U.S. role escalated to include attempts at disarming some of the warlords, resulting in armed engagements, often in crowded urban neighborhoods. This “mission creep” resulted in American casualties, creating growing dissent at home in what had originally been a widely supported foreign policy initiative. The thousands of M-16 rifles sent, courtesy of the American taxpayer, to Barre’s armed forces were now in the hands of rival militiamen who had not only used them to kill their fellow countrymen and to disrupt the distribution of relief supplies, but were now using them against American troops. Within the U.S. ranks, soldiers were heard repeating the slogan, “The only good Somali is a dead Somali.” It had become apparent that the U.S. had badly underestimated the resistance.

In May 1993, the U.S. transferred the failing mission to the UN. This was the first time the world body had combined peacekeeping, peace enforcement, and humanitarian assistance, as well as the first time the UN had intervened without a formal invitation by a host government (because there wasn’t any.) Within Somalia there was little trust of the United Nations, particularly since the UN Secretary General at that time was Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a major supporter of Barre when he led Egypt’s foreign ministry.

Even though the UN was technically in control, U.S. forces went on increasingly aggressive forays, including a major battle in Mogadishu that resulted in the deaths of 18 Marines and hundreds of Somali civilians, dramatized in the highly fictionalized thriller Black Hawk Down. The U.S.-led UN forces had become yet another faction in the multisided conflict. Largely retreating to fixed position, the primary American mission soon became protecting its own forces. With mounting criticism on Capitol Hill from both the left and the right, President Bill Clinton withdrew American troops in March 1994. The UN took its last peacekeeping forces out one year later.

The U.S. intervention in Somalia is now widely considered to have been a fiasco. It is largely responsible for the subsequent U.S. hesitation around such so-called humanitarian intervention (outside of high-altitude bombing.) It was the major factor in the tragic U.S. refusal to intervene–either unilaterally or through the UN–to prevent the genocide in Rwanda during the spring of 1994.

The Coming Debacle

Most likely, the Somalia intervention was an another ill-advised assertion of well-meaning liberal internationalism in U.S. foreign policy. But there may have been other factors prompting the American decision to intervene as well: perhaps as a rationalization for increased military spending despite the end of the cold war, perhaps as an effort to mollify the Islamic world for American overkill in the war against Iraq and the inaction against the massacres of Muslims in Bosnia, and/or perhaps as a preemptive operation against possible Islamic extremists rising out of the chaos. If the latter was the goal, it may have backfired. Islamic radicals were able to find some willing recruits among the Somalis, already upset by the U.S. support for Barre, now with additional anger at the impact of direct U.S. military intervention in their country.

In subsequent years, there has been only marginal progress toward establishing any kind of widely recognized national government. Somalia is still divided into fiefdoms run by clan leaders and warlords, though there is rarely any serious fighting. Some officials in the current Bush administration believe that Al-Qaeda has established an important network or cells within this factious country.

If this is indeed the case, it begs the question as to how the U.S. should respond. It is possible that U.S. forces could obtain highly accurate intelligence that would allow them to pinpoint and take out the cells without once again becoming embroiled in messy urban counterinsurgency warfare, like that of 1993-94, or relying on air strikes in heavily populated areas, resulting in large-scale civilian casualties. Based on recent history, however, this is rather doubtful. The result of renewed U.S. military intervention in Somalia, then, could be yet another debacle that would only encourage the extremist forces America is trying to destroy.

Recommended Citation:
Stephen Zunes, “Somalia as a Military Target” (Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, January 11, 2002)

Redefining Security in the Face of Terrorism (PDF)

The tragic events of September 11, 2001 have created unprecedented challenges for those who traditionally have been critical of U.S. military intervention and have allied themselves with the peace movement. For the first time in the lives of most Americans, the United States has found i tself under attack….

For a PDF of the entire document, click here.

International Terrorism

Key Points

* The massive terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have placed the threat of terrorism on the front burner and have exposed the failure of the U.S. government to protect its citizens.

* The U.S. is using the threat of terrorism to justify a series of controversial policies, including tougher immigration laws, high military and intelligence budgets, and restrictions on civil liberties.

* Terrorism is rooted in political problems requiring political solutions and necessitating a major reevaluation of U.S. foreign policy as a whole.

Recent U.S. presidents have claimed that international terrorism is a major threat to this country’s national security and that the war against terrorism should be a major focus of U.S. foreign policy. This appeared to many observers to be hyperbole until the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

Despite a great deal of attention from the highest levels of government in recent years, when the attacks occurred, Washington was not ready, and there appeared to be little coherency in actual policy. As recently as 1998, Richard Davis of the General Accounting Office reported, “There does not seem to be any overall strategy to guide how we’re spending money on counterterrorism” and, despite congressional eagerness to fund such efforts, there seems to be “no oversight, no priorities, no strategy, and much duplication.” The multibillion-dollar blank check given to the Bush administration to combat terrorism in the wake of the September 11 catastrophe raises fresh questions about how wisely such resources will be spent. Indeed, the fight against terrorism has been the justification for a series of controversial policies, including tougher immigration laws, high military and intelligence budgets, restrictions on civil liberties, sanctions against “rogue” states suspected of harboring terrorists, and arms shipments and training programs for repressive governments abroad.

Successive U.S. administrations have been criticized for using an overly narrow definition of terrorism–the killing of noncombatants by individuals or small groups of irregulars–while ignoring the usually more widespread killings of equally innocent people by sanctioned organs of recognized states. Indeed, the U.S. has supported and continues to support governments that have engaged in widespread terrorism against their own populations. Furthermore, the U.S. has refused to cooperate fully in efforts to prosecute state terrorists–such as Chilean General Augusto Pinochet–when attempts are made to bring them to justice, and the Bush administration has opposed creation of the International Criminal Court.

Even using the more restricted definition of the term, however, the U.S. has demonstrated a propensity to ignore its own role in encouraging terrorism both as a reaction to its foreign policies and even, at times, as a direct tool in the implementation of its policies. Related to this double-standard is the ongoing U.S. support of the governments of Colombia, Turkey, and various Middle Eastern allies guilty of terrorism on a large scale by military, intelligence, or paramilitary units. Indeed, as the largest supplier of arms to the third world, and to the Middle East in particular, the U.S. provides potential terrorists easy access to weapons.

In recent decades, Washington has sponsored terrorist attacks and assassinations, either directly or through intermediaries. In the 1960s, right-wing Cuban exiles were organized by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to conduct a series of attacks inside Cuba that resulted in widespread civilian casualties. During the 1980s, the U.S. similarly organized, armed, and trained right-wing Nicaraguan exiles into an armed force that engaged in widespread attacks against civilian targets inside Nicaragua, resulting in the deaths of thousands.

Sometimes these U.S.-trained terrorists have subsequently used the skills and weapons they acquired against the interests of their trainers, as in the case of some supporters of the anti-Soviet Afghan resistance. Osama bin Laden and many of his followers were initially trained by the U.S. CIA in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan during the 1980s.

And double-standards have greatly hindered Washington’s effectiveness in gaining international support and cooperation in the struggle against terrorism. Indeed, such hypocrisy raises the question of whether the U.S. is really opposed to terrorism in general or just to terrorism when it targets America and its allies.

There is nothing inherent in Islamic, Middle Eastern, Irish, Basque, or any other tradition that spawns terrorism. Terrorism by nonstate actors is primarily the weapon of the politically weak or frustrated–those who are (or believe themselves to be) unable to exert their grievances through conventional political or military means. However illegitimate terrorism may be, the political concerns that spawn such violence often have a reasonable basis. Effective intelligence, interdiction, and certain conventional counterterrorism efforts do have their place. But terrorism’s roots are political, so ending the problem is at least as much a political issue as a security issue.

Problems with Current U.S. Policy

Key Problems

* Retaliatory strikes against suspected terrorist targets are strategically ineffective and invite further retaliation from terrorists.

* Unilateral military actions are illegal under international law and often result in civilian casualties.

* The fact that the U.S. itself has sponsored terrorist attacks undercuts its credibility in trying to combat terrorism.

U.S. foreign policy toward international terrorism has been far too focused on military solutions. Though air strikes have played well with the American public, because they give the impression that Washington is taking decisive action to strike back at terrorists, in reality, the U.S. war against terrorism has often taken the form of foreign policy by catharsis.

Surgical air strikes may make sense in wartime, when the targets are heavy equipment, lethal weaponry, communications centers, and large concentrations of armed forces. But “terrorist bases” generally contain none of these. As a result, such air raids make little sense strategically.

In addition, targeting terrorist bases, which are often near populated areas, risks casualties among innocent civilians. In 1986, for instance, the U.S. bombed two Libyan cities in retaliation for suspected Libyan involvement in a terrorist attack at a Berlin discotheque in which two American GIs were killed. More than 60 civilians were killed in the retaliatory bombing, including Libyan leader Muammar Qadaffi’s baby daughter.

Often such air strikes are based on faulty intelligence, such as the April 1993 bombing of a Baghdad neighborhood in reaction to an unsubstantiated allegation of an Iraqi assassination attempt against former President Bush. Likewise, in August 1998 the U.S. bombed a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant, claiming it was a chemical weapons plant controlled by Osama bin Laden. The Clinton administration subsequently refused to release the supposed evidence prompting these strikes or to allow independent investigations by the United Nations.

Rather than curbing terrorism, such strikes often escalate the cycle of violence, as terrorists seek further retaliation. In 1988, Libyan agents allegedly blew up a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, in retaliation for the U.S. strikes against Libyan cities. Meanwhile Libyans, Iraqis, Palestinians, and other peoples victimized by U.S. bombing raids are likely to become more hostile toward the U.S. and more sympathetic to terrorists.

There are serious legal questions as well. International law prohibits the use of armed force except when a nation is under direct attack. The U.S. claims that Article 51 of the UN Charter allows such military actions, but Article 51 deals only with self-defense; neither retaliatory strikes nor preemptive strikes are included. The Bush administration has interpreted the Security Council resolution condemning the September 11 attack as authorizing U.S. military retaliation. The resolution, however, lists steps the international community must take collectively to combat terrorism.

Another problem with U.S. policy is that Washington has itself sponsored international terrorism. Recently declassified U.S. documents reveal that in 1970, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger authorized a kidnapping that resulted in the death of the chief of Chile’s armed forces. And the most serious single bombing attack against a civilian target in the modern Middle East was the March 1985 blast in a suburban Beirut neighborhood, killing 80 people and wounding 200 others. The attack was ordered by CIA Director William Casey and was approved by President Reagan as part of an unsuccessful effort to assassinate an anti-American Lebanese cleric. Such actions have given Washington’s crusade against terrorism less credibility in much of the world.

Still another problem has been the politicization of the terrorism issue. For example, Syria and Cuba remain on the State Department’s list of terrorist states, despite Washington’s admission that it has found no evidence of terrorist involvement by either of those countries in more than a decade. More revealing still is the U.S. offer to drop such labels, which would allow for certain sanctions to be lifted, if the governments acquiesce to U.S. demands in unrelated policy areas. Similarly, some Palestinian groups have been labeled “terrorists” simply for opposing the U.S.-sponsored peace process, even though they have renounced terrorism and have limited their targets to uniformed Israeli occupation forces in the occupied territories, a response recognized as legitimate under international law.

U.S. double-standards also extend to the issue of extradition and sanctions. For example, Washington successfully pressured the United Nations to impose strict sanctions against Libya for its initial refusal to extradite two of its agents implicated in the Lockerbie bombing. But the U.S. has refused to extradite individuals–all of whom have ties to the CIA–charged with acts of terrorism in Venezuela and Costa Rica, including blowing up a Cuban airliner in 1976.

Toward a New Foreign Policy

Key Recommendations

* America needs to make effective internal security measures a higher priority, but it must avoid sweeping reforms that unduly curb civil liberties or target particular ethnic groups.

* Washington should support international conventions and institutions intended to help track, punish, and prevent terrorism and to curb the trade in small arms and chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and materials.

* The U.S. needs to cooperate with the United Nations and other multilateral agencies to be effective in combating global terrorism.

Although there is no foolproof set of policies that will protect the U.S. and its interests from terrorists, there are several policy shifts that would likely reduce the frequency and severity of terrorist strikes. The September 11 attacks represent a massive U.S. intelligence failure. There needs to be a rapid, thorough, and independent investigation into why the CIA and FBI failed to detect these terrorist networks, including their operations inside the United States. However, lifting the prohibition on CIA assassinations and its use of “unsavory” characters is likely, as happened in the past, to increase subsequent terrorist acts by U.S.-financed operatives. Loosening controls on wire taps and other forms of domestic surveillance, without first fully unraveling the network behind the terrorist attacks, violates basic civil liberties, could unfairly target certain groups, and may not successfully curb terrorist activities.

Airport security, however, should be nationalized, and security officers must be better trained and better paid. Currently, airport security has been the responsibility of the airlines and–in order to boost profits–has been contracted to outside security companies.

Given that terrorism is an international problem, it needs international solutions. This means vigorously and collaboratively pursuing diplomatic, investigative, and international police channels to identify, track down, arrest, and bring to justice members of terrorist cells. Precipitous and inappropriate military action could make many nations reluctant to cooperate in antiterrorism efforts, particularly in the Middle East, where support is crucial in hunting down terrorists hiding in that area.

Although the Bush administration needs international collaboration to effectively combat terrorism, it has set a dangerous precedent in weakening or walking away from a series of international treaties. Washington should support international conventions and institutions intended to help trace, punish, and prevent terrorism, including the International Criminal Court, tighter controls on money laundering, and curbs on small arms. In addition, the U.S. must work with other nations to support treaties curbing chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and materials, so that such weapons do not fall into the hands of terrorist networks or states that harbor these networks.

More fundamentally, the U.S. must recognize that terrorist cells that are not state-created or state-financed and that may claim religious sanction are generally bred by social isolation and political or economic desperation. These root causes must be addressed for antiterrorism efforts to have any chance of success. Crafting a Middle East policy based on the promotion of human rights, international law, and sustainable development rather than on arms transfers, support for occupation armies and dictatorial governments, air strikes, and punitive sanctions would probably make the U.S. a lot safer.

The tactics of terrorists can never be justified. But the most effective weapons in the war against terrorism are measures that lessen the likelihood for the U.S. and its citizens to become targets. This means changing policies that victimize vulnerable populations. Such victims often hold the U.S. responsible for their suffering and thus become easy recruits for anti-American terrorism.

For example, Osama bin Laden’s key grievances–U.S. support for the Israeli occupation, its ongoing military presence on the Arabian Peninsula, the humanitarian consequences of the sanctions against Iraq, and support for corrupt Arab dictatorships–have resonance among the majority of the world’s Muslims. Very few Muslims support terrorism of any kind. Yet as long as there is such widespread hostility to Washington’s Middle East policy, it will not be difficult for terrorists to find willing recruits.

A related and essential policy change is the need to distinguish between fringe groups–such as bin Laden’s network–whose primary function is inflicting violence against innocent people, and popular, multifaceted organizations that also contain a terrorist component. In dealing with the former, aggressive measures may be appropriate, whereas a broader and more nuanced strategy is more appropriate in relating to the latter. And a careful distinction must be made between state-sponsored terrorist groups, which receive sanctuary without direct state support, and those that operate via independent, often international, networks. Confronting each requires a different strategy.

Finally, Washington needs to shift away from supporting irregular groups that may be prone to terrorism. Many of the world’s most notorious current terrorists once received training from the CIA as part of U.S. efforts to undermine leftist governments in Cuba, Nicaragua, or Afghanistan. Any direct involvement in acts of terrorism by any branch of the U.S. military, intelligence agencies, or any other part of the U.S. government must not be tolerated.

Simply addressing the security aspects of terrorism, as current U.S. policy does, will merely focus on the symptoms rather than the cause. The struggle against terrorism cannot be won until Washington also ceases its pursuit of policies that alienate such large segments of the international community, particularly in the Middle East and elsewhere in the third world.

The U.S. is a target of terrorists in large part due to its perceived arrogance, hypocrisy, and greed. Becoming a more responsible member of the international community will go a long way toward making the U.S. safer and ultimately stronger.


Don’t Bomb Afghanistan

It appears that the United States is preparing for a major military strike against Afghanistan. There is no question that the United States needs to respond forcefully to bring the perpetrators of last week’s terrorist attack to justice and to prevent future attacks. A large-scale military action against that country, however, would be a big mistake.

We are not fighting a government with clear fixed targets, such as command and control centers, intelligence headquarters or major military complexes. A loose network of terrorist cells does not have the kind of tangible assets that can be seriously crippled by military strikes.

The Taliban regime in Afghanistan has given Bin Laden and his supporters sanctuary, but this is not a typical case of state-backed terrorism. As a result of Bin Laden’s personal fortune and elaborate international network, he does not need and apparently has not received direct financial or logistical support from the Afghan government. Destroying government resources in Afghanistan, therefore, will not in any way cripple Bin Laden and his cohorts.

The Afghan people are the first and primary victims of the Taliban, perhaps the most totalitarian regime on Earth. It would be a tragedy to victimize them still further through a large-scale military operation which would almost certainly lead to widespread civilian casualties. The Taliban’s lack of concern for their own people is already evident as is the Afghan people’s hatred for but inability to challenge this reactionary theocracy.

Mass military action would not only fail to change their policy but it would punish the wrong people, who have already suffered through a 23-year nightmare of communist dictatorship, foreign invasion, civil war, competing war lords and fundamentalist rule.

Indeed, attempting to destroy the country’s infrastructure would do little good. It has already been done.

Should the United States bomb Kabul or other Afghan cities, Taliban leaders would likely escape harm in their bunkers or in remote mountain outposts. The deaths of civilians would likely strengthen support for the regime and even Bin Laden himself, as people under attack tend to rally around their flag.

A ground invasion, as the Soviets learned all too well in the 1980s, would put the United States in an unwinnable counter-insurgency war in a hostile terrain against a people with a long history of resisting outsiders.

In addition, large-scale military strikes would put the United States in violation of international law, since the use of military force is legitimate only for self-defense, not for retaliation.

By contrast, a limited attack against suspected terrorists — involving small commando units, Special Forces, SWAT team-style operations — could bring those responsible to justice and break up the terrorist cells, which could commit attacks in the future yet not create the backlash a more blunt use of force would create.

To fight international terrorism requires international cooperation. The United States needs the active support of Muslim countries to track down and break up Bin Laden’s terrorist cells, which exist well beyond the borders of Afghanistan. Precipitous military action could threaten the unity needed to deal with this very real threat. A large-scale military response would also distract world attention away from the crimes of this past Tuesday where it belongs and onto the appropriateness or inappropriateness of the American attack.

There is an enormous irony if the United States goes to war against the Taliban government of Afghanistan, given that the U.S. played a major role in bringing these Islamic extremists to power. Indeed, the Central Intelligence Agency trained Bin Laden and many of his followers in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan during the 1980s. One of the reasons that he has such a far-flung multinational network is that the CIA actively recruited radical Muslims from throughout Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa to join the Afghan mujahadin in their fight against Soviet forces and their puppet regime in Kabul.

If there is any logic to the terrorists’ madness, it is to have the United States over-react and turn large segments of the Islamic world against the West. To launch a major military operation against Afghanistan would play right into Osama bin Laden’s hands.


Dangerous Times for U.S. Foreign Policy

The tragic events of September 11 have brought out both the best of America and the worst of America. The former is represented by the heroism of the rescuers, the thousands of people lining up to donate blood and the response of the religious community through prayer vigils and memorial services. The latter is represented by the jingoism, militarism and xenophobia exhibited from the street to the talk shows.

Early indications are that U.S. foreign policy in the aftermath of the attacks is going to be most effected by the latter.

It appears there is bipartisan support for dramatically-increased military spending, despite the fact that most of the proposed increases have nothing to do with counter-terrorism. Indeed, it is questionable whether large-scale military responses can even have much impact on a loose network of terrorist cells.

Leading Democrats in Congress have hinted they would drop their opposition for Bush’s highly-controversial Nuclear Missile Defense plan and support reneging the SALT I treaty. This comes despite the fact that Tuesday’s attack demonstrated that those intent on killing large numbers of Americans have many more effective means at their disposal than launching missiles.

This Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — with bipartisan support — approved the nomination of John Negroponte as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Ironically, Negroponte is known as a strong supporter of terrorism as a political weapon: as U.S. ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s, he actively backed and covered up for the atrocities of U.S.-backed Nicaraguan contras and Honduran death squads.

Today, in the Middle East, the U.S. backs an occupying Israeli army as well as corrupt Arab dictatorships, which kill innocent civilians using weapons provided by the United States. Both the Bush Administration and Congressional Democrats justify supporting these repressive governments in the name of defending our strategic interests in that important region. Ironically, it is just such policies which may have provoked these terrorist attacks, inevitably raising the question as to whether our security interests are really enhanced through such militarization.

Now it appears that, despite this, U.S. support for the Israeli occupation and for the corrupt family dictatorships of the Gulf and other authoritarian Arab regimes will only increase.

We need to re-evaluate our definition of security. The more the U.S. militarizes the Middle East, the less secure we have become. All the sophisticated weaponry, all the brave fighting men and women, and all the talented military leadership we may possess will not stop terrorism as long as our policies cause millions of people to hate us.

President George W. Bush is wrong when he claims we are targeted because we are a “beacon for freedom.” We are targeted because the support of freedom is not part of our policy in the Middle East, which has instead been based upon alliances with repressive governments. If the United States supported a policy based more on human rights, international law and sustainable development and less on arms transfers, air strikes and punitive sanctions, we would be a lot safer. However, the bipartisan reaction in Washington in the wake of the terrorist attacks appears to be just the opposite.

Instead of focusing on further militarization, we need to focus upon improved intelligence and interdiction. Instead of lashing out against perceived hostile communities, we need to re-evaluate policies which lead to such anger and resentment. Instead of continuing the cycle of violence, we need to recognize that America’s greatest strength is not in our weapons of destruction, but in the fortitude, the caring and the noble values of its people.


U.S. Shouldn’t Fight Violence With Violence

Terrorism is not rational, but an emotive reaction by frustrated and angry people. Yet the common reaction to terrorism is often no less rational, no less a reaction by a frustrated and angry people.

It would behoove this great nation not to respond to yesterday’s terrorist attack on America in ways that would restrict civil liberties, particularly if the terrorists are from an immigrant community. Already, analogies are being drawn to Pearl Harbor, which resulted in the internment of tens of thousands of loyal U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry.

It is also important that the United States not retaliate militarily in a blind dramatic matter, as has been done in the past. In 1997, in retaliation for the terrorist attacks of two U.S. embassies in Africa, the United States bombed a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that supplied more than half the antibiotics and vaccines for that impoverished country. The Clinton administration falsely claimed it was a chemical weapons plant controlled by an exiled Saudi terrorist.

In 1986, the United States bombed two Libyan cities, killing scores of civilians, in response to the bombing of a West German discotheque that killed American servicemen. Though the United States claimed it would curb Libyan-backed terrorism, Libyan intelligence operatives ended up blowing up a U.S. airliner in retaliation.

Military responses usually result only in a spiral of violent retaliation. Similarly, simply bombing other countries after the fact will not protect lives. Indeed, it will likely result in what Pentagon planners euphemistically call “collateral damage,” i.e., the deaths of civilians just as innocent as those killed in New York City. And survivors bent on revenge.

Today, in the Middle East, the United States backs an occupying Israeli army as well as corrupt autocratic Arab dictatorships, which kill innocent civilians using weapons our government supplies. We justify supporting these repressive governments in the name of defending our strategic interests in that important region. Ironically, it is just such policies that may have provoked these terrorist attacks, inevitably raising the question as to whether our security interests are really enhanced through such militarization.

Even when the United States puts itself forward as a peacemaker, as with the Camp David accords that led to the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979, it may look very different to those in the region.

Indeed, not only did it avoid resolving the Palestinian question – the key to peace in the Middle East – but the accords more closely resembled a tripartite military pact than a real peace agreement in that it resulted in tens of billions of dollars worth of additional American armaments flowing into that already overly militarized region.

It is no coincidence that terrorist groups have arisen in an area where the world’s one remaining superpower puts far more emphasis on weapons shipments and air strikes than on international law or human rights and even blocks the United Nations from sending human rights monitors or enforcing its own resolutions against an ally.

Nor is it surprising that that superpower would eventually find itself on the receiving end of a violence backlash.

Similarly, it is not surprising that in the Middle East and other parts of the world that have suffered violence, some people have the perverse reaction of celebrating that the United States has now also experienced such a massive and violent loss of life on its own soil.

These tragedies remind us of the need to focus not on unworkable missile defense projects but instead on improved intelligence and interdiction.

Instead of continuing the cycle of violence, we need to re-evaluate policies that lead to such anger and resentment.

Instead of lashing out against perceived hostile communities, we need to recognize that America’s greatest strength is not in our weapons of destruction, but the fortitude and caring of its people.