The Legacy of 9/11 and the War on Intellectuals

Ten years after 9/11, for the first time, a plurality of Americans recognizes that US policy in the Middle East played a major role in the attacks. It was not, as George W. Bush famously put it, simply because, “They hate our freedom.”

As a Middle East specialist, I engaged in scores of interviews and wrote a number of widely circulated articles in the days, weeks and months following the terrorist strikes arguing this very point.

Both out of respect for those killed and their loved ones as well as my own deep-seated feelings of anger and horror, I did not mince words regarding the perpetrators of the attacks and their supporters. I even supported the right of the United States and its allies to engage in (a limited and targeted) military response to the very real threat posed by al-Qaeda. However, I also thought that it was critical to examine what may have motivated the horrific attacks, which I found important not only in preventing future terrorism, but also to avoid policies that could further exacerbate the threat. Indeed, I barely allowed myself to grieve over the horror of 9/11 due to my fear – which ended up being tragically prescient – of the far greater terror my government would unleash on the Middle East.

My argument was that the more the United States has militarized the region, the less secure the American people had become. I noted how all the sophisticated weaponry, brave fighting men and women, and brilliant military leadership the United States possessed would do little good if there were hundreds of millions of people in the Middle East and beyond who hated us. Even though only a small percentage of the population supports Osama bin Laden’s methods, I argued, there would still be enough people to maintain dangerous terrorist networks as long as his grievances resonated with large numbers of people.

I went on to explain how, as most Muslims recognized, bin Laden was not an authority on Islam. He was, however, a businessman by training, who – like any shrewd businessman – knew how to take a popular fear or desire and use it to sell a product: in this case, anti-American terrorism. The grievances expressed in his manifestos – the ongoing US military presence in the Gulf, the humanitarian consequences of the US-led sanctions against Iraq, US support for the Israeli government and US backing of autocratic Arab regimes – had widespread appeal in that part of the world. I quoted British novelist John le Carre’s observation that, “What America longs for at this moment, even more that retribution, is more friends and fewer enemies.”

I reiterated how there was nothing karmic about the events of 9/11, but that history had demonstrated how the United States did not become a target for terrorists because of its values, as President Bush and others claimed, but because it had strayed from its values of freedom, democracy and rule of law in implementing its policies in the Middle East. Furthermore, I argued that a policy based more on the promotion of human rights, international law, and sustainable development, and less on arms transfers, air strikes, punitive sanctions, and support for occupation armies and dictatorial governments, would make Americans a lot safer.

I repeatedly emphasized that, whatever the failings of a government in its foreign policy, no country deserves to experience such a large-scale loss of innocent lives as the United States experienced on 9/11. Yet, I also stressed that the hope of stopping extremists who might resort to such heinous acts in the future rested in part on the willingness of Americans to recognize what gave rise to what veteran journalist Robert Fisk described as “the wickedness and awesome cruelty of a crushed and humiliated people.” To raise these uncomfortable questions about US foreign policy was difficult for many Americans, particularly in the aftermath of the attacks. Indeed, many were afraid to ask the right questions because they feared the answers. Still, I was convinced that it could not have been more important or timely.

Raising such questions was not popular, however. Detectives investigating a crime trying to establish a motive are generally not accused of defending the criminals. Fire inspectors inspecting the ruins of a building for the cause of the blaze are not accused of defending its destruction. Yet I found myself, along with scores of other Middle Eastern scholars, being attacked for supposedly defending terrorism.

Within a few months, I found my dossier – along with seven other professors specializing in the Middle East – compiled by Campus Watch, a project of the right-wing Middle East Forum, led by the Islamaphobic intellectual and occasional Bush administration adviser Daniel Pipes. The list of “anti-American” professors who had the audacity to raise concerns over certain US policies also included some of the top scholars in the field, including John Esposito at Georgetown, Joel Beinin at Stanford, Ian Lustick at the University of Pennsylvania, Rashid Khalidi of the University of Chicago and the late Edward Said at Columbia.

Rarely able to respond effectively to specific arguments by scholars of the Middle East regarding the negative political, strategic, economic, legal and moral ramifications of US policy in the region, supporters of US policy in the region resorted to misrepresenting our arguments to make them appear extreme, naive, cynical or simply foolish.

For example, my Campus Watch dossier included the following:

Prof. Stephen Zunes of the University of San Francisco believes that the US – a “superpower (that) puts far more emphasis on weapons shipments and air strikes than on international law” – is almost entirely to blame for Sept. 11.

The phrase “is almost entirely to blame for Sept. 11” was not in quotation marks because I never said that. The complete quote – which I had written in an op-ed column for the Baltimore Sun the day after the attacks – referred to the well-documented link between militarization and terrorism, arguing that:

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.

Various manifestations of this Campus Watch claim that I had said that 9/11 was “our fault” soon made its way to Fox News, MSNBC, radio talk shows throughout the nation and even into my short biographical entry in Wikipedia.

Soon thereafter, a number of my speaking invitations were rescinded. For example, I received a last-minute cancellation of my scheduled presentation on international law at the Arizona Bar Association’s annual convention, which had been scheduled six months earlier, following the director and his board of governors being told I was “anti-American.” Even though none of them bothered to read my prepared remarks, they banned me from speaking on the grounds that their rules forbid presentations that were “ideological in nature.”

Attacks against intellectuals who raised questions about the relationship between US policy and the rise of Islamist extremism went beyond simply misrepresenting our views, but portraying such scholars as having a radically different mindset, a radically different worldview or a radically different lifestyle than ordinary Americans. As a result, they could portray our analysis as being the result of a calculated ideological agenda or the distorted perspective emanating from a perverse subculture. Not surprisingly, virtually all the assumptions about me in the angry emails appearing in my Inbox – which inevitably followed an appearance on a talk show or the publication of an op-ed column – are false.

For example, for opposing the Bush administration’s response to 9/11, I was accused of: being a partisan Democrat (I am not a registered Democrat; I never voted for Clinton; and I was an outspoken opponent of Clinton’s foreign policy); being on the public payroll (I work at a private Catholic college and have never received a paycheck from any government entity); having the views I do because I’m from San Francisco (I was born and raised in North Carolina as the son of a small-town minister); never having done any “real work” (I spent most of my twenties in a series of low-paying blue collar jobs); being Muslim, Jewish, atheist, Arab, Communist, Nazi or gay (none of the above); and that I sip lattes (I prefer my coffee black).

Another strategy against professors critical of Bush’s “war on terror” was to raise the concerns of parents over the kind of education their children were receiving in the hopes of getting nervous admissions officers and other administrators to silence us. One tactic used was to convince the public that what a professor might write in an op-ed column or say in a public debate on the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 was identical to what the professor was “telling his students.” Not only did this issue only rarely came up in the scores of lectures I give every semester, the approach a professor takes to such a topic in a classroom is very different in both style and substance to what he or she may take as a citizen activist or political analyst. As editorial writers or media pundits, we are expected to put forward our personal opinions in a forceful manner. As a classroom teacher, by contrast, we are expected to present a broad and comprehensive scholarly overview of the subject matter appropriate for the level of the students, and to present various contending interpretations of the issues at hand. I know of very few professors of any ideological persuasion who fail to recognize that distinction.

This did not stop right-wing commentators from conflating these two distinct roles in an attempt to goad university administrators into attempting to rid their campuses of professors who expressed concerns about US policy, even if it was limited to forums outside of the classroom. For example, in a nationally broadcast talk show on Fox News, host Sean Hannity claimed that Campus Watch was doing “American parents a favor” by citing “the extreme left-wing agenda like Mr. Zunes” so that parents, “when they’re making decisions about whether or not to send their kids to Mr. Zunes’ college like the University of San Francisco, they’ll have at least some knowledge of where these people that will be educating their children are coming from.”

Being tenured at a university with applications for admission steadily growing every year, I was not worried about the USF administration’s response when the phone calls and emails from worried parents and alumni began pouring in in response to Hannity’s statement. No doubt Middle Eastern scholars in a less secure situation, however, had to think twice about publicly raising questions about US policy in the region.

Perhaps more disturbingly, the attacks on Middle Eastern scholars were not limited to individuals who raised concerns over the Bush administration’s policies, but the entire field of study. For example, Martin Kramer of the right-wing Washington Institute for Near East Policy argued in his book, “Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America,” that, “The field is pervaded by hostility to American aims, interests, and power in the Middle East, and peopled by tenured radicals.”

Regional specialists, given our unique understanding of parts of the world which few policymakers know firsthand, can play an invaluable role in the foreign policy sphere. Middle East scholars from across the ideological spectrum were almost uniformly opposed to a US invasion of Iraq and other Bush administration policies post-9/11 because we had a good sense of the tragic consequences that would likely result. And yet, like Southeast Asia scholars 40 years earlier, who forewarned the tragedy that would unfold by a US war in Vietnam, we were ridiculed and ignored and found our loyalty to our country questioned.

The United States, like other great powers, has made many tragic mistakes in its foreign policy, but never have the stakes been higher. Whatever crimes our government has committed in the past in Central America or Southeast Asia, no Nicaraguans or Vietnamese ever flew airplanes into buildings. By attacking the credibility of Middle East specialists who understand the dangerous ramifications of US policy, it is the right – not the left – which is endangering our national security.

Indeed, my decision to become a more public intellectual following the 9/11 tragedy was motivated by my understanding of how US policy in the Middle East was putting all of us in danger, and by my desire to do my part to make America safer.

In the months leading up to the October 2002 vote authorizing the invasion of Iraq, I provided extensive material to a number of Congressional offices of prominent Democrats raising serious questions regarding the administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein had somehow reconstituted his “weapons of mass destruction” and offensive delivery systems, or that he had operational ties to al-Qaeda. I also provided these offices and committee staff with what later proved to be rather prescient predictions of the disaster that would result from a US invasion and occupation. I later learned that a number of these offices failed to take my arguments seriously and successfully resisted requests that I be allowed to testify before relevant Congressional committees because they had heard I was “extreme” and “far left” in my views.

Attacks against scholars raising critical concerns in the post-9/11 era did not cause most of us to lose our jobs or stop us from speaking out. However, it did cause political leaders, journalists and millions of ordinary citizens to not trust some of the country’s most critical intellectual resources in formulating policies in the subsequent decade. As the wars continue in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond, and as anti-Americanism in the Middle East reaches an all-time high, the consequences of these efforts are tragically clear.

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)

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.