Tough Talk May Backfire
By Robert Jensen
with Rahul Mahajan
Published in Counterpunch · October, 2001
[This article also appeared as “Tough talk won’t solve problem of terrorism” in Newsday, October 3, 2001, pp. A-43, 45.]
Although tough talk from the president may seem reassuring, the Bush administration’s confrontational posture is likely to exacerbate the threat of terrorist attacks.
The diplomatic ultimatum — “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists” — is alienating existing and potential allies, and feeding into resentment of American unilateralism. Since the bombing of Iraq in 1998 and the Kosovo war, Europeans have complained about the United States’ cowboy diplomacy — with the French inventing the term “hyperpower” to describe America’s disquieting role in the world. In the Middle East, resentment of U.S. policy has grown steadily since the Gulf War.
Despite the Defense Department’s dumping of the name “Infinite Justice” and Bush’s apology for use of the term “crusade,” there is an air of Christian fundamentalism in the enterprise. This makes life even harder for governments in the Islamic world — already caught in a difficult position between increasingly militant populations with substantive grievances against U.S. policy and the U.S. steamroller on the other.
Bush’s declaration that we will target not only bin Laden’s terrorist network but all terrorist organizations of “global reach,” their “support networks,” the Taliban — and all others who don’t submit to U.S. demands — is already creating new enemies. If large-scale military operations start and civilians are killed, those enemies will multiply tenfold.
Meanwhile there is talk about “freeing” the CIA to do more “human intelligence” work, which seems to forget that Osama bin Laden and other Afghan extremists are products of CIA operations in Afghanistan in the 1980s to thwart the Soviet occupation there.
Despite all the talk about a new war for the 21st century, these tactics sound distressingly familiar.
What’s one definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.
There is another path, which requires asking what we really mean by “national security.” Do we choose the meaning it has had for 56 years — essentially domination and protection of the U.S. right to have its finger in every pie? Or do we mean the physical safety of the American people in their own country?
A poll asking Americans to choose between extending U.S. power or providing for the safety of Americans likely would find an overwhelming majority choosing the latter.
Once that decision is made, our choices seem clearer.
It is natural to hate foreign domination, and the people of the Islamic world perceive that they are dominated by the United States. For the overwhelming majority of them, that hatred of domination does not translate into hatred of the United States, much less of ordinary Americans.
But that hatred of domination is what provides terrorist networks like bin Laden’s their cover. An example from Iraq is instructive. In 1988 at the end of its long, bloody war with Iran, Saddam Hussein was hated by most of the population. But 11 years of economic sanctions have dramatically increased support for Hussein, now perceived as standing up to the United States.
Similarly, any response — whether massive bombing or peremptory demands to turn over people without evidence of guilt — that is based on U.S. domination and the threat of force will give bin Laden and others like him support they otherwise could never have dreamed of.
Instead, we must say to other countries, “We will work with you to find out who is guilty. We will reconsider controversial policies of ours and submit them to the judgment of international bodies. BUT you must help us to find these people who want to kill American civilians.”
In Afghanistan nothing could shake the power of bin Laden or the Taliban more than an dramatically expanded — and non-politicized — offer to feed the people and help them rebuild their war-torn country. UN sanctions on Afghanistan have strengthened the Taliban, as they control the meager international relief available. Likewise in Iraq, economic sanctions have harmed ordinary people and reinforced the political control of Hussein’s regime.
Unfortunately, the United States is pressing for food distribution to be carried out ”in a manner that does not allow this food to fall into the hands of the Taliban,” according to Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state. The Taliban elites will not go hungry; it will be ordinary people who suffer.
The “war on terrorism” the Bush administration plans to wage will increase the chances of reprisal attacks against us. A criminal investigation, with genuine international cooperation, would dramatically decrease the threat, especially if accompanied by a change in overall U.S. foreign policy.
President Bush and his advisers know this. It is time to ask why they are not serving our primary national interest — our safety.