Of Terrorism and Terrorists

by Harvey Asher, Ph.D. on June 14, 2013

in COLUMNS, POLITICS

fawkes masks retouchIn his recent address on foreign policy, published in the New York Times on May 23, President Obama announced that fundamental changes were called for in the assumptions that have kept the United States at war for more than a decade, during which time 7,000 soldiers have made the ultimate sacrifice and we have “spent well over a trillion dollars on war, helping to explode our deficits and constraining our ability to nation-build here at home.” The policy he follows in the current Syrian bloodbath, where more than 70,000 people have been killed, mostly by government forces, will test whether the president’s words are matched by his actions.

In his speech, Obama rejected an outlook dating from the Vietnam War, one which he more or less followed during his first administration. According to international affairs expert William Pfaaf, (The Irony of Manifest Destiny, 2010), this outlook featured an “inveterate American policy of direct intervention in the internal affairs of small non-Western countries, usually mistakenly believed to be victims of some global menace aimed at the U.S., countries incapable of looking after their own affairs or forging their own identities.”

In the Vietnam conflict (part civil war and part North Vietnamese invasion), the global enemy was worldwide communism, supposedly bent on limitless expansion and directed by Russia and China acting in collusion through its Viet Cong and North Vietnamese proxies. According to the containment argument, if not confronted in Southeast Asia, communist forces would reach our shores in the near future.

55,000 American deaths, a soaring national debt, the Cambodian genocide, and the communist victory subsequently cautioned the United States, at least for a little while, against large scale military intervention in what were mostly nationalist-xenophobic, ethnic and religious conflicts that posed no direct danger to our national security.

That changed after 9/11, when the Bush administration launched what he called the “war on terror.” “Terror” and “terrorism” do not exist as historical entities, but only as qualities attached to human acts. The labeling matters. Putting the focus on an amorphous, ill-defined quality distracted from a more doable objective of going after specific groups and individuals that sought to kill Americans, everywhere and anywhere, by all means possible.

The war on terror also lumped together al-Qaida and the Taliban, implying, falsely, the two were one and the same. Al- Qaida’s original goal was to get revenge for American support of a detested Saudi Arabian monarchy, which sponsored an unacceptable Wahabi interpretation of the Koran. No coincidence that Osama bin Laden was a Saudi. On the other hand, the Taliban, which the U.S. initially supported after Russia invaded Afghanistan, sought to impose its own ultra conservative reading of that holy book on its own country, Afghanistan.

Lastly, Bush’s grand vision ignored differentiations among 1.5 billion Muslims spread out over thirty countries, from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa’s Atlantic Coast to the Balkans, Turkey, and Indonesia, of whom only 20% are Arabs. Moreover, most Muslims are not, per se, anti-American; when they are, it’s usually in response to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the “collateral damage” that has befallen ordinary people.

A very small number of extremists have sought retribution by indiscriminate killings of innocent civilians, as in the train bombings in England and Spain, for the deaths and destruction in their own countries by American armed forces and allies. Such tactics came about because these groups were too small in number to win a battlefield conflict. They rationalized their conduct by pointing to the death of innocents in their own homelands as justification. (So did Timothy McVeigh, who cited the FBI assault against the Branch Davidian complex near Waco, Texas, when he blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City, causing the second largest number of Americans (168) to perish from an act of domestic terror.)

The Bush team also assumed American democratic values would be universally welcomed by all who lived under cruel and despotic regimes. In a Foreign Affairs article written in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq invasion, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asserted that “democratic state building is now an urgent component of our national interest,” and that “the democratization of Iraq and the democratization of the Middle East are linked.” This insistence on “nation building” in countries about whose histories and culture we were ignorant and dismissive was considered arrogant and condescending by their people.

In his speech, Obama called for the United States to shift its emphasis from focusing on a depleted al-Qaida to going after more localized threats so as to prevent attacks like those in Benghazi, the oil facilities in Algeria, or carried out by radicalized individuals, such as the shooter at Fort Hood who killed thirteen servicemen, and the Boston bombers, some of whom have been American citizens. Essentially he called for the reimplementation of the pre – 9/11 strategy of a “series of targeted efforts to dismantle networks of violent extremists that target America (Pfaff),” an approach in which counter-terrorism is handled primarily by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The shift would keep the USA from being drawn into wars it does not need to fight, like those in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

What Obama could not say because of the likely disastrous political consequences was that the end games in Iraq and Afghanistan will turn out badly and very badly: continued sectarian violence in semi-democratic Iraq, and war lord domination outside of Kabul, where an America-supported pervasively corrupt leadership holds sway. Such naked honesty would instigate a vast outpouring of public anger, and lead to an endless series of investigation as to what went wrong and who was responsible.

Obama is under considerable pressure to arm the rebels in Syria as their situation worsens on the battlefield, many of whom belong to unsavory groups and share in common only a desire to topple Bashar al-Assad. Senator John McCain has called for arming them and establishing no-fly zones. Others have urged putting boots on the ground, predicting that a “decisive rebel victory in Syria would constitute a major setback for Iran, since Syria…has always been Iran’s most reliable pathway to its proxy, Hezbollah.” (Ray Takeyh, May 27th, editorial, New York Times.) Most recently, Bill Clinton has come out in support of McCain’s position.

As of this writing, Obama has not given his support for either proposal. Lessons were learned from our Vietnam intervention. And forgotten. Iraq and Afghanistan have provided costly reminders. Do we need yet another wake-up call? No, but the pressure on Obama indicates we may be about to get one.

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Harvey Asher

After receiving his doctorate from Indiana University, Harvey Asher taught a variety of courses in history and interdisciplinary studies for thirty-five years at Drury University, a liberal arts school in Springfield, Missouri. His articles on themes in Russian history, American history, and the Holocaust have appeared in the Russian Review, Kritika, the Journal of Genocide Research, the Russian Dictionary, the SHARF Newsletter, Federalism in America: An Encyclopedia, and Lessons and Legacies of the Holocaust. He is also the author of The Drury Story Continues, an informal but thorough history of the school.

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