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The World Confronts U.S. Wars of Terrorism
Edward S. Herman
In discussing the Bush administrations war on terrorism, mainstream analysts and reporters rarely hark back to the Reagan era, which also featured a war on terrorism, with many enlightening similarities to the present. This may be because the similarities are great, even running to overlapping personnel, and because the earlier administrations policies are, in retrospect, hard to characterize as other than support of terrorism. For example, Reagan was constructively engaged with the South African apartheid government in its struggle against the African National Congress (ANC)the ANC was classified as a terrorist organization by the Pentagon in 1988; and none of the establishment experts like Clair Sterling, Walter Laqueur, or Paul Wilkinson ever called South Africa a terrorist state.
The Reagan War of Terrorism
The similarity starts with the fact that in one of the first acts of the new administration, in a press conference of January 28, 1981, Reagans then Secretary of State, Alexander Haig announced that terrorism was going to replace human rights as a central concern of U.S. foreign policy. He didnt define terrorism or human rights and the kindly media never pressed him on the issue or explored it. But the policies of the Reagan administration speak for themselves.
The Reagan team hastened to renew relations with the military government of Argentina, which was enlisted to provide training for the contra army attacking Nicaragua and the Salvadoran army, fighting its own insurgency. When the Argentine military government was overthrown in 1983, a truth commission appointed by new president Alfonsin, concluded that the terrorism brought to Argentina by the military government had been infinitely worse than the type it fought, as it utilized the power and impunity of the absolutist state, kidnapping, torturing and assassinating thousands of human beings.
The contra army attacking Nicaragua, organized, funded, and advised by the United States, specialized in attacking soft targets, the selective but systematic killing of persons they perceive as representing the government, and indiscriminate attacks on civilians (Human Rights Watch, 1987). On all definitions of terrorism that are not totally politicized [see box for some definitions] this fits the case, and the United States falls into the category of sponsor of international terrorism.
The Salvadoran army was even more notorious for the systematic murder of civilians, killing an estimated 800 a month in the year leading up to the election of March 1982, frequently mutilating the civilian victims and leaving their bodies exposed as an instruction to the general populace. It was described by Argentinian novelist Juan Corradi as a deranged killing machine. This government and army, and affiliated death squads, received the unstinting support of the Reagan administration.
The Reagan administration also tried hard to get Congress to relax restrictions on aid to the military government of Guatemala, which surpassed El Salvador in the killing and mutilating of civilians, with possibly over 100,000 murdered between 1978 and 1985. Reagan, visiting Guatemala in 1982, only a few months after an Amnesty International report described the killing of over 2,000 civilians, remarked that the president was totally committed to democracy and getting a bum rap. His Administration regularly attacked the human rights groups reporting massive state terror for allegedly supporting terrorism (i.e., the guerrilla resistance).
The Reagan administration actively supported Jonas Savimbis UNITA in Angola, which was closely allied to the apartheid government of South Africa. It openly backed the South African government, which was not only terrorizing its black population, but also funding terrorist organizations in the adjacent African states like RENAMO in Mozambique and carrying out regular cross-border incursions. Its cross-border operations created over a million refugees and are estimated to have caused the death of more than a million people in Angola and Mozambique through 1985. Reagan policy toward this government, arguably the premier terrorist state of the 1980s, was self-designated constructive engagement.
The Reagan administration also backed Israel as that country invaded Lebanon in 1982, with an estimated 15-20,000 civilian deaths, culminating in the Ariel Sharon-managed massacre of 800-3,000 Palestiniansmainly women, children, and older menat Sabra and Shatila.
The Reagan administration, and its successor Bush I administration, supported Saddam Hussein all through the 1980s, giving him loans, helping him gain access to weapons of mass destruction, and ignoring his use of chemical weapons against his Kurdish population in 1988. Saddam Hussein was also constructively engaged, until he disobeyed orders by invading Kuwait in 1990.
The Reagan administration (as well as Bush I and Clinton) also supported and encouraged Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to fund, train, and otherwise aid the Taliban and various mujahadeen groups, including Bin Laden and his al Qaeda, for a jihad against the Soviet invader of Afghanistan. This support ended temporarily when al Qaeda organized the bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, but was renewed under Bush II.
When a contra supply plane was shot down in Nicaragua in 1986, it was discovered that Luis Posada Carriles, a leading Cuban refugee terrorist who had helped organize the destruction of a Cuban civilian airliner in 1976, and had escaped from a Venezuelan prison, was now working for the Reaganites at an air base in El Salvador. The Reaganites had close and supportive relations with other members of the Cuban refugee terrorist network.
The Reagan administration did find Libya and Kadaffi guilty of terrorism, as they supported the PLO and backed other individuals and organizations declared terrorist, and they occasionally organized the assassination of one of Libyas nationals abroad. These assassination cases were actually listed in Amnesty International reports, but it has been noted that for cases such as South Africas or Israels cross-border killings, the numbers are beyond recording individual names.
The Reagan administration also found the Soviet Union guilty of supporting a terror network, by giving and (far more often) selling arms to the PLO, ANC, IRA, and Libya. As the London Economist explained (September 19, 1981), after noting that organizational links of most of these terrorists to the Soviet Union were not proven, The Soviet Union, as it were, merely puts the gun on the table and leaves others to wage a global war by proxy.
A problem with the guns on the table model is that the United States vastly exceeded the Soviet Union in putting guns on the table. In the frontispiece to The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, entitled The Sun and Its Planets, Noam Chomsky and I showed that military aid and training flowed from the United States to 26 of the 35 governments that used torture on an administrative basis in the late 1970s. What is more, in contrast with the evidence on the rationale of Soviet supply, it was easy to demonstrate that U.S. arms and training to regimes of torture was by clear and knowing design. They were being trained to align military and police personnel with U.S. interests, repress populist leaders and policies, and help create a favorable climate of investment.
Some conclusions on the Reagan-era war on terrorism are:
- By application of all the major definitions of terrorism, Reagans war was a major campaign in support of some of the worst state terrorisms of the 1980s. While attacking the Soviet Union for supplying weapons to retail terrorists, the United States was supplying weapons and giving training to a vast network of National Security States that brought a continent-wide plague of torture, death squads, and disappearances. While denouncing the PLO for its terrorist actions, the Reagan administration was supporting Savimibi in Angola, the contras in Nicaragua, and the Cuban terrorist network, including world-class terrorist Posada.
- Neither the U.S. mainstream media nor the terrorism experts found the Reagan war a war of terrorismfrom beginning to end they accepted the claim that it was a war on terrorism, despite the overwhelming facts described above.
- The operative rule for the pressand experts whose views they allow to be heardwas, and remains, terrorism is what the U.S. government says is terrorism, however bad the fit to any definition you might name. You will find, for example, that while the Alfonsin truth commission in Argentina found the military governments terrorism infinitely worse than the terrorism it was fighting, Claire Sterling and Walter Laqueur never did and the New York Times always used the word to describe the lesser terrorism; it never described the military government as terrorist despite the Alfonsin commissions conclusion. This is why a really serious war of terrorism in the Reagan years could be successfully portrayed as a war against terrorismthe media and experts were serving as an arm of government policy on this issue.
The Bush II War of Terrorism
Like Reagan, Bush II needed a war of some sort to allow him to pursue his pro-corporate, militaristic, and Christian Right agenda. Like Reagan he wanted big tax cuts for business and the wealthy, more arms for the military-industrial complex (MIC), and more access opportunities for his oil company and other transnational corporate friends and allies. Reagan had the evil empire and the mythical Soviet-based terror network, along with the demonized Kadaffi and inflated Libyan threat, to work with. Bush II had to await 9/11 and Bin Laden and his al Qaeda terror network to provide a substitute and basis for his own war on terrorism.
A major difference between the Reagan and Bush wars is that during the Reagan years the Soviet Union still existed, although weakening and trying eagerly to reach an accommodation with the United States. Hence there was a containment factor that put some limit on the U.S. use of force abroad. The collapse of the Soviet Union ended that constraint and the triumphalism that followed set the stage for U.S. regimes ready and eager to project U.S. military power more unilaterally and aggressively than before.
The Bush I and Clinton governments moved slowly along this path, Bush I attacking Panama and then insisting on crushing Iraq in the Persian Gulf war of 1991. Clinton continued the bombing and sanctions of mass destruction against Iraq, bombed the Sudan and Afghanistan, and carried out a major bombing war against Yugoslavia. As the U.S. intervention in the Balkans gathered steam, Clintons Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asked: What is the use of this superb military...if we cant use it? Furthermore, Bush I and Clinton both protected the MIC from any major budgetary contraction after the fall of the Soviet Union, whose alleged threat had justified the massive military outlays.
In contrast with the Reagan war, the Bush II declaration of war was preceded by a major terrorist attack on the United States, which shocked the government, media, and public, and which, along with the end of any Soviet containment, made possible a more rapid and large-scale response. The response was possibly even more furious by virtue of the facts, disclosed belatedly in the mainstream media, that the Bush administration had ignored numerous warnings of a possible major terrorist attack using hijacked aircraft, and that the Administration had proposed a $58 million cut in an FBI funding request for counter-intelligence personnel on September 10, 2001the day before the bombing attack.
The Bush II war was also compromised by the fact that his Administration had permitted Unocal to negotiate with the Taliban and his Administration had done the same, only dissociating itself from that baby evil empire and threatening to attack it in August 2001, when it refused to accommodate Unocal and U.S. economic demands.
The Bush II war was from the beginning not a war on terrorism but a war of aggression and wholesale terrorism against a petty tyranny that had just months before been acceptable if willing to do business. The war planners didnt try very hard to get Bin Laden and his al Qaeda top cadres, which might have been possible through negotiations and economic and political pressure on the Taliban, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden was given a months notice of the U.S. intent to attack, which would not facilitate capture or killing, and he has apparently survived the war. But the threat of U.S. bombing put thousands of starving Afghan civilians to flight even before the October 7, 2001 beginning of bombing raids and constituted a form of terrorism. Apart from the unknown numbers dead because of the threat, flight, and disruption of food supply, thousands of Afghan civilians were killed in U.S. bombing raids and many have been killed in the internecine warlord fighting deliberately unleashed in the U.S. attack. The bombing raids, often relying on unconfirmed and unreliable local information, using high altitude flights, direction by instrumentation, and high casualty weapons (cluster bombs, daisy cutters, and other heavy bombs), involved certain and therefore deliberate civilian killings under the guise of collateral damage, and constituted war criminal action as well as wholesale terrorism.
As with Reagan, the Bush II war involved a rush to closer alignment with governments willing to support administration actions, with a penchant for linkage to authoritarian and terrorist rulers. In the quid pro quo for support, these new allies were given aid and tacit approval of their own terrorism and undemocratic practices and the war has provided them with a cover for intensified terrorism and repression. Dictators Musharaff of Pakistan and Karimov of Uzbekistan were welcomed and their illegitimate authority strengthened; the right-wing government of India was encouraged to pass serious anti-civil liberties legislation and Vladimir Putin was given a cover for a more ruthless wholesale terrorism in Chechnya. In Colombia, the Bush II team rushed to increase support of a deadly army and paramilitary killers, replacing the war on drugs with the war on terrorism, and openly allocating funds for the protection of U.S. oil company pipelines in that country.
A notable parallel with the Reagan war was the unleashing of Ariel Sharon and the Israeli army on Palestinian cities and refugee camps. Bush and his team agreed with Sharon that Israel was suffering from terrorism and that its own violence was self-defense and counter-terror and Israels war, like the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, was carried out with U.S. support and protection against any international intervention. But Israels actions, designed to destroy civilian facilities and instill fear in civilians, with civilian deaths entirely acceptable collateral damage, fits all standard definitions of terrorism, including that of Benjamin Netanyahu (which mentions explicitly the aim of instilling fear). This was a major case of wholesale terrorism, integrated well into the war on terrorism.
The War on Terrorism is an open-ended war in which the Bush administration has announced its intention to project superior U.S. power across the globe, unilaterally and with a readiness to use force, to achieve its own ends and shape the world as it desires. It proclaims that if you are not with us you are against us, that there will be no toleration of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) on the part of rogues, with roguery to be determined by the Bush administration. Sharon is not a rogue and can maintain and perhaps use WMDs, but Saddam Hussein cannot (although he could when an ally before September 1990). The Bush administration has named an axis of evil, and openly plans for a war of aggression against one of them, Iraq. John Boltons declaration that Cuba had perhaps acquired WMD capability implicitly set Cuba up for destabilization or aggressive war as part of the War on Terrorism.
The Bush II war has added a new dimension to wholesale terrorism by its military plans and policies, including, among other things, its determination to pursue a National Missile Defense program, its proposed rapid buildup of new weapons, and its recently announced policy of making nuclear weapons acceptable and usable in warfare. Terrorism includes not just killing but instilling fear and these plans are all designed to help project U.S. power by producing fear of non-compliance with U.S. demands. These plans promise even more violence and terrorism because they will divert resources from human needs at home and abroad, exacerbating conflict for this reason as well as because of the effects of across- the-board militarization.
Just as in the case of Reagans War on Terrorism, the mainstream media and intellectuals have treated the Bush II war not as the war of terrorism that it is but as a genuine war on terrorism. As in the earlier case, they never define the word or check out its application to reality. This is independent of fact. The Colombian army is fighting terrorism, Putin is our ally in the war, Sharon is fighting terrorismonly retaliating and engaging in self defense, by rule of applicable propaganda principlesand Sharons earlier record at Sabra and Shatila and Qibya is in the black hole.
The system works, if we define works as adapting perfectly to the demands of state power and its propaganda needs. It fails abysmally on criteria of intellectual integrity, justice, and serving the interests of ordinary people at home and abroad. Z
Edward S. Herman is an economist, author, and media analyst. His most recent book, co-edited with Philip Hammond, is Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis (Pluto, 2000).