The war on terror: Misnamed, misfought, misthought

Sam Smith – According to the belligerently bombastic Daily Beast:

ISIS continues to gain substantial ground in Syria, despite nearly 800 airstrikes in the American-led campaign to break its grip there. At least one-third of the country’s territory is now under ISIS influence, with recent gains in rural areas that can serve as a conduit to major cities that the so-called Islamic State hopes to eventually claim as part of its caliphate. Meanwhile, the Islamic extremist group does not appear to have suffered any major ground losses since the strikes began.

At least one-third of the country’s territory is now under ISIS influence, with recent gains in rural areas that can serve as a conduit to major cities it hopes to eventually claim as part of its caliphate.

In the first two months following American airstrikes, about a million Syrians who had previously lived in areas controlled by moderates now lived in areas controlled by extremist groups al Nusra or ISIS, according to CDS, citing conversations with European diplomats who support the Syrian opposition.

If the Daily Beast had used the phrase “because of” rather than “despite” it would have been much closer to describing the situation and its context.

We haven’t seen a war close to its traditional meaning since Vietnam and even there we badly misgauged it as Ray McGovern pointed out last November:

Why was I reminded of Vietnam on Saturday when Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Iraq to “get a firsthand look at the situation in Iraq, receive briefings, and get better sense of how the campaign is progressing” against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL?

For years as the Vietnam quagmire deepened, U.S. political and military leaders flew off to Vietnam and were treated to a snow job by Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander there. Many would come back glowing about how the war was “progressing.”

Dempsey might have been better served if someone had shown him Patrick Cockburn’s article in the Independent entitled “War with Isis: Islamic militants have an army of 200,000, claims senior Kurdish leader.”

Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff of Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, told Cockburn that “I am talking about hundreds of thousands of fighters because they are able to mobilize Arab young men in the territory they have taken.”

Hussein estimated that Isis rules about one-third of Iraq and one-third of Syria with a population from 10 million to 12 million over an area of 250,000 square kilometers, roughly the size Great Britain, giving the jihadists a large pool of potential fighters to recruit.

While the Kurdish estimate may be high … the possibility that the Islamic State’s insurgency is bigger than believed could explain its startling success in overrunning the Iraqi Army…

Westmoreland insisted that the number of enemy Vietnamese in South Vietnam could not go above 299,000.

The inconvenient truth finally became abundantly clear during the Tet offensive in late January and early February 1968, but still the misbegotten war went on, and on, ultimately claiming some 58,000 U.S. lives and millions of Vietnamese.

A traditional war is, in no small part, about gaining ground, but since Vietnam the term has become hard to define because our leaders use it in whatever way seems most convenient at the moment. For example, in Iraq, our mission was accomplished – at least according to our then president – in a matter of months but we stayed there another eight years and now may be headed back. As for Afghanistan, even our publicly stated mission was far mushier, but also a failure: to dismantle Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

To understand why the world’s most powerful nation – one that spends more on its military than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, UK, Japan, India, Brazil and Turkey combined – should do so badly it helps to recognize that war today is no longer about physical conquest so much as it is about the reaction of the prospectively conquered and their allies. It is far more about anger than about acres.

And when the targets are especially poor and lacking in economic and social support, bombing their friends and relatives does little good. The Pentagon is trying to defeat those who already feel defeated and furious about it. Further, it makes these societal victims perfect conversion targets for the likes of the Taliban or ISIS. The war on terror is really a war for more terror.

In a sense, what we are seeing is the grand failure of the drug war being applied to foreign affairs, involving a massive cultural dysfunction created by our government’s action and exploited by what we would call in the case of drugs, cartels, mob leaders or drug lords.

In short, we are seeking to obtain acreage when we should be seeking to contain anger. The terminology of war serves little good and works against our stated goals.

A few scholars and journalists have noticed this. Tom Porter in the International Business Times drew some striking parallels between the war on terror and the war on drugs:

US president Barack Obama has deplored Isis’ violence and pledged to “degrade and destroy” the group, but Musa al-Gharbia, a research fellow at the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts, claims that there is a far graver threat to the US closer to home.

He points to a series of figures showing that the violence of the [drug] cartels in some cases eclipses, and in others equals that of the Islamist group.

A recent United Nations report estimated that nearly 9,000 civilians had been killed and 17,386 wounded this year in fighting in Iraq… On the other hand figures from the Mexican government show that last year cartels were responsible for murdering more than 16,000 people in Mexico alone, and an estimated 60,000 in the preceding six years.

– Like Isis, cartels aim to strike fear into their rivals and opponents through torture and mass executions. They carry out hundreds of beheadings every year, and deliberately target women and children. Executed and mutilated victims have been displayed in gruesome arrangements in town squares and at town roundabouts, as cartels strive to outdo each other in violence.

– Both groups exploit social media to advertise their exploits. Only this week, cartel members executed anti-cartel activist, Dr Maria del Rosario Fuentes Rubio, accessed her Twitter account, then posted a picture of her corpse.

– Isis is believed to have enslaved approximately 1,500 Yazidi women and children, yet by some estimates cartels have enslaved tens of thousands, forcing some into sex work, and others to labour in plantations.

-Isis is believed to have recruited children as young as 10 to take part in suicide bombing missions and to fight on battlefields. Mexican cartels are also believed to have recruited scores of child soldiers, and have kidnapped children to harvest their organs.

The author goes on to argue that with its tentacles having reached every city in the US and claimed thousands of US victims in the ‘narco wars’, the cartels in fact pose a graver threat to the US than Isis.

Coleen Jose, writing for Mic Network last fall, added, “The cartels killed 293 Americans in Mexico from 2007 to 2010. The groups have also repeatedly attacked U.S. consulates in Mexico. In October 2008, two assailants fired their weapons and threw a grenade at the consulate in Monterrey.”

To bring it even closer to home, consider that the domestic drug trade has been estimated to be the size of the pharmaceutical industry yet you would have no hint of it in the major media which virtually never looks into the effect on politics and life in general from the perspective of those with power. It is only the minor dealers and their customers who get covered. As I learned examining the drug culture of Arkansas in the 1990s, nobody in the establishment wants to touch this issue and that, rather than there being a drug war, there is a covert relationship between the alleged enforcers and the actual enablers.

A rare exception is a remarkable story from the British paper, The Independent:

The entire criminal justice system was infiltrated by organised crime gangs, according to a secret Scotland Yard report leaked to The Independent. In 2003 Operation Tiberius found that men suspected of being Britain’s most notorious criminals had compromised multiple agencies, including HM Revenue & Customs, the Crown Prosecution Service, the City of London Police and the Prison Service, as well as pillars of the criminal justice system including juries and the legal profession.

The strategic intelligence scoping exercise – “ratified by the most senior management” at the Met – uncovered jurors being bought off or threatened to return not-guilty verdicts; corrupt individuals working for HMRC, both in the UK and overseas; and “get out of jail free cards” being bought for £50,000.

The report states that the infiltration made it almost impossible for police and prosecutors to successfully pursue the organised gangs that police suspected controlled much of the criminal underworld.

The fresh revelations come a day after The Independent revealed that Tiberius had concluded the Metropolitan Police suffered “endemic police corruption” at the time, and that some of Britain’s most dangerous organized crime syndicates were able to infiltrate New Scotland Yard “at will.”….

In 2000, according to Tiberius, a key police informant was secretly helping Scotland Yard with an investigation into the importation of £10m of heroin by a Turkish gang in north London.

The deal went wrong, the informant was tortured in a cellar and “an attempt was made to sever his fingers with a pair of garden shears”. His associate was also attacked and had “three fingers chopped off with a machete”.

The henchman Tiberius alleged had committed the assaults was the son of a named Met detective, who repeatedly tried to impede police inquiries into the case, according to Tiberius. He also had a corrupt relationship with a named detective sergeant then based in Marylebone police station who is suspected to have “organised cheque frauds”. Research conducted by The Independent suggests that none of the three men has ever been prosecuted.

The truth is that in Mexico, Arkansas or Britain – to name a few – there are too many in power who could say “Je suis ISIS” people who have learned how to defeat or capture the system without the conventional tools of warfare.

Their weapon is a populace too much ignored, mistreated or excluded from the benefits of conventional citizenship, making them easy candidates for either ISIS or a Mexican dug cartel. Chris Hedges hit on this remarkably recently:

The 5 million North Africans in France are not considered French by the French. And when they go back to Algiers, Tangier or Tunis, where perhaps they were born and briefly lived, they are treated as alien outcasts. Caught between two worlds, they drift, as the two brothers did, into aimlessness, petty crime and drugs.

Becoming a holy warrior, a jihadist, a champion of an absolute and pure ideal, is an intoxicating conversion, a kind of rebirth that brings a sense of power and importance. It is as familiar to an Islamic jihadist as it was to a member of the Red Brigades or the old fascist and communist parties. Converts to any absolute ideal that promises to usher in a utopia adopt a Manichaean view of history rife with bizarre conspiracy theories. Opposing and even benign forces are endowed with hidden malevolence. The converts believe they live in a binary universe divided between good and evil, the pure and the impure. As champions of the good and the pure they sanctify their own victimhood and demonize all nonbelievers. They believe they are anointed to change history. And they embrace a hypermasculine violence that is viewed as a cleansing agent for the world’s contaminants, including those people who belong to other belief systems, races and cultures…

Shortly after the attacks of 9/11, while living in Paris and working as a reporter for The New York Times, I went to La Cité des 4,000, a gray housing project where North African immigrants lived in apartments with bricked-up windows…

“You want us to weep for the Americans when they bomb and kill Palestinians and Iraqis every day?” Mohaam Abak, a Moroccan immigrant sitting with two friends on a bench told me during my 2001 visit. “We want more Americans to die so they can begin to see what it feels like.”

“America declared war on Muslims a long time ago,” said Laala Teula, an Algerian immigrant who worked for many years as a railroad mechanic. “This is just the response.”

It is dangerous to ignore this rage. But it is even more dangerous to refuse to examine and understand its origins. It did not arise from the Quran or Islam. It arose from mass despair, from palpable conditions of poverty, along with the West’s imperial violence, capitalist exploitation and hubris. As the resources of the world diminish, especially with the onslaught of climate change, the message we send to the unfortunate of the earth is stark and unequivocal: We have everything and if you try to take anything away from us we will kill you. The message the dispossessed send back is also stark and unequivocal. It was delivered in Paris.

To declare a war on terror and ignore such socio-economic realities makes no more sense than to declare a war on drugs or crime and ignore the similar truths of the neighborhoods being targeted for raids, chokeholds and stop and frisks.

The typical result of such a mindless strategy is to create more violence and far more power for the violent, which is just what is happening now in the Mid East. To end the violence, we must end our part in it and seek solutions that move both sides – however slowly – towards a more peaceful and rational future.


America in the twilight

Sam Smith

Beyond the despicable behavior of CIA agents, the repugnant falsehoods of those like Michael Hayden and the false justifications for it all by politicians and major media, lies a less obvious but even more bitter truth: America’s inability to be shocked by it all. When, as polls indicate, over half of all Americans believe that Nuremberg level crimes such as committed by the CIA are “justifiable” the country has a problem far more damaging than just ISIL. In an unprecedented manner, we are surrendering values and integrity that – even if we failed to achieve them – were still a part of our aspirations. Now, after more than a decade of false claims, counterproductive strategies and an absence of reason, we find ourselves adopting a logic frighteningly similar to that of those we detest

And for what? For one war in Iraq costing $1.7 trillion, launched by presidential deceit. For another in Afghanistan of unknown goals for which we have already dumped, according to the Financial Times, nearly one trillion dollars to achieve practically nothing. And now, a befuddled battle with grim gangs of guerrillas created in no small part in reaction to our own brutal failures. In all our wars, we have never spent so much money to achieve so little with such unclear objectives and with such counterproductive results.

The Financial Times gives a sense of the current situation:

[Around 80 per cent of] spending on the Afghanistan conflict has taken place during the presidency of Barack Obama, who sharply increased the US military presence in the country after taking office in 2009.

John Sopko, the government’s special inspector-general for Afghanistan, whose organization monitors the more than $100bn that has been spent on reconstruction projects in the country, said that “billions of dollars” of those funds had been wasted or stolen on projects that often made little sense for the conditions in Afghanistan. “Time and again, I am running into people from USAID, State and the Pentagon who think they are in Kansas [not Afghanistan],” he said. “My auditors tell me things [about spending plans] and I say, ‘you have to be making this up, this is Alice in Wonderland’.”

On top of that there are medical costs already incurred for soldiers who have left the military. Linda Bilmes, a Harvard economist who has done extensive research on the war costs, estimates that medical spending on veterans from both Iraq and Afghanistan has so far reached $134bn.

And why does the public accept this? In no small part because of a mass media that from the start has too willingly served as an embedded propaganda machine for the mad men masquerading as leaders of a democracy.

Never has America been so badly misled at such a cost.

In my 1997 book, The Great Political Repair Manual, I cited some of the ways in which America was already losing its democracy, adding that:

About the most important job of a democracy — next to serving its people — is to make sure it stays a democracy. This is a lot harder than many people think. Forms of government don’t have tenure, and governments that rely on the consent of the governed — rather than, say, on tanks and prisons — particularly require constant tending. Unfortunately, many Americans either don’t understand or have come to ignore this basic principle. As things now stand, we could easily become the first people in history to lose democracy and its constitutional freedoms simply because we have forgotten what they are about.

How could it happen? Here’s how a college professor, in another country and in another time, described it:

What happened was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to be governed by surprise, to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believe that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security.

The crises and reforms (real reforms too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter.

To live in the process is absolutely not to notice it — please try to believe me — unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted.’

Believe me this is true. Each act, each occasion is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow.

Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we did nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.

This quote is from a remarkable book about Nazi Germany written by Milton Mayer in the 1950s. They Thought They Were Free examined not the horrific perversions but the horrible normalcies of the times. Mayer summed up his own experience this way:

Now I see a little better how Nazism overcame Germany – It was what most Germans wanted — or, under pressure of combined reality and illusion, came to want. They wanted it; they got it; and they liked it. I came back home a little afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and get, and like, under pressure of combined reality and illusions. I felt — and feel — that it was not German Man that I had met, but Man. He happened to be in Germany under certain conditions. He might be here, under certain conditions. He might, under certain conditions, be I.

Justice William O. Douglas made a similar point:

As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything seems seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we must be most aware of change in the air — however slight — lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.

The war on terror before 9/11

With US Airways going out the door, we thought we would revive one of our fond memories, as reported in 1999:

 The Progressive Review’s editor, Sam Smith, was detained at Washington National Airport for a half hour as five US Airways security officials, 3 police officers, and one bomb-sniffing dog attempted to determine if he was, as they suspected, a terrorist. Total evidence for the suspicion came from a defective high tech security machine. In the end, the bomb-sniffing dog nosed about the computer, licked the hard drive and quickly returned without complaint to K-9 officer Jim Cox.

Before departure, Cox boarded the plane to get my Social Security number for his report and apologized for the incident saying that it was US Air’s security force and not National Airport police that had instigated it. After writing to US Air I got an actual apology from a vice president, perhaps the last American to do so in the history of the war on terror.

When I went to the Kansas City airport for my return flight, I explained to the security woman that my computer had set off warnings in the machine in Washington. She waved me on, saying, “Oh they probably just don’t feed their dogs.”

One of the interesting things about this is that what we think of as anti-terrorist air security began not following 9/11 but after the 1996 crash of TWA 800. Yet two years after the FBI had declared there was no terrorist involvement, the TWA 800 security measures remained unaltered and would expand with time.

If you believe the official story, therefore, the airport aspect of the war on terror really got underway thanks to an incident that never happened. Of course, as we would learn with increasing frequency during the years that followed, what the government told you about such matters was not always true.

The war of the terrified

Sam Smith

As news continues to gather of NSA’s abuse of the Constitution and those it is meant to serve, I find myself thinking of castles again. As I noted some time back:

The medieval  bifurcation of society into a weak, struggling, but sane, mass and a manic depressive elite alternately vicious and afraid, unlimited and imprisoned, foreshadows what we find today – leaders willing, on the one hand, to occupy any corner of the world and, on the other, terrified of young men with box cutters.

Similarly, many years ago some people built castles, walled cities and moats to keep the terror out. It worked for a while, but sooner or later spies and assassins figured how to cross the moats and opponents learned how to climb the walls and send balls of fire into protected compounds. The Florentines even catapulted dead donkeys and feces over the town wall during their siege of Siena.

The people who built castles and walled cities and moats are all dead now and their efforts at security seem puny and ultimately futile – unintended monuments to the vanity of human presumption.

Yet, like the castle-dwellers behind the moats, our elite is now spending huge sums to put themselves inside prisons of their own making.

While the NSA’s activities and similar offenses against the American people have been rightfully attacked for their criminal nature, hardly any attention is given to the fact that the same people who can destroy, damage and eliminate are also driven by paranoia and a fear that their present power is precarious and perhaps transitory. It is not an accident that the White House and Capitol grounds are the most heavily policed public spaces in America.

In 2009 I wrote:

After 9/11 the Capitol turned into an armed camp. The Capitol Visitors Center, under construction, was modified to serve as a bunker for members of Congress in case of an attack and the Capitol police force soared to three officers per member of Congress with the greatest number of police per acre of any spot in America. In the end the visitor’s center/bunker would cost over $600 million, just slightly less than the city’s new baseball stadium. Perhaps the most telling change was when the Capitol police, as a security measure, moved all tourist bus traffic a few blocks away. In essence, the police declared the lives of residents of 3rd & 4th Streets less important than those of officials working at or near the Capitol.

I would later tell people that I knew exactly where the war on terror ended: 2nd Street. Living four blocks further to the east, there would never be the slightest sign that my safety was of any concern to the White House or Homeland Security.

It was an important lesson that made me realize the War on Terror was not about protecting me, but about protecting those extremely frightened men and women who ran our government, our major corporations and other large institutions. It was not about me, but about easing the fear of some Republican congressman from Idaho who was scared shitless.

The bipartisan politics that have brought us to this place has also ruined our economy, destroyed jobs and endangered the environment. Neither castles nor mass wiretapping can avoid the consequences of such behavior. Are our leaders in Washington as afraid of us as they are of Al Qaeda? Is this why they want to know what our emails say?

Here’s Wikipedia’s description of the late years of the Middle Ages:

Troubles were followed in 1347 by the Black Death, a disease that spread throughout Europe during the following three years. The death toll was probably about 35 million people in Europe, about one-third of the population. Towns were especially hard-hit because of their crowded conditions. Large areas of land were left sparsely inhabited, and in some places fields were left unworked…Urban workers also felt that they had a right to greater earnings, and popular uprisings broke out across Europe….

 Meanwhile, the ultimate protection of the elite, the castle, was under attack. As one historian notes:

After the 16th century, castles declined as a mode of defense, mostly because of the invention and improvement of heavy cannons and mortars. This artillery could throw heavy cannonballs with so much force that even strong curtain walls could not hold up.

And not much later things like the French and American revolutions further damaged the once comfortable role of the nobility.

Which doesn’t mean it didn’t try to recover. One could argue that the Southern Confederacy was an attempt to reinstitute the values of the Middle Ages over those created in a new American republic the previous century.

And one can argue that the First American Republic, which ended about three decades ago, has drifted so far out of our moral, political and  philosophical consciousness that a cabal of maniacally greedy corporations, a new GOP confederacy, and a Democratic Party that sold its soul to campaign contributors has successfully headed us back towards a society of nobles and castles, without even the feudal responsibilities toward the less powerful that its predecessors had accepted.

And there are things that NSA wiretaps can’t tell. Like when is climate change going to start causing spontaneous rebellion? When is labor going to rediscover its true foe? And when are food and water shortages going to energize revolt as is occurring in Egypt?

For the sane and still semi-autonomous parts of America – those places Thomas Jefferson called our “little republics” – substantial potential and security remain because we still cling to values, relationships and feelings that guided our nation through its first two centuries. I live in a small town in Maine and am repeatedly stunned by how much better my daily life is compared to the larger America I read, think and write about. These are two massively different places, and I, fortunately, live in the right one. Were I playing the game of the one percent in New York, Washington or Los Angeles it would be a whole different story.

There is a huge strength in this difference of place and purpose that, in the end, could save America. Those of us in the little republics – whether geographic, ethnic, or cultural – need to recognize this power and find ways to work together so that when the one percent has to confront the reality of its failure, there will still be an alternative America worth reviving.

The unnoticed, unreported part of the Bin Laden story

Sam Smith – In its absurdly overdone coverage of Bin Laden’s death, the media is drowning out one key matter: why were Bin Laden and Al Qaeda so mad at us?

By reducing the matter to a simplistic “war on terror” we never had to deal with the actual issues that were behind 9/11 and other acts. Agence France Presse reminds us of this in a story on Bin Laden’s last tape:

“In the final audio tape bin Laden recorded before being killed, he warned there would be no security for the United States until Palestinians are allowed to live in security, an Islamist website reported Sunday. “America will not be able to dream of security until we live in security in Palestine,” he said. “It is unfair that you live in peace while our brothers in Gaza live in insecurity. “Accordingly, and with the will of God, our attacks will continue against you as long as your support for Israel continues,” he warned.”

There’s nothing new in this. Al Qaeda early made it clear that its agenda included the Israeli-Palestine situation, the American presence in Saudi Arabia, and our brutal sanctions against Iraq. While Al Qaeda’s approach was unconscionably violent, its goals were hardly out of the realm of rational consideration and negotiation.

Consider that Palestine has a population of four million. This is less than that of about half of America’s fifty states.

Now consider how different the past decade would have been if we had supported full statehood for a beleaguered territory about the size of South Caroline, Louisiana or Kentucky. Instead we adopted a policy that helped to ruin our economy, kill thousands of our troops, dismantle our Constitution and lose the respect of much of the world.

Yes, there were other issues, but there is no doubt that Palestine was an important enough factor to have changed the course of history had we merely exercised some common decency and common sense. Instead, we submitted to the irrational demands of Israel, one of the most masochistic countries of all time, and in the process lost our World Trade Center, our global status, our well-being and our dreams.

The following was written seven years ago

Sam Smith, Progressive Review, 2004 – It is now almost three years since the attacks of September 11, 2001., During this period we have invaded two Muslim countries and moved far closer to the apartheid regime of Ariel Sharon. We have not taken a single important step to reduce hatred of America, respond to justified complaints of the Muslim world, or create forums where current conflicts can be explored instead of continue to explode.

In short, with psychotic consistency, our leaders have made matter worse, more dangerous, and more complicated to resolve.

To reduce the constituency of the most extreme one must respond to the concerns of the most rational. Our refusal to do so has left us in grave and unnecessary danger.

This is not poor policy, it is madness. It is criminally reckless and negligent and threatens not only those we blame but those we profess to protect.

Our leaders in both parties – including their presidential candidates – have condemned Americans to live in perpetual fear in no small part because they are unwilling to make amends for a foreign policy that for more half a century has regarded Arabs and other Muslims much as our south once regarded black Americans.
In the end there are two primary ways to deal with conflict: fight about it or talk about it. It is long past time for the latter. If you fight about it you are going to win, lose, just keep fighting, or grow tired of the whole business. There is no chance, given our current policies, that we can win the war we have chosen to fight and while we may not lose it, we have, in our reaction to 9/11, already lost much of what we are, or strove to be, as Americans.

The most likely outcome is that we will continue the war at ever increasing cost until we just can’t take it anymore. At which point, as in Vietnam, we will do what we should have done years earlier, namely to talk and work our way of the situation.

If you listen to American media and politicians, you would assume that there was nothing to talk about. But, pushing aside the macho, militaristic rhetoric that surrounds us, one can discover some interesting anomalies.

For example, the Washington Post reports that Khalid Sheik Mohammed, when he presented the original 9/11 attack plan to Osama bin Laden in 1998 or 1999, “called for hijacking 10 jetliners on both coasts of the United States and crashing nine of them. The kicker would have been the final plane, which he would commandeer personally. After killing all the men on board, Mohammed would alert the media and deliver a speech excoriating the U.S. government for its support of Israel and repressive Arab regimes.”

Now there are plenty of people around the world and in the U.S. who would have agreed to some extent with Mohammed’s stated goals. Just recently, for example, over 100 countries voted in the U.N. against the U.S. and Israel over the Sharon Wall. The difference lies in the question of taking the matter airborne.
Similarly, Howard Zinn has pointed out that despite all the talk about Muslims hating America for its belief in democracy, Osama bin Laden managed to tolerate it well enough as long as he was getting American funds for his battle against the Soviet Union. It was the change in our foreign policy he couldn’t stand.

Usually in a hostage situation – and we are the hostage in this situation – there is considerable curiosity as to the hostage-takers’ demands. In this case, however, the media and politicians have blithely ignored the issue almost entirely. Thus many have forgotten what Al-Queda’s early anger was about including, most prominently, the Israeli-Palestine situation, the American presence in Saudi Arabia, and the brutal sanctions against Iraq.

Looked at outside the context of 9/11 but within the context of the history of international disputes, these are not insurmountable crises. What was insurmountable was the unwillingness of either side to sit down honestly and deal with them.

The cost of our reaction since 9/11, including planetary endangerment as well as damage to our constitution, safety, and economy, bears little relationship to the underlying disputes. What gives them their awesome power is not their intrinsic nature but what they have perversely nurtured in the souls of the antagonists. This includes, in the case of bin Laden, seeing oneself no longer as a mere guerilla but as a holy emperor in waiting. But it also includes George Bush seeing himself as a holy crusader.

Consider the case of Egypt. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Israel – the largest recipient of US foreign aid in 2003, gets $2.1 billion in military aid annually; $600 million in economic aid. Egypt is the second largest recipient with $1.3 billion in military aid; $615 million for social programs.

Turn now to the recent Zogby poll of Arab counties which found that in Egypt, 76% of citizens had an unfavorable view of the U.S. in 2002 and now 98% share such an opinion. You can’t have a more failed foreign policy than that.

So here we are wrecking ourselves constitutionally, economically, culturally and psychologically, and neither major party can offer us a different course.

Shibley Telhami, who teaches peace and development at the University of Maryland, wrote in the Baltimore Sun:

“It’s true that many in the Middle East have often criticized US foreign policy in the past 30 years. But in general, their notion of US aims has been largely focused not on profound animosity but on a sense of conflict in strategic interests and domestic politics over oil and Israel. Today, an increasing number of Muslims and Arabs believe that the United States is simply aiming to attack Muslims.”

Last month in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, more than three-fourths of respondents said they believed that US aims in Iraq were intended in part ‘to weaken the Muslim world.

America is not only destroying itself but is destroying its ability to work its way out of the situation.

Why we lost the war on terror

Sam Smith

The other morning I got confused and used the wrong national metaphor. I had just read an AP story that started:

“Three suspected Islamic terrorists from an al-Qaida-influenced group nursing ‘profound hatred of U.S. citizens’ were arrested on suspicious of plotting imminent, massive bomb attacks on U.S. facilities in Germany, prosecutors said today. . . ”

My immediate reaction was: looks like we’ve got another marketing problem. Then I remembered that we weren’t trying to add Muslims to our consumer base; we were trying to get rid of them. For that you need a good military, not good marketing.

But military and marketing are both things Americans pride themselves in and it set me off on yet another heretical foray: what if we had reacted after 9/11 more like a corporation facing a consumer rebellion than as an army trying to eliminate the enemy?

Instead we have done absolutely noting to reduce the ‘profound hatred of U.S. citizens’ by Muslims and much to increase it, all in the name of something called the war on terror. And we’re not just talking about Republicans. Both the Democrats and the media has gone along with a military approach and won’t even discuss alternatives in any serious manner.

But wars are there to be won and I haven’t met anyone who expects Osama bin Laden or other guerilla leaders ever to show up on the deck of the contemporary version of the USS Missouri to sign the terms of surrender. Come to think of it that was over 60 years ago and nobody important has been able to do it since.

The truth is, though nobody talks about it much, countries like the US don’t win wars anymore unless the enemy is so small it doesn’t count. In fact, the most striking thing about wars is that they simply don’t work the way they used to.

It is fair to say, without the slightest hyperbole, that the war on terror has been a failure from the moment it started and has no place to go but down. Every escalation will just bring more profound hatred and every surge will just give opposing factions a reason to merge against us.

Seldom in history has so much money been wasted on such a failed military operation. Admittedly – unless you happen to be an Iraqi civilian – the death toll isn’t as bad as it’s been in the past but that’s because we’ve figured out how to substitute our budget for our bodies. It still doesn’t work.

Why do we keep doing it? Part of the answer is plain habit. We’ve been raised to think that the military will solve our problems and even in the face of contrary evidence we cling to that faith. We also have not only the most incompetent administration in American history but one pursuing a hidden agenda of preparing for a rapture in which all the stupid Christians get to go to heaven and everyone else ends up in hell. Whatever our own beliefs or lack thereof, we are trapped in a war between religious extremists. Finally, the people who are meant to warn us and provide a better alternative – like Democrats and the media – have become so intimidated and accommodating that they can’t even remember the emergency number, let alone how to dial it.

Sooner or later, the war on terror will end, probably as the result of some substitution of national purpose like dealing with the rise of 130 degree summers. We won’t have to admit defeat; we’ll just worry about something else.

Meanwhile, however, it is destroying us far faster than it is destroying the enemy, real or imagined. Every day we give the Muslim world something new to hate about us and every day we spend huge sums for this dubious purpose.

So maybe my early morning thought wasn’t all that askew. What if we thought of Muslims as people who go to a different store rather than a different religious citadel? What if we went after them not with bombs and Humvees but the way Steve Jobs would if he wanted to sell them Ipods?

What if we took seriously their customer complaints such as our miserable treatment of Palestine and the destruction of their lands, showed them some respect and stopped killing so many of them?

What if we talked to them calmly and fairly – as was recently demonstrated in our progress with the North Koreans – rather than with the implicit threat of convert or die?

What if we replaced the surge of war with the snail’s pace of negotiation?

What if we dealt with extreme groups by weakening their constituency through our response to the concerns of the more rational?

Maybe if we treated Muslims more like a business owner treats customers walking into a store or like a real diplomat treats those on the other side of the table, we wouldn’t have to worry so much about some of them flying into our skyscrapers instead.

Towards a more perfect union

This essay was republished in a Tom Paine and on the op ed page of the New York Times on September 11, 2003

Sam Smith

Still missing in the rubble of 9/11 is the idea of America that enriched, strengthened and protected us for more than two centuries. Overcome with fear and anger, and later in denial parading as pride, we hardly noticed it was gone. The idea that we lost was not a superlative — most powerful or richest — but rather a promise.

The wondrous mystery of America is found not in its perfection but in its ability to improve, its perpetual search for a more perfect union. The idea had been fading for some time, not just because we came to think of power as an adequate substitute, but because we came to ignore such mundane matters as teaching children democracy with the same vigor that we teach them how to drive or about the dangers of drugs. And so we tried to recover from 9/11 with a flag and loyalty to a place called America, but without its dream. We used instead military power, anti-democratic security measures, seductive technology, and yet another elephantine bureaucracy — offering still more temptations for guerrillas with simple weapons and no love of life.

The 9/11 attackers, and the tens of millions around the world who share some measure of their anger, have only seen our money and our fist — not the decency, democracy, and dream that made America strong in the first place. These virtues are still lying in the rubble of the past year. Our job is to recover them, revive them, share them, and become once more a model rather than a target. Only then will we be both safe and free.