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Toward the Brink

By Robert Parry
September 17, 2001

History, like a person’s life, is defined by choices, some reasoned, some thoughtless, some made in anger, some based on false premises. For the past two decades or more, the United States has marked the course of its history through choices made in a fog of propaganda.

At this publication, we have referred to this gap in the nation's understanding of the relevant facts as “lost history,” a tapestry of events established in scattered documents or from the testimony of participants, but largely excluded from the national debates that inform the next series of decisions and actions.

This blindness to the recent past often is justified by the notion that ignoring unpleasant facts is “good for the country.” Most journalists and politicians do not want to open themselves to charges that they are "blaming America" or are engaging in "moral equivalence," especially at a moment of national crisis when Americans have been brutally and unjustifiably attacked as occurred on Sept. 11.

But the blind spots also prevent Americans from fully recognizing the dangers from abroad and comprehending the motives of potential enemies, a situation of sudden relevance as the U.S. prepares for war in retaliation for the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The “lost history” of recent decades has contained some very grim chapters that are well known to U.S. adversaries but little known -- or little acknowledged -- in the United States.

One is Washington’s role in widespread “death squad” operations throughout Latin America over the past several decades, bloody campaigns that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, including what a truth commission judged a “genocide” of Mayan Indians in Guatemala during the 1980s.

In that same decade, the Reagan-Bush administration financed and supported the Nicaraguan contras, a terrorist-style organization that ravaged towns along the Nicaraguan-Honduran border, committing acts of torture, murder and rape – killing thousands. Some contra units also collaborated with drug cartels shipping cocaine into the United States, while the Reagan-Bush administration sidetracked investigations for geo-political reasons.

The justification for these policies in the 1980s was President Reagan’s belief that the Soviet Union was planning to attack the United States behind peasant armies surging northward from Central America, a theory that lacked any evidentiary support. In reality, the Soviet Union’s inept and brutal system was in its final death throes.

Except for a little-noted apology from President Clinton in 1999 in connection with a truth commission’s report on the Guatemalan slaughters, the U.S. government has never acknowledged any blame in these blood baths that decimated generations of the best and brightest young people of that region. Most Americans understand only dimly, if at all, what the U.S. role was.

The Middle East

In the same twilight struggle with the Soviet Union, the Reagan-Bush administration allied itself with Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan and with right-wing religious forces in Lebanon and Israel.

The CIA spent an estimated $2 billion to support Afghan “freedom fighters” in their war against Soviet troops and a Moscow-backed regime in Kabul. With Reagan’s blessings, the CIA supplied the rebels with hundreds of advanced “stinger” missiles that inflicted heavy damage on Soviet aircraft.

The covert war also was the launching pad for the radical career of a well-to-do Saudi-born extremist named Osama bin Laden, who traveled through northern Africa and other Islamic regions recruiting young zealots to battle Soviet influence in Afghanistan. The anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan became the crucible, too, for the Taliban movement that – with the aid of U.S. intelligence allies in Pakistan – gained control of Afghanistan after Russian forces withdrew.

A third prong of the Reagan-Bush international strategy played out in Iran and Iraq, two Islamic countries that went to war over disputed borders in 1980. In the six years that followed, the Reagan-Bush team secretly sold weapons to both sides in the conflict, while CIA Director William J. Casey gloated over the scheme that encouraged the two armies to maul each other. The human cost in Iran and Iraq totaled about 1 million dead.

The growing U.S. military participation in the Middle Eastern violence – which also included lobbing shells from a Navy battleship into Muslim villages in Lebanon – led Islamic fighters to go after U.S. targets in Lebanon. A suicide bomber blew up the U.S. Marine barracks outside Beirut in 1983, killing 241 Marines. Muslim kidnappers began seizing American nationals, too.

In 1985-86, the Reagan-Bush administration sold missiles to Iran in a bid to win the release of the hostages in Lebanon. Some of the profits also were diverted to the Nicaraguan contras because Congress had cut off funding in reaction to widespread reports of contra atrocities and because the CIA had mined Nicaragua’s harbors in defiance of international law.

Scattered References

References to some of this historical background – especially bin Laden’s role in the Afghan war – can be found in some of the long articles about the current crisis touched off Tuesday by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

But the history’s relevance is murky to most Americans who would have to search far and wide for comprehensive information about this period of U.S. history.

One of the chief reasons that this history has been “lost” is the powerful influence that conservatives exercise over today's U.S. news media, both directly through conservative outlets, such as Fox News and the Washington Times, and indirectly by going after mainstream journalists who report facts that put Ronald Reagan in a bad light. Many working journalists remain frightened of being labeled a "liberal" or a "blame-America-firster," in Jeane Kirkpatrick's famous formulation.

The danger this represents to an informed U.S. policy has been compounded by the laziness of other journalists who have found it easier and safer to obsess about people’s sex lives and other trivial issues. Over the past eight years or more, the U.S. news media has trumpeted relatively minor  “Clinton scandals,” such as the Whitewater real estate deal, the Travel Office firings, the Paula Jones sexual harassment claims, and the Monica Lewinsky case.

Even when official bodies have acknowledged gross misdeeds of the 1980s – as the CIA inspector general did in 1998 in confirming the problem with contra-drug trafficking or as a Guatemalan truth commission did in 1999 in revealing the genocide against the Mayans – the U.S. news media showed little interest.

Then, in Election 2000, the news media seemed more intent on taking out its frustrations over Clinton’s survival of impeachment, by bashing Al Gore, than in providing evenhanded coverage of the campaign or examining complex issues like foreign policy. Center stage were Gore's “earth tone” clothes and his supposed exaggerations.

Bush's Foreign Policy

Since gaining the presidency, even though he lost the popular vote, Bush charted his first seven-plus months in office in directions that repudiate the multilateralist course set by Clinton and Gore. Bush renounced the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. He declared his intent to scrap the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and to build Ronald Reagan’s missile defense shield.

On the Middle East, Bush disengaged from negotiations aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute while publicly laying much of the blame for the violence on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Earlier this month, Bush ordered U.S. diplomats to walk out of an anti-racism conference because it was considering language that would portray the Palestinians as victims of racism at the hands of Israeli authorities.

Though Bush denied that his course was unilateralist, he made clear that the U.S. government was frustrated with the messy complexities of multilateral agreements and was prepared to go its own way if he viewed that as in the U.S. national interest. Bush was undaunted by his lack of experience in world affairs or by the possibility that his behavior might enflame an already dangerous situation in the Middle East.

At home, meanwhile, the U.S. economy sank toward recession, nearly 1 million jobs were lost, the non-Social Security budget surplus disappeared.

For his part, Bush spent the month of August vacationing in Crawford, Texas, highlighting what he called “heartland values.” His praise for the “heartland” suggested that Americans who lived along the coasts lacked the moral values that Bush detected in the nation’s interior.

A Terrible Day

The course of Bush’s presidency changed abruptly on Tuesday, Sept. 11, with the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.

Nineteen Middle Eastern terrorists, wielding knives, hijacked four U.S. commercial airliners. Two jetliners were crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and a third rammed the Pentagon.

The fourth – a flight that had left Newark, N.J. en route to California – crashed in Pennsylvania, apparently after passengers on the flight were told over cell phones about the suicide attacks and battled the terrorists for control of the plane. That heroism may have spared the White House or the U.S. Capitol from destruction.

The death toll from Tuesday's attacks was unclear, though clearly totaling several thousand. The dead included hundreds of New York firefighters and rescue personnel who rushed into the burning twin towers to save the inhabitants minutes before the buildings collapsed. They gave their lives in the hope of saving others.

New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani also raced to ground zero to oversee the rescue operations and offer reassuring words to a shaken city.

The national government was shaken, too. In the hours after the attacks, Bush was ferried from Sarasota, Fla., where he had been speaking at an elementary school, to secure locations in Louisiana and Nebraska. Some Republicans complained that Bush should have returned to Washington immediately, rather than hopscotch from military base to military base.

Stung by this criticism, Bush's aides recounted later that a phone call had warned that Air Force One might be another target and had mentioned codes that suggested inside knowledge. But the aides refused to provide any corroboration and some news reports suggested that the danger to Air Force One was exaggerated to protect Bush's image.

Bush’s senior political adviser, Karl Rove, told conservative columnist William Safire that Bush’s immediate reaction was “I don’t want some tinhorn terrorists keeping me out of Washington.” [NYT, Sept. 13, 2001] Whatever the real danger or his real comments, Bush agreed to stay away from Washington as long as the city might be facing new attacks from hijacked planes.

Public Remarks

Bush's initial public remarks about the attacks also proved less than reassuring. In a rushed appearance before cameras in Florida, Bush jarringly referred to the mass murderers as “folks.” Later, at a U.S. Air Force base in Louisiana, Bush appeared in a grainy videotape, looking nervous while declaring that “freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward.”

None of Bush’s early comments fit as accurate descriptions of the cold-blooded zealots who murdered innocent civilians with a military-style efficiency even in the face of their own certain death. Their target also wasn’t “freedom” in any normal sense of the word. It was most likely the rooting out of Western influence from the Islamic countries of the Middle East.

One administration official conceded to the New York Times that the statement in Louisiana “was not our best moment.” [NYT, Sept. 16, 2001]

Bush next was flown to Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Neb., where he clambered into a cinder-block bunker and had a telephone conference with his national security advisers. With a fighter-jet escort, Bush finally returned to Washington at about 7 p.m., nearly 10 hours after the initial terrorist assault.

At 8:30 p.m., Bush gave a brief televised speech declaring that now “we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.” Again, his appearance was not very reassuring. He looked shell-shocked and even his advisers acknowledged that the speech was a disappointment.

On Thursday, the administration stiffened its rhetoric with talk of war and began to finger Osama bin Laden, who is believed living in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban, as the prime suspect in the murderous attack. But Bush continued to send mixed messages with shaky personal statements that sometimes slid into incoherence.

In the Oval Office, Bush’s lip quivered and his eyes welled with tears as he responded to a reporter’s question with this answer: “I’m a lovin’ guy. And I am also someone, however, who’s got a job to do and I intend to do it. And this is a terrible moment. But this country will not relent until we have saved ourselves and others from the terrible tragedy that came upon America.”

Promises of Vengeance

By week’s end, Bush began making sweeping promises of revenge, statements that struck a chord with the vast majority of Americans outraged over the terrorism.

While nearly all Americans would agree that a violent counter-strike is in order against any individual or organization that was complicit in the mass murder, Bush’s declarations envisioned a long-term war against all forms of terrorism, a far riskier and more problematical endeavor.

On Friday, at a national prayer service, Bush went even further. He pledged to eliminate “evil” from the world, an even more ambitious and ill-defined goal. “Just three days removed from these events, Americans do not yet have the distance of history, but our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil,” Bush said.

Yet sometimes, a comprehensive view of U.S. history does not permit a black-and-white picture of one side bathed in good and the other stewing in the stench of evil.

For instance, one of the Senate’s first reactions to the attacks was to approve Bush’s nomination of John Negroponte to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations so he can represent Bush’s foreign policy. During the 1980s, as ambassador to Honduras, Negroponte oversaw the buildup of the contra operation at a time the contras were collaborating with elements of the Honduran military responsible for scores of "disappearances" and political murders inflicted on labor leaders, academics and other dissidents.

Good and evil could be blurred again if the administration's hawks prevail and launch indiscriminate attacks wreaking heavy collateral damage on innocent civilians in Afghanistan or other target countries. The killing of more innocents might only breed a new generation of anti-American zealots prepared to mount new suicide attacks, though the next time they might come armed with chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons.

U.S. warplanes over Afghanistan also might find themselves the target of leftover stinger missiles, supplied to the Afghans courtesy of the Reagan-Bush administration.

As the United States embarks on what is sure to be a dangerous course, the past decade with its relative peace and prosperity already seems like ancient history. So, too, does the prior decade of the Reagan-Bush era with the memories of “death squad” brutality in Latin America and covert manipulations of events in the Middle East.

But that is the immediate history – and those are the unlearned lessons – that will be prologue to the future that is about to unfold.

In the 1980s, Robert Parry broke many of the stories now known as the Iran-Contra scandal for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book is Lost History.

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