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Whose 'Moral Clarity'?

By Robert Parry
July 27, 2006

George W. Bush is polishing up his “moral clarity” argument as he and his chief diplomat, Condoleezza Rice, signal to the Israelis that they should press ahead in crushing “terrorist” organizations like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

Yet if there is any place in the world that lacks “moral clarity,” it is the Middle East – which is why Bush’s vision of the region has proved so dangerous. Rather than perceiving shades of gray and finding areas of compromise, Bush insists that everything is black and white – and thus justifies the use of overwhelming force to destroy evil wherever Bush sees it.

But even on issues where U.S. government officials and leading pundits speak in unison – denouncing “terrorist” groups like Hezbollah, for instance – there is far more ambiguity than Americans are being told.

Take, for instance, the widespread agreement that Hezbollah earned the opprobrium as “terrorist” because one of its suicide bombers destroyed the U.S. Marine barracks in 1983 killing 241 American servicemen in Beirut.

While this incident is routinely cited as the indisputable evidence that Hezbollah is an evil “terrorist” organization, the reality is much murkier. Indeed, under any objective definition of “terrorism,” the Beirut bombing would not qualify as a “terrorist” act.

“Terrorism” is classically defined as violence against civilians to achieve a political goal. In the case of the Marines, however, their status had changed from an original peacekeeping mission in the midst of Lebanon’s civil war into the role of combatant as the Reagan administration allowed “mission creep” to affect the assignment.

Heeding the advice of then-national security adviser Robert McFarlane, President Ronald Reagan authorized the USS New Jersey to fire long-distance shells into Muslim villages in the Bekaa Valley, killing civilians and convincing Shiite militants that the United States had joined the conflict.

On Oct. 23, 1983, Shiite militants struck back, sending a suicide truck bomber through U.S. security positions and demolishing the high-rise Marine barracks. “When the shells started falling on the Shiites, they assumed the American ‘referee’ had taken sides,” Gen. Colin Powell wrote about the incident in his memoirs, My American Journey.

In other words, even Colin Powell, who was then military adviser to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, recognized that the U.S. military intervention had altered the status of the Marines in the eyes of the Shiites.

False History

Yet, more than two decades later, senior U.S. officials continue to cite the Beirut bombing as Exhibit A on a list of past “terrorist” incidents that didn’t elicit a sufficiently harsh U.S. retaliation.

“Over the last several decades, Americans have seen how the terrorists pursue their objectives,” Vice President Dick Cheney said in a March 6, 2006, speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). “Simply stated, they would hit us, but we would not hit back hard enough. In Beirut in 1983, terrorists killed 241 Americans, and afterward U.S. forces withdrew from Beirut.”

But, in reality, the tit-for-tat violence in Beirut continued. Then-CIA director William Casey ordered secret counterterrorism operations against Islamic radicals. As retaliation, the Shiites targeted more Americans. Another bomb destroyed the U.S. Embassy and killed most of the CIA station.

Casey dispatched veteran CIA officer William Buckley to fill the void. But on March 14, 1984, Buckley was spirited off the streets of Beirut to face torture and death.

In 1985, Casey targeted Hezbollah leader Sheikh Fadlallah in an operation that included hiring operatives who detonated a car bomb outside the Beirut apartment building where Fadlallah lived.

As described by Bob Woodward in Veil, “the car exploded, killing 80 people and wounding 200, leaving devastation, fires and collapsed buildings. Anyone who had happened to be in the immediate neighborhood was killed, hurt or terrorized, but Fadlallah escaped without injury. His followers strung a huge ‘Made in the USA’ banner in front of a building that had been blown out.”

Historians trace the moral ambiguity between the West and Islam back even further, to the Crusades fought a millennium ago. Though the West has romanticized the image of chivalrous knights in shining armor protecting the Holy Lands from infidels, the Islamic world remembers a bloody Christian religious war waged against Arabs.

In 1099, for instance, the Crusaders massacred many of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. So, after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, when Bush called his “war on terror” a new “crusade,” al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden pounced on Bush’s gaffe to rally Islamic fundamentalists.

A typed statement attributed to bin Laden called the coming war “the new Christian-Jewish crusade led by the big crusader Bush under the flag of the cross.”

Israel-Palestine

On the Israeli-Palestinian front, most Americans believe that the Arabs are the ones responsible for “terrorism” and the Israelis only react to unspeakable provocations, such as suicide bombings at restaurants and other civilian targets. But the deeper reality is that neither side has clean hands.

During the Israeli fight for independence in the late 1940s, Zionist extremists, including later national leaders Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin, were members of terrorist groups that attacked Palestinian civilians and British authorities.

In one famous case, Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, where British officials and other foreigners lived, was blown up. Zionist extremists also used terror tactics, including killing civilians, to drive Palestinians off land that became part of Israel.

Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon – directed by then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon – led to the massacre of some 1,800 Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon.

The Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon continued for 18 years until Hezbollah militants using guerrilla tactics and suicide bombings forced Israel to withdraw in 2000.

Ignoring this morally murky history, Bush and his neoconservative supporters have presented the ongoing bloodshed to the American people in a crystal “moral clarity.”

Underlying some of these arguments also is a less-than-subtle appeal to anti-Arab bigotry. American politicians – both Republican and Democrat – have eagerly lined up behind Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Dan Gillerman, despite his sometimes crudely anti-Muslim remarks.

For instance, at that March 6 AIPAC conference where Cheney spoke, Gillerman delighted the crowd with the quip, “While it may be true – and probably is – that not all Muslims are terrorists, it also happens to be true that nearly all terrorists are Muslim.”

On July 17, sharing the stage at a pro-Israel rally with New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and other politicians, Gillerman proudly defended Israel’s “disproportionate” violence against targets in Lebanon.

“Let us finish the job,” Gillerman told the crowd. “We will excise the cancer in Lebanon” and “cut off the fingers” of Hezbollah. Responding to international concerns that Israel was using “disproportionate” force in bombing Lebanon and killing hundreds of civilians, Gillerman said, “You’re damn right we are.” [NYT, July 18, 2006]

Media Bias

This overt pride in Israel’s “disproportionate” response to a Hezbollah raid on an Israeli military outpost – a reaction that has claimed the lives of some 400 Lebanese and dislocated about one-fifth of the nation’s population – has carried over into the Op-Ed pages of prominent U.S. newspapers.

For instance, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote, “Israel may or may not be the land of milk and honey, but it certainly seems to be the land of disproportionate military response – and a good thing, too.”

Cohen suggested that any criticism of Israel for killing excessive numbers of Lebanese civilians bordered on anti-Semitism.

“The dire consequences of proportionality are so clear that it makes you wonder if it is a fig leaf for anti-Israel sentiment in general,” Cohen wrote. “Anyone who knows anything about the Middle East knows that proportionality is madness. … It is not good enough to take out this or that missile battery. It is necessary to reestablish deterrence: You slap me, I will punch out your lights.”

In effect, Cohen called for the collective punishment of the Lebanese population in retaliation for the actions of Hezbollah, including the capture of two Israeli soldiers in support of a proposed prisoner exchange and the firing of unguided rockets into cities in northern Israel.

“The only way to ensure that [Israeli] babies don’t die in their cribs and old people in the streets [of Israel] is to make the Lebanese or the Palestinians understand that if they, no matter how reluctantly, host those rockets, they will pay a very, very steep price,” Cohen wrote.

Overlaying his deconstruction of the Nuremberg principles, which prohibit retaliatory killings of civilians, Cohen concluded his essay with a foul topping of racism, anti-Muslim bigotry and an implicit rationalization for ethnic cleansing:

“Israel is, as I have often said, unfortunately located, gentrifying a pretty bad neighborhood. But the world is full of dislocated peoples, and we ourselves live in a country where the Indians were pushed out of the way so that – oh, what irony! – the owners of slaves could spread liberty and democracy from sea to shining sea. As for Europe, who today cries for the Greeks of Anatolia or the Germans of Bohemia?” [Washington Post, July 25, 2006]

But one lesson of six decades of post-Nuremberg history is that there sometimes are consequences for world leaders and even propagandists who whip populations into frenzies of ethnic or racial violence.

Granted, those brought to account – the Serb ethnic cleansers or the Rwandan killers – are often from relatively weak countries with few powerful defenders. But there may be lines even in the Middle East that – if crossed – could forever sully the names of the perpetrators and possibly their governments or armies.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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