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In retaliation for the terror attacks on Sept. 11, George W. Bush is vowing to strike at a shadowy network of international terrorists reaching into 60 countries. He has called this coming war a “crusade” and has led his friends to believe that he views his new duty as a mission from God.
“I think, in [Bush’s] frame, this is what God has asked him to do,” a close acquaintance told the New York Times. “It offers him enormous clarity.” According to this acquaintance, Bush believes “he has encountered his reason for being, a conviction informed and shaped by the president’s own strain of Christianity,” the Times reported. [NYT, Sept. 22, 2001]
Few Americans would disagree that violent retribution should be inflicted on the masterminds of the mass murders at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon – and on those who aided and abetted this crime that killed thousands of people. The unsettling question, which so far few have been willing to voice, is whether Bush is up to this delicate, complex and dangerous job.
Two weeks after the terrorist attacks, it appears that Bush still has little grasp of the long history of frustration that has met previous anti-terrorism campaigns. It's also unclear whether he recognizes the risks in the geopolitical tradeoffs involved in building an international coalition and the potential costs of an open-ended war.
Bush’s limited sense of the history goes beyond his use of the word “crusade,” which has a European connotation of chivalrous knights in shining armor driving the infidels out of the Holy Lands, but conjures up very different memories in the Islamic world, of a bloody Christian holy war against Arabs. In 1099, for instance, the Crusaders massacred many of the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
Already, Osama bin Laden has seized 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."
Wars on Terrorism
Bush’s short-term knowledge of history seems sketchy, too.
Repeatedly, he has called this war on terrorism a new kind of conflict, the first war of the 21st Century. Yet, his father was vice president in the administration of Ronald Reagan that made combating terrorism a top priority of U.S. foreign policy, replacing the Carter administration’s hallmark of human rights.
Reagan committed his administration to the war on terrorism in the wake of the Islamic revolution in Iran and the radical Arab nationalism of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. The Reagan era's war on terrorism met some success but also failure.
Reagan created special counter-terrorism task forces and authorized the CIA to hunt down suspected terrorists in preemptive attacks that bordered on assassinations. Some administration hard-liners, such as CIA Director William J. Casey, sought to trace virtually all terrorism back to the Soviet Union, combining anti-communism with anti-terrorism.
In Central America, the wars between right-wing governments and left-wing guerrillas also were squeezed under the umbrella of counter-terrorism, with Fidel Castro’s Cuba listed as a chief sponsor of the terrorism. To wage a joint war against “terrorism” and “communism” in Central America, the Reagan administration armed and backed military repression in El Salvador, Guatemala and other countries.
Tens of thousands of Central American civilians were slaughtered in army sweeps of areas considered sympathetic to guerrillas, including massacres of Mayan Indians in Guatemala that a truth commission later deemed a genocide. The U.S.-backed armies also were linked to paramilitary “death squads” that murdered political dissidents, including labor leaders, academics, priests and nuns.
The war on terrorism even led the Reagan administration to engage in terrorism itself, both in Central America and the Middle East. To punish Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government for aiding insurgents elsewhere in the region, the Reagan administration supported the Nicaraguan contra rebels, who earned a reputation for torture, rape and murder as they swept through towns in northern Nicaragua.
One former contra director, Edgar Chamorro, described the contras’ practice of dragging captured government officials into town squares and executing them in front of the residents. American news outlets also reported on larger contra massacres of peasants picking coffee, presumably to discourage economic activity. [For details, see Robert Parry's Lost History]
To counter disclosures of these atrocities, the administration created special propaganda teams that engaged in "public diplomacy" to persuade editors, producers and bureau chiefs to stop these kinds of stories and to remove journalists who filed the reports.
Administration insiders called these largely successful public relations efforts “perception management.” Today’s influential conservative news media is, in part, an outgrowth of those Reagan-era efforts.
In George W. Bush’s new war on terrorism, the nation can expect a similar strategy for shaping public opinion. In the 1980s, the head of State Department's “public diplomacy” office, Otto Reich, is now Bush’s nominee to be assistant secretary of state for Latin America.
Seeds of Violence
In the Middle East, the counter-terrorism campaigns of the 1980s also veered into terrorism itself, with some of the central players of that era still holding center stage today.
Under the leadership of then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. The goal was to crush Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, which was then widely regarded as a terrorist organization.
Allied with right-wing Lebanese forces, Israeli troops forced the PLO to flee Lebanon. But Israel’s Lebanese allies then massacred Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps, drawing U.S. Marines into Lebanon on what was initially a peacekeeping mission.
Gradually, U.S. forces began siding with the right-wing Lebanese army as it mounted paramilitary attacks on suspected Muslim terrorists. The loss of neutrality worsened when the Reagan administration ordered the U.S.S. New Jersey to begin shelling Muslim villages in the mountains. Irate Muslims countered by launching a suicide bombing attack against the U.S. Marine barracks outside Beirut, killing 241 Marines.
Though the surviving U.S. forces withdrew from Lebanon, the war of terror and counter-terror continued. In a 1985 strike against Hizbollah leader Sheikh Fadlallah, Casey helped finance an operation that included the hiring of 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.”
The mixed experiences of the 1980s – and the efforts to contain terrorism that continued through the 1990s – should be both a guide and a warning as America seeks retribution against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 mass murders.
To date, Bush has opted for tough rhetoric but relatively modest action, such as beefing up U.S. military forces near Afghanistan and tightening financial restrictions on money flows to groups considered friendly to bin Laden’s organization.
The initial military phase of the retaliation appears likely to be special operations attacks aimed at bin Laden and his top lieutenants at their Afghan base camps, combined with aerial attacks against his Taliban allies who rule most of Afghanistan.
As Bush moves forward, one of the few institutions that has applied some brakes to any rush toward war has been Wall Street. While joining in patriotic demonstrations, such as singing God Bless America before the start of trading on Sept. 17, institutional investors voted with their dollars when it came to showing confidence in the future U.S. economy.
With war looming, the stock markets went into free fall. From Sept. 17 through Sept. 21, the Dow Jones industrial average plunged 14.3 percent, its biggest percentage weekly drop since the Great Depression. The sell-off reversed somewhat on Monday as the expectation of a hasty U.S. military action faded and investors moved in to pick up some stocks at bargain prices.
A longer-term problem to big investors, however, is that the world that beckoned during the Clinton administration – one of rapidly advancing international cooperation with U.S. industry ideally positioned to profit from the growth – had receded since Bush’s inauguration.
President Clinton pushed multilateral strategies around the world, including peace initiatives in the Middle East. In so doing, he presented the prospect of a world transforming into a single market. New technologies, such as the Internet, also created a sense that communication could transcend traditional national boundaries and bridge cultural divides.
Faced with these new opportunities for growth, U.S. business prospered. Along with the expectations of rapid growth went the stock markets. During the Clinton administration, the Dow more than tripled, from about 3,200 to above 10,000. The technology-heavy Nasdaq more than quadrupled, even counting the dot-com losses last year.
A Declining Economy
Over the past eight months, that rosy future has darkened and the stock market has fallen.
Instead of innovative technologies and alternative energy sources leading the way toward solutions to the world’s energy and environmental problems, the Bush administration has advocated drilling more oil and digging more coal. Instead of international strategies for addressing global problems, the Bush administration favored a go-it-alone approach, at least prior to Sept. 11.
In 1999, the Seattle demonstrations against the World Trade Organization prompted the Clinton administration to begin addressing the inequities that came with the global economy. Clinton's team began work on international standards for environmental protections and labor rules.
By contrast, the Bush administration has taken a staunchly free-market approach to free trade. Bush’s economists maintain that trade organizations should confine their attentions to trade issues and stay away from worldwide regulatory standards.
Bush also repudiated the Kyoto global warming agreement in defiance of the European nations and Japan. Further offending longtime U.S. allies, Bush vowed to scrap the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, in favor of implementing Ronald Reagan’s dream of a missile shield.
On the sensitive issue of the Middle East, Bush pulled U.S. diplomats away from negotiations seeking to stop the spiral of violence in Israel and the West Bank. He alienated pro-U.S. Arab states by directing his toughest criticism about the violence at Palestinian leader Arafat. On Sept. 3, U.S. representatives walked out on a United Nations anti-racism conference because a proposal was under discussion equating Israeli treatment of Palestinians with racism.
Bush appeared to be implementing a foreign policy drawn from the most conservative commentators on the Op-Ed pages.
The economic consequences of the Bush policies also had not been good. The economy teetered on the brink of recession, hundreds of thousands of jobs were eliminated, the non-Social Security budget surplus disappeared. Millions of Americans lost big chunks of their savings and retirement plans in the stock market drop.
Even Bush’s wealthy backers have not been spared from economic misfortune. For instance, members of the wealthy Bass family of Texas – which built a fortune in oil and invested heavily in Bush's political career – were forced to sell a 6.4 percent stake of the Disney Company in what Wall Street insiders called a distress sale. [NYT, Sept. 21, 2001]
If Bush's war on terrorism expands over the next several months, economists agree a full-scale recession could follow. Some estimates see unemployment soaring from the 4.5 percent range of the late Clinton years to about 7 or 8 percent.
Though American investors had come to see the Dow 10,000 as a launching pad for higher growth, it may actually represent a level that was realistic only if the world continued coming together as a single marketplace. With that future fading, the Dow and other indexes might be expected to retreat as well, though probably not all the way back to the Dow 3200 of George H.W. Bush's administration.
Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan made a similar point about the value of world cooperation in congressional testimony on Sept. 20. He stressed the importance of the free flow of goods and ideas to future growth.
"We have developed a really major and, in many respects, extraordinary economic system on a global basis in the last 10, 15 years, resting on technology and the free movement of people, capital goods. And most interesting enough, during the period we've seen increasing evidence that the interaction between economies has enhanced global growth, and, indeed, the growth of everybody," Greenspan said.
"The openness of societies, the openness of economies are very crucial for economic growth, and they can be open only if they are not hampered by violence," the Fed chairman continued. "Violence is complete destruction of the institutions of free markets and of global economic systems."
So, the inexperienced president now is faced with a two-pronged challenge: how to live up to his strong words about an unrelenting war on terrorism and how to do so without tanking the economy and creating deeper divisions in the world.
Bush also must recognize that some of the tradeoffs in fighting terrorism can create potentially worse dangers. To gain support for isolating Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, for instance, Bush waived sanctions that had been placed on Pakistan and India for developing and testing nuclear weapons.
The nightmare scenario is that one of those nuclear weapons – or one from the old Soviet stockpiles – will end up in the hands of a terrorist group intent on an even more dramatic attack on a major U.S. city.
To date, Bush has drawn strength from the unity of the American people horrified by the mass murders of Sept. 11. He also has shown restraint in avoiding a rash retaliation that might have satisfied a thirst for revenge while killing innocent civilians in Afghanistan – and enflaming anti-American passions in the Middle East.
But Bush’s challenge now is to implement a measured – and effective – response to the Sept. 11 attacks. To do that, Bush must recognize the shades of gray that have marked the path behind and surely will mark the struggle ahead.
In the 1980s, Robert Parry broke many of the stories now known as the Iran-Contra scandal for the Associated Press and Newsweek.