The Blog

Reinventing Terrorism for Prime Time

All of the leading president-aspirants from both parties have embraced a fictional feel-good vision of the United States and its role in the world that is positively dangerous because it is so wrong.
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That politicians might misrepresent their own views for reasons of expediency and to create a false, more electable persona should not surprise anyone. Senator Hillary Clinton's uncharacteristic revelation on June 4th that she prays every day might be regarded as one such self-serving fiction, only slightly less ridiculous than her assertion that she was a Yankees fan while growing up in Chicago. At least she has never claimed that she invented the internet. But the sham of politics as it is practiced is one thing and wallowing in ignorance is altogether something else, particularly when the ignorance is absolutely bipartisan and relates to an issue that might have genuinely serious consequences. Terrorism is one such issue and the potential blowback from misrepresenting the threat it represents could be catastrophic. Unfortunately, most of the politicians who are running for president just don't get it.

All of the leading president-aspirants from both the Democratic and Republican parties have embraced a fictional feel-good vision of the United States and its role in the world that is positively dangerous because it is so wrong. The story goes something like this: there is a gleaming city on a hill that is called the United States. The United States never does anything bad and is not to blame for anything that happens anywhere at any time. The U.S. has been targeted by evil doers called Islamofascists who hate America's freedoms and who attack our cities for absolutely no reason. Islamofascists also hate Israel, which is a splendid little democracy that the United States has a moral obligation to defend. The war in Iraq is a necessary struggle to keep the evildoers from coming over to the United States to carry out their attacks. If one criticizes the war at all, it is in the context of it being a poorly executed diversion of resources that is impeding the real struggle against the selfsame Islamofascists, which is going on everywhere all the time. Islamofascists have no rights. Torturing them is okay, as long as you don't call it torture and only if it produces "information that saves lives." The United States, already exceeding the rest of the world in military expenditures, must spend even more and build a bigger Army and Marine Corps to be truly safe. And then there is Iran. Manifestly evil and something like Nazi Germany. "All options are on the table," goes and mantra, including pre-emptive war and the use of tactical nuclear weapons.

There are, of course, variations on the theme, though generally speaking there is not much space between the various aspirants to the presidency when it comes to foreign and security policy. Some of the candidates like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards do not use the word "Islamofascist" because it is lacking in political sensitivity. Others like Mitt Romney revel in it. Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt all take the prize for the "America without guilt" syndrome, which sees everything in Manichean terms, enabling one to blame malevolent foreigners for whatever goes wrong in the world. John McCain, in particular, has never seen a war he didn't like.

Two out of three of the leading Republicans approve of torture for terrorism suspects and all three accept the need for extralegal overseas prisons like Guantanamo. Mitt Romney even wants to make Guantanamo bigger. Sadly, such fear mongering apparently plays well in places like South Carolina, where candidate Ron Paul, who dared to speak the truth about much of the above, was heckled. On the Democratic side, only former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel had the courage to criticize the other candidates for their moral relativism and their apparent willingness to repeat the unfortunate Iraq experience.

There are a few things that our leading politicians might consider. One is called "cause and effect," or to put it in Newtonian terms, "every action produces an equal and opposite reaction." Since 2001, the United States has been extremely active on the world stage, often recklessly so, and the action has produced a reaction that has ironically empowered terrorists, not weakened them. Terrorism is a major preoccupation of all the leading candidates yet not a single one deals with the issue with anything but slogans and sound bites. Ron Paul aside, no one has conceded that the terrorists might have some identifiable grievances that serve to motivate them and popularize their cause. Dealing with the terrorism problem in a realistic and effective way rather than simply taking the position that military force generously applied provides some kind of solution is clearly not on the political agenda.

The ultimate failure in U.S. policy has enabled Usama bin Laden to successfully use terrorism as a tool against the United States. He does so for very specific reasons that he has taken pains to enunciate. They are actually a reversal of the Giuliani-McCain-Romney assertion that if we don't get them over there we'll have to fight them in Peoria. Bin Laden attacks the United States precisely because we are over there, not because he is appalled by our sexual promiscuity. As he put it some years ago, if he wanted to attack a country because of its freedoms, he would have selected Sweden.

Bin Laden and the rest of the world are aware, even if the presidential candidates are not, that the United States has used its post-World War Two primacy to invade more countries than all other nations combined. The fact is that in only five years George Bush's go-it-alone America has become one of the most disliked countries in the world, universally reviled as a leading threat to peace. Everyone but America's politicians is seemingly aware that the United States supports corrupt, dictatorial regimes worldwide while at the same time talking hypocritically about promoting democracy. When democracy does occur and the result is unpalatable, as has occurred in Palestine and Lebanon, the U.S. pulls the plug.

And then there is Iran, which is really about Israel because Iran does not actually threaten the United States. The Iran agenda includes pre-emptive military action if necessary and the implicit deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to destroy Tehran's alleged weapons program, both issues that should make even the most hardened politician pause. But all the leading candidates have unflinchingly completed their obligatory obeisance to Israel and its principal lobby AIPAC. All have sworn to defend Israel to the last dead American soldier if that should become necessary though not a single one has bothered to make a coherent argument why that should be so beyond the usual assertions about terrorism, which, incidentally, have themselves been carefully crafted by Israel and its lobby to justify the "special relationship." The rest of the world sees it all somewhat differently. Israel is engaged in a brutal occupation that is clearly visible on satellite television nightly. Its repression of the Palestinians is enabled by the United States. If the candidates actually believe that the United States should go to war for Israel no matter what Israel does, perhaps they should say so unambiguously. Ignorance of the negative consequences of the U.S.'s writing of a blank check for Israel, which fuels much anti-American sentiment and terrorism, should not be acceptable.

And then there is the support of all the leading presidential candidates for a larger army. Why on earth would the U.S. need more soldiers? To fight more wars, obviously. The wearing down of the armed services due to never-ending involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has resulted from a series of bad decisions, not because the world's most competent military was inadequate. More bad decisions to invade other places with a bigger army would not constitute a solution and increased resources only invite the politicians to engage in more mischief. Far better a lean and hungry Pentagon. The rest of the world is not confused by the patriotic rhetoric and crocodile-tear concern expressed by the candidates for "our troops." It is simply following the presidential debates to learn "Who's next?" on the Pentagon hit list.