and he is us!”
Pogo’s eloquent statement certainly rings true today. In America’s ongoing battle in the so-called Global War on Terror (GWOT) we seem to have lost our understanding of our primary objective. Our main goal is not to be “fighting terrorism”, but to be “ending terrorism.”
For more than a decade we have concentrated our military and intelligence efforts on meeting the enemy head-on. Our "anti-terrorist tactics" have morphed into something more aligned with what the civilized world would consider to be "terrorist tactics." With our emphasis on drone-warfare, torture, rendition and worldwide counterinsurgency operations, a quick look into the mirror should show us that our tactics make us no different than the “terrorists” who we are pursuing. Our current credo is:
"Terrorize the enemy, just as they have terrorized us."
With this view, however, we must understand that the innocent people living in the same geographic and demographic world as our identified enemies will ultimately view us as being “terrorists” just as much as we view them as being the same thing. For Americans, this is not just a shift in our military and foreign policy, but also a shift in our cultural way of thinking in regard to those who we perceive to be terrorists. Television shows like Fox’s 24 and movies like Zero Dark Thirty have painted a picture of the villian as being a stereotypical, dark, sinister Arab Muslim, while the hero is always a clean-cut American cowboy (or cowgirl).
Regardless of one’s opinion on the impact of the torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty, it is important to remember that this film does indeed have a “global” impact. Many people in other parts of the world are not viewing this movie from the same “Good Conquers Evil” perspective as the American public. As Matt Taibbi, in his Rolling Stone article entitled “’Zero Dark Thirty’ Is Osama bin Laden’s Last Victory Over America,” stated:
“Now we have this movie out that seems to celebrate the use of torture against Arabs, and we're nominating it for Oscars. Bigelow can say that 'depiction is not endorsement,' but how does she think audiences will receive it in the Middle East? Are they going to sell lots of popcorn in Riyadh and Kabul during the waterboarding scenes?”
We feel that “those people hate us for our freedoms,” while at the same time we feel that we are justified in hating them because of the actions taken by a very small minority of people who live in their part of the world. It is this mindset that has led us to believe that the GWOT is a perpetual war. It will go on forever.
But, does it have to be this way?
If we could shift our mindset to focusing on “ending terrorism” rather than “fighting terrorism,” there could conceivably be an endgame in the GWOT. Ending terrorism involves focusing on two major issues: (1) Minimizing blowback, and (2) Normalizing relations with the Arab Muslim world.
History has shown that American actions in the Middle East and Afghanistan have led to dire “blowback” consequences:
President Reagan meeting the Mujahideen at the White House in 1985
By now, it has become common knowledge that it was the CIA that armed, trained and mobilized the Mujahideen forces in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets in the ‘80s. Numerous articles and books have been written about America’s part in that effort, including this Washington Blog article which takes us through a step-by-step account of the actions that were taken. In addition, Charlie Wilson’s War brought this story onto the big screen.
At that time, our covert actions were considered to be a huge success. As David Johnston noted in the New York Times in 2003:
“But in its time there was little dispute that the covert war was one of the most successful C.I.A. operations ever undertaken, a deadly confrontation conducted through a surrogate with the Soviet empire in its death throes.”
There is also little dispute that the CIA’s arming, training and mobilizing of the Mujahideen (including elements of al Qaeda) proved to be a major part of the circumstances leading up to 9/11. The blowback from these actions cannot be overstated.
Today, we must be aware of (and limit) the potential blowback from operations that are currently taking place in the region. Many young men growing up in Yemen, Somalia and the tribal areas of Pakistan have witnessed the devastation brought upon the innocent members of their families and communities by the drone strikes that are now conducted on a regular basis.
At the same time, many Arab Muslims are watching the global news and film reports of the innocent members of their communities being tortured (or being rendered to other nations to be tortured) or being indefinitely detained. These images are burned into their souls. It is these people who will ultimately seek revenge against us.
Unfortunately, drones are now a major part of our global military arsenals. Many countries have, or will have, the capability to use these weapons in warfare for many years to come. It appears that the United States will not take action to limit their use. However, there is action being taken by the United Nations to look into civilian casualties caused by drone strikes. Let’s hope that this will lead to international guidelines regarding acceptable rules-of-engagement.
Even though the US government has declared that detainee torture has ceased, there is still evidence that suspected terrorists are being rendered to other countries where torture is taking place. Stopping this practice, along with the closure of Gitmo and other secret detention sites, would greatly reduce the potential for future blowback.
Normalizing Relations with the Arab Muslim World
An impossible task? We certainly can’t expect that our efforts in this area will convert the average Yemeni tribesman into a Wallmart shopper and his wife into an avid fan of Dancing with the Stars. But, there are steps that can be taken to soften our image in the region.
The above mentioned Washington Blog article went into detail about the blowback effect of our strong unconditional support of Israel and certain authoritarian regimes in the Middle East prior to 9/11.
After 9/11, the leaders in our diplomatic, military and intelligence communities took extreme measures to combat the terrorist threat, many of which were not well received by the Arab Islamic community. The torture, rendition, indefinite detention programs and the subsequent invasion of two countries in the region didn’t bode well with the average members of these communities. It must be remembered, though, that the tone for these actions was set by a rather radical reactionary group of our leaders at the time.
Condoleeza Rice at State and Donald Rumsfeld at Defense had no military and little or no previous diplomatic experience. They both represented the views of the US energy and military-support industries. Other neo-con decision-makers at the time like Cheney, Bolton and Wolfowitz were spurred on by the hawkish right-wing think tanks to take whatever radical anti-terrorist actions they felt necessary. And, of course, Bush and his surrogate legal staff were there to sign off on their recommendations.
Today, our diplomatic and military leadership appears to be less likely to make the same potential blowback and Arab-relationship mistakes made after 9/11. Yesterday’s confirmation of John Kerry as Secretary of State and the (hopeful) confirmation of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense should set us on the right course for ending the GWOT. Both men are combat veterans. Both men are familiar with and respected by the key players in the Middle East. And, neither man believes that American strength can only be maintained through the use of force.
We seem to be heading in the right direction.