April 1, 2004

The United States Cannot Win the War on Terrorism With Its Military

By In Essays

In view of the fact that George W. Bush is running for re-election as a “war president,” Americans must wake up to the fact that the war on terrorism is a global guerrilla war with no end in sight and no victory possible unless the United States radically changes its destructive and shortsighted policies.

Back in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration was sending its CIA operatives to Central America to “advise” government military forces there how to fight against Marxist guerrillas- that is, uneducated and unemployed peasants who didn’t know Karl Marx from Groucho Marx- a reporter asked Jose Napoleon Duarte, the former president of El Salvador, when the guerrilla war in his country would be over. “As long as there is one guerrilla left,” he replied stoically, “the war will continue.”

No military genius, Duarte was smart enough to realize that a guerrilla war was different than a conventional war, and unless his government was prepared to find and kill every guerrilla and the son of every guerrilla, the war was going to last a very long time, not only in El Salvador, but in Guatemala and Nicaragua, two neighboring countries also engaged in civil wars. Today, the same could be said about America’s war on terrorism, which, after all, is the ultimate guerrilla war, since it is worldwide in scope and includes suicide bombers.

When I was a freelance reporter in Central America in the 1980s, it was quite apparent to me that although El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala were all sovereign nations, the cause for civil war in each country was quite similar: repressive and unfair political and economic conditions that precipitated widespread poverty, systematic oppression of the population, and huge disparities of wealth. Not surprisingly, these conditions are also quite similar to those that have existed in most Muslim countries in the Middle East for centuries. Given this scenario, the solution to the Central American problem, as critics of the Reagan administration had suggested from the very beginning (and called “unpatriotic” and worse for their efforts), was for the United States to use its considerable leverage to force the leaders of these countries to reform and negotiate an open and equitable peace agreement with the rebels.

Of course this solution was out of the question since it would have put the U.S. government at cross-purposes with powerful American corporations that had been doing business in the region for decades. It also would have alienated the ruling families and military juntas of each country, who essentially were in partnership with these American companies and assured them cheap labor, little if any government restrictions, and very high profits-as long as they got their cut, of course. As a result of this cozy relationship (facilitated by CIA operatives who were specialists at instigating assassinations and government coups whenever a populist leader emerged), hundreds of thousands of Central Americans were systematically exploited, oppressed, and executed decade after decade during the twentieth century, while American companies and the ruling families of each country got rich and fat.

During this time period, America had the same type of cozy relationship with the ruling families in the Middle East- from the Faud family in Saudi Arabia to the Shah of Iran to Saddam Hussein himself- all to the detriment of each country’s citizens. In Saddam Hussein’s case, the U.S. government not only used our CIA to help him seize power in a violent coup in 1963 against the Iraqi government headed by Abd al-Karim Qasim, but also provided him military hardware, intelligence information, and the wherewithal to build bio-chemical weapons which he used in the Iran-Iraq War and against “his own people,” the Kurds, whom we abandoned as they were gassed en masse. As a result of this ruthless, shortsighted strategy, designed to “protect our interests,” we made a lot of enemies in the Middle East over the years, which, in part, explains why there are a growing number of angry young Muslims in the world who are willing to sacrifice their lives by becoming terrorists or suicide bombers.

In the 1980s, the U.S. employed the same type of strategy in Central American, but it backfired there as well. After decades of living under brutal military juntas supported by the U.S. government and American Big Business interests, the people of Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala finally reached a breaking point and took up arms against their respective governments. During this period, Ronald Reagan and his right-wing cohorts promoted military intervention in Central America and branded the rebels in all three countries as Marxist guerrillas who wanted to destroy democracy and replace it with communism, a convenient argument our government has used whenever our Big Business interests are challenged. Nevertheless, the mainstream news media obediently followed Reagan’s simplistic assessment of the situation and fervently beat the anti-communist war drums.

At the time, I was appalled at how many reporters from the mainstream U.S. news media offered almost no background or analysis about the importance of the long and profitable relationship that American corporations, the CIA, and the ruling families of each country had shared throughout the years. Instead they presented the news as if it were filtered through the public relations department of the Reagan administration, conveniently ignoring the reasons why the peasants were rebelling, and simply slanting the news to conform to Reagan’s quotidian mantra: the Godless communists are trying to take over Central America, and we’re not going to let them get away with it! This superficially macho policy, handled ineptly by the likes of myopic true believers like Oliver North, inevitably led the Reagan administration to break the law, trade arms for hostages, and lie to Congress during the Iran/Contra debacle.

As if in a somnambulistic trance, the mainstream news media once again is reporting the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq without offering any serious analysis about why young Middle Eastern men and women are willing to commit suicide in order to strike out at America. Instead, they dutifully present George W. Bush’s simplistic assessment of the situation as the politically correct viewpoint, i.e., the terrorists are all a bunch of crazy evil bastards who hate the U.S. because we’re a good Christian nation that loves democracy. So far, this self-serving explanation of superior moral rectitude has convinced a substantial number of Americans to support Bush and his war against terrorism. But this support won’t last forever, and just as members of the Reagan administration got caught lying about trading arms for hostages and supporting right-wing death squads that killed innocent citizens and clergy in Central America, Bush and his advisors are currently on the hot seat not only for distorting information about their actions prior to 9/ll, but also for starting an unnecessary war in Iraq based on false assumptions about weapons of mass destruction and imminent threats to the West.

Predictably, what finally ended the guerrilla wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala was not a dramatic military victory by the U.S.-backed reactionary forces in each country, but a change in American policy that supported a series of negotiations and peace plans promoted by the United Nations and Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias of Costa Rica. So what does that tell us? Unless the U.S. is prepared to kill every terrorist and the son (and daughter) of every terrorist on the planet, the international war on terrorism cannot be won militarily and can only be ended through the use of diplomacy. If we refuse to pursue diplomacy, and continue to maintain, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists!” we will end up in a perpetual state of war like our longtime ally Israel, or we will “slog” on for years (even if we catch bin Laden), only to withdraw our military forces in the end, as we did in Vietnam– both disastrous outcomes.

In order to avoid this, the U.S. must begin a diplomatic process, perhaps similar to the Arias plan in Central America, to negotiate a peace agreement with our Islamic enemies, including al-Qaida. At the same time, we must use our considerable economic and political leverage to encourage Israel, once and for all, to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians. This action in and of itself will go a long way to ameliorate the terrorist problem, since many Muslims always have blamed America for the deaths of their “Palestinian brothers” due to its close relationship with Israel.

Once at the negotiating table, we must acknowledge that for decades the U.S. government and the CIA had a hand in creating the underlying cause of terrorism in the Middle East by supporting the repressive and oligarchic regimes of corrupt shahs, crooked kings, and brutal dictators in order to exert our hegemony over the region and secure oil contracts for American companies- and we must be willing to change this policy. In addition, we must be willing to promote genuine democracy in this region, and not titular democracy that only benefits a handful of wealthy sheiks and multinational corporations. And finally, we must demand that our government institute a new energy policy in the United States, one that is designed to eliminate our need for foreign oil by mass-producing renewable energy technology so that it will become affordable for all citizens. (Despite propaganda from the fossil fuels industry and their congressional shills, we’ve had the technology to do it for over 25 years!) And once we no longer need oil from the Middle East, there will be no reason to send our troops to that region of the world to protect “our interests.” Which will also go a long way to ending terrorism, since radical Muslims have always decried the fact that American troops stationed in and around their holy lands are an affront to their dignity and autonomy.

Unless there is a groundswell of popular support for these positions from the American people, however, none of this will happen. And if George W. Bush wins the next presidential election (fairly or unfairly), he will continue to misuse our military might to “win the war on terrorism,” tragically ignoring the lessons we learned in Central America and Vietnam, and are continuing to learn in Israel, year after bloody year. But perhaps this was the plan all along, perhaps the Bush administration has been using the war on terrorism to divert Americans’ attention as they sack the country of its wealth and shred its social safety net through corporate giveaways, tax breaks for the rich, and increased spending on the military/industrial complex. It’s an old trick, really, a little prestidigitation they learned from the same slight-of-hand artists who brought us the debacle in Central America. Only this time the stakes are much higher.

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