The war on terrorism
January 29, 2004
The stunning capture of Saddam Hussein provides an opportunity
to take stock of America's so-called "war on terrorism." Despite
the fact that no solid evidence has ever been found linking Saddam
to al-Queda and the September 11th attacks on the United States,
President Bush clearly sees Saddam's capture as a major victory
against terrorism. The time is appropriate, therefore, for some
observations concerning the "war on terror."
September 11, 2001 was indisputably the most traumatic
day in modern American history. Over 3,000 people will killed on
American soil. Not only were two important
U.S. institutions--the World Trade Center and the Pentagon--destroyed or severely
damaged, but the collective sense of security the American people enjoyed was
shattered. In the aftermath of such a catastrophe, no nation could have failed
to respond vigorously. President Bush's "war on terrorism," however,
has played directly into the hands of those who seek to harm the United States.
The first problem with the Bush administration's
declaration of a "war against
terrorism" is that such a phrase is fundamentally dishonest. The U.S. is
not at "war" with terrorism in a general sense. The U.S. is at
war with a specific terrorist group-- al-Queda--and its leader, Osama bin
They were responsible for the September 11th attacks. At the same time, the
U.S. is also seeking to destroy or disrupt other organizations believed to
be in collaboration with al-Queda, such as the rebel group Abu Sayyaf in
the Phillipines. It is disingenuous, and downright insulting, to proclaim
world that America is leading a global struggle against terrorism when many
parts of the world, including nations in Latin America, Europe, and Asia,
local terrorism for decades, often without significant help from the United
The gap between Washington's rhetoric of a global
war against terrorism and
the reality of a struggle purely against America's enemies leaves the U.S.
open to charges of hypocrisy and inconsistency. Virtually all of the groups
being seriously targeted by the U.S. in the "war on terror" are
Muslim. This does not mean that virtually all terrorist groups worldwide
are Muslim. There
are many non-Muslim organizations considered by the U.S. government to
be "terrorist" all
over the world. These include the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Sendero
Luminoso (Shining Path) of Peru, and the Japanese Red Army (JRA). None
of these non-Muslim
groups, however, are believed to be conspiring against the United States.
although they are officially condemned by the U.S. government, none are
serious targets of Washington's war on terror. The resulting gap between
rhetoric of a war against terrorism and the reality of a struggle directed
almost entirely against Muslim organizations creates a serious credibility
gap for the
United States with the Muslim world. One of Osama bin Laden's central
charges against the U.S. is that America is at war with Islam.
By declaring a general
war on terrorism, President Bush has actually played into the hands of
bin Laden, making it much easier for bin Laden to argue that the U.S.
is, indeed, at war
The "war on terrorism" rhetoric leaves the U.S. vulnerable to charges
of hypocrisy on other grounds as well. Although it received sanctuary in Afghanistan
until the fall of the Taliban in 2001, al-Queda is basically a stateless group.
In its quest to destroy al-Queda, the U.S. must form alliances with a multitude
of nations. Some of these, such as Syria, have employed "state terrorism" against
their people, torturing and executing individuals, including civilians, to install
fear. The U.S. has supported individuals and governments guilty of state terrorism
on a number of occasions in the past as well--Augusto Pinochet of Chile is a
It doesn't give America credibility when Washington
argues that it is never acceptable to give money to nonstate terrorist
groups such as
al-Queda and Hamas, but effectively says that it is acceptable to
provide assistance to governments that practice state terrorism
whenever doing so is convenient
for U.S. foreign policy. By declaring itself at war with terrorism
as a whole, the U.S. enables Osama bin Laden--as well as any other
point out past instances of American support of leaders who practiced
terrorism, as well as American cooperation with violent regimes
today. By declaring that
its goal is to simply pursue and destroy its enemies, the U.S. would
greatly insulate itself from the damage of such revelations.
The problems with the war on terrorism extend to the very meaning
of the term "terrorism."
has been frequently noted, there is no generally accepted definition
of what constitutes terrorism. How is the Bush administration supposed
to united the
world behind a word whose definition is not even agreed upon? Washington
has exacerbated this problem by itself employing the word in a
way. In the aftermath of September 11th, the White House could
have seized the moment to define terrorism as the employment of
tactics--such as the
deliberate killing of civilians--to achieve a political goal.
Bush administration, however, has done nothing of the sort. Instead,
the administration has considered
terrorism to mean the use of force by any group or person not approved
of by the U.S. government, whether the target is civilian or military.
While this may
be psychologically satisfying to American leaders, it weakens America's
credibility with the rest of the world.
The attack on the U.S.S.
Cole in 2000, and the 1983
bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 Marines,
were very sorrowful events for Americans. One does not have to
condone these incidents,
however, to ask how they can meaningfully be described as "terrorist." In
both attacks, the targets were military. The same can be said with
regard to attacks on U.S. soldiers in Iraq. If these attacks can
be described as terrorism
simply because they were perpetrated by nonstate actors rather than
by a government, then the British can argue that George Washington
and the rest of the Americans
who fought for independence in the U.S. Revolutionary War were terrorists.
Furthermore, the Bush administration's understanding
of terrorism within the larger world context is faulty. Terrorism
is not an end in itself, but a means
to achieve an end. As Grenville Byford points out in his excellent 2002 article
for Foreign Affairs magazine entitled "The Wrong War," the ends as
well as the means of an individual or group must be considered in evaluating
their behavior. Imagine that Germany and Japan avoided deliberately attacking
civilians during World War II, and that the Allies did deliberately attack civilians,
sending suicide bombers to blow up German and Japanese restaurants and shops.
Most neutral observers would probably condemn the
Allies for their use of terrorism. Most would still, however, want
the Allies to win the war, and believe that the
Allies held the morally superior position, because the Germans and Japanese
were the aggressors. By assuming that terrorism is always the most
of a conflict, the Bush administration runs the risk of seeing the world
through a severely one-dimensional lens.
In order for the United States to confront the threat
it faces, the nature of that threat must be clearly defined. The
U.S. is not endangered by terrorism
in a general sense. America is threatened by al-Queda, and those who sympathize
with al-Queda's goals. The goal must be to eliminate or weaken al-Queda and
its supporters as much as possible. President Bush's rhetoric of
a "war on terrorism" only
serves to divert the U.S. from focusing on the specific threat it faces, while
unnecessarily leaving America open to a great deal of criticism.
Lee Howard Hodges, B.A. M.A. Historical Studies, University of
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