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Fundamentally dishonest
The war on terrorism

January 29, 2004
The Iranian

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 Laden. 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 possibly be in collaboration with al-Queda, such as the rebel group Abu Sayyaf in the Phillipines. It is disingenuous, and downright insulting, to proclaim to the world that America is leading a global struggle against terrorism when many parts of the world, including nations in Latin America, Europe, and Asia, have battled local terrorism for decades, often without significant help from the United States.

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. unnecessarily 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.

Therefore, although they are officially condemned by the U.S. government, none are serious targets of Washington's war on terror. The resulting gap between America's official 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 with Islam.  

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 notorious example.

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 adversary--to endlessly 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."

As 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 virtually meaningless way. In the aftermath of September 11th, the White House could have seized the moment to define terrorism as the employment of certain tactics--such as the deliberate killing of civilians--to achieve a political goal.

The 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 important facet 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 Maryland, Baltimore.

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By Lee Howard Hodges



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