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News & Politics

Don't Let the Neocons Call It a 'War on Terror'

If we don't challenge the 'war' narrative, the hawks may just get the existential Clash of Civilizations they've spent decades working for.
There's never been a global war on terror. It's a sham, a ruse. The conflict that's broken out between Israel and Hezbollah shows us, again, how important it is to articulate that. It's a real war, and it has both neocons and Islamic extremists praying that it will escalate into the global Clash of Civilizations that they've long lusted after.

Bush and Congress gave Israel the green light to pummel Lebanon for a while because "Israel is fighting a brave battle in a dangerous front in the War on Terror." And what can we, as Americans, really say about that? After all, we accepted the idea (some of us grudgingly) that there was a global "War on Terror" ourselves -- why shouldn't Lebanon be the next front?

When the media and our political class accepted the war frame, the hawks got a blank check. Everything that followed -- invasions, illegal surveillance and prisoners held in limbo, are all expected during times of war. Once we went to "war," resisting those policies became an uphill fight. War talk justifies powerful states responding to terrorist or insurgent attacks with disproportionate force. That makes the hawks feel macho and will likely create a whole new generation of potentially violent radicals who hate our guts.

We should have fought the "War on Terror" narrative from the beginning. Calling it a "war" is a numerical error, not an ideological difference. There are a few tens of thousands of potentially violent extremists dispersed around the world. They're not gathered in large groups, and you can't distinguish them from ordinary civilians. That makes it fundamentally an intelligence and law enforcement problem (which may require some military support).

But it goes further than that. There's no global war between East and West because there are no discrete sides. First of all, there's no 'Us.' The Western democracies agree that terrorism is a problem, but they are perfectly divided about how to address it. The United States and Israel stand alone in their "wars," the Russians have their "war" with the Chechens and the rest of the world does what simple logic dictates: investigate terror cells and arrest the participants. Sometimes security forces kill them. They've had quite a bit of success.

What's more, we don't really care about Islamic extremism per se. We are no more allied with the Russians in their war with Chechen separatists than we have been with the Chinese as they've cracked down on Islamic groups in Xinjiang. Where U.S. "interests" aren't involved, we're indifferent.

Much more important -- and so many Americans don't get this -- there's no "them." The image of a well-organized global Islamic insurgency is a fantasy. Al Qaeda was one of a dozen Islamic extremist groups that emerged in the 1990s, and Bin Laden was one of a few dozen influential and charismatic militant leaders. Individual groups were fighting separate, distinctly domestic battles; Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya opposed the Egyptian government, Hezbollah was formed to beat back the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, the Group Islamique Armé rose up to topple Algeria's government, and so on.

All of those conflicts had their own unique contexts and histories, and almost all of those movements had legitimate gripes with some rather unsavory governments. Most Americans couldn't tell you what the struggle between the Philippine government and Abu Sayyaf is all about, and why should they? That battle has little to do with us, as so many of them don't. Some of these "terror groups," remember, were called "freedom fighters" when they were pointed at the Soviets or their client states.

In that landscape, Al Qaeda was unique in one important way: Bin Laden, like his neocon counterparts, saw the world gripped in an existential struggle between East and West. He was jockeying for position with dozens of other movements, none of which were based on a broad, global effort against the United States and its allies. Bin Laden focused on US support for the Saudi government, for Israel, for Egypt's repressive regime (a government that imprisoned and tortured tens of thousands of political Islamists) and he preached that the United States was the head of the snake. First defeat America, and then all those individual, national and very particular battles could be won.

This was not an easy sell. Messing with the U.S., it was widely acknowledged, was not a terribly smart course of action, and many militants had a narrowly focused hatred of their own domestic ideological opponents. It also didn't sit well with Bin Laden's hosts. As Jason Burke writes in his excellent book, Al Qaeda, "it is important to recognize that [Islamist movements] in Yemen and Afghanistan, and the regime in the Sudan, have roots in local contingencies that pre-date Bin Laden." They used the sheik and allowed themselves to be used by him, but their conflicts, too, were domestic in nature. In early 1996, the Sudanese government approached the United States and Saudi Arabia and offered to turn Bin Laden over to their security services. They refused. In May of that year, he returned to Afghanistan, where he had developed a reputation fighting the Soviets.

Here we come to a crucial part of the story of the rise of international Islamism -- a narrative the American media has been criminally complicit in ignoring. In August of 1998, independent groups loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda attacked U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Rather than treating the attacks as a security problem that cried out for better intelligence, Bill Clinton reacted by using the tools of war, launching over a hundred cruise missiles at Sudan and Afghanistan in Operation Shortsighted Violence ("Infinite Reach"). The missiles were primarily for domestic consumption -- to deflect attention from Monica's cum-stained dress and to assuage the bloodthirsty right -- and had little effect on violent extremists. But they did knock out Sudan's only pharmaceutical plant, precipitating a disease epidemic that killed tens of thousands of people -- a story ignored by the Western press.

Meanwhile, the Taliban had grown weary of Bin Laden's shtick. They were sick of his public attacks against the "crusaders and Zionists," and while the Taliban's leaders were terribly provincial, they understood that the heat Bin Laden was bringing down on them wasn't helping their cause. Remember, this was a group that was negotiating with Texas oilmen from Unocal to install a major pipeline in Afghanistan; they wanted foreign investment and recognition.

In mid-1998, the Taliban, like the Sudanese before them, cut a deal to turn Bin laden over to Saudi Arabia, where he would be tried for treason and in all likelihood executed. All that the Taliban asked in return was for a group of religious authorities loyal to the Saudi government to issue a statement justifying the move under Islamic law -- a mere technicality.

In July of that year, the deal was confirmed and, in early September, two planes landed in Kandahar carrying Prince Turki and a group of Saudi commandos to collect Bin Laden. But the deal had run into a snag three weeks earlier, when the United States had launched its cruise missiles. The Saudis arrived only to be told the deal was off and to be dressed down by Taliban leader Mullah Omar. The strikes had changed everything.

The missile attack was a disaster with far-reaching consequences. Those Tomahawks validated all of Bin Laden's claims. The United States, it seemed, really was unconcerned with the deaths of thousands of innocent Muslims. Hundreds of extremists who had come to Afghanistan to train for their local fights in Kashmir or the Philippines or wherever suddenly flocked to Al Qaeda, convinced that Bin Laden's epic struggle against the West was their own.

They didn't necessarily share his priorities, but our military response showed he had gotten to us, and he became a hero. It was the beginning of of a trend that continues today: the United States, where political leaders explain complex geopolitical issues in simple binaries (freedom-loving/terror-loving) and are unable to differentiate between a war and a law enforcement problem, stumbles blindly into a full-blown attack on a sovereign country -- pressed ever forward by its psychotic and racist right wing -- with disastrous and unintended consequences. Iraq wasn't the first, and Bush didn't start it -- Clinton did.

9/11 was destined to happen one way or another, even if Bush had paid attention to that famous briefing at his ranch in Crawford. That's because the fuse that set off 9/11 was laid out decades ago in the Reagan era. His administration joined the Saudi regime (and Pakistani intelligence) in promoting an extremist form of Islamic fundamentalism to counter the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Pan-Arabists in the Gulf -- and it was lit by Clinton's fireworks display.

After 9/11, we could have knocked the hell out of Al Qaeda and fractured the delicate coalition that Bin Laden had managed to cobble together after the East Africa bombings. Instead, we launched a "war" on terror, and we again proved to a receptive audience that we're the enemy they should focus on. Abu Ghraib, Iraq, Gitmo -- these are recruiting posters for global Jihad.

We may yet end up with a unified opponent against whom we can fight a global war. But if we do, it will be one of our own making. It'll be because we didn't nip the war talk in the bud.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in The Mix. Read the original here.
Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.
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