Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Terrorist Activity Against the United States: Law Enforcement vs. Causes

The United States has endeavored to deal with a series of problems by a heavy emphasis on what can be called "law-enforcement" approaches, while doing little to face up to causes. This has been true of the "war on drugs" and the illegal immigration from Mexico and Latin America, and it has been true of terrorist activity against the United States.

The "war on drugs" has focused heavily on efforts to interdict international traffic in hard drugs. But this, at best, can be only a holding action, given the huge market for hard drugs that has long been located in the inner-cities of the United States itself. Yet progress in reducing this market has been virtually nil. See the post on American urban policies.

Efforts to stem the tide of illegal workers into the U. S. from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America have not yet faced up to the facts of the labor market that create huge incentives for this migration. A huge part of this contingent of foreign labor is complementary to, not competitive with, the American labor force; if this market were to be met legally, the United States would have to accept a volume of legal guest-workers some ten times what has been allowed under actual U.S. law. Instead of changing that law, Americans continue to be schizophrenic ; they want the advantages of cheap labor but they want "the foreigners out." Here Americans are doing battle with themselves.

The problem of terrorist activity against the United States falls into this same pattern. It has one generic cause --hatred of the United States. Its sources have generally been perfectly normal human reactions to specific foreign policies of the United States; it is a cost associated with those policies. The United States, through its far-flung involvement in world politics, is, in demonstrable fact, entangled in circular processes by which Americans, in effect, "do it to themselves."

We may now survey some of the most relevant subjects.


The state of Israel was created in Palestine as a long-term result of British colonial policy, specifically the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which declared British support for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people," with the proviso that "the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine" be protected. However, it was never politically feasible to live up to this proviso. This seemingly well-meaning project meant establishing, by massive Jewish immigration, decided by British policy during the subsequent British mandate over Palestine, a Jewish state in a country that had been occupied by a vast Arab majority for centuries. There is no way this could occur without massive violence. This has been the record down to the present.

Since the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state in 1948, the United States has had a close relationship with Israel, granting it large amounts of military and economic aid and perpetually declaring it to be a key "ally." Yet Israel, even under its various Labor governments, has always refused to make peace with the Palestinians on any terms plausible to moderate Arab opinion. It has built settlements in the West Bank region, has held on to East Jerusalem, and has promoted preemptive Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. Israel, because of its origins and its policies, has always been an object of hatred among large parts of Arab populations throughout the Middle East. The posture of the United States, despite its efforts to promote Arab-Israeli peace agreements and its diplomatic pressures on Israel, has long incurred deep and widespread hostility within the Arab world. This has long been the case for reasons independent of the fundamentalist currents within Islam.

Long before Al Qaeda appeared on the scene, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. Robert Kennedy was a liberal Democrat of Irish-Catholic background who had aggressively courted Jewish votes by promising more aid to Israel. The assassin was Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year old Palestinian, who had grown up seeing men, women, and children killed by Israeli helicopter gunships supplied by the United States.

Jordan is a country whose royal government has been one of the closest allies of the United States. But only a tiny percent of Jordan's population has had a favorable opinion of the United States. On the day following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, television showed men, women, and children in Jordan dancing in the streets, obviously displaying a deep conviction that the United States was getting exactly what it deserved.

From the point of view of reducing incentive for terrorist actions against the United States, Israel, despite its cooperation in intelligence matters, has been a highly toxic ally.

The entanglement of the United States with Israel is, however, powerfully anchored in American domestic politics. The Democratic Party is tied by the Jewish vote, even though Americans of Jewish background are no longer as uncritical of Israeli policies as they once were. The Republican Party is tied by the religious right. Both parties, however, are tied by a far larger dimension of the indirect power of the Israeli lobby: It is the fact that some 80% of the population of the United States are theistic believers in Christianity, which historically is an offshoot of Judaism, and for this reason tend to have both a sentimental attachment to Israel (the "holy land") and a prejudice against Islam (a "wrong" religion), even in its modern, liberal, and secular forms.

The Two Iraq Wars

Following World War I, the Ottoman (Turkish) empire was partitioned by the victors, and Britain obtained a mandate in 1920, not only over Palestine and Transjordania, but also over the two former Ottoman provinces of Basra and Baghdad, out of which Britain created the state of Iraq. Later, after a long dispute with the Republic of Turkey, Britain added to Iraq a third former Ottoman province, Mosul, in the north, which was rich in oil.

But Britain kept out of the new state of Iraq the sheikdom of Kuwait. This fitted British interests. But, for Iraq, the existence of this autocratic sheikdom has always blocked any optimum shipping outlet to the Persian Gulf -- a situation not wholly unlike the control of New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi by Napoleon when Thomas Jefferson took office as President in 1801. The annexation of Kuwait was a perennial aim of Iraqi nationalists in the period between the two World Wars.

Over time, the development of oil in the Persian Gulf region led to different attitudes toward oil pricing among oil exporting countries, between "low absorbers" and "high absorbers," these terms referring to capacity to absorb oil revenues for domestic development. The "low absorbers" have favored relatively lower oil prices, to avoid stimulating development of other fuels and energy technologies; these include Kuwait, other Persian Gulf oil sheikdoms, and Saudi Arabia. The "high absorbers" have favored higher oil prices, because of stronger domestic pressures for general economic development; these include Iraq, Iran, and Nigeria, among others.

Britain and the United States have a long history of being allied, politically and militarily, with the low-price countries in the Persian Gulf region. Most of the Persian Gulf sheikdoms were for long periods protectorates of Britain. Saudi Arabia, since the Franklin Roosevelt administration, has had a special relationship with the United States, under an understanding, whether written or unwritten, that the United States will provide military protection, not necessarily for the Saudi monarchy, but for the territorial integrity of the Saudi state, and Saudi Arabia will pump enough oil to keep world oil prices relatively moderate.

Saddam Hussein publicly proposed a multilateral partition of Saudi Arabia, by which he surely meant its petroleum region, and he implemented the long-standing Iraqi nationalist aim of annexing Kuwait.

President Bush the elder reacted by declaring that, if Iraq's annexation of Kuwait were allowed to stand, gasoline prices would rise in the United States and this would "threaten the American way of life."

The American public reacted with massive indifference.

The Bush administration then brought out reports of atrocities by Iraqi troops in Kuwait, and overnight a vast majority of the American people were ready for war with Iraq. The result was the first Iraq war, which reversed Iraq's annexation of Kuwait.

In the period between the two Iraq wars, Saddam Hussein was contained by a sanctions regime with no-fly zones. But Saddam Hussein signed oil concessions that would take effect only when the sanctions regime ended, and international support for maintaining the sanction regime disintegrated. Secretary of State Colin Powell, in his famous speech to the UN Security Council, cited reports, later proven to be false, that Saddam Hussein then had "weapons of mass destruction" and declared, at the end of one sentence and in a lowered voice, that "Iraq has regional ambitions."

There is a mountain of evidence that the primary motive for the U. S. invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein's regime, whatever other reasons were adduced in public or may have been genuinely believed at the time, related to oil prices. This means economic imperialism on the part of the United States, and by a pliant Labour government in Britain acting in line with a long history of British diplomacy in the Persian Gulf region.

The human costs of the ensuing second Iraq war included the death of some two hundred thousand Iraqi civilians, some as direct results of bombing but probably more from diseases caused by damage to water and sewage systems.

In the Middle East, this second Iraq war, along with the matter of Israel, has contributed to a widespread impression that the United States considers Arabs and Moslems to be unimportant and dispensable. It has thus made a major contribution to the resonance of the appeals of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in the Arab and wider Islamic worlds.

In the United States, there has been a great silence on this subject of U. S. imperialism, in major part because leaders of the Democratic Party fear accusations of being "unpatriotic." This means they fear the clear fact that large parts of the American population are unable to distinguish between imperialism and "patriotism"--because of belief that whatever "America" does, derives from high and sacred principles.


The United States has two interests in Afghanistan, (1) its own security, i.e. removing--and preventing--havens for terrorist activity directed specifically against the United States, and (2) ideological sympathy for governance under which girls can go to school and women can enter universities and the professions. These are not the same things, and the groups opposing these aims are not necessarily the same.

It appears that U. S. policy in Afghanistan has two basic defects:

First, the Obama administration, though it has been more alert to political factors than its predecessor, still underestimates those factors, and, as a result, is pursuing objectives that are not feasible. Official thinking still tends to be that such and such is "imperative," and therefore is feasible. Enemies can, indeed, be "cleared" and "degraded," but this does not mean things will necessarily stay this way. It is perpetually declared that there can be no lasting "success" in Afghanistan unless Pakistan closes down areas of refuge and supply within its border. But Pakistan has interests and problems of its own that limit such actions. To compensate, the Obama administration has sharply increased aerial drone attacks inside Pakistan. But this arouses popular hostility because of violation of Pakistani sovereignty, and such bombing has quite regularly killed innocent civilians. All this manufactures more terrorists. It appears that the Obama administration will undergo a further learning curve about the limits of U. S. power, and that during this time more American soldiers will be killed and maimed while producing little change in the underlying situation.

Second, U.S. policy has inflated the relative importance of Afghanistan compared to other sources of terrorist activity against the United States. There are other specific "havens," which, moreover, can relocate. But beyond this, there is the underlying reality of the poor image of the United States within the Arab and wider Moslem worlds. This supports recruitment to terrorist actions among thousands of young males of Islamic background throughout the Middle East and also in Western Europe, Canada, and the United States itself.

The continuing U.S. casualties in Afghanistan were not an issue in the Congressional elections of 2010. But they may become an issue in future elections, and could potentially produce major division within the Democratic Party.

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