Friday, July 23, 2004

The War Against al-Qaeda

An article written by author and policy expert Ronald Bruce St John (the father of Total Information Awareness's correspondent in Japan, Alex St John) touches on some of the sentiments regarding the linguistic significance of the phrase the "war on terror" expressed in a post by Publius. Publius quotes an article in today's Washington Post:

"The Sept. 11 commission report offers a broad critique of a central tenet of the Bush administration's foreign policy -- that the attacks have required a 'war on terrorism.' The report argues that the notion of fighting an enemy called "terrorism" is too diffuse and vague to be effective."

Publius's own take on the issue (from an earlier posting):

That's a very important insight. It's wonderfully ironic that idiots like Andrew Sullivan demagogue people who characterize anti-terrorism as a law enforcement operation, when that's exactly what it is. When Sullivan spews bile towards the "law enforcement" people, he's making the same erroneous assumptions about the centrality of states. For instance, if you see the conflict with terrorism as a problem rooted in bad nation-states, then you must see the conflict as a war - and nations must therefore be invaded. But if you see it as a transnational conspiracy with private funding (much like organized crime), then invasions are actually counterproductive, especially if they enrage and radicalize private sources of wealth and individuals who become willing to use that wealth for terrorism. To classify the conflict with terror (linguistically speaking) as a "war" is simply wrong - and it confuses Americans and makes them less likely to understand the conflict.
Now let's take a look at St John's analysis:

First, the Bush administration has steadfastly refused to define terrorism. In the Bush lexicon, terrorism is a catchall term for interpreting diverse conflicts, from separatist movements to paramilitary activity to arms and narcotics trafficking. The failure to define terrorism enabled the White House to label almost anybody opposed to its policies as a terrorist organization. Groups as diverse in structure and objectives as Peru's Shining Path, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Basque Fatherland and Liberty, the Communist Party of the Philippines, and Hamas are on the State Department's list of designated foreign terrorist organizations.

Early on, this approach served the White House well in its search for recruits in the war on terrorism. Opposition groups in countries whose support the U.S. deemed essential to winning the war were often labeled "terrorist" in an effort to curry support from host governments.

But over time, the failure to define terrorism has become a real liability. The U.S. now has some 5 million names on its master terror watch list, people who are identified as terrorist or believed to represent a potential threat. By listing any terrorist from any terrorist organization, we create a problem, not a solution. We lose focus, and we jeopardize democratic values, trying to monitor that vast number of people. The size of this inclusive terror list also belies official statements that the real concern, al-Qaeda and its affiliates, are relatively small in number, a few hundred or thousand at most.

Related to the first factor is the Bush administration's eager application of the al-Qaeda label to virtually any Islamic group threatening terrorist acts. Regional terrorist groups are invariably portrayed as having been co-opted by al-Qaeda and subject to its command and control. As a result, geographical and country specialists have been forced on the defensive. With the media focused on the global war on terrorism, the White House is not interested in the historical, political, economic, and cultural factors that shaped regional dissident groups. Take Southeast Asia as an example. All of the U.S.-designated terrorist groups in the region were founded long before al-Qaeda made its appearance. Some originated in the 1940s. Al-Qaeda wannabes are out there, often motivated by Bush administration policies, but al-Qaeda isn't everywhere.

Third, the Bush administration has come to see Arab-Muslim terrorism as a phenomenon quite separate from its causes. The Israeli-Palestinian dispute remains the central issue in the Middle East, and until Washington returns to the role of honest broker, there is no hope for a peaceful resolution. The Bush administration has largely accepted the Israeli version of the Intifada, viewing the violence of the Palestinians as "terror" and the inevitable Israeli response as "legitimate self-defense." As a result, both sides are trapped in a downward spiral of violence and retaliation. White House support for Israel's policy of extrajudicial killings, which undermines U.S. initiatives to promote human rights, democracy, and civil society in the region, only compounds the problem.
The Bush administration has used their continued conflation of country specific political uprisings with terrorism, and the inclusion of other distinct Islamic militant groups under the umbrella of al-Qaeda, for multiple purposes. As St John notes, this has been an effective tool for garnering support for the actions of U.S. foreign policy from the governments of otherwise indifferent or hostile countries. We offer to bestow the stigmatizing label of "terrorist" on whatever domestic group they are confronting in return for their consent. This is a tangible incentive, because once declared "terrorists" the countries in question can, and do, switch to more forceful and far reaching tactics.

More damaging, perhaps, has been the Bush administration's ability to deliberately mischaracterize the role of nation states, such as Iraq, in the war against al-Qaeda. It is not uncommon for Bush to refer to Saddam Hussein as a patron of "suiciders" and an aider of "terrorists." Technically, he is referring to Saddam's support for Palestinian militant groups, almost completely unrelated to the mission and methods of al-Qaeda. He is not so careful to clarify though. Furthermore, because militant uprisings, particularly Muslim ones, have been made so indistinguishable from al-Qaeda and its aspirations, the leap was not hard for the American public to make. This at least partially explains the fact that over the past two-plus years, a majority of Americans have expressed belief that Saddam Hussein was in some way behind the 9/11 attacks (the number was initially as high as 70%, but has been coming down to around 50% and below in recent polls), even though all the evidence, and the bi-partisan reports, indicates that Saddam had no collaborative relationship with al-Qaeda, let alone a hand in the 9/11 attacks.

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