Friday, September 24, 2004

The War On [Selected Acts Of] Terror [Committed By Certain Terrorists]

When President Bush first adopted the phrase, the "War on Terror" to describe the efforts to combat the activities of anti-American Islamist Jihadists, many complained that this was a misnomer and a confusion of terms. Terror, it was argued, was a tactic not a group and thus declaring war on this tactic would have been like declaring war on fighter jets after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Washington Post noted that the September 11 Commission report came to a similar conclusion:

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.
What has made the situation even more perplexing is the Bush administration's unwillingness to define terrorism, or who or what constitutes a terrorist. Middle East expert Ronald Bruce St John had this to say on the matter:

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.
Throughout the amorphous evolution of the terms "terrorism" and "terrorist," as they relate to the "war on terror," it is not clear whether the standard is becoming clearer, or more obscure. Bush administration officials seem to be employing the rubric made famous by Supreme Court Justice Stewart when opining on identifying obscenity, "I know it when I see it." But that is not good enough when you are appealing to the international community for support - especially when the perception of your judgment has been so compromised by the many recent mistakes and miscalculations.

For example, 9/11 (an attack perpetrated by al-Qaeda) is conflated with the invasion of Iraq (a country with no meaningful connections to al-Qaeda). Both are called part of the "war on terror" with the former used to justify the latter. This creates a murky world of "terror" that includes perpetrators of terrorism and other uninvolved totalitarian regimes - despicable in their own right, but not "terrorists." One argument is that Iraq represents a part of the "war on terror" because it will reshape the region thus abating the spread of terrorist ideology, but I will leave that argument aside for the moment.

This conflation is further compounded within Iraq, as all opposition to the US military is labeled as terrorist, even though many of the uprisings are populated by Iraqis (the Mahdi Army for example) fighting against an occupying force - a situation traditionally described as an insurgency. Clearly there are some foreign elements more prone to targeting civilians that can be categorized as terrorists, but those tactics are not employed by all, so the term is overused, and its strength and meaning thus diluted.

Maybe, then, it is the tactics used that make them "terrorists." Targeting civilians, be they Iraqi or foreign nationals, is certainly reprehensible, and may be better described as terrorism, even if carried out by Iraqis fighting against the occupying force. But what about confrontation with, and the targeting of, US military personnel? That seems to be better described as an insurgency, even if guerilla warfare is the prevailing means being utilized. Thus, not all Iraqi opposition should be classified as terrorist, only that which uses the targeting of civilians as a tactic. This might necessitate different judgments for movements like al-Sadr's versus that of al-Zarqawi.

The same delineation could be made in Chechnya: confrontation between Chechnyan rebels and Russian military forces could be an insurgency, whereas the targeting of children and civilians in Beslan is more accurately described as terrorism - even if there is an underlying political goal (as there almost always is when terrorism is employed).

This argument seems to be leading to a somewhat firmer principle: defining terrorism as a tactic, and the groups that employ that tactic as terrorists. Unfortunately,
recent actions by the Bush administration further cast this definition in uncertainty and confusion.

Earlier this month, three anti-Castro Cuban exiles flew to Miami from Panama after serving four years in prison for "endangering public safety." They were arrested in 2000 for plotting to assassinate Fidel Castro by planting explosives at a meeting the Cuban dictator planned to hold with university students in Panama.

...After their release, three of the four immediately flew via private jet to Miami, where they were greeted with a cheering fiesta organized by the hard-line anti-Castro community. Federal officials briefly interviewed the pardoned men -- all holders of U.S. passports -- and then let them go their way...A fourth Panama conspirator, Louis Posada Carriles, left Panama for Honduras [and eventually ended up in the United States].
So after outgoing Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso inexplicably pardoned these four men, the Bush administration allowed them entry into the country despite their links to terrorist activities. Here is a look at the resumes of the four terrorists/insurgents:

Pedro Rémon, sentenced to seven years for the bomb plot in Panama, pleaded guilty in 1986 to bombing Cuba’s mission to the United Nations and later conspiring to murder its ambassador to the UN. A New York detective also fingered Rémon for the machine-gun murders of two political opponents.

Gaspar Jiménez, sentenced to eight years for the Panama bomb plot and falsifying documents, had previously served time in Mexico for the attempted kidnapping and murder of Cuban diplomats there. He was also indicted in Florida for blowing the legs off a liberal Miami radio talk show host in 1976. (The indictment was eventually dropped for insufficient evidence, even though the main witness passed several lie-detector tests.)

Guillermo Novo, sentenced to 7 years for the Panama terror plot, was arrested in 1964 for firing a bazooka at the United Nations, where Che Guevara was speaking. In 1978, he was convicted of participating in one of the worst acts of terrorism ever committed on U.S. soil, the car bombing in Washington, D.C. of former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier. (The conviction was later overturned on a technicality, though Novo was convicted of perjury.)

Louis Posada still wanted in Venezuela on charges of bombing a Cuban airliner in 1976, killing all 73 passengers. In 1998, in an interview with the New York Times from a hideout in Central America, Posada admitted taking part in numerous acts of terrorism, including a wave of Havana hotel bombings in 1997 that killed an Italian tourist. He said his violence was funded by prominent U.S.-based supporters in the Cuban exile community. [emphasis added]
How is it possible that the Bush administration, which boasts of its moral clarity, its un-nuanced black and white declarations of "with us or against us," its unequivocal condemnation of targeting civilians by those that commit terror, could allow four individuals involved in the taking of civilian lives into this country unmolested - celebrated even? They seem to be giving credence to the claim that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. That targeting civilians, even aboard civilian airliners, is an acceptable tactic as long as your goal is to disrupt the Castro regime - but not in the West Bank or Gaza. But this is hypocrisy, and one that tarnishes our image and compromises our ability to claim the moral high ground needed to garner international support and cooperation.

Predictably, this decision was not well received in the region:

The release of these terrorists from Panama—ordered by its outgoing president—has caused a furor in Central America. Venezuela recalled its ambassador and Cuba severed diplomatic relations with Panama.

Honduras also protested. "I will . . . demand that the United States and Panama explain how Posada Carriles used a false U.S. passport," declared Honduran President Ricardo Maduro. "How did that airplane leave Panama with Posada Carriles, reach Honduras, and wind up in the United States?"

The incoming Panamanian president, Martin Torrijos, likewise stood on principle when he rejected his predecessor’s decision to pardon the terrorists, saying, "For me, there are not two classes of terrorism, one that is condemned and another that is pardoned. . . . It has to be fought no matter what its origins."
These actions have given life to the claims by many Islamist jihadists, and their tacit and strident supporters alike, that terrorism is in the eye of the beholder. This is the wrong message we want to be sending at such a crucial time as this. Instead, we need to be working on clearer definitions and staid principles from which we can act in such a manner as to win over converts and supporters, not breed cynacism and skepticism of our motives and morals. As flawed as the current wording is, it would be far worse if it became understood to mean the "War On Selected Acts Of Terror Committed By Certain Terrorists."

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