Which War Is This Anyway?

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Throughout much of the Cold War, people feared above all else a global hot war, the third great one in a century of devastating world wars; and we crept up to it more than once — most desperately, there can be no doubt, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. For decades, the world was poised for that next world war; the two superpowers with their nuclear arsenals running to thousands of weapons (as they still do), a few hundred of which would have been civilization-busting, many hundreds of which might have been nuclear-winter inducing and life extinguishing; all of them cocked in their silos or loaded in the bomb-bays of Soviet or American planes, or stashed on the submarines that made up the unreachable third leg of the nuclear “tripod” and were primed for almost instantaneous action. World War III, which might have ended it all, could indeed have started, as the U.S. military feared for decades, with those Soviet tanks pouring through the Fulda Gap in Germany, and escalated from there to “theater,” and finally intercontinental, ballistic missiles. It would have been a show. The last picture show, you might say. And, let’s face it, it didn’t happen.

Yes, the two superpowers, armed to the teeth and eyeing each other for half a century, oozed aggression, and fought and bled each other in a series of proxy border wars; relatively overtly in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan; more covertly or indirectly in lands ranging from Tibet to Angola. (Yes, yes, in each of those cases, other powerful forces were at work, but certainly the global Cold War was part of the mix.) Nonetheless, over those fifty-plus years — despite mutual memories of bloody stalemate in Korea, our memories of grim defeat in Vietnam, and Russian memories of the same in Afghanistan — the most striking aspect of the Cold War was that the emphasis remained, however barely at times, on the “cold,” not the “war.” It’s worth saying more than once, given our present moment and the claims being made: World War III never happened — or I wouldn’t be sitting here on the Internet writing this and you wouldn’t be at your computer reading it. Put another way, “the Cold War” was simply an oxymoron that we got incredibly used to; a small, bleak sigh of linguistic relief at what hadn’t quite (yet) come to be.

I mention this ancient history only because, to listen to the neoconservatives and their various allies now embedded in the top ranks of the Bush administration (or in well-connected think tanks and front groups scattered inside Washington DC’s Beltway), we are in fact enmeshed in nothing less than “World War IV” today. Eliot Cohen, professor of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University, first proclaimed us there as the Afghan War was underway, just a couple of months beyond September 11, 2001. Former CIA Director James Woolsey swore we were there as the invasion of Iraq began in 2003. The grandfather of the neocons, Norman Podhoretz, reaffirmed that World War IV was the only war in town, the only thing that mattered, last September in a gargantuan piece in Commentary magazine. Others regularly say the same. It’s become a commonplace trope of the imperial right. They even have full-scale World War IV conferences (happily attended by Paul Wolfowitz among others) and arguments over the term’s exact nature abound. Woolsey, who seems to be making a profession of roaming the country, preaching World War IV to the unconverted, is already dubbing it “the longest war of the 21st century,” or as Steve Clemons, President of the New American Foundation, puts it, the new “Hundred Years’ War.”

Conceptually, it underlies the slightly toned down, but still distinctly ramped up, description of our present state proclaimed from the planetary rafters by the Bush administration — that we are, as the White House was already announcing before the end of 2001, “one hundred” days into a multi-generational “global war on terrorism,” now more familiarly (and rather fondly) known among the cognoscenti by the awkward acronym GWOT. Since WWIV and GWOT are the allied rubrics under which our world is being reorganized, it’s worth taking a look at them and how well or poorly they describe that world.

Back in November 2001, introducing the term World War IV — he now says “tongue-in-cheek” — Eliot Cohen wrote: “Political people often dislike calling things by their names. Truth, particularly in wartime, is so unpleasant that we drape it in a veil of evasions, and the right naming of things is far from a simple task.”

The right naming of things. As Cohen says, it’s no small matter. And since he wrote that passage, this administration of lexicographers has spent startling amounts of time, dictionaries in hand, renaming and redefining terms ranging from our country or nation (now “the homeland”) to the outsourcing of torture (“extraordinary rendition”) — always, not surprisingly, to their advantage. Either in its baldest form as World War IV, or as the slightly milder GWOT, this particular renaming of our moment — in a sense, the largest renaming of all — has many advantages.

At the simplest level, each term provides an umbrella of meaning for what otherwise might be experienced as remarkably disparate events. Both are convenient catch-all terms that implicitly advance political programs and so are remarkably useful. World War IV, in particular, places whatever is happening now in an ancestry that descends from World War II or the “Good War” (World War I is really just an add-on) and what’s now called “the greatest generation.” As a name, it’s also instantly alarming, fitting an American sense that something cataclysmic, apocalyptic, and completely singular happened to us on September 11, 2001 and that any response to it should be in a similar cataclysmic, singular, and even apocalyptic vein. (After all, a quarter of Americans in a recent Gallup poll claimed themselves ready and willing over three years later to use nuclear weapons to “attack terrorist facilities.”)

With its Cold War overtones of nuclear annihilation, World War IV implies that our very existence as a nation is in immediate danger and will be for years, decades, perhaps a century or more to come; and yet it is also a familiar, even reassuring image — another global war in the triumphant tradition of the three that preceded it. In this way, it can both scare people and help make instant sense of, and lend instant meaning to, things happening all over the world. After all, if this is a global war, then events in Afghanistan and Spain, or Central Asia and Iraq don’t really have to be explained fully; they can just be subsumed in, and related to, the larger World War, using the familiar war language of “fronts,” “battles,” and “theaters” in a far vaster struggle. (“But as I will attempt to show,” writes Podhoretz typically, “we are only in the very early stages of what promises to be a very long war, and Iraq is only the second front to have been opened in that war: the second scene, so to speak, of the first act of a five-act play.”) In fact, you can sweep anything — Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, North Korea — into the same war-basket of meaning, just as our President swept two bitter enemy nations (Iraq and Iran) and one completely unrelated state (North Korea) into an “axis of evil” (which drew, obviously, on the memory of World War II’s Axis powers).

“World War IV” does many other useful things as well. It moves the goalposts into the future, way off there in an endless generational struggle. In other words, it conveniently excuses much that might otherwise seem baleful or ridiculous in the present. And of course it disarms critics — for who wants to stand in the path of a necessary global war against your own annihilation? As an image, it (and GWOT) undergird what, in the Cold War, was called the national security state and now has morphed into an even more all-encompassing homeland security state. The two terms make sense of soaring Pentagon budgets, offshore mini-gulags, and so much else. It becomes possible to write, as Earl Tilford, former director of research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute, did: “This is World War IV. Forget the sleazy sickness of Abu Ghraib. Stop mouthing meaningless slogans like, u2018Bush lied, soldiers died.’ Steel yourselves for a long, bloody fight. This is a war we must not lose.”

Think of WWIV or GWOT as a kind of “bulking up,” a Rambo-esque urge to hype-up the present. If you go back to the 1950s and catch your basic cowboy film, those strong, silent heroes — it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about John Wayne, Gary Cooper, or even Alan Ladd — are, in retrospect, strangely unimpressive looking. They don’t seem either that large or particularly strong. They usually were only modestly armed with a six-gun or two. Most of the time, they didn’t even shoot down that many enemies. And yet, in those post-World War II/early Cold War days, they looked strong enough to us.

After the American defeat in Vietnam, our heroes — from Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) to Arnold Schwarzenegger — began to bulk up, to wear their muscles on their sleeves, so to speak, so that no one could mistake them for anything but strong, silent types; and should you have made that mistake, they and their slightly shrimpier peers were so completely over-armed that you wouldn’t have made it twice. In the post-Vietnam era, the United States began to muscle up in a similar manner and that process — at first psychologically defensive in nature — has now, I suspect, neared its zenith in the imagery of World War IV. It’s the good fortune of the Bush administration neocons that they have as an enemy the fanatics of al-Qaeda, filled with their own global-war pretensions and hell-bent on their own version of bulking up. (Let’s not forget, by the way, that, given globalization, both sides have probably seen and been affected by the same bulked-up action and disaster movies with bulked-up special effects.)

But are we really in a multi-generational GWOT? Is this really World War IV? Let’s start with that number IV. For the image to work, you do have to accept that the “Cold War” — and the marriage of those two words always indicated that as a war it would remain half-frozen because the full-fledged hot version of itself could never be fought — was indeed World War III, which, as I’ve already indicated, it most distinctly wasn’t. And if you move beyond the phrase World War IV (which most people won’t) into the elaborate writings produced by its proponents, you find that what they really want to do is cherry-pick the “best” of the two actual world wars — their sense of globalism and mission, the threat of mass death and the apocalyptic (the Holocaust in particular) against which to mobilize, the raw badness of World War II’s enemies — and combine it with the “best” of the Cold War.

After all, World Wars I and II lasted inconveniently short periods of time for our planners’ purposes; 4 years in one case, 6 in the other (longer, if in Asia you begin with the Japanese invasion of China). No multi-generational struggle there, unfortunately, and it’s the time they want above all. Time without end and a war that can be put in the company of World War II (but without anything like the equivalent in actual warfare). What they would far prefer is the threat level of the World Wars combined with the localized fighting of the Cold War era.

Of course, they want their enemies not only evil, but imposingly so — and, as a result, scattered groups of terrorists and their supporters in World War IV writings are regularly compared to Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, the monster industrial states of the last century. Despite the constant invocation of the Nazis, Roosevelt, Churchill, and so on, World War IV-ers in the fine print can be almost defensive about the limited nature of World War IV. (“Those parallels [with the Cold War] are: that it will last a very long time — decades; that it will sporadically involve the use of military force, as did the Cold War in Korea for example; but that an important component would be ideological.”) What they are especially enamored with, though, is the idea of a lengthy, life-and-death global struggle to victory, or as James Woolsey puts it, “We helped win World War I, we prevailed, along with Britain, in World War II, and we prevailed in the Cold War.”

As people who like having a war on their hands, they have long been in the process of both bulking up and stripping history down to one-size-fits-all, streamlining it for action in support of a program of American global domination that involves the further militarization of our society, remaking the Middle East in their own image, controlling the oil lands (the so-called “arc of instability”) of the world, and, oh yes, of “democracy” of a sort. Much of their program, as you’ll notice if you read old documents from the Project for the New American Century website, was already in place before September 11, 2001 (just as the ill-named Patriot Act was brought into existence so quickly because all sorts of already existing right-wing legal hobbyhorses were simply swept into it).

As the names “World War IV” and “the Global War on Terror” imply, modesty is ill-suited to the men who are promoting them. No John Waynes or Gary Coopers in this crowd. From their think-tank or governmental perches, every one of them is a Terminator with the intellectual muscles to show for it. But if we were to put WWIV aside for a moment and, starting with September 11, 2001, took a calmer look at the world we find ourselves in, what would we actually discover?

Re-examining the War We Have

September 11, 2001: On that morning over three years ago, three planes smashed into American buildings (and one went down short of its target over Pennsylvania). Of the three buildings, the Pentagon is in a sense now largely forgotten, despite the memorial being built for it using private funds. As a target, it had obviously been chosen to represent America’s global military power — as the World Trade Center was to represent financial power, as the downed plane was surely heading for some building representing political power in Washington DC. And yet, as far as I know, the spot where United Flight 93 ploughed into the Pentagon has no special name and no particular mythology attached to it, although people died there too.

In the Hollywood terrorist Kabuki that Osama bin Laden engineered and Mohammed Atta carried out, what’s remembered, of course, is not the smoking Pentagon but the two towers in New York crumbling (and crumbling again and yet again on television for all to see). The spot where they went down, with the slaughter of thousands, was promptly dubbed Ground Zero, previously the designation only for an atomic blast, and it was treated the way it looked on television (and I might add, for those of us who lived in New York, the way its ruins looked in person) — as if an apocalyptic event worthy of the World War-III-we-hadn’t-had had actually taken place in our midst.

The brilliant aspect of the al-Qaeda assault on America was its ability to combine such modest ingredients into a visual mega-package, a blockbuster of a disaster: money in the range of $400,000—$500,000, flight-school training, box cutters, mace cans, the element of surprise, and the hijacking of a vehicle — a very large vehicle well supplied with combustible fuel — all of the above to be directed at three symbolic targets on, as luck would have it, a bright, beautiful, photogenic day, in the knowledge that (as everywhere in our world) the cameras would be there, and on, and prepared to mix-and-match scenes that had already been previewed in so many Hollywood action thrillers in which terrorists attack, the towering inferno burns, the atomic bomb goes off. And then there was just the blind, dumb good luck — from the attackers’ vantage point — of having both buildings collapse in full camera view in the midst of New York City. Throw in the fact that nothing like this had happened in the continental United States since the British burned down Washington in the War of 1812 and you have a truly combustible mix of elements.

Not surprisingly, most Americans focused on the apocalyptic aspects of what had happened, and not the paltry 19 men in stolen vehicles who carried out the attack. Nothing proved more fortuitous for Bush administration planning than that. (In 1993, after all, when one tower of the World Trade Center was bombed and damaged but didn’t come down, no one thought that we were in World War IV, though the intent was hardly different.) Top officials in Washington seized not the relatively modest scale of the preparations for the attack, but on the apocalyptic look and feel of the event.

And yet — though no one in the mainstream can say this any more — as World War IV or even a global “war” on terrorism, this is all absurd (however useful it may have been in forwarding administration desires to sweep Saddam Hussein from power, free the President from the checks and balances of our system, curtail irritating civil liberties, and so on). Imagine, for instance, if after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by a Serbian terrorist (or, if you’re a Serbian, nationalist) in August 1914, the European powers had mobilized their vast, lumbering armies not against each other but against anarchists, terrorists, and others threatening the crowned heads and leaders of Europe — and declared the world at war.

That the Bush administration did this certainly confirmed Osama bin Laden’s wildest dreams of al-Qaeda’s global importance, in this sense, as Robert Jay Lifton suggested in his book Superpower Syndrome, the most extreme American and Islamist apocalyptic visions had soon partnered up and begun to dance together. In reality, the al-Qaeda variety of militant, political Islamism is (or at least then was) a paltry figure to fill the role of a Nazi-style enemy (or to fit the term “Islamo-fascism”). Though in the writings of neocons (like former CIA director Woolsey’s) they are regularly compared to Nazis, Osama bin Laden and his associates in 2001 bore a far greater resemblance to a malign version of the Wizard of Oz behind that curtain. After all, their organization was relatively small in numbers and controlled not a single industrial plant, not a significant army (despite those training camps and the armed fighters they organized for the Taliban), not a weapon of major importance, and only, to some degree, a single state — one of the most impoverished on this planet, decimated by decades of occupation and civil war: Talibanized Afghanistan.

The Afghan War: That leads us to the first war the Bush administration launched — against the Taliban (and al-Qaeda in its camps and caves). This was a proxy war, similar to the one fought by the CIA in Laos in the 1960s and early 1970s (or even various proxy wars fought in Central America in the 1980s). CIA agents toting suitcases stuffed with money hired local tribal leaders (the Northern Alliance and various Afghan warlords) as their foot soldiers, then supplied arms, overwhelming air power, some special forces units on the ground, and in short order the ill-prepared, ill-armed Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters were swept from the battlefield, and largely destroyed as a fighting force.

Though presented in typical hyped-up form as a monumental victory and monumental payback for September 11, this was a modest triumph indeed by Cold War standards; a non-war when set against either World Wars I or II. It wasn’t even terribly successful. It didn’t, after all, manage to capture or destroy either the Taliban or al-Qaeda leadership. What it managed to do was dismantle the most rickety, most regressive state on Earth and, as it happened, replace it with one of the poorest and still most regressive states on Earth whose only claim to fame is that it’s fast becoming the globe’s most advanced narco-state. (In our press, Afghanistan is now generally hailed as a “democracy” largely because, as in the period of the Soviet occupation, greater rights are available, especially to women, in Kabul and a few other cities.)

Even as a blow against “global terrorism,” the Afghan War may have not been especially effective — and here I’m not referring to the fact that Osama bin Laden escaped capture. The irony is that the Taliban, left alone to fester and implode, would have been one of the great anti-examples on Earth when it came to al-Qaeda’s medieval dream of a revived Islamic Caliphate. It was such a bottom-of-the-barrel theocratic state that there would have been few on this planet, Muslim or otherwise, yearning to emulate it. Swept away in the manner it was, it actually freed al-Qaeda types around the world to dream of glorious futures unimpeded by ugly reality.

The Iraq War: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, unconnected as we know now (as we could have known back then) to the September 11th assaults or to al-Qaeda, was swept conveniently into World War IV/GWOT in ways now familiar to many. If, however, you think “empire” rather than “global war,” our Iraq invasion and occupation makes a lot more sense, falling as it then would into the category of a frontier or colonial war. Like so many imperial wars before it, it is being fought, at least in part, for the control of rich natural resources meant either for the imperial homeland or at least as a way to gain an advantage over other great powers of the moment.

Our now unending Iraq War has all the hallmarks of a nineteenth or early twentieth century colonial war (even, in fact, of Great Britain’s colonial war in Iraq in the 1920s). There was the initial shock-and-awe attack, representing the disparity between the weaponry and industrial organization available to Western imperial states and to the native peoples they conquered. There was the occupation with its glorious civilizational claims and its overweening arrogance; there was the developing resistance, which quickly took the form of a guerrilla war and shocked the occupying great power with its ferocity, tenacity, cruelty, and success against what looked like overwhelming odds; there was the ever more brutal colonial response, the obvious racism, the attempts to create malleable “native” regimes, and so on. None of this had then, or has now, anything to do with the twentieth century’s global wars as we understand them.

Terrorism: In the meantime, since September 11, 2001, in Spain (the Madrid railroad bombings, 191 dead), Turkey (synagogue and bank bombings, 29 dead), Lebanon (the Hariri assassination, at least fifteen dead), Morocco (Jewish community center, Spanish restaurant and social club, hotel, and the Belgian consulate, 40 dead), Afghanistan (recent car bombings, 12 dead), Tunisia (synagogue, 19 people dead), Bali (nightclub bombings, 202 dead), Thailand (car bombing, 5 dead), Saudi Arabia (at least 35 dead in multiple attacks on housing projects and an oil facility), Pakistan (12 dead), Russia (330 dead in Beslan school attack, 89 on two sabotaged jetliners, and 5 more in a bombing near Kizlyar), the Philippines (coordinated bomb attacks, 11 dead), and a relative handful of other places, there have been destructive terrorist attacks, each bloody and horrific in itself, many of them unconnected or barely connected, and none, except the Spanish one briefly, crippling to any aspect of the modern world as we know it. While several hundred people died in Spain and in Bali, overall the casualty figures — for a purported world or global war on and of terrorism seem modest. Set any of this against the Holocaust, or Hiroshima, or D-Day, or the rape of Nanking, or the siege of Leningrad, or the taking of Berlin, or the battles of Ypres or the Marne in World War I, or any of the grim battles of the Korean War, and you can see how relatively un-warlike all this really is.

Scorecard: One terrifying, massively destructive terrorist attack; one small proxy war (very low-level guerilla attacks still ongoing); one colonial-style war and occupation (ongoing); scattered terror attacks (ongoing). And a steady drumbeat of very heated rhetoric.

Weapons of Mass Destruction: What gives World War IV its very partial sense of reality isn’t what’s happening now (despite the fierceness of the Iraq War) or even what happened on September 11, 2001, but a set of frightening future possibilities, all of which rest on the present existence of vast arsenals of weapons of mass destruction, especially of nuclear weapons. Tens of thousands of them have been built and still reside on this Earth, and more are clearly coming. At least some of them, especially in the former Soviet Union and also in Pakistan are now held, politely put, under less than reliable circumstances. (But let’s remember as well that the anthrax in the unsolved and now largely forgotten anthrax mail attacks of 2001 — the only weapon of mass destruction ever used on American soil, if you ignore atomic testing — almost surely dropped out of the American Cold War bio-war labs, not the Soviet ones.)

It’s now clear that, ever since the A-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there has been a brake of some kind — one that seems to have preceded the concept of “deterrence” into existence — on nuclear powers using the nuclear weapons they have. This was the deepest reality of the Cold War and remains so — as in the Indian-Pakistani nuclear stand-off not so many years back — in our present world (as it undoubtedly will even if North Korea already has the bomb and Iran gets it). But it’s a brake that works only for states. There is no reason to believe that terrorist groups which might someday get their hands on such weapons would be similarly constrained. In fact, car- and airplane-suicide bombers speak grimly to this reality; as does the fact that the only WMD ever in the hands of terrorists or cult groups (as far as we know) has been used — in those anthrax mailings of 2001 but also in the Aum Shinrikyo sarin-gassing of the Tokyo subway system back in 1995.

This horrific possibility — in the future, not the present — is, I suspect, what actually gives World War IV its punch, what makes it seem faintly plausible and a relatively small groups of terrorists so dangerous; or rather, this, plus Bush administration global policies that involve the profligate threat of and use of military force in ways sure to breed further terrorism and terrorists (while offering some of them on-the-spot training in Iraq), and that have reaffirmed nuclear weapons as the global currency of ultimate power. In this sense, World War IV and GWOT may be the policy equivalents of self-fulfilling dreams.

What Could or Should Be Done?

Police Work: It’s worth recalling that another post-9/11 path was suggested in the wake of the suicide attacks on America. When you read the World War IV literature what you quickly notice is that these men, their eyes focused on the crumbling towers (and on a prior policy wish-list), claimed the moment to be transformative and undoubtedly believed themselves (like our initially panicked President) in a World-War-IV-type situation. There was, however, another group which looked at the same situation, considered the horror, but focused, both more modestly and, as it turns out, more realistically, not so much on the crumbling towers as on the small set of men and the obviously audacious yet circumscribed operation that made those towers crumble. What they saw, reasonably enough, was a massive act of terror and murder, both an international crime and an armed act of propaganda, but not an act of war la, say, Pearl Harbor.

As the Bush administration and its neocon allies called for a global response that rose to the level of apocalyptic battle, small groups of legal types and liberals called for a response keyed to those 19 men and the dangerous but modest-sized organization behind them. They claimed “terrorism” was a method of asymmetric warfare, not an enemy; that our actual enemy, while determined, fanatical, and murderous was not the equivalent of a state and that what was at stake was not “war” at all; so they called, in one fashion or another, for internationally cooperative police work to bring the criminals and murderers to justice and to dismantle their organization or organizations. This approach was instantly and roundly dismissed — trashed, you might say — by the administration and its various acolytes and has now largely fled the national mind.

Law professor Anne-Marie Slaughter was not atypical. On September 16, at a time when the Bush administration was already making plans to take out Iraq as well as Afghanistan, she wrote a piece for the Washington Post (A Defining Moment in the Parsing of War) in which she reminded all and sundry, in part, that:

“From a legal perspective, the difference between calling what has happened war and calling it terrorism is considerable. It is the difference between military conflict and criminal justice (of the sort meted out just months ago on the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993). It is the difference between bombing a state and punishing an individual or several individuals. And it should mean the difference between acting together with other nations and going it alone.

“International law has a framework for hunting down hijackers and terrorists. More than 150 states have signed treaties designed to prevent terror in the skies. They have pledged to make hijacking a criminal offense and either to prosecute or extradite hijackers found within their territories. The U.N. General Assembly has also condemned terrorism and upheld the obligation to prosecute all terrorists.”

Such thoughts were dismissed as typical of liberals, an ill-equipped and unwarlike crowd, scared to flex anyone’s muscles, and obviously incompetent to respond to such an attack on “the homeland.” Four years later, however, with Iraq firmly, even catastrophically, ensconced as what the President now likes to call “the central theater in the war on terrorism” — as, that is, a terrorism-creation machine as well as a bottomless pit for the American military — things look a bit different. Our military claims to have swept up thousands of low-level al-Qaeda (and Taliban) members in their literal “war” on terrorism and many of them ended up either in Guantanamo or at various secret or semi-secret detention centers around the world; but when it came to significant figures in the terror organization, the actual “war” on terrorists has turned out to be a matter of — as Anne-Marie Slaughter and others suspected back then — hard-won law enforcement and police work by various combinations of national police forces around the world.

In fact, as research for this piece by the Center on Law and Security at NYU School of Law suggests, just about all the major captures of significant al-Qaeda figures (or figures claimed to be significant) have been made not by the American military (a blunt instrument indeed when it came to the capture of men like Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, or countless others) but by law enforcement. Here is a listing of a number of the alleged terrorist figures, large and small, who were captured in the post-9/11 years (arranged by name, place and time of apprehension, whom apprehended by [LA stands for “Local Authorities”], and current custody if known):

John Walker Lindh, Afghanistan 12/2001, US, US
Yasser Hamdi, Afghanistan, 12/2001, US, US
Mullah Fazel Mazloom, Afghanistan, Northern Alliance, US
Mullah Abdul Wakil Muttawakil, Afghanistan 2/2002
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, Afghanistan, US
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Pakistan 3/2003, US, US
Ramzi Binalshibh, Pakistan 9/2002, Local Authorities (LA)
Abu Zubaydah, Pakistan 3/2002, Joint Pakistani police, FBI, and CIA team, US
Yassir al-Jazeeri, Pakistan 3/2003, LA
Ibn Al-Shaykh al-Libi, Pakistan/Afghanistan, LA
James Ujaama, US 7/2002, LA, US
Richard Reid “shoe bomber,” US 12/2001, LA, US
Jose Padilla, US 5/2002, LA, US
Zacarias Moussaoui, US 8/2001, LA, US
Enaam M. Arnaout, US 4/2002, LA
Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Undisclosed, LA, US
Mohammed Haydar Zammar, Morocco, LA, Syria
Abu Zubair al-Haili, Morocco
Ali Abdul Rahman al-Ghamdi, Saudi Arabia 2003, LA (surrendered himself)
Ahmed Ibrahim Bilal, Malaysia, LA
Abu Anas Al-Liby, Sudan 3/2002, LA, Sudan
Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Mauritania, LA, US
Omar al-Faruq, Indonesia 6/2002, LA, US
Imam Samudra, Indonesia 11/2002, LA, Indonesia
Mohsen F, Kuwait 11/2002, LA
Najib Chaib-Mohamed, Spain 1/2002, LA, Spain
Atmane Resali, Spain 1/2002, LA, Spain
Ghasoub al-Abrash al-Ghalyoun, Spain, LA, Spain
Abu Talha, Spain, LA, Spain
Bassan Dalati Satut, Spain, LA, Spain
Mounir al-Motassadek, Germany 11/2002, LA, Germany
Ibrahim Mohammed K, Germany 2005, LA, German
Yasser Abu S, Germany 2005, LA, German
Ahmed Ellattah, Belgium 2002, LA
Tarek Maaroufi, Belgium, LA
Nizar Trabelsi, Belgium
Djamel Beghal, UAE, LA, France
Kamel Daoudi, France, LA, France
Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Iran 7/2003, LA, Unknown (possibly Iran after Kuwait refused to take him)

As you’ll note, with few exceptions, these men were taken by “local authorities.” While the Bush administration has used our military to turn Iraq into a terrorist hot spot in the Middle East, police forces around the world have taken terrorists down. This is one reality that lies behind the “global war on terrorism.” Had the post-9/11 focus been on international police work (backed up by military force), we might be in a far different situation today.

Weapons of Mass Destruction and Disarmament: Imagine, in terms of the real dangers of this Earth, if the United States had invested even a fraction of those endless billions of dollars dropped into the Iraqi sinkhole into nailing down the semi-loose WMD and nuclear arsenals of this world. In other words, if we had put our money and energy into the serious, hard-working, less than glorious task of denying future terrorists their most obvious sources of annihilating weaponry (including the various makings for so-called dirty bombs) and into real security measures at ports, chemical plants, nuclear plants, and the like, the possibility for World War IV-style apocalyptic scenarios would have dropped precipitously. What if, instead of proclaiming nuclear weapons bad and undesirable only if states we dislike try to create them, working to expand and improve our own nuclear arsenal while ignoring the arsenals of allies, and finally launching counter-proliferation wars as a means of “disarmament,” we had led the way in putting the possession of nuclear, biological, and chemical arsenals, including our own, on the table? What if we had worked at creating a policing system for WMD as fierce as any policing system for terror — not so illogical since these are the real terror weapons on our planet? Had we really declared a global “war” on terror, we would certainly have had to make the complex and difficult questions of dismantling all such arsenals its centerpiece and so, instead of ensuring that WMD would be the preferred currency of power for the foreseeable future, we might well have begun to hack out new pathways for the world.

Of course, the mind-set that goes with World War IV and GWOT ensures that nothing complex and untelegenic, nothing that smacks of our real, complicated world but doesn’t have the clean, Manichaean feel of a global crusade to it, is possible. If, on our proliferating planet, we end up, one of these days, with an actual apocalyptic scenario on our hands, it will be too late to thank the GWOT intellectuals, who took a terrible situation and are managing to turn it into the Schwarzenegger movie from Hell.

[Special research thanks go to Omer Z. Bekerman of the Center on Law and Security at the NYU School of Law and Nick Turse of Tomdispatch.]

Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel and The End of Victory Culture.

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