Terror and terrorism are ancient evils, no doubt prehistoric. The Zealots-Sicarii formed a sect of First Century Jewish terrorists. The Ismaili sect of Islam created the Order of Assassins ca. 1100. The Reign of Terror in the French Revolution occurred in 1793—1794.
In our day, we recognize terrorists by their methods: bombing, armed attack, kidnaping, assassination, arson, barricade/hostage, and hijacking, etc. They frequently target civilians, non-combatants, or neutrals intentionally, or else they harm them indiscriminately; and they also engage State and military forces directly when it suits them.
Terrorists are highly aggressive, the furthest thing from peaceful, and defense against them is definitely in demand. Seeking out and capturing bin Laden and others who were behind 9/11 has high priority. This does not mean, however, that we Americans should ratify and support what our rulers promote — a world war on terror. It does not mean that we must stand for an unjust, unwise, and unconstitutional State-orchestrated worldwide campaign against all terrorists everywhere, a campaign that itself ends up slaying many thousands of innocents and ends up creating new, formidable, and unnecessary enemies aiming their bombs at us U.S. citizens, a campaign that provides cover for the U.S. going to war wherever and whenever it chooses to. After all, terrorists are just about everywhere, and often where there are other geopolitical and oil interests.
Why should our rulers embark on more Iraqi-style wars? Why should they intrude into more tangled up regions of conflict like Palestine and Israel? There are dozens of these minefields awaiting us as our rulers keep on trying to stamp out terror worldwide. They have names like Kashmir, Nigeria, Thailand, Algeria, Libya, Eritrea, Pakistan, Burma, Indonesia, Mindanao, etc. Why should our rulers engender more and more dangerous opponents against us? If new generations of terrorists come after us where we live, won’t it be because our rulers have launched or supported new military actions in far-flung lands? What do we get out of it if future terrorists attack us with missiles or atomic bombs?
Although we should not intrude into these foreign disputes, our rulers will unless we stop them. They will extend American influence as far as possible, despite what might happen to us, because this is the logic of those who stand to benefit by extending American power, who gain from a larger American Empire.
Terrorists are criminals, but they are not always our criminals. When they are, as in the case of bin Laden and others whom there is evidence against, then there is justification for moving against them, although we may debate the means of doing so. I am concerned here with the more general issue of expanding this search into a blank check for war. When our rulers brand countries like Syria and Iran as terrorist nations and threaten war with them, they are using the war on terror as cover and justification. They appear ready to go to any lengths for oil and Israel. Extending the Iraq War to Syria and Iran will overnight greatly exacerbate problems of terror and exacerbate our economic problems. Such attacks will just as surely undermine our freedom at home.
There is good reason for police and intelligence authorities to cooperate internationally. Infiltrating and penetrating terrorist organizations is useful. But why mix politics and law enforcement — why is the State Department involved in activating laws via its terrorism list if not to advance political objectives? Highly objectionable is that our rulers have deputized and enlisted us willy-nilly in a broad war to bring terrorists everywhere to justice. This spells sorrow, heartbreak, and pain as Iraq exemplifies. Our rulers demand the right to go far beyond policing, even international policing. They expect to go anywhere with any type of military force or other tools of State that they conceive necessary to end terrorism. But this is carte blanche.
Since the U.S. was created, there have been many foreign crimes, many foreign wars, and many violent foreign conflicts in which it was possible to identify the good guys and the bad guys. Intervening or getting involved to put away foreign lawbreakers has always been an option, an option our earlier leaders often wisely passed up. Unfortunately, what with experiences like Latin American interventions, World War I, embargoes, lethal "police actions" and more, Presidential and Congressional intervention has grown into an acceptable and routine habit or custom, sold to us and lazily and uncritically accepted by us as the right thing to do. This is the habit of Empire and those accustomed to benefit from Empire. However, it is hard to think of a single intervention in a foreign land that has been justified when outright war was not the issue.
Even if terrorists operating against Israel have links to persons or officials in Iran and Syria, that is no strong or persuasive justification for our rulers to attack those countries. These are attacks on Israel, not us. And they are attacks by individual terrorists. And they are not acts of war against Israel or us. Even if one views the U.S. and Israel as war allies, the terrorist links and incidents form nothing but a pretext to invade Syria and Iran. The other pretexts will be that terrorists are using Syria as a sanctuary and that Iran wishes to build an atom bomb.
If our rulers paint whole countries as terrorist, this is a flimsy pretext. The U.S. has for decades gotten itself enmeshed with several Middle Eastern countries militarily and sometimes violently. It has given multi-decade military and other aid to Israel and other nearby countries and formed a close military relationship to Israel. Our rulers have intruded and extended the U.S. overseas into the Middle East. This is the context in which they now threaten attacks on Syria and Iran. This is more of the same for reasons other than terrorism.
Our rulers tell us that democracy is a cure for terrorism, that they intend to pacify the world by spreading democracy. This is a sham, another pretext. Terror is no stranger to our own democracy — from General Sherman to Timothy McVeigh and on to eco-terror. Even our children learn and employ terror tactics. Great Britain, which is some sort of democracy, made liberal use of terror bombing during World War II. The U.S. employed torture and killing of boys routinely in the Philippine-American War. More recently, the Clinton-Albright sanctions on Iraq claimed 500,000 children’s lives. All of these and more cases make it clear that democracy is no solution to terror. The reason is simple. Terror is a method chosen rationally when the terrorist perceives its usefulness. As Albright remarked "…we think the price is worth it."
It is best to assume that terrorists have aims, that they are reasoning human beings. Terrorists have used terror in war, revolution, insurrection, rebellion, separatist movements, banditry, oppression, suppression, creating States, destroying States, and ruling States.
Subject to definition, there may be close to 840 terror groups worldwide. The exact number is not important, only that the groups are large in number and widespread. There are also hundreds of paramilitary and warlord type groups that can overlap the terror groups. In addition, there are very many localized separatist or secessionist movements that are usually peaceful but can be violent. Some of their more radical members may be attracted to terrorists or vice versa — terrorists may latch onto separatist movements. Some of the many terror groups have links, weak or strong to other terrorists, paramilitary groups, or to al-Qaeda, some are mixed in with the drug trade, some are bandits, etc. The overall picture is complex and fluid.
Many weaker nation-states are faced with serious challenges from sizeable ethnic and religious minorities with grievances. Many such groups have political aims, but they may have military, religious, or other aims or mixed goals. Tomorrow, many stronger States will also be faced with similar breakaway movements.
It is not difficult for terrorists to latch onto a variety of legitimate breakaway movements and considerably cloud the picture, drawing a clumsy adversary into lengthy and debilitating side battles. In Iraq, for example, the U.S. military has a hard time telling terrorists from Iraqis who want their country back, so the blanket term "insurgent" is used. In conflicts like these, the U.S. can easily fall into the role of being anti-revolution, anti-progress, anti-freedom, anti-people and pro the status quo.
There is little tangible good and much tangible harm that can come to us from allowing our rulers and usually our military to get involved in all these trouble spots. As matters stand, we have had troops tied down in Korea for 55 years, for example. Troops all over the globe raise the chances of being drawn into wars at the option of enemies.
Logically, terror is a rational choice from man’s arsenal, so it is not about to disappear. The notion of a very long war on terrorism that will rid the world of terrorism is therefore nonsense.
A widespread war on terror is plainly a practical nightmare because of the large numbers of groups involved in a broad range of countries and situations. Furthermore, these situations are not static but dynamic. However, those who want to maintain and enhance power, who want a larger State, experience such a nightmare as a virtue. Continuous warfare, alerts, trouble, even bombings on U.S. soil, provide those in office with a free hand. They drive the people to their rulers.
The U.S. war on terror, if carried forward as national policy by succeeding administrations, will, from the people’s point of view, compound the blunders already made. There are many reasons why this is so. Here are a few:
(1) Our rulers can more easily get us involved in wars.
(2) Our rulers can more easily stir up and foster even more anti-American terrorism.
(3) Our rulers can more easily be drawn into conflicts like Iraq that are lost the moment they are begun, conflicts that play into the hands of terrorists.
(4) Our rulers will have a convenient excuse for ever more foreign intrusions.
(5) We can have no confidence that our rulers know or appreciate what is happening on the ground in 50 different States when these countries face difficulties that involve terrorists, bandits, rebellions, secession movements, warlords, and paramilitary groups.
(6) We can have no confidence that our rulers know or appreciate what is happening in many countries in terms of ethnic and religious divisions.
(7) We can have no confidence that our rulers know how to deal with what is happening on the ground even if they dimly discern what it is.
(8) The situations that foster terrorism, separatism, war lords, rebellions, and instability of States are highly dynamic and fluid. We can have no confidence that our rulers will react to changes appropriately. Once a State sets policies, it grinds on inflexibly, slow to adapt to realities. It perpetuates myths for public consumption and loses its own moorings.
(9) The U.S. does not have the resources to handle all these situations without bankrupting the nation or making us a lot poorer. The Iraq case alone illustrates this.
(10) Because it lacks the resources to control terror in foreign lands, the U.S. can only fight this war by allying itself with local rulers. This places the U.S. in a position of supporting, in many instances, corrupt and weak regimes. The U.S. will be attempting to shore up weak States; it will be supporting anti-freedom regimes.
(11) The rulers in these allied States or others who take their places can turn out to be bad guys, and they will use aid that our rulers have supplied in ways that hurt their people and us.
(12) Terrorists can attack and steal arms caches and weapons that we have supplied. Terrorists can infiltrate and corrupt ruling cliques.
(13) The war on terror is an open-ended commitment to interfering in the internal affairs of a great many other lands, peoples, situations and States. The costs of doing so are huge, but the benefits are not readily apparent.
(14) The general idea of the war on terror is consistent with a bigger idea, namely, that the U.S., in large measure, will control the political shape of the world to come. This bigger concept is not just to fight terrorists but to bolster up a variety of States on every continent so that their militaries can suppress terror movements. The U.S. will then preside over a set of obedient and well-behaved "democracies." The war on terror in these terms is simply a cover operation for an extension of American Empire.
We can have no confidence that this plan will succeed. Indeed, we can have great confidence that this plan will fail. Other existing major powers or powers that arise in the future may come into conflict with U.S. satellites on their borders. The factors that stand in the way of success are deeply imbedded ones of past disputes and injustices, power-seeking by various groups, ethnic rivalries and hatreds, poverty, ignorance, religious differences, resentments, plus the lack of knowledge, ignorance, ineptness and incompetence of our rulers. It is also not clear that the affected peoples want the U.S. involved or won’t resent interference and turn against us.
(15) In essence, the war on terror is consistent with the larger American plan to replace the failed British, French, German and Dutch Empires and colonialist rules with a more clever American system that uses local rulers and forces combined with judicious use of aid, loans, American military, American know-how, intelligence, and diplomacy. This plan, even if it has no name, even if it is not entirely recognized by those promoting it or executing it, is already in operation. It pre-dates the current administration and will continue after Bush is gone. It is in effect through the policies of the U.S. Department of State, supported by the Congress and the Executive. It is a continuation of the policy of Empire that the U.S. has advanced for the past 100 years.
Such a plan cannot possibly work without setting up administration, that is a trained corps of people dedicated to the overall enterprise. This plan has to win over the native peoples. It has to be sold to the American people. The American people have to commit themselves to becoming a kind of world ruler — a missionary with a gun-an uplifter — a State builder. This is the context of the world war on terror.
These ideas that attract many Americans because of their humanitarian component are dangerous and faulty ideas. They assume that the State is a caring and loving institution that can spread goodness and enlightenment when the State is just the opposite. These are old but wrong ideas of Progressive Imperialism, Global Meliorism, Wilsonianism, that see America as Crusader State. We should reject the war on terror in the context of rejecting these larger concepts.
(16) Those Americans who commit themselves to the war on terror as some sort of morally just thing to do had better be aware that they are being suckered. This plan will fail because it will be used to further American interests, not foreign interests. The so-called unselfishness and generosity of Americans who are providing a gift to all those peoples encumbered by terrorists will, in reality, be seen to be the rhetoric of Empire. Underneath it all, selfish American interests will steal the cake and eat it. They will twist the rules and regulations, the laws and administrations, as they have done in the past, into shapes that suit their own greed.
(17) A U.S. military presence to support the war on terror is assured. We can have little confidence that our military is up to the kinds of tasks envisioned. I do not doubt the bravery of our men and women under arms. I do doubt the effectiveness of our military organization for the kinds of operations that accompany a war on terror. Our government did not introduce the military into Afghanistan with quiet and surprise. It alerted the enemy to its presence. Our military still relies heavily upon bombing, which is ineffective in holding ground and in rooting out guerilla-type forces. Our military in Afghanistan relied heavily on local forces, a procedure prone to serious error. Our military let the major part of al-Qaeda slip away, failing to block escape routes and failing to engage the enemy with troops on the ground at a critical juncture. Our military in Iraq shows that it cannot hold and secure that country or even a part of it. Basically, for the most part we still have a conventional military with souped-up weapons and technology.
There may be some effective killing-machine mercenaries that the State has recruited, men who like their work and do it well. This is a dangerous tool in the hands of a unilateral power like a State. Build up enough of them, and they will eventually take over us. Instead of a militia who will stem looting and help people, Blackwater mercenaries were used in New Orleans. Are they also hunting down bin Laden?
The above list of concerns is hardly exhaustive. They are laid out from the view of those of us forced to accept what our rulers are doing. We bear the costs.
From the rulers’ point of view, crises, setbacks, failures, and burdens on us are not objectionable. In judicious amounts and at judicious times, they actually enhance the powers and positions of our rulers. Terrorists are not our most important enemy. Our ruling system with its massive power is a greater danger. The wrong ideology embedded in the ruling system will end up destroying it and us.
The chance of terrorist acts and the chance of more severe terrorist acts against America and other countries have risen since President Bush instigated war in Iraq. This is because diminishing terror was not the purpose of this war. The war on terror was merely one of several convenient cover stories. The goals of the Iraq War were to settle a private score that the junior Bush felt, oil, the extension of American empire, and the furtherance of Israeli interests. In today’s episode of the war on terror, the U.S. pursues its aims with terror (such as huge "Shock and Awe" missile strikes) and torture. And it escalates the recruitment of terrorists and terrorist acts.
It is reasonably clear that personal factors contributed to Bush’s decision. He apparently relies upon religious convictions translated into holy missions that he conceives. But even if this factor was absent, the fact is that our rulers knew when they began this war that it had almost nothing to do with the real terror threats of al-Qaeda. They simply advertised the Iraq War as part of a war on terror, with Saddam Hussein painted as a major terror threat.
For these deceptions and the consequent war crimes, for launching an illegal and unjust preemptive war, the responsible rulers deserve shame, scorn, and ostracism. They deserve to be investigated thoroughly, tried, and punished if convicted. They deserve impeachment. The same goes for the Clinton/Albright clique. However, the main reasons for doing this are not out of vindictiveness for what our rulers have done. It is to fix guilt on deserving rulers. It is to reduce the power we have too liberally granted our rulers. It is to preserve what little is left of the rule of law. It is to cleanse, to restore some semblance of morality and justice. It is so that future rulers will behave more narrowly and properly. It is so that we the people will recognize our wrongs and own up to them. It is so that we will recognize the weaknesses in ourselves, in our information systems (press and media), and in our system of too-powerful government. It is so that we can find our way to an altogether fitting and proper limitation of the American State. It is so that we will not compound the felony by ratifying a blanket war on terror.
The Iraq War is a blunder. The conception of a world war on terror is likewise a highly injurious mistake. It is a slogan that prevents rational consideration of our interests as individuals. It is a policy that contradicts our individual interests and those of foreign peoples it supposedly helps. It is part of a larger erroneous philosophy of making the world better through statism. Disengagement and non-intervention are the appropriate State policies, not locking into interminable and impenetrable foreign conflicts and terrorist problems. Starting new wars in Syria and Iran is pure disaster.
The notion of discouraging, controlling, and punishing a given group of terrorists, of hunting them down and bringing them to justice, is a sensible and limited objective. This is self-defense. Who is to do these things, against which terrorists, and how they are do them are open issues, open questions. In contrast, the concept of a broad war on terror that reaches anywhere in the world should be no part of American foreign policy and no part of our thinking.
Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is the Louis M. Jacobs Professor of Finance at University at Buffalo.