Want to “fight terrorism?” Then listen to historian Kai Bird and leave the Middle East alone!
The United States sustains dictators and kills with drones – of course we’ve become a target.
· One of Virginia’s most popular specialty license plates reads Fight Terrorism, with an outline of the Pentagon and the numbers 9/11/01 stamped above the phrase.
· West Point has a Combating Terrorism Center.
· The State Department has a collection of offices operating under the heading FightingTerrorism.
· And the Pentagon has a special medal for troops taking part in the Global War onTerrorism. Ominously, some of the eligible deployments for the medal read “TBD” (to be determined) on the ending date, including the current wars in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State (Operation “Inherent Resolve”) and in Afghanistan against the Taliban (Operations “Freedom’s Sentinel”).
As a matter of fact, our government claims that most of the trillion dollars in taxes we pay each year to carry out U.S. foreign, military, surveillance, police, and covert policies is used to protect American civilians from attacks by Islamist militants. Clearly, our politicians want to protect us from terrorism – and well they should. The only problem is that their war on terrorism is making things more dangerous for us.
The way that “fighting terrorism” leads to more, not less, terrorism against Americans is brilliantly explained in a recent guest editorial in The Nation magazine by historian Kai Bird, entitled “The Case for Disengagement in the Middle East.”
In the Arab world, we have historically aligned ourselves with generals and kings and narrow-minded sectarian tribal leaders. In Israel, we have become the ultimate enablers of Likudites devoted to colonization….Our most recent military intervention—an aerial bombing campaign against this so-called caliphate—may serve only to incite further Salafist terrorism against American targets. It also threatens to drag the Obama administration—and the United States—into yet another interminable Middle Eastern war.
Bird has earned the right to a serious consideration of his analysis. For 30 years he was immersed in the archives of the Cold War, publishing three biographies of major U.S. policy figures. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his book on Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who led the atomic bomb project during War II but was then denied a security clearance in the 1950’s because he questioned the need for the more 100-times more powerful hydrogen bomb.
Bird has written two books in recent years on U.S. policy in the Middle East. The first, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate (2010), used personal memories and policy reviews to describe the deterioration in the already deadly Israeli-Palestinian relations he saw as a young son of U.S. diplomat in the 1950’s. In 2014 he published The Good Spy, a biography of Robert Ames, the CIA’s top Middle East analyst, who was killed in the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Lebanon in 1983. Bird concluded that for all Ames’ creative wheeling and dealing with Arab actors and all the CIA’s spying and spending, they added nothing to American security or the stability of the Middle East. That is because the core of U.S. policy remains a dangerous alliance with regimes that alienate not just the militants, but the Arab “street” as a whole.
How our Empire Spurs Terrorism
Since 9/11 our elected officials seem to be willing to do anything to keep us safe from more terrorist attacks. Anything, that is, except challenge the policy that causes the attacks: U.S. domination of the Middle East through military and covert aid to the “friendly” dictators who provide our corporations with oil and investment opportunities. Spying on, invading, and occupying countries, renting military and covert bases with cash and weapons that dictators then use to put down popular dissent, drone-killings -- all of this makes us more, not less, of a target for Islamist militants who oppose Western control of the Middle East and North Africa.
As a result of their failure to acknowledge the inconvenient roots of anti-American terrorism, our politicians have established a vicious circle that virtually guarantees more attacks. The United States backs dictators because they let us place our armed forces at air, ground, and naval bases so we can attack the Islamists with jets, missiles, and drones, and place our covert agents in their intelligence centers so we can track possible terror attacks. But these acts strengthen the very regimes the Islamists want to overthrow, so the Islamists then attack us for backing the regimes. And the cycle of violence starts again.
Americans rarely hear a discussion of the illogic of this policy. In 2007 presidential candidate Ron Paul explained during a Republican primary debate that Islamists attack us not, as Presidents Bush and Obama like to claim, “because of our freedoms,” but because of the freedom we take in dominating their countries by choosing and backing dictators. When another candidate, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, attacked Paul for his scandalous views that denigrated our heroes, the major media briefly covered this difference of opinion on the roots of 9/11.
Not since then has there been a mainstream discussion of the relationship between empire and terrorism. Perhaps in some upcoming Republican primary debates this year we will see Paul’s son Rand, the libertarian senator from Kentucky, start the discussion again with Lindsay Graham, the senator from South Carolina who pushes for deeper involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts. Bird clearly wants to jump-start the discussion. His Nation piece offers a way out that is sure to spark controversy: just leave the Middle East alone:
Disengagement should now be our policy with both Israel and the Arab world. We Americans should urge our government to end all arms sales to any Arab nation ruled by a general, dictator or king. We need to isolate and diplomatically contain any Arab regime that has demonstrably killed unarmed protesters, as in Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. We should also close our military installations in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar. Such a dramatic, categorical and evenhanded withdrawal of American arms and treasure would deal a bracing shock to the region’s ruling elites. But it would be a good and decent thing for all concerned.
Bird ends his piece by noting that 33 years ago he published a similar plea in the same magazine. In that piece he acknowledged that the U.S. policy of dominating the Middle East was just a regional example of a global policy. Now, as then, he wants us to answer a question posed by historian William Appleman Williams: “What happens if we simply say no to empire as a way of life?”
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