The World Confronts U.S. Wars of Terrorism

Edward S. Herman 

discussing the Bush administration’s “war on terrorism,”
mainstream analysts and reporters rarely hark back to the Reagan
era, which also featured a war on terrorism, with many enlightening
similarities to the present. This may be because the similarities
are great, even running to overlapping personnel, and because the
earlier administration’s policies are, in retrospect, hard
to characterize as other than support of terrorism. For example,
Reagan was “constructively engaged” with the South African
apartheid government in its struggle against the African National
Congress (ANC)—the ANC was classified as a “terrorist
organization” by the Pentagon in 1988; and none of the establishment
experts like Clair Sterling, Walter Laqueur, or Paul Wilkinson ever
called South Africa a terrorist state. 

The Reagan War of Terrorism 

similarity starts with the fact that in one of the first acts of
the new administration, in a press conference of January 28, 1981,
Reagan’s then Secretary of State, Alexander Haig announced
that “terrorism” was going to replace “human rights”
as a central concern of U.S. foreign policy. He didn’t define
terrorism or human rights and the kindly media never pressed him
on the issue or explored it. But the policies of the Reagan administration
speak for themselves. 

Reagan team hastened to renew relations with the military government
of Argentina, which was enlisted to provide training for the contra
army attacking Nicaragua and the Salvadoran army, fighting its own
insurgency. When the Argentine military government was overthrown
in 1983, a truth commission appointed by new president Alfonsin,
concluded that the “terrorism” brought to Argentina by
the military government had been “infinitely worse than the
type it fought,” as it “utilized the power and impunity
of the absolutist state, kidnapping, torturing and assassinating
thousands of human beings.” 

contra army attacking Nicaragua, organized, funded, and advised
by the United States, specialized in attacking “soft targets,”
the “selective but systematic killing of persons they perceive
as representing the government,” and “indiscriminate attacks
on civilians” (Human Rights Watch, 1987). On all definitions
of “terrorism” that are not totally politicized [see box
for some definitions] this fits the case, and the United States
falls into the category of “sponsor of international terrorism.” 

Salvadoran army was even more notorious for the systematic murder
of civilians, killing an estimated 800 a month in the year leading
up to the election of March 1982, frequently mutilating the civilian
victims and leaving their bodies exposed as an instruction to the
general populace. It was described by Argentinian novelist Juan
Corradi as a “deranged killing machine.” This government
and army, and affiliated death squads, received the unstinting support
of the Reagan administration. 

Reagan administration also tried hard to get Congress to relax restrictions
on aid to the military government of Guatemala, which surpassed
El Salvador in the killing and mutilating of civilians, with possibly
over 100,000 murdered between 1978 and 1985. Reagan, visiting Guatemala
in 1982, only a few months after an Amnesty International report
described the killing of over 2,000 civilians, remarked that the
president was “totally committed to democracy” and “getting
a “bum rap.” His Administration regularly attacked the
human rights groups reporting massive state terror for allegedly
supporting “terrorism” (i.e., the guerrilla resistance). 

The Reagan administration
actively supported Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA in Angola, which was
closely allied to the apartheid government of South Africa. It openly
backed the South African government, which was not only terrorizing
its black population, but also funding terrorist organizations in
the adjacent African states like RENAMO in Mozambique and carrying
out regular cross-border incursions. Its cross-border operations
created over a million refugees and are estimated to have caused
the death of more than a million people in Angola and Mozambique
through 1985. Reagan policy toward this government, arguably the
premier terrorist state of the 1980s, was self-designated “constructive

Reagan administration also backed Israel as that country invaded
Lebanon in 1982, with an estimated 15-20,000 civilian deaths, culminating
in the Ariel Sharon-managed massacre of 800-3,000 Palestinians—mainly
women, children, and older men—at Sabra and Shatila. 

Reagan administration, and its successor Bush I administration,
supported Saddam Hussein all through the 1980s, giving him loans,
helping him gain access to “weapons of mass destruction,”
and ignoring his use of chemical weapons against his Kurdish population
in 1988. Saddam Hussein was also “constructively engaged,”
until he disobeyed orders by invading Kuwait in 1990. 

Reagan administration (as well as Bush I and Clinton) also supported
and encouraged Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to fund, train, and otherwise
aid the Taliban and various mujahadeen groups, including Bin Laden
and his al Qaeda, for a jihad against the Soviet invader of Afghanistan.
This support ended temporarily when al Qaeda organized the bombing
of U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, but was renewed under Bush

a contra supply plane was shot down in Nicaragua in 1986, it was
discovered that Luis Posada Carriles, a leading Cuban refugee terrorist
who had helped organize the destruction of a Cuban civilian airliner
in 1976, and had escaped from a Venezuelan prison, was now working
for the Reaganites at an air base in El Salvador. The Reaganites
had close and supportive relations with other members of the Cuban
refugee terrorist network. 

Reagan administration did find Libya and Kadaffi guilty of terrorism,
as they supported the PLO and backed other individuals and organizations
declared terrorist, and they occasionally organized the assassination
of one of Libya’s nationals abroad. These assassination cases
were actually listed in Amnesty International reports, but it has
been noted that for cases such as South Africa’s or Israel’s
cross-border killings, the numbers are beyond recording individual

Reagan administration also found the Soviet Union guilty of supporting
a terror network, by giving and (far more often) selling arms to
the PLO, ANC, IRA, and Libya. As the London Economist explained
(September 19, 1981), after noting that organizational links of
most of these “terrorists” to the Soviet Union were not
proven, “The Soviet Union, as it were, merely puts the gun
on the table and leaves others to wage a global war by proxy.” 

problem with the “guns on the table” model is that the
United States vastly exceeded the Soviet Union in putting guns on
the table. In the frontispiece to The Washington Connection and
Third World Fascism
, entitled “The Sun and Its Planets,”
Noam Chomsky and I showed that military aid and training flowed
from the United States to 26 of the 35 governments that used torture
on an administrative basis in the late 1970s. What is more, in contrast
with the evidence on the rationale of Soviet supply, it was easy
to demonstrate that U.S. arms and training to regimes of torture
was by clear and knowing design. They were being trained to align
military and police personnel with U.S. interests, repress “populist”
leaders and policies, and help create a “favorable climate
of investment.” 

conclusions on the Reagan-era “war on terrorism” are: 

  • By application
    of all the major definitions of terrorism, Reagan’s war was
    a major campaign in support of some of the worst state terrorisms
    of the 1980s. While attacking the Soviet Union for supplying weapons
    to retail terrorists, the United States was supplying weapons
    and giving training to a vast network of National Security States
    that brought a continent-wide plague of torture, death squads,
    and “disappearances.” While denouncing the PLO for its
    terrorist actions, the Reagan administration was supporting Savimibi
    in Angola, the contras in Nicaragua, and the Cuban terrorist network,
    including world-class terrorist Posada. 
  • Neither the
    U.S. mainstream media nor the terrorism experts found the Reagan
    war a war of terrorism—from beginning to end they accepted
    the claim that it was a war on terrorism, despite the overwhelming
    facts described above. 
  • The operative
    rule for the press—and experts whose views they allow to
    be heard—was, and remains, terrorism is what the U.S. government
    says is terrorism, however bad the fit to any definition you might
    name. You will find, for example, that while the Alfonsin truth
    commission in Argentina found the military government’s terrorism
    “infinitely worse” than the terrorism it was fighting,
    Claire Sterling and Walter Laqueur never did and the New York
    always used the word to describe the lesser terrorism;
    it never described the military government as terrorist despite
    the Alfonsin commission’s conclusion. This is why a really
    serious war of terrorism in the Reagan years could be successfully
    portrayed as a war against terrorism—the media and experts
    were serving as an arm of government policy on this issue. 

The Bush II War of Terrorism 

Reagan, Bush II needed a war of some sort to allow him to pursue
his pro-corporate, militaristic, and Christian Right agenda. Like
Reagan he wanted big tax cuts for business and the wealthy, more
arms for the military-industrial complex (MIC), and more access
opportunities for his oil company and other transnational corporate
friends and allies. Reagan had the “evil empire” and the
mythical Soviet-based “terror network,” along with the
demonized Kadaffi and inflated Libyan threat, to work with. Bush
II had to await 9/11 and Bin Laden and his al Qaeda terror network
to provide a substitute and basis for his own “war on terrorism.” 

major difference between the Reagan and Bush wars is that during
the Reagan years the Soviet Union still existed, although weakening
and trying eagerly to reach an accommodation with the United States.
Hence there was a containment factor that put some limit on the
U.S. use of force abroad. The collapse of the Soviet Union ended
that constraint and the triumphalism that followed set the stage
for U.S. regimes ready and eager to project U.S. military power
more unilaterally and aggressively than before. 

Bush I and Clinton governments moved slowly along this path, Bush
I attacking Panama and then insisting on crushing Iraq in the Persian
Gulf war of 1991. Clinton continued the bombing and “sanctions
of mass destruction” against Iraq, bombed the Sudan and Afghanistan,
and carried out a major bombing war against Yugoslavia. As the U.S.
intervention in the Balkans gathered steam, Clinton’s Secretary
of State Madeleine Albright asked: “What is the use of this
superb military…if we can’t use it?” Furthermore, Bush
I and Clinton both protected the MIC from any major budgetary contraction
after the fall of the Soviet Union, whose alleged threat had justified
the massive military outlays. 

In contrast with
the Reagan war, the Bush II declaration of war was preceded by a
major terrorist attack on the United States, which shocked the government,
media, and public, and which, along with the end of any Soviet containment,
made possible a more rapid and large-scale response. The response
was possibly even more furious by virtue of the facts, disclosed
belatedly in the mainstream media, that the Bush administration
had ignored numerous warnings of a possible major terrorist attack
using hijacked aircraft, and that the Administration had proposed
a $58 million cut in an FBI funding request for counter-intelligence
personnel on September 10, 2001—the day before the bombing

Bush II war was also compromised by the fact that his Administration
had permitted Unocal to negotiate with the Taliban and his Administration
had done the same, only dissociating itself from that baby “evil
empire” and threatening to attack it in August 2001, when it
refused to accommodate Unocal and U.S. economic demands. 

Bush II war was from the beginning not a war on terrorism but a
war of aggression and wholesale terrorism against a petty tyranny
that had just months before been acceptable if willing to do business.
The war planners didn’t try very hard to get Bin Laden and
his al Qaeda top cadres, which might have been possible through
negotiations and economic and political pressure on the Taliban,
Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden was given a month’s notice
of the U.S. intent to attack, which would not facilitate capture
or killing, and he has apparently survived the war. But the threat
of U.S. bombing put thousands of starving Afghan civilians to flight
even before the October 7, 2001 beginning of bombing raids and constituted
a form of terrorism. Apart from the unknown numbers dead because
of the threat, flight, and disruption of food supply, thousands
of Afghan civilians were killed in U.S. bombing raids and many have
been killed in the internecine warlord fighting deliberately unleashed
in the U.S. attack. The bombing raids, often relying on unconfirmed
and unreliable local information, using high altitude flights, direction
by instrumentation, and high casualty weapons (cluster bombs, daisy
cutters, and other heavy bombs), involved certain and therefore
deliberate civilian killings under the guise of “collateral
damage,” and constituted war criminal action as well as wholesale

with Reagan, the Bush II war involved a rush to closer alignment
with governments willing to support administration actions, with
a penchant for linkage to authoritarian and terrorist rulers. In
the quid pro quo for support, these new allies were given aid and
tacit approval of their own terrorism and undemocratic practices
and the war has provided them with a cover for intensified terrorism
and repression. Dictators Musharaff of Pakistan and Karimov of Uzbekistan
were welcomed and their illegitimate authority strengthened; the
right-wing government of India was encouraged to pass serious anti-civil
liberties legislation and Vladimir Putin was given a cover for a
more ruthless wholesale terrorism in Chechnya. In Colombia, the
Bush II team rushed to increase support of a deadly army and paramilitary
killers, replacing the “war on drugs” with the “war
on terrorism,” and openly allocating funds for the protection
of U.S. oil company pipelines in that country. 

notable parallel with the Reagan war was the unleashing of Ariel
Sharon and the Israeli army on Palestinian cities and refugee camps.
Bush and his team agreed with Sharon that Israel was suffering from
terrorism and that its own violence was self-defense and counter-terror
and Israel’s “war,” like the 1982 invasion of Lebanon,
was carried out with U.S. support and protection against any international
intervention. But Israel’s actions, designed to destroy civilian
facilities and instill fear in civilians, with civilian deaths entirely
acceptable “collateral damage,” fits all standard definitions
of terrorism, including that of Benjamin Netanyahu (which mentions
explicitly the aim of instilling “fear”). This was a major
case of wholesale terrorism, integrated well into the “war
on terrorism.” 

War on Terrorism is an open-ended war in which the Bush administration
has announced its intention to project superior U.S. power across
the globe, unilaterally and with a readiness to use force, to achieve
its own ends and shape the world as it desires. It proclaims that
“if you are not with us you are against us,” that there
will be no toleration of “weapons of mass destruction”
(WMDs) on the part of rogues, with roguery to be determined by the
Bush administration. Sharon is not a rogue and can maintain and
perhaps use WMDs, but Saddam Hussein cannot (although he could when
an ally before September 1990). The Bush administration has named
an “axis of evil,” and openly plans for a war of aggression
against one of them, Iraq. John Bolton’s declaration that Cuba
had perhaps acquired WMD capability implicitly set Cuba up for destabilization
or aggressive war as part of the War on Terrorism. 

Bush II war has added a new dimension to wholesale terrorism by
its military plans and policies, including, among other things,
its determination to pursue a National Missile Defense program,
its proposed rapid buildup of new weapons, and its recently announced
policy of making nuclear weapons acceptable and usable in warfare.
Terrorism includes not just killing but instilling fear and these
plans are all designed to help project U.S. power by producing fear
of non-compliance with U.S. demands. These plans promise even more
violence and terrorism because they will divert resources from human
needs at home and abroad, exacerbating conflict for this reason
as well as because of the effects of across- the-board militarization. 

as in the case of Reagan’s War on Terrorism, the mainstream
media and intellectuals have treated the Bush II war not as the
war of terrorism that it is but as a genuine war on terrorism. As
in the earlier case, they never define the word or check out its
application to reality. This is independent of fact. The Colombian
army is fighting terrorism, Putin is our ally in the war, Sharon
is fighting terrorism—only “retaliating” and engaging
in “self defense,” by rule of applicable propaganda principles—and
Sharon’s earlier record at Sabra and Shatila and Qibya is in
the black hole. 

system works, if we define “works” as adapting perfectly
to the demands of state power and its propaganda needs. It fails
abysmally on criteria of intellectual integrity, justice, and serving
the interests of ordinary people at home and abroad.         Z 

Edward S. Herman is an economist, author, and media analyst.
His most recent book, co-edited with Philip Hammond, is
Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis (Pluto, 2000).