President George W. Bush’s October 6 address at the National Endowment for Democracy illustrated his administration’s increasingly desperate effort to justify the increasingly unpopular U.S. war in Iraq. The speech focused upon the Bush administration’s claim that the Iraqi insurgency against U.S. occupation forces somehow constituted a grave threat to the security of the United States and the entire civilized world.
The speech focused almost entirely the Iraq War. Yet it began with an eloquent remembrance of the horror of September 11, 2001, despite the fact that Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, which was committed by the Saudi-led terrorist group al-Qaeda then based in Afghanistan. President Bush then listed a series of terrorist attacks by radical Islamists elsewhere in the world in subsequent years, which again had no connection to Iraq, other than the possibility that some of these attacks might have been prevented had the United States instead chosen to put its resources into fighting al-Qaeda rather than invading Iraq.
On a positive note, Bush reiterated the fact that terrorism in the name of Islam is contrary to the Islamic faith. He acknowledged to a degree he had not yet done so publicly that many of these movements are part of a loose network of local cells rather than a centrally controlled armed force.
Yet much of his speech contained the same misleading rhetoric regarding U.S. policy toward Iraq and the nature of the radical Islamists that has led the United States into its disastrous confrontation in Iraq and has served to weaken America’s defenses against the real threat al-Qaeda poses.
Some Samples of President Bush’s Misleading Statements “These extremists want to end American and Western influence in the broader Middle East, because we stand for democracy and peace.”
While these extremist groups indeed want to limit American and other Western influence in the region and their ideology certainly does not support democratic institutions or peaceful means to advance their goals, the problems that radical Islamists have with the American role in the Middle East is not related to America’s stand in support for democracy and peace. As made clear by their manifestoes and by interviews with individual leaders, the radical Islamist opposition to the United States stems primarily from U.S. support for autocratic Arab governments, the invasion of Iraq, the ongoing U.S. military presence in the region, U.S. backing for the Israeli occupation, and related concerns which have nothing to do with democracy and peace.
“Al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, has called on Muslims to dedicate, quote, their ‘resources, sons and money to driving the infidels out of their lands.’ Their tactic to meet this goal has been consistent for a quarter-century: They hit us, and expect us to run. They want us to repeat the sad history of Beirut in 1983, and Mogadishu in 1993–only this time on a larger scale, with greater consequences.”
Al-Qaeda has existed for barely a dozen years. The network didn’t exist a quarter century ago. Nor is there any indication that they “expect us to run” when hit. If anything, their hope and expectation is that the U.S. will continue to overreact through disproportionate and misapplied military force that will further contribute to the dramatic increase in anti-Americanism throughout the Islamic world and thereby increase their ranks.
The “sad history of Beirut in 1983 and Mogadishu in 1993″ was not the belated withdrawal of U.S. forces but that the U.S. intervened militarily in those countries in the first place. The resistance that fought U.S. Marines in Lebanon was composed of primarily Shiite and Druze militiamen who have never had any affiliation with al-Qaeda, which is a Salafi Sunni organization. In Somalia, U.S. forces battled militiamen affiliated with a number of Somali clans, none of which had any connection with al-Qaeda. Had President Reagan and President Clinton instead decided to keep American forces engaged in the factionalized civil wars in Lebanon and Somalia, it would have likely increased the numbers and influence of Islamic extremists in those countries and elsewhere, just as the failure to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq has done.
“The militant network wants to use the vacuum created by an American retreat to gain control of a country, a base from which to launch attacks and conduct their war against non-radical Muslim governments. Over the past few decades, radicals have specifically targeted Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, and Jordan for potential takeover. They achieved their goal, for a time, in Afghanistan. Now they have set their sight on Iraq….We must recognize Iraq as the central front in our war on terror.”
While small groups of radical Islamists have engaged in a series of terrorist bombings and assassinations in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Jordan in recent years, they never had much of a popular following and were never a serious threat to the survival of any of those regimes.
They succeeded in Afghanistan in large part due to the U.S. government sending as much as $5 billion in military aid to radical Islamic groups back in the 1980s during their fight with Afghanistan’s Communist government and its Soviet backers.
The “vacuum” that would allow radical Islamists to pose a challenge to the Iraqi government has already taken place as a direct result of the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime from power by U.S. forces. Prior to the U.S. invasion, the only major base of operations for such radical Islamists was Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi’s encampment in the far northeastern corner of Iraq, located within the autonomous Kurdish areas where Saddam’s government had no control. Now, as a result of the U.S. invasion, Al-Zarqawi’s militants operate throughout the Sunni heartland of central Iraq and their numbers have dramatically increased.
“The militants believe that controlling one country will rally the Muslim masses, enabling them to overthrow all moderate governments in the region, and establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia. With greater economic and military and political power, the terrorists would be able to advance their stated agenda: to develop weapons of mass destruction, to destroy Israel, to intimidate Europe, to assault the American people, and to blackmail our government into isolation.”
It is quite possible that these Salafi Sunni revivalists indeed harbor such fantasies, but they are just that–fantasies. The United States has more than a dozen allied governments in the region that have the motivation and ability to resist these fanatics, who have relatively few adherents within these or any other county in the Islamic world outside Iraq.
There are dozens of armed groups in Iraq battling U.S. occupation forces and the U.S.-backed government, which include supporters of the former regime of Saddam Hussein, other Baathists, independent nationalists, various Shiite factions, tribal-based groupings, and a number of Sunni Arab factions. The al-Qaeda inspired jihadists whom Bush focused upon in his speech are probably responsible for the majority of terrorist attacks against Iraqi civilians, but they represent only a small minority of the insurgency.
Even in the unlikely event of the overthrow of the Iraqi government, it is extremely doubtful that these more extreme elements would end up in control.
“Our enemy is utterly committed. As Zarqawi has vowed, ‘We will either achieve victory over the human race or we will pass to the eternal life.’ And the civilized world knows very well that other fanatics in history, from Hitler to Stalin to Pol Pot, consumed whole nations in war and genocide before leaving the stage of history.”
The idea that Al-Zarqawi could somehow obtain the power of Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin is utterly ludicrous. He lacks the resources, the state apparatus, the popular support, the propaganda machinery, the disciplined political party, the armed force, the industrial base, or any other attribute that could conceivably give him that kind of power. Bush is cynically playing on the fears of American people and shows a callous disrespect to the millions who died under these totalitarian rulers.
“Defeating the militant network is difficult, because it thrives, like a parasite, on the suffering and frustration of others . . .”
What Bush fails to note is that much of the suffering and frustration felt by the Iraqi people is a direct result of U.S. policy. Not only did the Iraqi people suffer under decades of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship (which was backed by the United States during the peak of his repression in the 1980s), the U.S. led one of most intense bombing campaigns in world history against Iraq in 1991, resulting in severe damage to the civilian infrastructure. This was followed by a dozen years of crippling U.S.-led economic sanctions that resulted in the deaths hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, mostly children, from malnutrition and preventable diseases. As a result of the U.S. invasion, at least 20,000 civilians have died violent deaths, the country is facing a low-level civil war and an unprecedented crime wave, basic utilities have yet to be restored on a regular basis, unemployment is at an all-time high, there are mounting ethnic tensions which threaten to tear the country apart, priceless national artifacts have been stolen or destroyed from museums and archeological sites, and infant mortality is way up.
“The influence of Islamic radicalism is also magnified by helpers and enablers. They have been sheltered by authoritarian regimes, allies of convenience like Syria and Iran…”
The Bush administration has failed to present any credible evidence that either Syria or Iran is backing the radical Islamists.
On the contrary, Iran is actively supporting the Iraqi government, which is dominated by pro-Iranian Shiite parties and whose leadership spent years of exile in Iran. The Iranian government supports the proposed constitution and backed last January’s elections. In fact, Iran has provided security assistance and training to the Iranian government in their counter-insurgency efforts. The Iranian regime has long opposed al-Qaeda and nearly went to war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan several years ago.
Similarly, the Syrian government is a secular nationalist regime dominated by members of the Alawite branch of Islam, which is far closer to the Shiites than the Sunnis. Syria has provided the United States with valuable intelligence against al-Qaeda and has tracked down, jailed, tortured, and killed al-Qaeda suspects.
“Some have also argued that extremism has been strengthened by the actions of our coalition in Iraq, claiming that our presence in that country has somehow caused or triggered the rage of radicals. I would remind them that we were not in Iraq on September the 11th, 2001–and al-Qaeda attacked us anyway. The hatred of the radicals existed before Iraq was an issue, and it will exist after Iraq is no longer an excuse. The government of Russia did not support Operation Iraqi Freedom, and yet the militants killed more than 180 Russian schoolchildren in Beslan.”
No one has claimed that the Islamist radicals responsible for the massacre in Beslan were in any way motivated by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Those terrorists were Chechen nationalists fighting against the Russian occupation of their homeland. Even the CIA, top Pentagon officials and other U.S. government agencies have acknowledged that the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the bloody counter-insurgency operations that followed has greatly enhanced the appeal of radical Islamist groups and enhanced their recruitment.
“Over the years these extremists have used a litany of excuses for violence–the Israeli presence on the West Bank, or the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, or the defeat of the Taliban, or the Crusades of a thousand years ago… No act of ours invited the rage of the killers–and no concession, bribe, or act of appeasement would change or limit their plans for murder.”
No major opponent of the U.S. war in Iraq and other U.S. policies in the Middle East is calling for concessions, bribes or appeasement as a means of influencing the behavior of al-Qaeda and like-minded extremists. A strong case can be made, however, that many U.S. policies have strengthened these movements by encouraging the growth of anti-Americanism in the Islamic world, thereby increasing the appeal in the Islamic world of extremist ideologies.
The U.S. should cease its unconditional military, diplomatic and economic support for autocratic Middle Eastern regimes and Israeli occupation forces, not for the sake of appeasing terrorists, but because no country that espouses freedom and the rule of law should support governments that engage in gross and systematic human rights violations.
“The United States makes no distinction between those who commit acts of terror and those who support and harbor them, because they’re equally as guilty of murder. Any government that chooses to be an ally of terror has also chosen to be an enemy of civilization. And the civilized world must hold those regimes to account.”
If Bush really believes this, it would behoove him to start with the government over which he has the most control: that of the United States. Some known terrorists have sought sanctuary in the U.S. and the Bush administration has refused to bring them to justice through extradition or trial. A recent high-profile case involves the exiled Cuban terrorist Luis Posada Carriles, whom the U.S. refuses to extradite to Venezuela to faces charges for masterminding the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner which resulted in the deaths of all 73 passengers and crew.
“Some observers also claim that America would be better off by cutting our losses and leaving Iraq now. This is a dangerous illusion, refuted with a simple question: Would the United States and other free nations be more safe, or less safe, with Zarqawi and bin Laden in control of Iraq, its people, and its resources? Having removed a dictator who hated free peoples, we will not stand by as a new set of killers, dedicated to the destruction of our own country, seizes control of Iraq by violence.”
This is totally spurious argument. By virtually all accounts of scholars and journalists familiar with the various constituent elements of the Iraqi insurgency, the vast majority of the insurgents are not dedicated to the destruction of the United States. They merely want foreign occupation forces out of their country. Radical Islamist elements led by Al-Zarqawi and other supporters of bin Laden had virtually no presence in Iraq until after the United States invaded the country and grew in subsequent months as a reaction to the large-scale civilian casualties from U.S. counter-insurgency tactics. As a result, a strong case can be made that the continued prosecution of the war actually increases the chances that Al-Zarqawi and likeminded radicals could take over the country.
“If the peoples of that region are permitted to choose their own destiny, and advance by their own energy and by their participation as free men and women, then the extremists will be marginalized, and the flow of violent radicalism to the rest of the world will slow, and eventually end. By standing for the hope and freedom of others, we make our own freedom more secure.”
In reality, the United States is doing very little to advance the cause of self-determination, the rule of law, religious freedom and equal rights for women in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. For example, the U.S. trains Saudi Arabia’s repressive internal security apparatus and sells billions of dollars worth of weapons annually to the family dictatorship that rules that country. Saudi Arabia has no constitution and no legislature. It bans the practice of any faith besides Islam, practices torture on an administrative basis, and is perhaps the most misogynist country in the world.
Similarly, the Egyptian dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak remains the second largest recipient of U.S. economic and military assistance despite ongoing repression of pro-democracy movements and their leaders.
The United States also continues to maintain close military and political ties to autocratic regimes in Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Tunisia, and Morocco, among others. The U.S. is the world’s number one supplier of military and police training to autocratic regimes and occupation armies in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia.
It is also utterly false to claim that the United States supports the right of self-determination in the Middle East, since the Bush administration continues to support the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and the Golan Heights of Syria, as well as Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara. These occupations are maintained in violation through ongoing violations of international humanitarian law, the UN Charter, and a series of UN Security Council resolutions.
In Iraq, the United States continues to deny the Iraqi government full sovereignty through its continued control of important areas of fiscal, security and economic policy. In addition, the proposed constitution being pushed by the Bush administration actually allows for fewer rights for women and less religious freedom than that under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship.
Given the large number of misleading statements in this key foreign policy address, it is profoundly disappointing that the mainstream media appears to have taken it so seriously. There has been little critical analysis of the president’s remarks and headlines have instead focused upon the unsubstantiated claim in the speech that the United States had in recent years foiled 10 planned al-Qaeda attacks.
It is similarly disappointing that leading Democrats in Congress have not attempted to expose the fallacious arguments in this address either. Doing so could advance their party’s chances to win back the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House. Since the Democratic Congressional leadership and the vast majority of Democratic Senators and Representatives have chosen to continue their support of the Iraq War, however, it is perhaps not surprising that they remain unwilling to challenge the myths that perpetuate it.
As a result, it is up to American people to not only challenge the Bush administration’s falsehoods and misleading statements, but to challenge those in the media and in Congress who allow them to get away with such dangerous and illegitimate policies.
Stephen Zunes, Middle East editor for Foreign Policy In Focus (online at www.fpif.org), is a professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco and the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003).