Safe Haven (and Other) Myths in Obama’s Terror War: Reflections in the Wake of Flight 253

It is important that the nearly successful terrorist attempt on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day appears to have been planned in Yemen and that the attempted suicide bomber began his journey to the United States in Amsterdam. 


In the wake of the near tragedy, U.S. President Barack Obama ought to – but will not – level with the American people about five key realities. 



“The Orders Came Directly From the Oval Office”


The first terrible truth he will not acknowledge is that he puts Americans at risk by continuing the United States’ illegal, mass-murderous wars of terror (sold as a just “war on terror”) on the people of the Middle East and South Asia.


Every time one of Washington’s killer drones or bombers blows up another Afghan wedding party or Pakistani village, the cause of jihad against America quite naturally gains new recruits.


Every time U.S. artillery shells and other ordnance butcher another Pashtun mother and/or child, Islamic terrorism garners new soldiers who unsurprisingly interested in murdering Americans.


On December 17, eight days before Yemen resident Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blast Flight 253 out of the sky, Yemen opposition forces testified that many dozens of civilians, including a large number of children, had just been killed in US air-raids in the southeast section of that country. The fighters reported the deaths of 63 people, 28 of whom were children, in the province of Abyan [1].


The killing orders came from the winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. As the left commentator Barry Grey notes:


US President Barack Obama personally issued the order for US air strikes in Yemen last Thursday which killed scores of civilians, including women and children.”


US warplanes used cruise missiles against alleged Al Qaeda camps in the Abyan village of al Maajala, some 480 kilometers southeast of the capital Sana’a, and in the Arhab district, 60 kilometers to the northeast of Sana’a. The US strikes were apparently coordinated with the US-backed dictatorship of Yemen President Ali Abdallah Saleh…”


ABC World News reported that U.S. warplanes had been involved in the attacks. “White House officials tell ABC News,” reporter Brian Rose said, “the orders for the US military to attack the suspected Al Qaeda sites in Yemen on Thursday came directly from the Oval Office.”


ABC also noted that Obama called Saleh after the slaughterer to “congratulate” him on the attacks [2]. The Nobel-honored peacemaker Obama told Yemen’s ruler that the operation "confirms Yemen‘s resolve in confronting the danger of terrorism represented by al Qaeda for Yemen and the world” [3].


“He Brings Only Death”


Reading various accounts of the Yemen assaults, I was reminded of an Afghan man’s comment to an Al Jazeera English reporter on December 10, 2009 – the day that Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize: “Obama has only brought war to our country.  Peace prize? He’s a killer.”


The man spoke from the village of Armal, where a crowd of 100 gathered around the bodies of 12 people, one family from a single home.  The 12 were killed, witnesses reported, by U.S. Special Forces during a late night raid.


“Why are they giving Obama a peace medal?” another village resident asked the reporter. “He claims to want to bring security to us but he brings only death. Death to him”


Al Jazeera also went to the Afghan village of Bola Boluk, where an Obama-ordered bombing butchered dozens of civilians last January. “He doesn’t deserve the award,” a young woman said. “He bombed us and left us with nothing, not even a home" [4].


After producing a new fresh crop of Muslim civilian corpses in Yemen, Obama prepared to retreat with his family to his highfalutin Hawaiian holiday hideaway.  Maybe he should have warned us regular American folks not to fly this Christmas season. Never consulted on impending Predator drone and cruise missile attacks and other aspects of U.S military policy, we have to fly on commercial airlines without the protections enjoyed by the passengers on Air Force One. An operative more skilled than the un-mysteriously bitter Abdulmutallab would probably have brought down the Northwest plane, killing nearly 300 people.


“Because Theyre Evil and We Are Not”


Of course, it is difficult, if not impossible in the dominant U.S. political and media culture, to have a reasonable discussion about why a young Nigerian from an affluent, politically connected family would want to blow himself up along with 300 (mostly) innocent others, and about why Arab militants would be eager to help him do so. “When it comes to Terrorism,” Glen Greenwald notes on Salon, “discussions of motive have been declared more or less taboo from the start because of the dishonest equation of motive discussions with justification – as though understanding the reasons why X happens is to posit that X is legitimate and justifiable.  Causation simply is; it has nothing to do with issues of morality, blame, or justification.  Yet all that is generally permitted to be said in such situations is that Terrorists try to harm us because they’re Evil, and we (of course) are not, and that’s generally the end of the discussion.” [5]


The “Safe Haven” Myth


The second truth Obama will not share with the American people is that a (nearly successful) terrorist attack from Yemen (and Western Europe) undermines a critical part of his case for intensifying and expanding the U.S. war on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama’s claim, inherited from his distant cousin Dick Cheney [6], that “we” need to conduct military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan in order to deny terrorists a “safe haven” [7] and to prevent “another 9/11,” is dubious indeed. As Harvard Kennedy School of Government professor Stephen Walt noted in an August 2009 Foreign Policy essay, Obama’s “safe haven myth” rests on the fundamentally flawed premise that al Qaeda or its many and various imitators couldn’t just as effectively plot and conduct future terror attacks from any of a large number of other locations, including Western Europe and the U.S. itself. Let we forget, 9/11 itself was plotted partly in Hamburg, German and in the U.S. At the same time, Walt noted, Obama’s expanded engagement in the ambitious social and political reconstruction and re-engineering of Afghanistan and perhaps even Pakistan, trying, with slight chances of success, to creating a centralized democratic state in the former country, was reinforcing al Qaeda’s core claim that the West’s and the above all the United States’ presence in South Asia is about imperial control.  The more the U.S. is seen as “trying to restructure their societies along lines that we think are appropriate,” Walt noted, “the more we play into the narrative that they use to try and attract support and recruit people in Afghanistan itself”[8].


Five days after Obama advanced the “safe haven” argument for the Af-Pak war in a 9/11-commemoration speech to New Yorkers, Georgetown professor Paul Pillar seconded Walt’s critique in the editorial pages of The Washington Post. “By utilizing networks such as the Internet,” Pillar noted, “terrorists’ organizations have become more network-like, not beholden to any one headquarters.” A significant jihadist terrorist threat to the United States was still very much alive, Pillar acknowledged, adding however that “that does not mean it will consist of attacks instigated and commanded from a South Asian haven, or that it will require a haven at all. Al-Qaeda’s role in that threat is now less one of commander than of ideological lodestar, and for that role a haven is almost meaningless” [9].  Pillar was deputy chief of the counterterrorist center at the CIA from 1997 to 1999. He is director of graduate studies at Georgetown University‘s Security Studies Program.


Islamic terrorists seeking to punish “America” for its imperial presence and role in Southwest and South Asia (a category of people that is much larger than just the largely South Asia-based “al Qaeda”) don’t require specifically South Asian shelters.  The number of locales where they can plan and meet is virtually limitless. 


The warlords of Washington are deepening their pressure on – and presence in – Yemen.  But the next terror attack on Americans attacks could well come from “safe havens” in Somalia or Indonesia or the Sudan or Malaysia or Stockholm or Montreal pr Uruguay.  Shall we invade and occupy the entire world (as if we could)? Does Obama plan to occupy the Netherlands since that is where Abdulmutallab boarded for passage to the U.S. on the night before Christmas?


How to End the Terror Threat


The third truth that no president can mention is that the quickest and best ways to essentially end the Islamo-terrorist threat to Americans are remarkably simple:


* Stop occupying and attacking the Middle East and South Asia.


* Stop supporting vicious and authoritarian regimes (e.g. the Saudi Arabian terror state) there.


* Stop backing Israel’s criminal and brutal occupation and apartheid policies toward the Palestinians.


When Washington drops its longstanding imperial and reactionary presence in the region, the terror threat to Americans will diminish dramatically. That presence is even more provocative today than it was at the turn of the century, when it provided the basic reason (as the CIA’s then chief Al Qaeda analyst [Michael Scheurer ] noted under the pesudonymn “Anonymous”)[10] for 9/11 – a terrorist attack that many of us had been predicting for some time in light of U.S. Middle Eastern policy.  The Pentagon and the World Trade Center were hardly random Western targets for al Qaeda, whose mass-murderous leader reasonably asked the world to reflect on why (if the Islamists were simply driven by hatred of the western “way of life”) they attacked the U.S., not Sweden [11].


Other Unmentionable Topics: Oil and Imperial Credibility


A fourth unmentionable (for public consumption anyway) fact is that America’s presence in South and Southwest Asia is fundamentally about the control of strategically and economically hyper-significant petroleum resources. “We” wouldn’t be over there in all “our” fine imperial glory if the region wasn’t the world’s fossil fuel energy heartland [12].


A fifth taboo topic is the unpleasant fact that the continuing U.S. occupations and wars – the critical raw material driving Islamo-terrorist threats to Americans – are also fundamentally about maintaining sheer imperial credibility.  Oil aside, the Empire cannot appear to have been defeated by supposed ragtag “insurgents.”   It can’t be made to look weak.  It must maintain the illusion of military hyper-potency – a critical reason that tens of thousands of U.S. GIs and millions of Southeast Asians “had” to prematurely die and suffer long after Washington had given up on achieving its maximum objectives in Vietnam during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The imperial crime boss Uncle Sam cannot look vulnerable. He must never “cut and run,” lest the message get out to the subjects that the emperor has no clothes.


Under Obama as under both Bush’s, Reagan, and Clinton, Noam Chomsky noted last November in London, two fundament principles of post -World War II U.S. foreign policy have remained firmly intact in regard to the Middle East. The first principle holds that if the U.S. “can control Middle Eastern energy resources, then [it] can control the [oil-dependent] world.”  The second core premise – the “Mafia Principle” – maintains that “the Godfather” does not tolerate “successful defiance.”  Other nations and “insurgents” standing up with success against Superpower is “too dangerous”…a “virus” that could “spread contagion” of resistance to western and U.S. domination. “It must therefore be stamped out so that others understand that disobedience is not an option” (Chomsky).   Under Obama as under previous presidents, Iran (for example) is perceived by top U.S policymakers as insufficiently dutiful and submissive to imperial masters and must therefore be punished with “sanctions and other means,” including possibly military assault [13].


Meanwhile, Misery and Spiritual Death Deepen in the “Homeland”


In any event, Washington possesses no legitimate right to try to rule and re-structure the Middle East and South Asia.  As long it continues on the noxious assumption that it does enjoy such a prerogative, more terror attacks – some successful (9/11, Fort Hood, and the USS Cole) and others not (Flight 253) – on Americans can be expected over the years at home and abroad. “Afghanistan” did not attack America on 9/11/2001.  Neither did Pakistan. Al Qaeda and its associates and imitators do not require any single state or combination of states to shelter them in order to conduct terror operations against the U.S. Meanwhile, as the vicious, self-fulfilling circles of war, occupation, “insurgency,” “counter-insurgency,” escalation,  terror, and  “counter-terror” drive the world to ever greater heights of authoritarian repression and destruction, the signs of domestic disrepair – mass joblessness and poverty, homelessness, rotting schools and infrastructure, shocking socioeconomic disparity, hyper-segregation, racially disparate hyper-incarceration, and (…the list goes on) – are ever more evident in the “homeland” (a revealing imperial term that Obama has inherited from George W. Bush)[14].  They go unaddressed as the bipartisan corporate-imperial fake democracy pours more than a trillion dollars each year into the Pentagon’s military-industrial death machine, sparking some American dissidents to recall the words of Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4, 1967:


“The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.  A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm… of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.  A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death” [15].



Paul Street ([email protected])is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004), Segregated School: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008). Street’s next book is titled The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010 – spring).  





1. Press TV-Video Report, “U.S. Kill 63 Civilians, 28 Children in Yemen Air Strikes” (December 18, 2009), read at http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article24226.htm


2. Barry Grey, “Obama Ordered U.S. Air Strikes on Yemen,” World Socialist Web Site (December 21, 2009), read at http://www.wsws.org/articles/2009/dec2009/yeme-d21.shtml. Compare the forthright treatments from Press TV and the WSWS with the following propagandistic milquetoast from The New York Times: “The United States provided firepower, intelligence and other support to the government of Yemen as it carried out raids…to strike at suspected hide-outs of Al Qaeda within its borders, according to officials familiar with the operations….The officials said that the American support was approved by President Obama…”See Tom Shanker and Mark Landler, “”U.S. Aids Yemeni Raids on Al Qaeda, Officials Say,” New York Times, December 19, 2009, read at www.nytimes.com/2009/12/19/world/middleeast/19yemen.html


3. Reuters, “Yemen Opposition Says Government Attack Killed Civilians,” December 18, 2009.


4. Aljazeera English, “Afghans Anger at Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize,” YouTube (December 10, 2009) at www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBHrnQTinGY&feature=related


5. Glen Greenwald, “Cause and Effect in the ‘Terror War,’” Salon (December 29, 2009), www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2009/12/29/terrorism/index.html


6. “Cheney, Obama ‘Distant Cousins,’” BBC News (October 17, 2007), read at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7048325.stm.


7. See (for one of many examples) “Obama Speech to New Yorkers,” New York Daily News, September 11, 2009, read at http://www.nydailynews.com/opinions/2009/09/11/2009-09-11_obamas_message_on_911.html. The same argument was a critical theme in Obama’s December 1st War Speech to the nation from the U.S. Military Academy in West Point. See Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” (December 1, 2009), read at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-address-nation-way-forward-afghanistan-and-pakistan


8. Stephen Walt, “The Safe Haven Myth,” Foreign Policy (August 18, 2009), read at http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/08/18/the_safe_haven_myth; Stephen Walt, interview by Amy Goodman, “Democracy Now,” August 25, 2009, read at http://www.democracynow.org/2009/8/25/the_safe_haven_myth_harvard_prof.


9.  By Paul R. Pillar,“Whose Afraid of a Terrorist Safe Haven?” Washington Post, September 16, 2009, read at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/15/AR2009091502977_pf.html


10.  Anonymous (Michael Scheurer), Imperial Hubris: Why the West is losing The War on Terror (Washington D.C.: Brasseys, Inc., 2004).


11. Paul Street, “‘Why Didn’t We Attack Sweden?’” ZNet (October 31, 2004), read at http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/7571. 


12. From some of my own reflections (hardly original) on the petro-imperial motivations, see Paul Street,”Iraq is Not Vietnam, Part 3,” ZNet (April 27, 2006), read at http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/3977. 


13. Mamoon Alabbasi, “No Change in USA’s ‘Mafia Principle,” Media Lens Message Board, November 3, 2009, read at http://members5.boardhost.com/medialens/msg/1257200905.html


14. Obama’s first comment (from Hawaii) on the attempted attack aboard Flight 253 contained the following comment: "This was a serious reminder of the dangers that we face and the nature of those who threaten our homeland.”  See “Obama: We Will Do Everything Possible to Keep America Safe,” CBS News (December 28, 2009), read at http://www.cbsnews.com/blogs/2009/12/28/politics/politicalhotsheet/entry6030996.shtml?tag=contentMain;contentBody


15. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “A Time to Break the Silence” (April 4, 1967), p. 241 in James M. Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco, CA: Harpercollins, 1991).

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