Bolstering the Status Quo

On the afternoon of September 11th 2001, Ariel Sharon, Israel’s Prime Minister, himself implicated in a number of war crimes, made a television appearance to convey his regret, condolences, and assurance of Israels support for the “war on terror”. Sharon called for a coalition against terrorist networks, making a stark contrast between the civilised world and terrorism. He defined it as “humanity” versus “the bloodthirsty”, and “the free world” against “the forces of darkness”, who are trying to destroy “freedom” and our “way of life[1].”

Of course these comments are almost identical to Blair’s statements regarding the bombings in London last month, when he said that these atrocities are symptomatic of an “evil ideology” aimed at “our way of life”, not at any particular government or policy. By saying this, Blair, like Sharon and Bush, posits a binary opposition between civilisation and barbarism, good and evil, us and them. Whilst it may be more comforting to dismiss historical contexts and look at acts of aggression in these terms, if we value human life and are serious about averting future atrocities, then it has little use outside of providing a memorable sound-bite.

The overwhelming majority of experts on terrorism, including the high- ranking security and intelligence officials of our own government, reject these notions reiterated by our leaders and a large portion of the mainstream press. To take one example (of which there are numerous available) professor Robert Pape of the University of Chicago, in his new book ‘Dying to Win’, provides a scholarly analysis of the historical motivations of suicide bombers. He concludes that nearly all suicide attacks have in common a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland. Religion is rarely the root cause, although it is often used as a tool by terrorist organisations in recruiting and in other efforts in service of the broader strategic objective[2].”

Despite this overwhelming consensus of expert opinion, within the establishment of those who design government policy we find varying degrees of advocacy for military action. This is perhaps unsurprising given the fact that diplomats and representatives are usually appointed to serve their nation by people who embrace the received view of how “defence” is to be carried out. “Ask a hawk what to do during times of apparently irreconcilable strife” notes Harvard University’s Laurie Calhoun “and he may find your question surprising, perhaps even childishly naive. The answer is obvious: war[3].”

It is a position that was expressed recently by Defence secretary John Reid, who, after dismissing the notion that military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq had increased the threat of terrorism, commented “the idea that somehow by running away from the school bully, then the bully will not come after you is a thesis that is known to be completely untrue by every kid in the playground and it is also refuted by every piece of historical evidence that we have”. It is a remark that shows either incredible cynicism, or an inability to comprehend contemporary historical evidence. It is also reminiscent of the New York Times’ characterisation of George W. Bush, observing that it is “the stark and vivid definition of principle…baked into [George Bush] during his years at Andover and Yale, that honor and duty compels you to punch the bully in the face[4].” The context of this comment, which is quite revealing, is the US National Security Policy Review, leaked in the first months of the Bush presidency, which notes that “In cases where the U.S. confronts much weaker enemies”, recognising they are the only kind that the US will be facing, “our challenge will be not simply to defeat them, but to defeat them decisively and rapidly” so as to maintain public support for military action. Thus the ideology may be better summed up as – you only punch the bully in the face if you are sure they are “much weaker” than you[5].

If we look at how the British government officially defines terrorism then we get a much better idea of what Blair and others mean by the term. As Brian Whitaker notes in the Guardian “The latest British anti- terrorism law lists 21 international terrorist organisations by name” and that “membership of these is illegal in the UK… There are six Islamic groups, four anti-Israel groups, eight separatist groups and three opposition groups. The list includes Hizbullah, which though armed, is a legal political party in Lebanon, with elected members of parliament”. leading him to conclude that a more realistic definition of what we mean by terrorism is “violence committed by those we disapprove of[6].” Or as historian Frank Furedi puts it: “Terrorists become any foreign people you don’t like”. Using this definition, terror can never be carried out by regimes that Britain supports and certainly not by Britain itself. The reason for this, as pointed out in the journal Critical Studies Critical Methodologies, is that: “Although our technological superiority permits us to kill civilians in any corner of the globe, liberal states purportedly undertake ‘police action’ (or, in present-day parlance, humanitarian
intervention) whereas only outcast states who dare to challenge liberal hegemony allegedly continue to engage in barbaric wars[7].”

By extension, this naturally entails convincing the British population at large that we are killing vast numbers of people with the support or on behalf of these same people. If we take as our test case the US / UK governments’ attempts to impose democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, we would have to conclude that when the Home Secretary, Charles Clark, declares that it is a fundamental right for people “to be able to go to work on their transport system in the morning without being blown up”, this fundamental right does not apply to Afghani or Iraqi civilians[8].

There was considerable protest regarding the unnecessary use of force against a civilian population committed in Fallujah, where coalition forces effectively designated any and all moving civilian vehicles to be free fire targets. The chief United Nations human rights official, Louise Arbour, called for an investigation into abuses, including the disproportionate use of force and the targeting of civilians, but this has been downplayed or rejected on the grounds that “The worse option was to do nothing” and thereby “cede the town to the guerrillas and make it a model for other cities in Iraq”, as summed up in the stance of the editors of the Los Angeles Times[9].

Because the assault renders access to basic health care dangerous or impossible for most Iraqi civilians it remains to be seen whom this really is the “worse option” for. A doctor at Fallujah General, Sami al- Jumaili, told Reuters: “There is not a single surgeon in Fallujah. We had one ambulance hit by U.S. fire and a doctor wounded… There are scores of injured civilians in their homes whom we can’t move,” al- Jumaili continued. “A 13-year-old child just died in my hands[10].”

Throughout the siege, Marines prevented ambulances and other vehicles from transporting sick or injured people to what was at that time,(and after Coalition forces destroyed the city’s only other hospitals), is now again the only trauma capable health care facility.

Brian Dominick in The NewStandard reports, “The Pentagon has made little attempt to explain its repeated attacks on medical personnel and infrastructure. Nevertheless, numerous reporters embedded with the Marines have been told that Fallujah General Hospital was seized to prevent hospital officials from… providing inflated death counts to the media as the offensive is underway.” He goes on to note that hospital officials “periodically informed the press that U.S. Marines were killing massive numbers of civilians, who were then being counted by local clinics and the hospital.” These reports have never been shown to be inaccurate but have in fact been upheld by independent analysts[11].

Marjorie Cohn, professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, executive vice president of the National Lawyers Guild and the US representative to the executive committee of the American Association of Jurists has noted, the attack began with an act contravening international law: “They [US forces] stormed and occupied the Fallujah General Hospital, and have not agreed to allow doctors and ambulances to go inside the main part of the city to help the wounded, in direct violation of the Geneva Conventions[12].”

If we look at The New York Times, we find the editors complain that the onslaught in Fallujah “is not the textbook way to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign” and worry that the city’s decimation may be a “very costly victory”, because of the hostility it will breed in the Sunni population, but never question the justification or legality of the attack[13].

The well-being of Iraq’s civilian population has, unfortunately, never been a high priority for the US and UK governments. The journal Peace & Change, observes that “Not one but two regimes adversely impacted the human rights of the Iraqi people: the regime of Saddam Hussein and the international sanctions regime. While the George W. Bush administration was interested in deploying the language of human rights in order to change the former through military-induced regime change it consistently was opposed to any changes in the latter[14].”

This is also backed up by The BBC’s Middle East correspondent, Tim Llewellyn, commenting in 1994: “The claim by the Western governments that food and drugs flow freely into Iraq is not true. I have seen telexes and documents that showed clearly that the British and the American government interfered with the flow of crucial drugs into Iraq. That is unquestionable… [the sanctions] would not be lifted even if Iraq satisfies the UN Security Council on every single sanction report and in fact the Americans are making it clear that the sanctions are not going to be lifted under any circumstances[15].”

When The UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, Denis Halliday, resigned in 1998, he gave the reason that “the policy of economic sanctions is totally bankrupt. We are in the process of destroying an entire society… I had been instructed to implement a policy that satisfies the definition of genocide; a deliberate policy that has effectively killed well over a million children and adults[16].

Again, unfortunately this is by far and away the norm as opposed to a single “terrible error” on the part of Western powers. As the historian Dilip Hiro notes “The United States flaunts the banner of democracy in the Middle East only when that advances its economic, military, or strategic interests. The history of the past six decades shows that whenever there has been conflict between furthering democracy in the region and advancing American national interests, U.S. administrations have invariably opted for the latter course. Furthermore, when free and fair elections in the Middle East have produced results that run contrary to Washington’s strategic interests, it has either ignored them or tried to block the recurrence of such events[17].”

In the British media reaction to this, for the most part, we find a real or feigned naivete about Britain’s intentions that reaches startling proportions. For example, The Times’ Gerard Baker who writes: “The beauty of human freedom that so many in the world now enjoy, the wonder of so much prosperity, the legacy of the Enlightenment, the very principles of cultural and political tolerance and free inquiry, owe more to Britain, and latterly our Anglo-Saxon allies who have taken on the baton in the past century, than to any other country on Earth[18].”

It is a point of view that is based on the belief that Western motives are pure. Examination of the documents of the planners of military intervention reveals quite different intentions, however. The War Office communicated in
1937 that “Baghdad [is] to be an Arab State with local ruler or government under British protectorate in everything but name. It will accordingly have no relations with foreign powers… Baghdad is to be administered behind the Arab facade as far as possible[19].” The post- Gulf War era has seen the US not only enhance these styles but replace Britain as the dominant power in the Middle East. Something that was observed by former US Secretary of State Cordell Hull as he explained, “Leadership towards a new system of international relationships in trade and other economic affairs will devolve very largely upon the United States… we should assume this leadership, and the responsibility that goes with it, primarily for reasons of pure national self-interest[20].

If we listen to what the people of the Middle East are saying, then the story is quite different. They are aware that solutions have been there all the while but realise almost nothing has been done to implement them. On the Arab-Israeli conflict, agreed documents outlining a just peace already exist. In the case of the Taba agreement there was 99 percent agreement between parties, along with the support of a US president. Rather than today’s baby steps and the continuing construction of a wall of injustice we should be applying that document notes Hassan Yassin in the Arab News.

In regard to Iraq, he continues, “all but the United States and a handful of Western leaders were against the war and its unconvincing justifications from the start. Today the insurgency is spinning further out of control and the American presence is contributing to the worsening situation. It is clear to most of us that it is now time for American troops to withdraw and to be replaced by acceptable and UN- sanctioned forces[21].”

Discouragingly it seems to be becoming less and less important what the rest of the world thinks as our leaders assume to act on our behalf and it is a very grave tragedy that we do not have to think very hard or very far from home to “Imagine a world where such ferocious attacks become common.” as noted by Dr. Jim McDermott and Dr. Richard Rapport in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Although, they conclude that there are alternatives. Instead, “we can reaffirm our commitment to a community of nations and to the laws that govern their relations. We can demonstrate respect for the diverse peoples of the world, while holding no life of lesser value than our own[22].”


1. September 11, the media and war fever – Douglas Kellner, Television & New Media, Vol.3 No. 2, 2002

2. Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism – Robert A. Pape, Random House, 2005

3. Self-defense, defense and pre-emption – Laurie Calhoun, jounral of
Politcs: 2004 VOL 24(3)

4. Culture War With B-2s – Maureen Dowd, New York Times, September 22, 2002

5. VK Ramachandran interviews Noam Chomsky – Z Magazine May 2003 v16/number 5

6. The definition of terrorism – Brian Whitaker, The Guardian, Monday May 7, 2001

7. The Legend of the Bush Gang: Imperialism, War, and Propaganda – Peter McLaren and Gregory Martin – Cultural Studies Critical Methodologies, Volume 4 Number 3, 2004

8. Police hunt mastermind behind London bombings – Reuters, Wed Jul 13, 2005

9. US Media applauds destruction of Fallujah – David Walsh,, 17th November 2004

10. Fallujah: US Declares War on Hospitals, Ambulances – Brian Dominick, The NewStandard, Novermber 10th 2004

11. ibid.

12. David Walsh;; 17 Nov 04

13. ibid.

14. The Human Rights Dimensions of War in Iraq: Framework for Peace Studies – Julie Mertus and Maia Carter Hallward, Peace & Change, Vol. 30, No. 1, January 2005

15. Tim Llewellyn, BBC Middle East correspondent speaking at a meeting of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, 16th February 1994

16. Dr. Eric Herring, Bristol University, ‘Iraq; the Realities of Sanctions
and the Prospects for War’, October 2002

17. Playing the democracy card – Dilip Hiro, Middle East International, no. 746.

18. July 15, 2005 Why blame the terrorists? Apparently we can agree that it’s Britain’s fault- Gerard Baker, The Times

19. P.W. Ireland, ‘Iraq; A Study in Political Development’, 1937 cited in –

20. Politics of War – Gabriel Kolko, Pantheon Books,1990

21. Pulling Up Terrorism by Its Roots – Hassan Yassin, Arab News, Monday 18th, July, 2005

22. Jim McDermott, M.D. and Richard Rapport, M.D. and 17 other area doctors and medical professionals, Tuesday, January 11, 2005 by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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