Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy

Stephen Shalom’s recent book of interviews with Noam Chomsky and Gilbert Achcar covers a wide variety of topics in Middle East politics, including the U.S.-Israel-Palestine conflict, the war in Iraq, the U.S. confrontation with Iran, and U.S. and Islamic Fundamentalist-based terrorism, amongst other important issues. Shalom has long been active in progressive politics, with prolific works such as Imperial Alibis, The United States and the Philippines: A Study of Neocolonialism, and Socialist Visions, as well as a recent textbook, Which Side Are You On? An Introduction to Politics.  While Chomsky and Achcar’s views naturally dominate Perilous Power, Shalom has provided a further understanding and exploration of many of the issues touched upon in the Perilous Power below.

DiMaggio: In Perilous Power, Noam Chomsky gives a definition of terrorism encompassing "the calculated use [or threat] of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature…through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear. Achcar’s definition consists of "acts against unarmed innocent civilians." Such definitions, if universally applied, would necessarily implicate the U.S. and many of its allies in engaging in terrorism against unarmed civilians (Afghanistan/Iraq, etc.). How would you answer critics who are set on creating a distinction between the violence of the U.S. (as not intending to actively target civilians) and that of American enemies (i.e. Al Qaeda and others) who do actively target civilians? Is this a distinction worth keeping when defining terrorism?

Shalom: There are many distinctions that are morally relevant, but they don’t always change a terrorist act into a non-terrorist act. Take the issue of the cause for which the act is carried out. Some argue, for example, that targeting innocent civilians in the cause of ending an unjust occupation is not terrorism, while targeting innocent civilians in the cause of maintaining an unjust occupation is terrorism. Critics of this view say that targeting innocents is terrorism regardless of the cause. Now obviously the cause is morally significant. Nevertheless, I would condemn as terrorism and unjustified the targeting of civilians in either just or unjust causes (though in extreme hypothetical cases, where killing one innocent could save the whole human race, for example, it might be hard to maintain this position).


Now take the issue of intent. Is this a distinction that matters? Yes, sometimes intent is a critical factor in how we judge an action, making the difference between a blameworthy act and a blameless act. But it is not always so. Consider three cases.


Case I: X decides that it is necessary to kill Y, who is innocent, in order to achieve some goal. X "regrets" having to kill Y in the sense that X wishes the world were not such that an innocent person had to be killed. Nevertheless, given the world as it is, X believes Y must be killed. X does not wish Y dead for its own sake, but only as a means to achieving some other goal. X intends, in this indirect sense, to kill Y and does so.


Case II: X decides it is necessary to destroy a military target in order to achieve some goal. X knows that doing so will likely lead to the deaths of several hundred innocent people. X does not intend the deaths of those people as a goal, nor as a means to a goal, but as a foreseeable consequence of achieving the goal. X "regrets" their deaths in the sense that X wishes the world were not such that innocent people would have to die in the destroying of the military target. X proceeds to destroy the target and the foreseeable consequences of that action result in the deaths of hundreds of innocent people.


Case III: X decides it is necessary to destroy a military target in order to achieve some goal. X pays no attention to the likely consequences of doing so, which are in fact that hundreds of innocent people will die. X neither wishes that these innocents die nor regrets this outcome; X is indifferent to it. X destroys the target and hundreds of innocents die.


How do we morally assess these three cases? Again, obviously the nature of the goal matters: let’s assume the goal in each case is some modest moral good. All three of these are terrorism in my view and morally unjustified. Which is worse? Case I has the clearest and most direct intent, but it would be hard to argue that this is morally worse than the other cases, and harder still to argue that it falls on one side of the morality line and the latter two cases fall on the other.


What if we discovered that the 911 attackers had as their goal only the destruction of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? That is, what if they did not intend to kill any civilians. They knew they would, but that wasn’t their intent. (After all, if they had wanted to maximize deaths to innocents, crashing a jet into a filled sports stadium and engulfing it in flames would have killed more people than did hitting the symbolic targets of September 11.) Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged 911 mastermind, said in his "confession" that he was "not happy that 3,000 had been killed in America. I feel sorry even. I don’t like to kill children and the kids." His regret and his lack of intent might be morally relevant, but I doubt few of us would thereby classify his actions as not terroristic.


Note, incidentally, that the definition of terrorism that Chomsky gives in Perilous Power is one used by the U.S. government. Edward Peck, a former U.S. diplomat, has recently recalled,


"In 1985, when I was the Deputy Director of the Reagan White House Task Force on Terrorism, they asked us — this is a Cabinet Task Force on Terrorism; I was the Deputy Director of the working group — they asked us to come up with a definition of terrorism that could be used throughout the government. We produced about six, and each and every case, they were rejected, because careful reading would indicate that our own country had been involved in some of those activities.

"After the task force concluded its work, Congress got into it, and you can google into U.S. Code Title 18, Section 2331, and read the U.S. definition of terrorism. And one of them in here says — one of the terms, ‘international terrorism,’ means ‘activities that,’ I quote, ‘appear to be intended to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.’

"Yes, well, certainly, you can think of a number of countries that have been involved in such activities. Ours is one of them. Israel is another."


DiMaggio: Chomsky and Achcar have noted a long history (seen in official documents) of bi-partisan U.S. concern with dominating Middle Eastern and global oil supplies. If concern with the major strategic prize in Iraq (oil) really is bi-partisan in American politics, then why are we now hearing talk amongst Democratic political leaders of a withdrawal from Iraq by 2008 (from Dodd, Feingold, Obama, Clinton, Murtha, etc.)? If the policy goal has always been control of Iraqi oil, how will the Democrats ensure U.S. dominance of oil supplies in light of a proposed pullout? Given the Democrats have recently backpedaled on their support for timetable for withdrawal (claiming no power to override Bush’s veto), does their initial support for withdrawal stand in contradiction to the longstanding U.S. goal of controlling Middle Eastern oil?


One can’t always get what one wishes. Sometimes, wiser minds recognize a hopeless cause and cut their losses. Britain really did leave India, even though the more stubborn imperialists, like Churchill, opposed doing so.


Most of the Democrats are wiser than the Bush administration (though this is not setting a very high standard). They are, however, neither prepared to accept nor talking about a full withdrawal from the region. Most of the leading Democrats have left the military option on the table for dealing with Iran. Most continue to give a blank check to Israel. The better among them favor some version of the Murtha plan, which would pull troops out of Iraq but redeploy them elsewhere in the region, "over the horizon" so as not to continue provoking Arab and Islamic ire (see the article I co-authored with Achcar on this). The Democratic spending bill vetoed by Bush quite explicitly did not call for a full withdrawal, but would have left a large residual force in Iraq (apart from the private contractors, who go unmentioned). Kucinich, of course, is an exception to all this: he calls for a totally new foreign policy in the region. Not surprisingly, he has received disdainful media treatment and is shut out from the large financial contributions necessary for a successful campaign.


DiMaggio: Marvin Kalb, a researcher from Harvard University, recently published a paper claiming that the American media’s reporting of the Israel-Lebanon war (2006) was systematically biased against Israel, in favor of Hezbollah’s propaganda goals. Kalb claims that the media focus on the asymmetrical Israeli response to the Lebanese kidnapping of Israeli soldiers is little more than "propaganda." He has claimed that Hezbollah "retain[ed] almost total control of the daily message of journalism and propaganda…in the war of information, news and propaganda, the battlefield central to Hezbollah’s strategy, Israel lost this war." While Chomsky and Achcar would be highly critical of such claims, how would you specifically answer charges that the American press is an unwilling agent of Hezbollah and that the U.S. media is biased because of a focus on Israel‘s disproportionate violence?


Shalom: Media bias is not revealed by whom its coverage favors, but by whom it favors given what’s actually happening. So if the media portrays person X as a bully, that tells us nothing about media bias. If X is in fact a sweetheart, then the media is biased against X. If X is in fact a murderer, then the label bully in fact reflects comparatively favorable treatment.


In the 2006 Lebanon war, the number of Lebanese civilians killed was about 25 times as great as the number of Israelis killed. The number of explosives (bombs, artillery shells, rockets) targeting Lebanon far exceeded the number launched by Hezbollah. The destruction of civilian infrastructure in Lebanon was vastly more extensive than that in Israel. Only Israel killed UN personnel. Both sides used anti-personnel weapons against civilian targets, but only Israel‘s cluster ordnance left hundreds of thousands of lethal munitions that are still killing civilians today. Only Israel used white phosphorus bombs. So you’d expect — other things being equal — unfavorable media coverage of Israel. But actually, Israel got off pretty easy.


Kalb’s claim that Hezbollah controlled the narrative collapses on inspection. For example, he states that the message Hezbollah wanted to project made no mention of the organization’s dependence on Iran and Syria for its weaponry (Kalb, "The Israeli-Hezbollah War of 2006: The Media As A Weapon in Asymmetrical Conflict," p. 5). But of course the U.S. media made frequent mention of Iran or Syria as the source of Hezbollah’s arms — so Hezbollah failed in its effort to control the media’s message. On the other hand, Israel presumably was anxious not to have Americans debating whether their tax dollars should go to providing Israel with the means of slaughtering Lebanese civilians, and, sure enough, the fact that Israel was dependent on the United States for its arms got relatively little coverage.


Kalb says that Asharq Al-Awsat — one of two Arabic language papers published in London — had 22 front page pictures of destruction in Lebanon compared to only 1 of destruction in Israel. Kalb writes: "This imbalance (22 to 1) could hardly be defined by a Western yardstick as ‘objective journalism,’ but it still could be explained in the context of Middle East journalism, where many Arab reporters feel a nationalistic, religious or cultural prejudice against Israel" (p. 13) (Fortunately, no corresponding anti-Arab prejudices exist among Israeli reporters.) But given that this ratio, 22:1, roughly tracks the ratio of civilian deaths and very much under-tracks the ratio of destruction to civilian targets, Asharq Al-Awsat does not seem to be treating Israel so unfairly. (Actually, one could say that the paper was bending over backwards to give Israel the benefit of the doubt, given that the Israeli government — unlike the Lebanese government — prohibited journalists from reporting about targets hit by enemy missiles.)


In any event, looking at an Arabic-language newspaper doesn’t tell us about bias in the U.S. media. Here’s what Kalb says about U.S. television coverage:


"if you were watching American television, you would quickly have concluded that Fox cable news favored Israel, CNN tried to be balanced, and the three major evening news programs on ABC, CBS and NBC were more critical of Israel than of Hezbollah. …More than half of the stories (133) focused on Israeli attacks against Lebanon, 89 of them on Hezbollah attacks against Israel" (pp. 14-15).


Again this ratio is heavily in Israel‘s favor when compared to what was actually going on. But leaving this aside, consider the source Kalb gives for this claim. He cites "Media Monitor. (July/August 2006). ‘The War in Lebanon.’" When one turns to the source, one discovers that the Media Monitor report studied only ABC, CBS, and NBC, thus excluding the pro-Israel Fox and CNN, which Kalb says tried to be balanced. Thus, Media Monitor was looking at the most anti-Israel section of the mainstream. Here in fact is what Media Monitor called its "major findings":


·         No Good Guys Israel, Hezbollah, and the USA all got mostly bad press.

·         Best of a Bad Lot But Hezbollah fared worst and Israel best.

·         Forceful Defense Israel‘s use of force was justified more often than Hezbollah’s.

·         The Blame Game Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran were all blamed more often than Israel.

·         Room for Improvement Israel‘s coverage was much improved from the 2002 Intifada.


The only sense in which Kalb is correct when he says that Israel lost the media war is that the pro-Israeli narrative failed to achieve its usual total domination of the U.S. media.


Incidentally, when Israel admitted in October 2006 to having used during the war in Lebanon white phosphorus, a weapon that the International Red Cross and human rights groups believe should be banned, the story was reported in the Israeli paper Haaretz and in the British press. In the United States, however, according to a Lexis-Nexis search, coverage consisted of 222 words in the Washington Post (in its "World in Brief" section on page A13), 2 sentences in the Los Angeles Times, and nothing in any of the other 48 leading papers.


n       June 3, 2007


Steve Shalom teaches political science at William Paterson University in New Jersey. He has written for Z Magazine, and is on the editorial boards of Critical Asian Studies and New Politics.


Anthony Dimaggio has taught Middle East Politics and American Government at Illinois State University. He is currently a PhD candidate in the areas of mass media studies and political science at University of Illinois, Chicago.


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