Mises Daily

War Without Consequence? Absurd.

Who said the following?

There are a lot of things that are different now [after the invasion of Iraq], and one that has gone by almost unnoticed — but it’s huge — is that by complete mutual agreement between the US and the Saudi government we can now remove almost all of our forces from Saudi Arabia. Their presence there over the last 12 years has been a source of enormous difficulty for a friendly government. It’s been a huge recruiting device for al-Qaeda. In fact if you look at bin Laden, one of his principle grievances was the presence of so-called crusader forces on the holy land, Mecca and Medina. I think just lifting that burden from the Saudis is itself going to open the door to other positive things.

Hint: it wasn’t Rep. Ron Paul, the now famous outside presidential candidate who sparred with Rudy Giuliani over the impact of US foreign policy on terrorism. It was Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in a May 2003 interview with Sam Tanenhaus of Vanity Fair magazine.

This neoconservative guru sounded suspiciously like Rep. Paul, who declared in the Tuesday debate: “Have you ever read the reasons they attacked us? They attack us because we’ve been over there; we’ve been bombing Iraq for ten years. We’ve been in the Middle East.” Paul then elaborated after Giuliani’s rhetorical blast: “They don’t come here to attack us because we’re rich and we’re free. They come and they attack us becuase we’re over there. I mean, what would we think if we were — if other foreign countries were doing that to us?”

We all know, or like to think we know, what Americans would do. We would fight back.

By suggesting that Americans look at their own government’s actions, Rep. Paul took a shot at one of the nation’s biggest sacred cows: we can do whatever we want in the world without consequence. For decades that seemed to be true. But no longer. It is critical that we honestly and realistically assess the consequences of US foreign policy.

Doing so does not mean that Americans are “to blame” for terrorism. Or that the victims of 9/11 “deserved” what they got. Talking about the issue doesn’t necessarily even mean that the United States should change what it is doing. But the first step to design good policy is to recognize the consequences — all of them, including the ugly, unexpected, and painful ones — of alternative strategies.

Unfortunately, the horror of 9/11 short-circuited the US political debate. It was hard for Americans to understand the murder of so many innocent people; the president and other politicians preferred to offer platitudes, claiming that Osama bin Laden & company hated us because we are so free — essentially, because we have a Bill of Rights. Some of the explanations didn’t even make logical sense. For instance, President Bill Clinton once claimed that “Americans are targets of terrorism in part …because we stand united against terrorism.”

The “they hate us because we are free” argument made no sense since these same terrorists ignored European and Asian countries which mirrored America’s prosperity and liberty. Indeed, Osama Bin Laden dismissed the contention: “Contrary to Bush’s claim that we hate freedom …why don’t we strike Sweden?”

Moreover, terrorism did not start in New York City on that beautiful fall day in 2001. Terrorism is an old political tool, usually employed by non-state actors who lack police forces and militaries: left-wing anarchists used assassinations and bombings to destabilize Czarist Russia more than a century ago.

Terrorism was a particularly common tool of nationalist and communist groups in the latter 20th century. Palestinian terrorism against Israelis reflected this tragic, but common, history. Indeed, until Iraq, the most prolific suicide bombers were outside the Middle East — the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

All of these terrorists murdered, maimed, and destroyed to advance a political agenda. So do Islamists who attack the United States. Oddly, some American officials view Islamic jihadists as proto-communists or Nazis, “Islamo-fascists,” whatever that means. (Terrorists are nasty people, but fascism as normally understood ain’t their game.) Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff contends that Islamic extremists “aspire to dominate all countries. Their goal is a totalitarian, theocratic empire to be achieved by waging perpetual war on soldiers and civilians alike.”

It’s a fearsome sounding argument, but doesn’t match the terrorism that we’ve faced. World domination is not on the lips of most actual jihadists — the murderers who committed bombings in New York City and in Jakarta, London, and Madrid, for example. There are no terrorist attacks against China. Assaults against Russia and India reflect much more mundane grievances: policy in Chechnya and Kashmir, respectively. Most of the world muddles along undisturbed by any terrorist attacks. It’s a curious campaign for world domination.

In fact, the evidence is much stronger that, by and large, terrorists view an activist America as being at war with them. The point is not that their belief is true, or justifies slaughtering Americans. But dismissing their hatred as a result of our freedom ignores the ugly reality that endangers us.

Paul Wolfowitz is not the only US official to understand this aspect of terrorism. In 1997 the Defense Science Board Summer Task Force on DoD Responses to Transnational Threats reported: “America’s position in the world invites attack simply because of its presence. Historical data show a strong correlation between US involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States.”

Moreover, many of the terrorists have explained why they have done what Americans find inexplicable — sacrifice their own lives to kill others. James Bamford records that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, “believed that the United States and Israel had been waging war against Muslims for decades.”

Why? Michael Scheuer, the anti-terrorist analyst at the CIA who authored Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, cites several American actions that offend many Muslims. The US military presence in Saudi Arabia, strong backing for Israel as it rules over millions of Palestinians, allied sanctions and military strikes against Iraq, and support for authoritarian Arab regimes. In fact, large majorities of Arabs and Muslims share these criticism of US policy, even as they express admiration for American values and products.

Supporting Scheuer’s conclusion is the University of Chicago’s Robert A. Pape. His research indicates that modern terrorist attacks confronted one form or another of foreign occupation. Paul Wolfowitz pointed to Saudi Arabia for a reason. After 9/11 most Saudi men professed their agreement with bin Laden about kicking out American military forces.

Some terrorist attacks could not be anything but retaliation for US intervention. Consider the 1983 bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon. Was it because of American liberty? Or was it a plot to conquer the United States? No. The Reagan administration had foolishly intervened in the middle of a civil war to back the “national” government, which ruled little more than Beirut and was controlled by one of the “Christian” factions. Washington indicated its support by having US warships bombard Muslim villages.

Lebanese Muslims saw aggression, not liberty, and fought back with the only effective weapons that they had at the time. The point is not that Americans deserved to be attacked, but that they would not have been attacked but for being placed in the middle of a distant sectarian conflict. No wonder US policymakers prefer not to talk about the causes of terrorism.

Obviously, it’s not always so easy to figure out why terrorists undertook a particular attack. But they commonly speak of taking revenge for American killings. And sometimes US officials unwittingly exacerbate the problem.

Sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were blamed for the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children. The number is suspect and the ultimate culprit was Hussein, but the toll was significant. Yet when asked about these incontrovertibly innocent victims, Bill Clinton’s U.N. Ambassador, Madeleine Albright, told 60 Minutes: “we think the price is worth it.” The image of US policy-makers callously writing off Muslim babies does not do justice to America, but it was the image projected by Albright throughout the Islamic world.

In his October 2004 video bin Laden spoke of viewing dead Arab Muslims, after which “it entered my mind that we should punish the oppressor in kind — and that we should destroy the towers in America in order that they taste some of what we tasted, and so that they be deterred from killing our women and children.” Bin Laden is evil, but he has a political objective, one that is inextricably tied to interventionist US policies.

Unfortunately, the ongoing Iraq war has become another terrorist cause. The Brookings Institution’s Daniel Benjamin notes that the Iraq invasion “gave the jihadists an unmistakable boost. Terrorism is about advancing a narrative and persuading a targeted audience to believe it. Although leading figures in the American administration have often spoken of the terrorists’ ideology of hatred, US actions have too often lent inadvertent confirmation to the terrorists’ narrative.”

He worries that Iraq has created three classes of largely new terrorists — foreigners in Iraq, Iraqi members of al-Qaeda, and local terrorists in other nations, especially in Southeast Asia and Europe. Indeed, research studies in both Israel and Saudi Arabia have found that most of Iraq’s terrorists appear to be new recruits not previously part of the jihadist movement, who were drawn by the war to attack Americans.

In sum, Rep. Ron Paul was right: our interventionist foreign policy generates terrorism. Whether one likes his noninterventionist foreign policy proposals (I do) is another question.

But it is time for US officials, including Republican candidates hoping to become the next president, to address the reality that Washington no longer can escape the consequences of its actions. The United States routinely invades, bombs, and sanctions other nations; Washington regularly meddles in other nations, demanding policy changes, promoting electoral outcomes, claiming commercial advantages, and pushing American preferences. However valid these actions, they create grievances and hatreds. And they spark some disgruntled extremists to commit terrorism. This is not a just or fair outcome, especially to the innocent Americans who are attacked. But it is the unfortunate reality.

Just as Paul Wolfowitz explained, almost exactly four years before Rep. Ron Paul was widely criticized for making the same point.


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