The War in Context

   alternative perspectives on the "war on terrorism" and the middle east conflict

Disarray in Washington provides dividend to anti-war movement
Editorial, The War in Context, May 23, 2002

An investigation into who knew what and when did they know it, might satisfy those of us who already suspect that America is being run by a bunch of incompetent opportunists. But let's face it, it'll be months before some damning 5000-page report comes out. In the meantime, another war will have been launched against Iraq, the average American will have lost interest in the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Afghanistan will have been forgotten, and if terrorists have struck on US soil yet again, the country will firmly be back in its united-we-stand mode. The best thing we can do while much of the American media and public have just rediscovered the power of skepticism, is to question the whole rationale for a war on terrorism.

Last week, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer attempted to paint a picture of a pre-9/11 government and its intelligence organizations in hot pursuit of al Qaeda, yet thwarted in their valiant efforts by a lack of clear leads. To assure us that there weren't any slackers in the White House, Fleischer referred to the "national security presidential directive", finalized on September 10th. This "was a comprehensive, multifront plan to dismantle the al Qaeda. It involved a direction to the Pentagon to develop military options for the dismantling of al Qaeda. It involved action on the financial front to dry up their resources. And it also involved working with [...] the Northern Alliance, in an attempt to dismantle the al Qaeda." The CIA, the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and the National Security Council were the authors of this plan. The Los Angeles Times reported that the price tag on this operation was a modest $200 million. Ten days later, when President Bush presented to Congress his plan for a war on terror, its expanded goal was that "every terrorist group of global reach [must be] found, stopped and defeated." Al Qaeda, however, remained the primary target. The price for this expanded operation had leapt two hundredfold to $40 billion, and that was just a down payment.

Here we are eight months later, $17 billion already spent on a war in Afghanistan, the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and most of the leading members of al Qaeda still unknown, the threat of terrorist attacks in the US ever present, India and Pakistan, embroiled in their own version of a war on terror, poised at the edge of a nuclear abyss and post-Taliban Afghanistan drifting back towards pre-Taliban warlordism.

Now although none of the key players in Washington are willing to engage in "what if" speculations, for the rest of us some speculation may not only satisfy a natural impulse, but it may also serve as a reality check that exposes the flaws in current policy.

Suppose the now famous "Phoenix memo" from FBI agent Kenneth Williams had promptly filtered up the appropriate channels of the FBI and Justice Department and that the subsequent arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui had then resulted in the unraveling of the whole hijacking conspiracy. It's really easy to imagine this having happened. News reports on this counter-terrorism success might have cited parallels to Ramzi Yousef's 1995 plan to blow up eleven U.S. commercial aircraft in a one-day terrorist blitzkrieg. FBI director Robert Mueller would have applauded his agents and told the public that we had again received a salutary lesson about the continued threat posed by al Qaeda. By mid-September, without fanfare, the national security presidential directive would have been signed and the CIA would have launched its covert operation to dismantle al Qaeda. In this scenario, the al Qaeda that might have been dismantled through a $200 million covert operation is the very same al Qaeda that (with 19 fewer members) after September 11th could only be thwarted through a $40 billion "war on terrorism."

If we consider this wholly plausible scenario and ask why it didn't happen this way, the answer clearly has nothing to do with FBI or CIA analysts lacking a capacity to imagine evil being perpetrated on a grand scale. After all, before Kenneth Williams speculated about an al Qaeda attack on New York, Ramzi Yousef had already described in chilling detail his objectives in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. His stated intention had been to send the city's tallest tower crashing onto its twin, amid a cloud of cyanide gas, killing tens of thousands of Americans in the process. In a similarly dramatic scenario Algerian terrorists had talked about flying a passenger jet into the Eiffel Tower. A 1994 report for the Pentagon had described the risk of terrorists flying an explosive-filled plane into the Pentagon or the White House.

The failures in August and September sprang not from the limits of imagination but from the operations of dysfunctional and competitive intelligence organizations whose problems were sustained and exacerbated by government officials and political leaders plagued by a chronic fear of assigning blame or accepting responsibility. After September 11th, instead of being provided with an explanation about how the attacks had been allowed to happen, the American people were sold a solution, a so-called "war on terrorism" that was nothing more than a $40 billion smokescreen. Its proponents believed that patriotism and sustained fear would short-circuit every criticism and silence all appeals to understand the failure of US intelligence.

As we move through the ninth month of the campaign against terrorism, the Vice-President having risen from his bunker to make emergency talk show appearances, warns everyone that more attacks are a near certainty. At the same time, the Director of Homeland Security keeps the nation on "yellow alert" with periodic vague warnings, the Director of the FBI warns of the inevitability of suicide bombings, who knows where, who knows when, and the Secretary of Defense warns that terrorist states will engage in nuclear blackmail. There's a name for what they are doing and it's not called "fighting the war on terrorism." It's called fear-mongering and covering your ass.

President Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and their cohorts might presently want to hang their fortunes on the argument that the government and its agencies are no more powerful than their imaginations, but if this is really what they believe, the effectiveness of their "war on terrorism" should not now be our only concern. How many other, perhaps even greater failures can we expect to be excused because our leaders claim that they or their staff "couldn't imagine"? The idea of a missile defense shield captured Ronald Reagan's fanciful imagination. If it now gets built and some day fails, will its vulnerabilities then be attributed to another even greater failure of the imagination?

When those who already failed to prevent the worst ever act of terrorism still claim that they can lead a campaign to eradicate terrorism, it's time for their paymasters, the American taxpayers, to stand up and shout, get real and get your own house in order!

©2002 Paul Woodward