Friday, February 10, 2006

A 'Long War' Designed to Perpetuate Itself

by William Pfaff
International Herald Tribune
February 10, 2006

Paris -- The U.S. Defense Department and the White House have decided that the United States is now conducting "the Long War" rather than what previously was known as the War against Terror, then as the Global Struggle against Violent Extremism, and briefly - as one revealing Pentagon study described it - a war against "the Universal Adversary."

President George W. Bush said in his State of the Union address last month that the aim of his administration is to defeat radical Islam. This was a preposterous statement. Shortly afterward, radical Islam began burning embassies from Afghanistan and Indonesia to Damascus and Beirut. The United States is not going to defeat that.

There are a great many dismaying aspects of Bush's Washington, but nothing more so than this combination of the unachievable with the hortatory in giving a name and purpose to the military campaigns that already have the U.S. Army and Marine Corps near exhaustion, and a major part of the world in turmoil.

It is customary, politically desirable and morally indispensable to say seriously what a war is about, if only so that the public will know when it is over; when the declared and undeclared measures of exception that have accompanied it, justifying suspension of civil liberties, illegal practices and defiance of international law and convention, will be lifted; and when the killing may be expected to stop.

What was originally to be a matter of quick and exemplary revenge, with lightning attacks and acclaimed victories, has now become, we are told, the long war whose end cannot be foreseen. The citizen is implicitly told to expect the current suspension of constitutional norms, disregard for justice, and defiance of limits on presidential power as traditionally construed, to continue indefinitely. We are in a new age, America's leaders say. The Democratic opposition seems to agree.

What started as the war against terror, proclaimed by the president to Congress in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks, has undergone a metamorphosis. The initial interpretation was that the people responsible for the World Trade Center attacks and other terrorist outrages against Americans and their interests would be discovered, defeated and killed or brought to justice.

Surely that is what most Americans thought when the search began for Osama bin Laden, Mullah Mohammed Omar and members of Al Qaeda. Today bin Laden and Mullah Omar are somewhere in Waziristan, in Pakistan's tribal areas, tracked by the CIA and Pakistani soldiers (with different degrees of enthusiasm). There is an insurrection in Iraq, which had nothing to do with Al Qaeda when it started, but from which Al Qaeda and Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi now draw global publicity.

Elsewhere, violent and alienated members of the Muslim diaspora in Europe claim the brand-identification of Al Qaeda to dramatize their own exploits, as do discontented sons of the Saudi Arabian and other Middle Eastern elites.

Yet even if you include the 9/11 casualties, the number of Americans killed by international terrorists since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began counting them) is about the same as that killed by lightning - or by accident-causing deer, or by severe allergic reactions to peanuts.

"In almost all years, the total number of people worldwide who die at the hands of international terrorists is not much more than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States" wrote John Mueller of Ohio State University in last autumn's issue of the authoritative American journal Terrorism and Political Violence.

As Mueller concedes, there is a definitional issue: Few insurgents in Iraq are internationals; most are homegrown. And if aspirant terrorists in London or Paris had nuclear bombs, the numbers would become rather different.

Nonetheless, a phenomenon that is scattered, limited and under control, and inevitably transient, has been conflated by Washington with something that is huge and very serious: the desperation among the Muslim masses that is directed indiscriminately against Western nations, which are held responsible for Islamic society's backwardness, poverty and exploitation.

Al Qaeda and individual international terrorists are the object of worldwide intelligence and police operations. They are a marginal phenomenon. The Bush administration's conflation of them with the social upheaval in their world is exploited to perpetuate changes in American society that provide a much more sinister threat to democracy than anything ever dreamed by Osama bin Laden.

The radical threat to the United States is at home.

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