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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Take it From Him: American is Safer? Terrorism, Iraq and the Political Uses of Fear Five Years Into the "Long War"

Terrorism, Iraq and the Political Uses of Fear Five Years Into the "Long War"
by Frida Berrigan

"Five years after 9/11, are we safer?" asked President George W. Bush from an Atlanta podium on September 7, 2006. He assured the American people that, "The answer is, yes, America is safer. We are safer because we've taken action to protect the homeland." A few days later, addressing the American people in a prime time speech from the Oval Office, he elaborated: "Today, we are safer, but we are not yet safe."

Can we believe him? A quick look at the facts says no. Iraq is not safe. In fact, sectarian violence in Iraq has reached unprecedented levels, pushing the country into civil war and threatening stability throughout the region. The promised reconstruction and democracy are far off or impossible to imagine. Meanwhile, the Bush administration gives short-shrift to serious global threats like nuclear proliferation, global warming and the energy crisis.


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The failed Iraq policy is creating more of the problem it purports to be solving--- there are more terrorists now, and they are more aggrieved and have more support throughout the world. The Senate Democratic Policy Committee asserts that the number of foreign fighters in Iraq has increased by 33% in the past year and now is fifteen times what it was in May of 2003. In March 2005 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, then-Director of the CIA Porter Goss stated that the "Iraq conflict, while not a cause of extremism, has become a cause for extremists."

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself?

Before the Military Officers Association of America at the Capitol Hill Hilton on September 5, 2006, President Bush played the terrorism card yet again, in hopes of papering over his failed policy in Iraq and sowing fear in the run-up to the mid-term elections in November. "In five years since our nation was attacked, al Qaeda and terrorists it has inspired have continued to attack across the world. They've killed the innocent in Europe and Africa and the Middle East, in Central Asia and the Far East, and beyond. "

This is true. But it is also misleading. In his September/October Foreign Affairs article "Is There Still a Terrorist Threat?" John Mueller, a political science professor at Ohio State, reminds us that the number of the "innocents" killed as Bush describes is "not much higher than the number of people who drown in bathtubs in the United States in a single year." He goes on to estimate that "the lifetime chance of an American being killed by international terrorism is about 1 in 80,000-about the same chance of being killed by a comet or a meteoroid." On the heels of "a day of national mourning" missing a parallel national reckoning of the costs and consequences of the long war, this is a necessary but unpopular reminder.

Undeterred by fact, Bush has been hammering on a new version of the Iraq/terrorism connection. Here are a few of his thuds:

August 31, Salt Lake City, American Legion: "If we give up the fight in the streets of Baghdad, we will face the terrorists in the streets of our own cities. The security of the civilized world depends on victory in the war on terror, and that depends on victory in Iraq, so America will not leave until victory is achieved."

September 2, Radio Address: "We're staying on the offense against the terrorists, fighting them overseas so we do not have to face them here at home."

September 7, Atlanta, Georgia Public Policy Foundation: "The Terrorists know that the outcome in the war on terror will depend on the outcome in Iraq -- and so to protect our own citizens, the free world must succeed in Iraq."

September 7, Atlanta, Georgia Public Policy Foundation: "If America pulls out of Iraq before the Iraqis can defend themselves, the terrorists will follow us here, home."

September 11, Washington, Oval Office: "The safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad."

September 11, Washington, Oval Office: "If we do not defeat these enemies now, we will leave our children to face a Middle East overrun by terrorist states and radical dictators armed with nuclear weapons."

Wishful Thinking from the Leader of the Free World

Ignoring all of the credible counters to his specious assertions, Bush trades in fantasy-a poor memorial to all those who died on September 11th and have been killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since. As Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) has pointed out the U.S. death toll from the two post-9/11 wars "is inexorably approaching the death toll of that Tuesday morning five years ago." The Iraqi and Afghani casualty counts are many times this* and counting.

In his Hilton speech, before an audience made up largely of soldiers in uniform- including some wounded in Iraq- President Bush conjured up Osama bin Laden and quoted directly from his speeches and correspondence. As for those who point out that bin Laden is not in a position to make good on his most extreme aspirations - like establishing a "caliphate" running from the Middle East to Indonesia, President Bush compares him to Lenin and Hitler:

"History teaches that underestimating the words of evil and ambitious men is a terrible mistake. In the early 1900s, an exiled lawyer in Europe published a pamphlet called "What is to be Done?" --in which he laid out his plan to launch a communist revolution in Russia. The world did not heed Lenin's words, and paid a terrible price. The Soviet Empire he established killed tens of millions, and brought the world to the brink of thermonuclear war. In the 1920s, a failed Austrian painter published a book in which he explained his intention to build an Aryan super-state in Germany and take revenge on Europe and eradicate the Jews. The world ignored Hitler's words, and paid a terrible price Bin Laden and his terrorist allies have made their intentions as clear as Lenin and Hitler before them. The question is: Will we listen? Will we pay attention to what these evil men say?"

This strategy of invoking World War II and Cold War imagery and figures is the latest in a long line of scare tactics. Rumsfeld is in on it too-- Speaking before the American Legion on August 29th, the Defense Secretary referenced the period leading up to World War II as a time "When those who warned about a coming crisis, the rise of fascism and Nazism were ridiculed or ignored. Some nations tried to negotiate a separate peace, even as the enemy made its deadly ambitions crystal clear. It was, as Winston Churchill observed, a bit like feeding a crocodile, hoping it would eat you last."

It is an effective device for a nation ignorant of history and enthralled by the past, but it does not work. Groups employing terrorist tactics are a threat to be countered, a problem to be addressed, but they are not a rival to American power-unless we allow them to be.

As Ted Galen Carpenter, the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, points out-50 million people died during World War II and that the Cold War pitted the United States against a huge economic and political superpower. The threat posed by "insurgents," "Al Qaeda," "Islamo-facists" (or whatever you want to call them) in the so-called Global War on Terrorism, is more analogous to "the violence perpetrated by anarchist forces during the last third of the nineteenth century," says Carpenter, a comparative "pinprick."

War in Iraq

Over in Iraq, U.S. forces face a lot more than pinpricks.

In a classified assessment leaked to the Washington Post and reported on September 11, 2006, Col. Peter Devlin, a Senior Marine intelligence officer in Iraq, offered a bleak set of conclusions about the restive Anbar province. Without the deployment of an additional division of 16,000 troops, Devlin asserts "there is nothing [we] can do to influence the motivation of the Sunni to wage an insurgency."

The report caused quite a controversy in Washington, and the Marines have sought to distance themselves from it, but the Defense Department's own August 2006 "Measuring Security and Stability in Iraq" (.pdf ) supports Devlin's conclusions, noting "Sustained ethno-sectarian violence is the greatest threat to security and stability in Iraq. Conditions that could lead to civil war exist in Iraq." In recent months the numbers of Iraqi casualties-- both civilians and security forces-- has soared by 51% as the insurgency remains "potent and viable."

The Pentagon report continues to say, "death squads and terrorists are locked in mutually reinforcing cycles of sectarian strife." The report found that the number of weekly attacks in Iraq escalated to nearly 800, the highest level since the Pentagon began gathering the statistics in April 2004. The report cites the Baghdad Coroner's office reported receiving more than 3,400 bodies in June and July 2006 alone. Examiners concluded that ninety percent of those deaths were the result of executions.

Optimism in the Face of Facts

A new GAO report, Stability in Iraq: An Assessment of the Security Situation (.pdf) counters the administration's continuing flow of optimistic rhetoric on the situation in Iraq: "150,000 Iraqis have been displaced, and 14,300 civilians have been killed between January and June of this year, the majority in Baghdad."

While President Bush claims that "We're training Iraqi troops so they can defend their nation," the GAO's Stabilizing Iraq points out the long road ahead for U.S. troops tasked with training, equipping and finally depending on Iraqi security forces: "From July 2005 to August 2006, the State Department reported that the number of trained and equipped Iraqi security forces had increased from about 174,000 to 294,000."

But, the report continues, "These numbers do not provide a complete picture of the units' capabilities because they do not give detailed information on the status of their equipment, personnel, training, and leadership. They may also overstate the number of forces on duty. [For example] Ministry of Interior data includes police who are absent without leave and Ministry of Defense data excludes absent military personnel. Information on the readiness levels for Iraqi security forces is classified."

In that same vein, the Pentagon's May 2006 report to Congress admits: "It will take time before a substantial number of Iraqi units are assessed as fully independent and requiring no assistance. Only one provincial government (out of 18) has assumed responsibility for security operations."

What Now?

It is not enough to criticize, to expose, to counter, and to unearth the lies. We have to use the facts, overcome the fear and engage for change.

One such effort is the Declaration of Peace, a nationwide nonviolent campaign to establish a concrete and rapid plan for peace in Iraq, including: a prompt timetable for withdrawal of troops and closure of bases; a peace process for security, reconstruction, and reconciliation; and the shift of funding for war to meeting human needs.

Adapted from the Arms Trade Resource Center's September E-Update, a resource on the arms trade, military spending, and the vagaries of U.S. foreign policy. To sign up or learn more email Frida Berrigan (berrigaf@newschool.edu), Senior Research Associate at the ATRC, a project of the World Policy Institute.

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