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The failure that is the war against terrorism

By Steven Martinovich
web posted September 22, 2003

Dr. Ivan ElandDr. Ivan Eland is a senior fellow and director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute and an outspoken critic of the Bush administration's war on terrorism. Dr. Eland recently issued a report card for administration and gave it an F "for failing to achieve its stated goals in its 'war on terrorism.'" He agreed to sit down with Enter Stage Right to discuss why believes the war is failing and what the administration should be doing.

ESR: Some of your grades have raised eyebrows because in most cases they are quite low. For example, for "Avoiding a quagmire in Afghanistan" you grade the administration a "C-". Given the number of Afghan refugees returning to Afghanistan and the low number of military and civilian causalities, isn't that a little low?

IE: No, we still have thousands of troops there and we have recently increased aid in a redoubled effort to socially engineer a society that has been at war for more than two decades. It's not a quagmire yet, but the U.S. military presence is a lightning rod for a resurgence of the Taliban. The U.S. should withdraw and let a Coalition of the Willing do the peacekeeping. the return of refugees and the lower casualty figures than Iraq do not mean that it is not a quagmire. I gave the administration a C- because it still has time to reverse course. It should declare victory, withdraw and put any future Afghan government that it supports al-Qaida at its own risk.

ESR: For "Making Iraq better off by eliminating Saddam Hussein" you gave an F. Why? Couldn't one make the argument that we're only a few months into a process of rebuilding Iraq and that problems are bound to a happen. The reconstruction of Germany after the Second World War was no less difficult.

IE: Iraq is not Germany (or Japan). Before the war, those nations were industrialized nations with educated work forces. They also had a sense of national unity and some prior experience with democracy. Iraq has none of those things.

The decimated Iraqi military was no threat to anyone after the first Gulf War. Yet subsequent U.S. policy has probably killed more Iraqis than the tyrant Saddam Hussein ever did. U.S.-led sanctions killed 500,000 children (this doesn't include adults or war victims) and Saddam's killing probably doesn't equal that total. Furthermore, some of those killed by Hussein were encouraged by the first Bush administration to rebel after the first Gulf War and then had the United States pull the rug out from under them.

Add to this all of the chaos in the post-war Iraq (problems getting electricity, water, security). If you didn't cause Saddam a political problem, you could get along pretty well in pre-war Iraq. All citizens are suffering under U.S. occupation even though the U.S. rule is more "benevolent" than Saddam's.

ESR: Your overall grade was an "F" but how did you arrive at that grade if you give the administration a B- for removing al-Qaida from Afghanistan and neutralizing the group's leadership? Considering that al-Qaida is the top threat to the U.S., wouldn't the victory in Afghanistan make the war a success to date?

IE: It has not captured or killed bin Laden. It became distracted in going after an unrelated leader. Going after another Islamic country (Iraq) and other Islamic groups that didn't focus their attacks on the United States will likely grow new terrorists by the truckload. already there is evidence that Hezbollah, a very potent group, is operating in Iraq. The flypaper argument--that we will draw the terrorists to Iraq so that they don't attack the United States--is nonsense. That assumes that there are a fixed number of terrorists. Bush is growing their numbers by the day.

ESR: Several commentators have built strong cases that the U.S.-backed embargo was not responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children yet in the press release announcing your grades it states you have preliminary data that suggests that more children were killed by the embargo at 500 000 than the total number of Iraqis -- including Kurds and Shiites -- killed by Hussein. How did you come up with that number and how would you answer critics who would dismiss your findings?

IE: Well, I am only going by what international organizations state. If they can provide better data, then I review it. Arguments over statistics aside, the purpose of the embargo was to squeeze the Iraqi population (these were the most comprehensive and universal sanctions in world history, not surgical sanctions aimed to target Saddam and the pillars of his regime) in order to get them to pressure Saddam's regime. When groups target civilians to get them to pressure their governments to change policy, we call that terrorism. But when we do it, we call it sanctions fighting the dictator. U.S. policymakers knew the history of sanctions. The regime will merely redirect any pain to the poorest members of the society. Madeleine Albright admitted that children would be hurt but said it was worth it to hurt Saddam. Bush continued Clinton/Albright's policy.

Regardless of the number of civilians killed, intentionally aiming to hurt civilians with sanctions for a political end is much like blowing them up with bombs.

ESR: Isn't there a qualitative difference between the people murdered by the Hussein regime and those who died due to the embargo, especially considering that the regime invested Iraq's money into a military and security apparatus instead of helping the Iraqi people? Doesn't the blame for civilian deaths in the embargo era ultimately rest on the shoulders of Hussein?

IE: No, that assumes that it was our duty to take out Saddam. It was not. Saddam is to blame for slaughtering his own people, but not for the sanctions. As I noted before, U.S. policy makers should have known how past episodes have sanctions have played out. Two wrongs don't make a right. Our answer to the slaughter of civilians was to kill more.

Of course, all of this is predicated on the fiction that we imposed the sanctions and invaded Iraq for the Iraqi people. That justification was emphasized only when all others fell through. Paul Wolfowitz even said before the war that Saddam's human rights violations would not justify an invasion. We imposed the sanctions and invaded Iraq for geopolitical reasons, not humanitarian ones.

ESR: I was interested in the fact that you are opposed to the Bush administration's expanding the battle against terrorism to include groups like Hamas and Hezbollah on the grounds that they were not involved in September 11, 2001. Is it fair to take each group as individual given that most of them seem to be loosely affiliated to the point of sharing training, tactics and even personnel?

IE: There may be some loose links but Hamas and Hezbollah do not focus their attacks on the United States, they focus them on Israel. That is Israel's problem. We should not put a bull's eye on the United States to fight other nations' battle. The general war on evil terrorism makes great press, but only generates more enemies. As General Zinni has stated, make few enemies, but don't treat those you do make gingerly (I'm paraphrasing here). That is why a narrowly focused war on al-Qaida is the way to go.

ESR: You also take the Bush administration to task for treating different rogue nations in a manner that will only encourage some of them. For example, you mention that the United States attacked non-nuclear Iraq but has left nuclear North Korea and soon-to-be nuclear Iran alone. What would you recommend the administration do with North Korea and Iran?

IE: A grand settlement with North Korea: We give them a non-aggression pact, end sanctions and normalize relations (no aid) and they give up (not freeze) their nuclear and missile programs, submit to intrusive verification to ensure that this happens, and end the exports of WMD materials and missiles overseas.

I would try to normalize relations with the current Iranian government and therefore cut the inducements to build nukes to keep the U.S. from invading.

The United States may have to accept that less-than-friendly nations will get nukes and other WMD. We accepted and sheltered China's nuclear program when radical Mao was in power. We have nuclear dominance with thousands of warheads and the best nuclear arsenal on the planet. Countries like Iran, North Korea or even Saddam's Iraq would, have at most, a few warheads and would be extremely unlikely to give them to terrorists (as our own CIA said about Iraq). With home addresses, these nations have no incentive to give expensive technology to sometimes erratic terrorist groups. If such rogue-state/terrorist group links were exposed, the rogue states would be in trouble. Rogue states can be deterred from attacking the United States with our massive nuclear arsenal.

ESR: In a recent article you argued that the administration was essentially attempting to socially engineer the world using military power or intimidation, that democracy won't bloom in the Middle East simply because the Taliban and Saddam Hussein were overthrown. How would you promote democracy in that part of the world?

IE: I'm not a left-wing or right-wing Wilsonian (read neoconservative) so I wouldn't promote democracy in the Middle East. The United States should, as the founders of country believed, be a "shining city on a hill" and live by example. Invading other countries is unlikely to produce democracy and pollutes our own at home (e.g., PATRIOT Act restrictions on civil liberties after 9/11). The theory that making countries of that region will ensure peace has been effectively refuted by scholars in the realist school.

ESR: What threat do you feel the administration is ignoring or unaware of at this moment?

IE: It is not ignoring al-Qaida, but it has been distracted. It is one of the few threats to an otherwise secure nation. But it is a big exception. We must focus on taking al-Qaida down and dispense with all of the tangents in U.S. foreign policy.

ESR: What would you do differently if you were in charge of the war against terrorism?

IE: Focus like a laser beam on al-Qaida and use intelligence and law enforcement means to fight a quiet war on terrorism. A public general war on terrorism is good politics (until you fail as Bush is), but it only generates more enemies. Military action against even al-Qaida should be infrequent and clandestine to the extent it can.

ESR: Based on what you've seen to date, do you think the Bush administration can win this war against terrorism, or at least make the United States safer?

IE: If they focused more on homeland security instead of throwing money at the Department of Defense (which satisfies constituencies who want to build fancy weapons that have nothing to do with defeating al-Qaida), that would be a good start. It should be a war against al-Qaida and they could win that. A general war on terrorism would be endless and generates more enemies when we kill the original ones. Perhaps that's good politics, but not good security.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario and the editor in chief of Enter Stage Right.

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