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As Terror War Expands, Failures Multiply

10 September 2002

Are you safer now than you were a year ago? If public safety were a function of dollars spent and promises made, the answer would have to be a resounding yes.

Within days of the September 11th attacks, President Bush and Congressional leaders authorized $40 billion in emergency anti-terror spending. Within two weeks, President Bush had declared war on "terror networks of global reach," warning friends and foes alike that "you're either with us or against us" in this new international campaign.

Within less than a month, the U.S. and a few close allies had launched a major air war in Afghanistan that deposed the ruling Taliban movement and sent them and their Al Qaeda associates fleeing into the mountains.

As the dollars continue to flow, the scale of the anti-terror effort has been growing along with it. U.S. arms, training, and military personnel have been dispatched not only to Afghanistan but to Pakistan, India, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, the Philippines, and Yemen.

Forward bases for U.S. forces have been established or expanded at thirteen sites in nine countries, and administration policymakers are now taking aim at a new adversary, Iraq.

Although there is no credible evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime provided support for the September 11th attackers, and little to suggest that Baghdad is currently in a position to attack the United States with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, the "whack Iraq" faction in Washington supports U.S. military action to overthrow him nonetheless.

The stated rationale for going to war against a nation that poses no immediate threat to the United States or its allies is provided by a new doctrine of "pre-emption" which argues that if a nation or organization might pose a threat to the United States at some unknown future date, that assumption alone justifies U.S. military intervention, with or without the approval of Congress or the United Nations.

Meanwhile, on the home front, steps have been taken to federalize airport security, round up citizens and immigrants suspected of terrorist ties or knowledge of terrorist activities, and create a vast new department of Homeland Security to coordinate the protection of U.S. territory. Fundamental democratic rights, from the right to legal counsel to freedom of speech, have been jeopardized in the process.

In short, in the name of fighting terrorism, the Bush administration has been waging an undeclared war on international law and the United States Constitution.

It would be one thing if the administration's war on terrorism was working. If Al Qaeda and other global terror networks were being systematically dismantled and policies were being put into place that would make future attacks less likely and far more difficult to carry out, many Americans might conclude that the expenditure of vast sums and the (hopefully temporary) restrictions on basic freedoms were worth the cost. Instead, by emphasizing a militarized approach to fighting terrorism tied to a constantly expanding definition of who the enemy is, the Bush administration has crafted a policy that promises minimal success at maximum cost.

The costs of the terror war are mounting rapidly. In its 21 months in office, the administration has already sought more than $150 billion in new military spending, while funding for homeland security has more than doubled, from $18 billion to $38 billion. While only about one out of every four dollars in new military spending has been expressly targeted towards equipment or operations related to fighting terrorism, the Bush administration's increasingly expansive, intellectually undisciplined view of the problem has led to a situation in which virtually any military expenditure is now being rationalized as a contribution to the war on terror.

But even as expenditures rise, the effectiveness of the military campaign is diminishing. In Afghanistan, U.S. "search and destroy" missions aimed at capturing or killing remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda have faltered, and top Al Qaeda operatives remain at large. To make matters worse, the U.S. policy of financing and arming Afghan factions in exchange for assistance in hunting down Taliban and Al Qaeda threatens to undermine the already fragile coalition government of Hamid Karzai, plunging Afghanistan back into the state of armed chaos that made it an attractive base for terror groups in the first place.

While the military effort against terrorism has reached a stalemate, the administration has made minimal headway in forging the kinds of intelligence and law enforcement cooperation that will be needed to cut off political and financial support for Al Qaeda. Efforts on this broader front are likely to be far more effective in undermining Al Qaeda's ability to operate than a series of hit-and-run military operations guided by questionable intelligence information. In fact, the administration's unilateralist approach to foreign policy, as evidenced by its opposition to the International Criminal Court, the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty, and efforts to strengthen the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions - not to mention its go-it-alone policy on intervention in Iraq - has undermined the possibilities for enthusiastic international cooperation in de-funding and politically isolating terror networks like Al Qaeda.

For all the Pentagon's talk of waging a "new kind of war" in the wake of September 11th, its emphasis on high tech military prowess, expensive weaponry and search and destroy efforts comes straight out of the Cold War playbook. Non-military tools, from strengthening international non-proliferation agreements to dramatically increasing foreign aid in an effort to reduce the number of "failing states" that are available to host terrorist cells, have been rejected out of hand by the conservative ideologues who hold the balance of power within the Bush foreign policy team. And U.S. diplomatic initiatives to resolve longstanding tensions in regions that are at the epicenter of terrorist ferment, from Kashmir to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have been reduced to meaningless gestures designed to distract public attention from these dangerous confrontations long enough to launch the next stage in the Bush administration's war without end - the invasion of Iraq.

The recent wave of high profile criticism of the Bush foreign policy - from Democratic presidential contenders like John Kerry, respected Republican elders like James Baker and Brent Scowcroft, and substantial numbers of active and retired military officers - has served to slow the momentum of the war planners in Washington for the moment. But unless the debate shifts from the significant but secondary question of how to prepare for war to the fundamental issue of whether war and preparation for war should be the centerpiece of United States global policy, the political, financial, and security costs of the war on terrorism will continue to distort our foreign relations and undermine our democracy for many years to come.

William D. Hartung
Published by © William D. Hartung

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