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Richard J. Barnett | The Nation

Richard J. Barnett

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Richard J. Barnett

Richard J. Barnett, a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, is the author, most recently (with John Cavanagh), of Global Dreams: Imperial Corporations and the New World Order (Simon & Schuster).

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The war on terrorism was a linchpin of Bill Clinton's foreign policy
rhetoric during his re-election campaign, and at his first post-election
press conference the President has put it high on his list of
international responsibilities. In August at the Democratic convention
the President thundered against so-called rogue states that were out to
spread panic and destruction in the United States. A week later the
Administration proclaimed U.S. missile attacks on Iraq to be a
courageous blow against terrorism. At the United Nations General
Assembly Clinton called upon the members to "isolate states that refuse
to play by the rules we have all accepted for civilized behavior." The
Leader of the Free World is recasting himself as Leader of the Civilized
World.

The rhetoric is seductive. In a chaotic world for which the United
States has yet to articulate clear goals, other than opening up
economies everywhere to private investment, protecting access to cheap
resources and staying top dog in the next century, international
terrorism serves as the successor myth to International Communism. The
idea that the Soviet Union was waging a relentless worldwide struggle to
destroy "the American way of life" was critical for enlisting public
support for almost fifty years of cold war. As easy as it was in those
days to label even anti-Communist reformers as Bolsheviks (Mossadegh in
Iran, for example), designating a brutal Middle Eastern or African
government a rogue state is even easier because the criteria are vague
and they are capriciously applied. (One would think that a state that
has armed, trained, and supplied torturers in other countries and
published manuals for assassins would qualify, but nowhere on the State
Department's list of rogue states has the United States ever appeared.)
The Clinton Adminstration, boasting of its unique role as "sole
remaining superpower," seeks to legitimize its increasingly unilateral
approach to foreign policy by proclaiming the United States the global
avenger of terrorism.

The war on terrorism is being used not only to unite the country behind
a confused foreign policy but also to polish the President's image. Who
dares speak of youthful draft-dodging when the leader of the civilized
world is hurling missiles at rogues in Iraq? Who has the nerve to
question why the United States maintains a military force far more
powerful than that of any conceivable combination of enemies when there
are more than a half-dozen certifiable rogue states threatening the
fragile order of the post-cold war world?

But encouraging a panic about international terrorism has dangerous
consequences. The most obvious is that it creates a receptive political
climate for curbing civil liberties. The country has already been
sufficiently alarmed to enable Clinton and the Republican Congress to
push through the Terrorism Prevention Act, a legislative cocktail
boosting the powers of the federal government to exact the death
penalty, limit appeals of convicts on death row, deport suspect
foreigners and wiretap U.S. citizens--all in the name of making us feel
safe.

It is worth remembering the extreme reactions to sporadic violence that
dot our history. A few anarchist bombs sent in the mail to prominent
citizens triggered the Palmer Raids of 1920, when abou t 4,000 people
were arrested in a single night, many without warrants. A spate of
protests, unrest and bombings in the sixties and seventies led to a
burst of domestic spying in the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon eras,
culminating in the infamous COINTELPRO, a vast illegal intelligence
operation aimed at the left, the Black Panthers and those who opposed
the Vietnam War. Public fear of unpredictable violence has been used by
political leaders again and again to justify centralization of
authority, stripping away of citizens' rights, surveillance and
executions. Even as both major-party cadidates condemned Big Government
and promised its disappearance, politicians in both parties call for
still broader government powers and increased expenditure to fight the
global war on terrorism.

A second consequence of the Clinton anti-terrorism posture--it scarcely
deserves to be called a policy--is that it isolates the United States.
As the Adminstration proclaims its duty to act alone against rogue
states, it is infuriating other countries whose help is needed for any
serious effort to reduce the risks of terrorist attacks around the
world. The unilateral decision to punish Iraq has resulted in a collapse
of the coalition that was supposed to guarantee the good behavior of
Saddam Hussein. The heavy-handed measures recently enacted to compel
unwilling allied governments and foreign corporations to enforce U.S.
anti-Cuba policy is already making it harder to secure international
cooperation to discourage and punish acts of terrorism.

But the most disturbing aspect of Clinton's handling of the terrorism
issue is that the President is giving a hyped version of reality, one
that is at odds with the Adminstration's own published reports. True,
deliberate acts of violence designated as being "against U.S. interests"
abroad rose from sixty-six to ninety-nine from 1994 to 1995, and the
number of U.S. citizens killed in such attacks jumped from four to
twelve. Yet according to the State Department's most recent annual
report, "Patterns of Global Terrorism," published this past April,
worldwide deaths due to acts of international terrorism have in recent
years declined, from 314 in 1994 to 165 in 1995.

The report find no evidence that North Korea has sponsored attacks since
1987. Syria, although it "has permitted Iranian resupply of Hezbollah
via Damascus" and "provides safe haven and support" for several
terrorist groups, has not been directly involved in planning or carrying
out any attacks for the past ten years. Hafez Assad's regime "continues
to restrain the international activities of some of these groups." Nor
has Cuba been known to sponsor any international terrorist incidents in
1995. The report concludes that except for Iran, the "premier sponsor of
international terrorsism", the other rogue states largely refrained from
planning, supporting or executing acts of terrorism. Phil Wilcox, State
Department coordinator for anti-terrorist attacks, points out that the
"long-term trend towards a reduction in international terrorism
continues." But Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria
remain on the official list of countries supporting "state terrorism."

No evidence has been produced or even alleged to exist that a foreign
government was involved in the three most publicized explosions of the
past two years in which U.S. civilians were killed: the Oklahoma City
bombing, the downing of T.W.A. flight 800 (if it was a deliberate act)
and the bomb that went off at the Olympics in Atlanta. Saudi Arabian
officials claim to have hard evidence of Iran's complicity in the June
bombing of a U.S. military housing complex in Dhahran, in which nineteen
members of the Air Force were killed, but according to the Washington
Post
, U.S. officials are skeptical because the Saudis have not fully
shared the details of their investigation with the F.B.I. The Saudi
government appears to be manipulating the information to serve its
domestic political purposes. Five days before this fall's elections
Defense Secretary William Perry declared, "We have reached no
conclusions about who was responsible."

The State Department contends that the isolation of rogue states and
increasing international cooperation to apprehend, extradite and punish
perpetrators of political violence is responsible for the decline over
the decade in state-sponsored terrorism against U.S. interests. There
may be something to this, although the more likely explanation is that
in the post-cold war world even unfriendly governments see no advantage
in stirring up the United States. Iran still has a policy of supporting
Hezbollah operations and of assassinating dissidents living abroad, but
neither U.S. condemnation nor sanctions have deterrred the regime from
stepping up its efforts.

Like many other activites in the post-cold war world, terrorism is being
privatized. The evidence supports the view that very few bombers of
public places are now in the service of governments--fewer, certainly,
than in the cold war years. They may work ofr a political movement, a
crime ring, or as more of them are claiming, for God. Practitioners of
violence increasingly work for religious sects and political movements
(largely ethnic and mostly on the right). The private market in
conventional weapons has greatly expanded. The Internet offers
instructions in conventional bomb-making to all users. The Anarchist
Cookbook
explains that "making a bomb capable of blowing the walls
out of a building is easy. You can find what you need in grocery stores,
hardwares stores and farm supplies."

President Clinton's message about terrorism is that the problem is of
foreign origin. But in fact most of the acts of random violence that
victimize Americans are committed not by dark-skinned foreigners in ski
masks but by fellow citizens. Over the past ten years bombings and
attempted bombings in the United States have nearly tripled, increasing
from 1,103 in 1985 to 3,163 in 1994. The targets are political or
racial. The New York Times reported in August the over the
preceeding two months "white, lower-middle class suburban people in
Georgia, Arizona and Washington" were arrested as perpetrators or
attempted perpetrators. The rash of bombings of black churches over the
past two years sends a clear racist message. In Spokane, Washington, a
Planned Parenthood office was bombed, and across the West a variety of
government buildings occupied by the hated Forest Service, Bureau of
Land Management and Internal Revenue Service have been attacked.

Some of our home-grown terrorists belong to militias or other
gun-worshipping organizations. These groups have a variety of agendas:
They don't like gun control. They don't like the federal government
messing with their land, or land they think should be theirs. They don't
like paying taxes. They don't like abortions. They hate black people,
Jews, gays, foreigners. They are energized by violence. They have a holy
mission.

The shadowy figures who set off bombs in airplanes, office buildings and
shopping malls have succeeded in introducing all sorts of people to the
possibility of their own sudden death. But shoppers and airline
passengers face negligible dangers compared with the daily risks of
living in crime-ridden, despairing neighborhoods in which there are no
jobs. The President would rather talk about Qaddafi, Castro and the
mullahs in Iran, however, than deal with the causes of the violence,
hopelessness and fear that prevail in neighborhoods a few blocks from
the White House. If he wants to revive decaying inner cities he has to
acknowledge that they will not be lifted up by either the Internet or
global trade.

What constitutes a reasonable strategy to discourage or prevent
terrorist acts is not a technical question. It is a political questions
that involves the weighing of risks and interests. How much freedom and
privacy should be sacrificed in the name of security? That should be a
prime subject for pbublic debate rather than a decision arrived at in
secret negotiations between governments, police, airlines and makers of
sophisticated bomb-detection systems.

We need a less superficial and biased understanding of the problem we
label as terrorism, a calmer assessment of of how much of a threat it is
and a more serious effort to understand its causes. For starters, we
need a much less fuzzy definition. Guerilla attacks, political
assassinations, bombings and kidnappings are lumped together even though
their causes and objectives may be very different, as are strategies for
discouraging them. The United States fired missiles at Iraq for
mistreating people living within its borders and for violating a U.N.
resolution; at least a hundred other countries qualify under this weak
justification for bombing.

Hyped rhetoric, though it may serve the President's purposes, does
nothing to discourage attacks. Indeed, as the Economist has
observed, "The whole point of the terrorist act is to provoke a reaction
disproportionate to the act itself." The more panic a terrorist bomb
sets off, the greater the success. Hamas's triumph in the recent Israeli
election, when it provoked the downfall of Shimon Peres, is a classic
example.

For a terrorist group with one consuming passion (as in Hamas's
determination to derail the Middle East peace process), violence is an
effective weapon because the panic it creates can change public
attitudes in ways that serve the group's goals. But a state, however
heavily armed, is at a disadvantage when it lashes out violently in
response. Airstrikes and economic sanctions are blunt instruments that
neither punish the planners and perpetrators of terrorist acts, who know
how to fade into the night, nor discourage further violence. Both are
far more likely to hurt innocent people and fuel murderous rage against
governments reacting in such a manner. Assassination attempts invite
retaliation in kind even when they do not succeed, and they expose the
emptiness of claims to moral leadership. Exactly because the United
States is so powerful, so wealthy and (because of our extraordinary
dependence on complex technology) so vulnerable to politically inspired
violence, the Administration should be promoting policies that would
make the establishment of a genuine rule of law a real possibility. Of
all nations, the United States has the most to gain in the long run from
delegitimizing violence as an instrument of political change.

But pushing an anti-terrorist policy that seeks to break the cycle of
violence would mean that the United States could no longer set its own
rules or commit acts on the territory of other nations we would brand as
terrorism were they to take place on our own.

Another Inauguration Day approaches, and the country badly needs a more
effective policy, one that better fits reality: State-sponsored
terrorism from abroad is declining. Ideologically tinged home-grown
violence is growing. Our national security policy, based overwhelmingly
on the threat and use of violence, not only legitimizes the violence of
terrorists in their own eyes, and in the eyes of their supporters, it
also advertises the impotence of the United States. The overwhelming
emphasis on instruments of violence as moral, acceptable, indeed
inevitable, guarantors of security creates a self-perpetuating culture
of violence and insecurity.

By continuing to spread weapons around the world, the United States and
its competitors in the arms trade are expanding the opportunities for
anyone with a grievance to bring death, destruction and terror to random
victims anywhere, including here. By ignoring the opportunity to achieve
significant nuclear and conventional disarmament that the end of the
cold war provides, the United States is signalling that despite the
weakness of military adversaries, we will continue to base our security
on the greatest preponderance of military power the world has ever
known.

A demonstration by the United States of a serious willingness to
eliminate nuclear weapons could jolt the world into a radical reversal
of the arms race. Were the next administration to make dramatic
moves--not just promises--to reduce our dependency on violence in the
name of security, it would have an electrifying impact around the world.
The comprehensive test ban, signed in September after almost forty years
of negotiation, could have been the key to a new era of disarmament had
it been preceded by radical cuts in nuclear stockpiles. It still may not
be too late. Would it end "terrorism" as the State Department defines
it? No. But it would help create a climate for a lessening of political
violence.

As for domestic terrorism, the conservatives' relentless bashing of
government and the foolish decision of most Democrats to run away from
the opportunity to debate what it is and what it ought to be--giving
bipartisan credibility to the absurd notion that government is something
to demean and hate--create a hospitable political culture for violent,
anarchist fantasies. Ever since the Oklahoma City bombing, pursuit of
the militias by federal authorities is looking more and more like
another exercise in investigative overkill. In its zeal to prevent
terrorism it appears that the government is increasingly basing
indictments on what suspects say rather than what they do, and that
government informants may be encouraging them to engage in criminal
conspiracy. All this strengthens the views of the militiamen that they
have found the right enemy. Armed with the Terrorism Prevention Act, the
Clinton Administration, in the name of national security, strikes out
ineffectually abroad and at home hacks away at our historic freedoms.