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.