Archive for September, 2011

Originally published in the Rutland Herald and the Barre Times-Argus

By Haviland Smith

It would be fascinating and probably terrifying to know even roughly what amount of money and resources it took for this country to prepare for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. A quick look at New York City shows the kind of money everyone wants to spend and no one wants to fund.

When Osama bin Laden first got geared up on his quest to bring down the United States, he said very clearly that one of his goals was to bankrupt us. Of course, what he meant was that he planned to create the conditions that would bring us to bankrupt ourselves.

It is critical to remember here that terrorism is not designed to overwhelm. It is designed to undermine. In that context, whatever it does to cause or initiate anxiety in targeted populations and governments, it relies on the reaction of those populations and governments equally as much to achieve its final goals. And America has reacted in ways that have haunted us and will continue to haunt us for decades. Bin Laden could not have wished for more.

The American measures that have flowed from 9/11 have cost us trillions of dollars. Our “War on Terror,” upon which our military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have been hung, our domestic “counterterrorism” operations and our intelligence operations designed to wipe out al-Qaida leaders have contributed to trillions of dollars of post-9/11 debt.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration and the country as a whole had a choice between two reactions. We could stick with the basic tenets of counterterrorism operations and go after al-Qaida with our police, special operations and intelligence resources, or we could introduce measures that would prolong the atmosphere already created by the attack by introducing countermeasures that would keep our country perpetually on edge.

We chose the latter in violation of Benjamin Franklin’s injunction that “they who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

We passed the Patriot Act, which added a layer to an already bureaucratized intelligence community. It also “legalized” major diminutions in our civil and individual liberties with highly questionable and warrantless surveillance and police programs and the new “national security letters.” We implemented a color-coded warning system, which, it seemed, was ramped up whenever our leadership thought we were getting complacent. We instituted Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, “enhanced interrogation” and renditions.

And we did all this in the face of sheep-like acquiescence of the American people and their elected representatives who clearly felt that safety was more important than freedom.

What would have happened if we had not orchestrated major military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and become involved up to our ears in Pakistan? Would we have suffered a second major attack here at home? No one can answer that question with certainty, and it is possible that we will ultimately suffer such an attack despite everything we have done that we think has prevented just that.

Part of that possibility lies in the fact that everything we have done has had the side effect of alienating those moderate Muslims (at least 99 percent of the Muslim world) who had no fundamentalist beef with us. Much of that damage has been done by the presence and operations of our military in the name of the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan, where there are practically no terrorists, and Iraq, where there were none until after our 2003 invasion.

What we have done in our paranoia is put ourselves at the mercy of our own federal, state and municipal governments, which are singularly preoccupied with covering their posteriors. They cannot afford to overlook anything they think is a “credible” threat.

Even worse than that, we have put ourselves in the position of being vulnerable to any provocations that the remnants of al-Qaida, or anyone else, might wish to run against us, and we have done so completely voluntarily.

We have fulfilled bin Laden’s and the other terrorists’ dreams. They can now simply whisper to anyone we consider to be a reliable source that there is an attack in the works and America will galvanize as we did on 9/11 of this year, raising national paranoia and spending billions. Curiously, that could be what just happened in New York City.

The big question here is how can we undo what we have already done to ourselves before we go bankrupt in an ultra-frightened and paranoid national security environment?

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Originally published in the Barre Times-Argus and the Rutland Herald

It now appears clear that Muammar Gaddaffi’s Libya will not survive. Like all repressive regimes that have exploited their people for decades, it will cease to exist. The $64 million question is what will replace it?

In a burst of bravado or compassion, or whatever you wish to call it, the United States decided to get involved in the ongoing civil unrest in Libya when it lurched onto the scene in the middle of February of this year. The issue here is not the insurrection, the wishes of our European allies or oil. The issue is very clearly how we view ourselves in today’s world. 

For reasons that probably lie at the heart of the American psyche, we genuinely view ourselves as today’s only benevolent world power. We are the people who are somehow destined to bring peace, prosperity and democracy to the rest of the world. If everyone in the world lived under the rules of our liberal democracy, there would be nothing but peace and prosperity. Having once become caught up in that scenario, it is difficult for us Americans to see the world the way it really is.

Whether or not we realize it, the world most of us grew up in ended with the death of the Soviet Union. That old Cold War world had resolved a very simple dilemma for the rest of the world. In the battle between democracy and communism, whose side were you on? With a variety of defense and aid packages, we and the Soviets signed or bribed the Third World into our respective camps and tolerated their brutalities in return for their support.

Today, no such Cold War competition exists. There are no further existential choices to be made between democracy and communism. This new reality has allowed all of the rest of the countries in the world to focus on and be guided by their national and regional interests. Yemen does not have to choose anymore because, frankly, the lack of Cold War competition means that there is no free lunch coming to them from either America or the USSR.

So in many respects, particularly given the results to date of our adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, America has become a toothless tiger. We no longer hold sway over much of the rest of the world, as we had during the Cold War. 

Having found a startling level of foreign disinclination to help us with our Iraq adventure, we went ahead with a new, aggressive, unilateral policy. Under Bush, we would do whatever we wished whether the world agreed with us or not. As a basis for foreign policy, that approach is not likely to find many friends. In fact, over the years since that 2003 invasion, we have come to be known around the world as self-interested and hypocritical — touting democracy while running Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, secret jails, renditions, “enhanced interrogations” and a reduction in our own civil and individual rights. Not many countries outside NATO, and not all within, are interested in supporting our foreign adventures.

This would be acceptable if we had unlimited resources and imperial inclinations. As can be seen in American public opinion polls on Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Libya, the fact is that Americans are not so inclined. A quick look at our divisive governance, our financial problems and our seriously overcommitted “all volunteer army” gives no indication that we have the necessary imperial capabilities.

And yet in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Syria and all the other Middle East countries struggling for their freedom from homegrown oppressors, we continue to meddle in their internal affairs.

The problem here is that we, as a country and people, have not acknowledged this new world. We have not recognized the extent to which foreign countries and peoples have put aside their relationships with us in favor of concentrating on what they see to be their own true national interests.

All of these countries face major issues that will inhibit their transition into whatever they ultimately become. They share many of the following realities: A critical lack of direct experience with democratic governance, a lack of political movements that could evolve into actual governance, tribalism, ethnicity, corruption and increasing distrust of the West. None of these realities argues in favor of the successful installation of liberal democracy.

Democracy will not thrive in these kinds of environments. It really is time that we started to support true self-determination where the downtrodden people of these countries really do get to choose the kind of governments under which they live. Only then will any kind of stability come to the world. 

It will take a very long time.

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