Calling for a Wider, but Smarter War

David Corn, AlterNet
October 12, 2001

Air strikes. Anthrax. Anxiety. Alerts. "America Strikes Back."

The war is here.

Eerie green images of static punctuated by popcorn-bursts of light filled the screens in our living rooms -- proof that American forces were rocking Kabul. Was there anything symbolic in the fact that the first reported civilian deaths were of four Afghans who worked as security guards for a United Nations mine-clearing project in Afghanistan? An errant US Tomahawk cruise missile killed individuals involved in a humanitarian project. An acceptable cost? That depends on what one acquires in return.

A nation's use of force is justified when a foe massacres 6000 or so of its citizens. But because a course of action is justified does not mean it is wise. It will be difficult to evaluate the wisdom of the current strikes and the subsequent military actions. The full results -- and consequences -- may not be discernible for years.

The Bush Administration can offer BDAs (for non-cable-news addicts, that's bomb damage assessments) showing destroyed terrorist camps, pulverized Taliban infrastructure. It can note the number of Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders "neutralized." But, most probably, the true effectiveness of this assault will not be readily determinable, since the target is a murderous band that only mounts attacks every few years. (So far, that is.) All may appear well with President Bush's war on terrorism -- assuming it doesn't spark unrest in the region and the outbreak of other wars -- until the Sears Tower is leveled in 2003 or a human-bomb takes an orchestra seat at the 1000th performance of "The Producers" or New Orleans is nuked during the next presidential campaign.

With that in mind, it is best to wish for and to urge a limited military action. Not a war, but a modest use of force that does not spread by design (as the let's-get-Iraq hawks in the Pentagon crave) or by accident.

In fact, it was a mistake for Bush to label this endeavor a "war on terrorism" and pitch it as a battle for freedom. "Terrorism" has long been a loaded word; used in this manner it creates an overly broad target. "War" raises expectations here, and in other lands fuels suspicions among those wary of U.S. intentions. And who believes that Bush is fighting for freedom, as he cuts deals with autocratic and repressive regimes to entice them into joining his anti-terrorism coalition?

Bush need not have declared a global war. He could have vowed to conduct a campaign against the September 11 plotters and their supporters specifically and promoted it as an effort to enhance security at home and abroad. That would have been a noble enough mission and less likely to be misread or misconstrued overseas. The United States has a long and ignoble history of not declaring war when it was engaged in hostilities (Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Afghanistan). Here was one instance when such semantical slipperiness might have been valuable.

But since we are stuck with a war on terrorism, we might as well put it to good use. That can be done by widening the war -- not the military component, but other aspects of the struggle against terrorists. For instance, at a recent Senate hearing, Dr. Mohammad Akhter, the executive director of the American Public Health Association testified that "state and local health departments are not fully prepared to deal with an attack" of bioterrorism. Of 3000 local health departments, 10 percent do not have email capability. Most departments are funded only to be open nine-to-five on weekdays. "If a bioterrorist attack occurred on a Friday afternoon," Akhter notes, "there would be no report of it until Monday morning under the current staffing profiles of most health departments."

Half the state health departments lack epidemiological expertise, and many do not have laboratories that can promptly diagnose infectious disease outbreaks. Vaccines and antibiotics are in short supply for emergencies. The Centers for Disease Control are unable to deal with multiple events and with massively exposed populations. Many areas do not have enough hospital beds for an emergency.

It's a troubling picture: a weak public health infrastructure ill-equipped to handle bioterrorism. Yet there is no full-scale effort under way to beef up this system.

Such a move should be part of the war on terrorism. The Progressive Caucus of the House of Representatives has proposed spending $500 million to $1 billion to upgrade the public health infrastructure, as part of a $75 billion wish-list of stimulus spending designed to counter terrorism.

Other steps urged by this group of liberals include hiring additional federal food safety inspectors and Customs inspectors, handing the Department of Energy $300 million to accelerate research into technologies that can detect weapons of mass destruction (such as nuclear devices and chemical agents) and to increase security at facilities where nuclear material and weapons are stored, using $400 million to boost Amtrak security, and spending $1 billion to purchase explosives detection systems for airports that do not possess them.

As the list indicates, there are many holes to fill. Which should lead us to wonder about Bush's recent claim that the government is "taking every possible step to protect your country from danger." Every?

This past January, a Department of Energy task force led by former Senator Howard Baker and former White House counsel Lloyd Cutler stressed the need to establish a program "to secure and/or neutralize in the next eight to ten years all nuclear weapons-usable material located in Russian and to prevent the outflow from Russia of scientific expertise that could be used for nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction." This project would aim to stop loose-nukes from slipping out of Russia and to offer incentives -- such as jobs -- that would discourage Russian nuclear scientists from selling weapons know-how to terrorists. The panel estimated the initiative would cost $30 billion. No program of that size is in place. Why the wait, while time on Osama bin Laden's Timex keeps ticking away?

A true war on terrorism ought to stretch quite far. The United States could back and bolster multilateral institutions of justice -- such as the international criminal court -- so that if terrorists again strike from abroad, the United States can call for a global posse rather than mount what is essentially an unilateral military expedition.

Or Washington could seek to increase dramatically the number of solar-powered homes and buildings and develop a decentralized energy infrastructure less vulnerable to terrorist attack.

Another option: Representative Henry Waxman has requested that the Bush administration halt the export of long-range fifty-caliber weapons, guns which are capable of bringing down airplanes and helicopters from thousands of yards away and which can can cause massive damage at chemical and nuclear facilities. Recently, the State Department reversed the existing policy and permitted the largest domestic manufacturer of these guns to sell them to private individuals in Europe. Good news for the NRA, perhaps, but hardly progress in the war on terrorism.

A comprehensive war on terrorism would entail examining U.S. foreign policy. (Or asking, in media shorthand, "why do they hate us?") Those who suggest that foreign policy changes are necessary in order to diminish the prospects of future terrorism are blasted these days by national security hawks and others for being self-hating Americans and Osama-appeasers, naifs who do not recognize that bin Laden and his terror represent an evil fascism thoroughly committed to the complete destruction of the West.

Of course, bin Laden and his fellow murderers are not seeking to nudge US foreign policy. Still, he seizes the openings provided by U.S. actions in the Middle East. In his first post-bombing videotape, bin Laden referred to three policy matters: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, US sanctions against Iraq, and Washington's relationship to the autocrats of Saudi Arabia. That was his play -- manipulative as it was -- for increasing his obscene popularity within certain Muslim quarters.

Without those issues to crassly exploit, he (and others like him) might draw less backing. This is not to say that his acts of terror should cause Washington to cut and run from the Middle East. But the demonstrations of support for bin Laden ought to trigger a thoughtful examination of U.S. foreign policy.

Indeed, the United States need not travel too far to do so. The Bush administration, having initially tried to disengage from the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, has, since September 11, pressed for a revival of the talks and urged Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to cool it. (Is that a win for bin Laden?) Earlier this year, a prominent member of he Bush clan, Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser to Daddy Bush, began lobbying for easing the embargo against Iraq. And in the debate that preceded the 1991 Gulf War, there was opposition (on the left and the right) to sending troops to the Middle East to protect the nepotistic regimes in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

During his recent primetime press conference, Bush raised the why-do-they-hate-us question on his own. "I'm amazed," he remarked, "that there's such misunderstanding of what our country is about, that people would hate us ... I know how good we are. And we've got to do a better job of making our case."

No doubt, the only remaining superpower, an economic powerhouse that boasts a culture that dominates the globe and a history that includes ugly interventions overseas, will attract some unavoidable degree of hatred and envy. The question is whether present U.S. policies offer additional cause for ill will. When Israeli military forces go after Palestinian targets and end up killing children with made-in-the-USA weaponry, how difficult is it to fathom the ensuing resentment? One can support Israel and still not have to be so foolish as to suggest there is no reason for anyone in the Middle East to despise Israel's primary underwriter.

In a similar state of ignorance, Representative Henry Hyde recently asked, "How is it possible that the government of the country that invented Hollywood and Madison Avenue can't tell its story overseas?" An aide (maybe an intern) should inform Hyde that Hollywood and Mad Ave mostly peddle fiction, fantasy, and falsehoods -- and that the problem may not lie in the presentation, but in the story itself.

Now that Bush and we have a war, it would be encouraging if it was a war waged by a commander-in-chief with eyes wide open, demonstratively sensitive to the possible repercussions, reassuringly cognizant of the historical and geopolitical context in which the current conflict occurs, and equipped with the imagination to push for ambitious changes that would lessen the odds and potential impact of a reprisal. Wide in vision, not force. But it's not that sort of war.