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The War on Terrorism – January 2002

Figuring out where we are going in the war on terrorism is extremely hard because the Bush administration has chosen to keep us in the dark. What do they have to hide? From what we know of the Bush program, a lot of sobering questions need asking.

The tough talk comes out of the heat of revenge. As we cool down, the broad suggestion of stamping out terrorism all over the world will be modified because what they are saying is so aggressive as to be imperialistic, an amazing digression from our traditions. The administration and the generals may be thinking that by smashing a few weak sisters, the major Moslem nations will roll over and clean up terrorism in their own countries. Historically, however, efforts to smash religious movements with raw power have ended up encouraging the movements.

Because the Bush program is so full of questions, they have chosen to obscure the difficulties by treating us as children, providing little information, attempting to suppress sources, and engaging in the old tricks of wartime propaganda. This kind of thing is suspicious, what are they up to? In order to throw some light on the matter, I have been reading away, and while still left with a lot to learn, here are my so far conclusions.

1) Bush is miscasting Afghanistan as a great triumph in order to build support, not an unnatural course, but one that casts a smoke screen of obscurity, a dangerous precedent.

The Taliban was a repressive over-fundamentalist regime that ruled most of Afghanistan in recent years, but it did not engage in international terrorism. If the Taliban is best done away with from a humanitarian point of view, it has little relevance to the fight against terrorism other than as an important site of terrorist training. Grass roots support in the Moslem world means new sites can be established, though the need to move probably makes it easier to find them. As in Viet Nam, our actions are likely to build enemy numbers because they support bin Laden’s main point about our aggressive intent. Most of the foreigners training in Afghanistan, which we call Al Qaeda, escaped.

The benefit of Afghanistan is not so much a direct attack on terrorism as elimination of a cesspool of anarchy, drugs, and radical Islamist anti-western feeling that was poisoning the economies and international relationships in central Asia. If we can bring order to that long anarchistic country and foster trade and understanding in the region, those countries may be motived to isolate and control radical elements. Pitching bombs is unlikely to defeat, and probably encourages, terrorism directed against us, but if we can use Afghanistan as a laboratory, and slake our thirst for revenge, the venture will have been successful (Afghanistan, though, is a tough laboratory).

2) Bin Laden is the anti-American terrorist, but there are plenty of others not directed toward us. Our worldwide hunt seems likely to provoke others to join the attack on America. Exaggerating bin laden’s importance is not useful to our understanding of the situation. Its purpose is to build enthusiasm through a personalized target.

In addition to his American emphasis, bin Laden has had a high rate of success compared to other terrorists. In general, anti-western terrorism has a high failure rate and the movement appears hesitant and poorly organized. Bin Laden is an organizer and seems to understand that you get no where in the western world with uneducated guerrilla trained fighters. Get rid of him and the movement suffers a major loss. But we are being presented an incorrect picture of him, as there are many heads to this dragon. Presenting bin Laden as the terrorist is good propaganda, but it covers up that terrorism is sponsored by many Moslem countries and supported by others. We need to understand the depth of Moslem feeling against us in order to counter it wisely.

3) Misrepresentation of bin Laden and terrorism in the Moslem world.

In the Moslem world bin Laden’s stature has been tremendously raised by the WTC. All of this fuss about the tape proving he did it is pap for the American public. They see us as evil people guided only by money and themselves as following the word of God. Bin Laden’s ideas resonate, all the more for our invasions. They see terrorism as a necessity, a desperate last weapon to fight our immense power. To them it is David versus Goliath and good versus evil. Carpet bombing and invasion strengthen and give justification to their negative impression of us.

Our actions are probably helping bin Laden by marking him as a new messiah. We need to understand that Pakistan and Iran, to name only the principle sources of terrorism, are against us. Pakistan has always been the main base for terrorism, though in the past directed against Afghanistan and India. Bin Laden’s people are retreating there because it is a safe haven. Virtually nothing has been done to prevent this, though it could easily have been anticipated. Pakistan is working us over for all the money it can get. Iran made minor concessions because they hated the Taliban, but it is the leading source of international terrorism. Saudi Arabia may be our biggest problem. Not only is it a major source of terrorists, terrorist financial support, and religious fanaticism, but the kingdom continued its arrogant course after 9/11. These countries are wondering, where are we on the U.S. list for picking off terrorist-sponsoring countries one by one? Our attitude is, fine, we want them scared.

4) The administration’s campaign of misinformation. While the administration’s thirst for revenge is personalized in bin Laden, it knows the depth of the problem. The Bush people, however, do not think we should know and are doing everything to prevent us from finding out. With Viet Nam, Johnson and Nixon lied, and to avoid the lie this time they tell us nothing and make every effort to suppress the news. I understand they are doing things like pressuring Moslem scholars not to appear on TV. The New York Times is silent, cowed by the nationalistic spirit from pointing out the depth of the problem and the hypocracy of some of our positions. European newspapers print some solid information, but apparently we are pressing them as well. Rummy’s press briefings are amusing, but he is thumbing his nose at the press and at us, while losing no opportunity to villainize.

Another difference with Viet Nam is the pursuit of an old fashioned campaign of propaganda. The administration provides as little information as possible, spins that, and directs its effort toward pumping up the bellicose spirit. This is done by screaming about inhuman evil-doers, waving the flag, talking up brave Americans, endlessly honoring the dead, and monthly ceremonies on the 11th. The simplistic moral denunciations are nothing more than old fashioned propaganda. As usual with propagandists, they misstate the enemy’s motivations, making him harder to understand. Constant reference to murders and criminals covers up the fact that among a few billion Moslems the bin Laden terrorists are heroes. This kind of propaganda is normal for warlike nations, but it is sad to see in America, and sadder to see us eating it up. How much longer will the American people fall for this drivel?

In order to understand the war and its likely difficulties, we need to appreciate that Moslems see terrorists as soldiers for Islam using the only weapon they have against our planes, bombs, and missiles. Impersonal bombing of innocent people is terrorism. As the power nation, we have the attitude that every American life is a treasure and their lives don’t matter. How many civilians have we killed in Afghanistan? Have we already taken an eye for an eye versus WTC? Probably, no one is keeping score, except terrorist recruiters (some information is just beginning to leak out in stories on other subjects). When asked about thirty villagers killed in a carpet bombing in the Tora Bora area, a general said, it was well known we were going to bomb there, they should have left (their homes!). Since they should have expected the bombing, it wasn’t terrorism.

Hope of a sensible course lies in understanding that the problem isn’t just a few terrorists, that hatred of Western ways, and specifically of America, has spread throughout the Moslem world, and it is based on religious principles. Our aggressive approach pours gas on the flames and is likely to strengthen the terrorist movement. Terrorism has always been unofficial, so it will have no trouble going further underground. Afghanistan illustrates that we can conquer, and at the same time do nothing to counter terrorism. Bombs won’t do the job any more than a police state did the job in Israel/Palestine.

We don’t seem to know anything except bombs. They are our foreign policy. Our arrogance is very evident. Can the wiser heads in the administration find an exit from the war strategy? The wolves may insist on Iraq, even though it has been a minor player in terrorism (no active terrorist movement in a dictatorially suppressed country). Going into Iraq will probably boost the terrorism movement, but they are weapons dangerous. Somalia is mentioned, though we would be criticized for picking another soft target and Somalia is about as minor a terrorist threat as you can find (going there makes us look something between stupid and scared). Hopefully, Iraq will feed the hungry mood of American warmongers, and after that we can find a reasonable course.

I think there is a way out of this thing. First, we need a realistic view of the enemy. We are not fighting suicidal maniacs, but people whose faith is so strong they are willing to give up their lives. If we sit down for realistic talks, not with bin Laden, but the major Moslem countries, they are going to want us out of Saudi Arabia. Since we need their oil, and probably the royal Saudi family to protect that oil, an agreement would be difficult. We also need to force the situation in Israel. A number of Moslem countries have shown willingness to be reasonable. The cause is not hopeless. We don’t have to bomb them back to the dark ages, they are already there.

The best hope for controlling Islamist fanatics lies within the countries themselves by encouraging capitalism and a better life. Afghanistan may serve as a focal point for interchange with other Moslem countries, including Iran. This is a long term solution and early capitalistic efforts are always filled with corruption and unfulfilled promise, but we are talking about encouraging development in backward Moslem countries. The worldwide terrorist movement exploded during the Clinton administration, perhaps in no small part from neglect of a weak state department under Christopher and Albright. The intelligence failure with the WTC was in the State department. The hero of the fight against terrorism is much more apt to be Powell than Rumsfeld (more likely someone down the road, for it will take time).

In the meantime, suppression of the news and the law, the administration’s attitude that we can’t be told the truth, and the hatred baiting in speeches laced with demagoguery, is appalling for our country. Warmongering looks like a huge political hit for Bush, but this kind of enthusiasm will be short lived.

John T. Stinson

Conversation between Osama bin Laden and Hosni Mubarak, president of Eqypt (a clearer light on true feelings in the Moslem world)

Mubarak: Congratulations, Osama, you really put it to the infidels with that WTC job.

bin Laden: Thanks, Mr. Mubarak, as they say on Wall Street, it exceeded expectations.

Mubarak: I thought you were some kind of an engineer, but you admitted on the tape you didn’t know the buildings would fall.

Bin Laden: I’m mostly into roads and underground facilities.

Mubarak: Maybe you better hit the lower floors next time so the infidels don’t escape.

Bin Laden: The high floors are more spectacular and we are not so much after bodies as scaring the shit out of them.

Mubarak: Well, you sure did, greatest show of dominos ever. Wonderful job, but don’t be getting soft in your old age. What can I do for you?

bin Laden: I thought you’d like to contribute to my working capital. Everyone’s been kicking in.

Mubarak: Ossie, baby, you’ve gotta nerve after trying to knock me off in Ethiopia few years ago.

Bin Laden: Well, even my godfather, the king, came through and you know what I’ve said about him.

Mubarak: That’s OK, I understand you don’t do it any more with the true believers now that you’ve discovered Americans.

bin Laden: I’ve got this thing going pretty well now, and what with Bush freezing some of my assets and some of the charities, I need a little help. He didn’t tie up much, but I’ve accelerated my plans now that they’re coming after me and I know you don’t want to be left out.

Mubarak: Certainly not, what are you looking for?

bin Laden: I thought 5 or 10 million American dollars was a fair allocation, it’s less than 1% of your annual shake down of the Americans.

Mubarak: I don’t want the brothers to see me as a piker, so you can count on 10. I’ll put it in your account at Egypt National today.

bin Laden: thanks Mr. Mubarak, and I want you to know I appreciate the sacrifice in not banking 25 for turning me in.

Mubarak: You know how I like American dollars, but dictatorshiping isn’t what it used to be. If I turned you in I’d have a revolt on my hands. You can’t mess around with Allah’s chose one these days.

bin Laden: Musharraf told me the same thing, but those American dollars are supremely corrupting, so I want you to know I understand the sacrifice.

Mubarak: Musharraf, eh, I thought he didn’t like you.

Bin Laden: They all say that to put off the Americans, and Mushie made them pay up big for the help.

Mubarak: You are such a thoughtful guy, Ossie. I’ll be watching closely, I want my money’s worth.

bin Laden: How many bodies do you think 10 million is worth?

Mubarak: Oh, I’m getting old, I’m not as bloodthirsty as I used to be. I’ll settle for making those infidels look foolish. A couple of aircraft carriers patrolling each coast, and 24 hour flights over every city for a couple of weeks will do. If you can run the president into Nebraska again, that would be super.

bin Laden: I don’t think that’ s possible, next time he’ll make for the site as fast as possible, like Bill. There’s an election coming, you know.

Mubarak: every time I go to the mosque I praise Allah for that one, but if he rushes to the scene you might be able to knock him off.

bin Laden: Not in the plans. We need Dubya. All that World Wrestling Federation talk about evil-doing murders and criminals brings in hoards of recruits. Besides, that Cheney’s a hard ass, might start throwing A-bombs.

Mubarak: You’ve got some to throw back, I understand.

Bin Laden: sure, but only a few suitcase models. We don’t want them scaring my boys with the big stuff.

Mubarak: How many did you lose in Afghanistan.

bin Laden: We lost a few hundred, but the bombs did more damage to those Afghan hicks than to my men. They devastated those mountain villages, but you can’t do much with caves. Most of the boys got out.

Mubarak: Good luck, Ossie, keep me informed.

bin Laden: sorry Mubbie, we don’t trust anyone, you’ll have to read it in the papers.

Inauguration Commentary – January 2001

The new president is greeted with glee by comedians, but his presidency may be a watershed event. Bush Jr, to a greater extent than any predecessor, is the man of business. Reagan was all for the free market, but he was an idealist able to believe wacky ideas like voodoo economics and star wars. He never followed through on reducing the size of government. Father Bush, we forget so soon, was seen as an empty man lacking idealism. He was a competent administrator who saw the need for reducing the deficit and lost Republican support by raising taxes. Unfortunately, he had harped on no tax increases to get elected and going back on his word created the impression that Bush senior did not stand for anything.

Not so Dubya, he stands for something – unqualified support for business. Bush has sought to identify himself with education, a nice comfortable political issue, but education is a sideline. The central theme of Bush’s rule in Texas was support for business and that support is what got him elected. Business leaders picked him out as their man and provided the largest pot of money in the history of elections. He was not bought, he is a true believer that businessmen should run the country. Bush will pay absolutely no attention to McCain’s election reform effort. He is the big business candidate McCain’s program is specifically aimed at.

The cabinet appointments prove the point. Start with treasury, a businessman. Look at defense. Rumsfeld is a known supporter of increased defense spending, a powerful business issue. Bush talks about raising soldier pay, but the real support will be for new weapons. Our defense contractors sold so many advanced weapons overseas that we apparently need new ones to counter all those now in the possession of foreign powers. The appointment of a general as secretary of state (if he weren’t black we would all be shaking our heads at a general in this position) would seem to further the point.

The lesser appointments are more revealing. The original labor nominee, Chavez, is a union basher and critic of the minimum wage. Could corporations wish for anyone better. Energy: the qualification here is that the new secretary has championed closing the department. Interior: the lady’s only known position is opening up government lands to business. The most subtle is Christy Whitman as head of the Environmental Protective Agency. This may seem like a reward to a fellow member of the eastern establishment, but not so. Whitman’s predecessor introduced one of the most comprehensive environmental programs of any state and she simply disbanded it. Who better to run the EPA in the interests of business.

As for Justice, look for a dismantling of the anti-trust effort of recent years. Ashcroft’s own views are less interesting than the fact Bush would pick someone so far to the right (he did owe them a big one for repulsing the McCain bandwagon in South Carolina). The SEC – look for it to be turned over to Wall Street (an established Bush trick is turning a regulatory agency over to those being regulated) and some of the activist Levitt initiatives reversed.

The takeover of government by corporations goes beyond cabinet appointments. Business representatives, CEOs, lobbyists have swarmed the transition office seeing that sub-cabinet and other positions fall into friendly hands.

As to Prime Minister Cheney, we are so relieved to have a solid experienced man to shield us from an in-over-his-head Bush that we forget his far right views and the fact that he picked these people.

Bush endlessly talked of being a healer, but the cabinet appointments reveal the emptiness of his views on bipartisanship. Disguised by ethnic and gender diversity, the Bush appointments are blunt in-your-face moves from a man supposedly placed in a conciliatory position by the questionable nature of his win. His actions demonstrate the extend to which he is unalterably allied with big business, not the most popular interest of the common man.

The important question, will the alliance of business and the administration be good for the country? A few years ago the judgment would unquestionably have been no. Twenty years ago Bush would have been laughed at as a presidential candidate, now as the business president he is a product of changed times. Business has greatly increased its influence in government and prosperity has never been greater. Starting off with a recession, or a severe slump, means that his timing is good. Over the short run, business probably needs a helping hand and Bush is going to provide it. For the stock market over the next year, we could not ask for a better choice.

Longer term, the issue breaks down to the relative view of capitalism. The free market is seen by some as solving all economic problems and producing the greatest benefit to the greatest number. The rich may get an apparently unfair slice of the pie, but the poor end up much better off than under any other system. Certainly capitalism has proven itself in modern times. While the returns are mixed overseas because of centuries old cultural barriers, capitalism works in this country.

So the issue isn’t capitalism, it is the degree to which capitalism compromises democratic principles. Communism did not come out of the old feudal serfdom, it came out of the industrial revolution and the exploitation of labor. Free market capitalism does give rise to unfairness. The rich become greedy, they never have enough. They use money power to accumulate more and lose their sense of justice. Monopoly is an inevitable corporate goal and monopoly slows progress and leads to higher prices, defeating the free market. Enthusiasts point out that the free market ultimately destroys monopolies, but it takes time and in a democracy we are unwilling to wait. The monopoly problem may be moot, for in the fast moving high technology international economy, establishing a monopoly is almost impossible, so the anti-trust laws may have become superfluous. The government beat Microsoft, but with the peaking of the PC, Microsoft is back in a fight for its life. But the problem remains – business means big corporations and big corporations exercise great power in an undemocratic manner.

The point is that the completely free market is not utopia, it almost instinctively goes astray. I think we face a serious problem at the moment because of the crazy, greedy, indiscriminate new issuance market brought to us by Wall Street. We are seeing the downside of overselling the market and driving stocks to ridiculous levels. More significant than the immense waste of capital is the false sense of wealth that may have put the consumer behind the eight ball. Greenspan’s efforts to control stock market speculation were directed at preventing just this situation, but he failed. On the subject of Greenspan, apparently he is close to Cheney, so he may be protected, but look for the Bush people to go after him, specifically with blame for the slowdown. Business does not like Greenspan’s powerful and moderating influence on the economy, it wants a free hand.

In America we developed a government restrained capitalism to control the nastier, undemocratic practices that inevitably develop in a free market. The government is also an important partner in providing services that assist the free market to grow. The idea that government is always a hindrance is ridiculous. On the other hand, coming out of the New Deal, the need to counter the Russian threat, fears about a shortage of energy, the need for a central bank of last resort, and many other examples, government undoubtedly became too active in our lives. The environment needs protection, but the original cleanup laws of twenty-five years ago went too far. The influence of government in our lives has gradually diminished and that probably helped sustain the long prosperity of the 1990s.

Although business recognizes the contribution of government, it can’t resist fighting to reduce that role. Business wants the roads, but it does not want to pay for them. Business has captured the keys to the regulatory safe and this administration will do whatever it can to eliminate regulation. Will they overdo it? Corporations are not noted for restraint when it comes to their self-interest. The cabinet nominations are evidence of a must-have-it-our-way attitude that gets corporations in trouble. A corporation can be run as an autocracy, the country can’t.

The question is, will the business takeover be good or bad? I am a firm believer that government restraint is an important cog in the success of our form of capitalism and that given the chance business will go astray. But what do I know, maybe the unfettered market will provide new stimulus. That decision will not be made in the next four years, this is a long term contest. The pendulum of relative strength between government control and the free market has moved in favor of the free market. The result is big business flexing its muscles as never before, but that swing may be reaching a peak.

You can’t help but admire Bush’s don’t give a damn attitude, but in a democracy a business president probably holds a bad hand. I am disturbed by the constant talk show spinmeisting that this is the greatest cabinet ever, when it clearly lacks in distinction. This may reflect a defensive foreboding among Republicans about the cabinet, or an effort to obscure what this group actually stands for.

The majority of voters believe in government and anyone letting the big corporations run wild may be placing himself in an unelectable position. But maybe not. Business is on top and the majority of Americans are stockholders with a more benign view of big corporations. Business will never have a better chance to prove it can lead. The next four years will be fascinating for students of capitalism.