"We support your war of terror," proclaims Borat to a cheering crowd of Americans in a stadium, in the popular Sacha Baron Cohen film. The crowd apparently thinks he got the preposition wrong, but what makes the line darkly humorous is that he didn't.
Most of the victims of America's wars that are supposedly "against terror" have been civilians, and torture has also been deployed as a weapon. Civilians in Pakistan are killed on average every week in drone strikes, according to a recent report from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and also regularly in Afghanistan in "night raids."
And sometimes they are just shot point blank, as in March 2006 when US soldiers reportedly executed at least 10 civilians, including a 70-year old woman and a 5-month old baby, and then called in an airstrike to bomb the house and cover it up. A recently discovered US diplomatic cable from Wikileaks provides evidence of this crime. Iraq veteran Ethan McCord says that killings of civilians by US forces was "standard operating procedure" while he was deployed there.
I grew up during the Cold War, and my elementary school teachers told me that the difference between us and the Communists was that they thought the end justifies the means, but we didn't. It wasn't true then, of course – American armed forces in Vietnam bombed villages, slaughtered civilians, and threw people out of helicopters. But at least our leaders had to pretend that they had some moral superiority to their enemies.
Now we have seen torture and assassination institutionalized and justified at the highest levels. New crimes are continually uncovered: Documents recently captured by Libyan rebels indicate that Washington was sending prisoners to Gadaffi's government for interrogation, i.e. torture.
So that is one of the casualties of 9-11, in addition to the 3000 people brutally murdered on that fateful day in 2001: a moral degeneration among our political leaders who, it must be acknowledged, were already at a low level when it came to respect for human life in the rest of the world. But the world should know that the views presented by our major media and politicians do not necessarily reflect the consent of the governed. In a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center , the public was evenly divided on the question of whether the 9/11 attacks may have been the result of our foreign policy.
This is especially impressive because it means that nearly half the country came up with this idea on their own, as it has been scrupulously avoided in ten years of media blather about "how 9/11 changed the world." If we had anything approaching a reality-based media, that number would probably be upwards of eighty per cent. Only a quarter of those surveyed by Pew thought that the wars had made Americans safer; the majority thought the wars increased the chance of terrorist attacks or made no difference.
According to recent polls, a majority of Americans think that the US should not be fighting in Afghanistan; a majority thinks that the US should withdraw its troops as soon as possible, and two-thirds say the threat of terrorism will stay the same when the US withdraws its troops.
Winds of change
The most important way that 9/11 changed the world, as tens of millions of Americans understand, is that it provided an over-arching theme and a rationale for the kinds of military adventures, invasions, bombings, interventions and atrocities that our government had previously carried out under other pretexts. For half a century the "war against Communism" served this purpose.
It didn't matter that governments overthrown in Iran, Chile, Guatemala or elsewhere had no connection to the Soviet Union; or that the Vietnamese were fighting for their own independence. It was an excuse, with a whole world view that shaped the country's most important institutions, and it provided a justification for empire.
Then came that awkward decade after the Berlin wall fell and Washington had to rely on ad hoc excuses, as in the invasion of Panama or the first Iraq War. People like Vice President Dick Cheney knew immediately after the towers went down that this was not just a tragedy but an opportunity that would serve their interests for years to come, beginning with the unnecessary wars and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.
But it was the more liberal "enablers," especially in the media, that made everything possible. Bill Keller was executive editor of the New York Times until returning to writing for the paper this month. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the paper printed such journalistic gems as the infamous "aluminum tubes" report - fake evidence of an Iraqi nuclear program - and other stories that, as the newspaper's own public editor would write, "pushed Pentagon assertions so aggressively you could almost sense epaulets sprouting on the shoulders of editors." Keller reminisces this week about "the I-Can't-Believe-I'm-a-Hawk Club, made up of liberals for whom 9/11 had stirred a fresh willingness to employ American might."
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"It was a large and estimable group of writers and affiliations," he writes, "including, among others, Thomas Friedman of The Times; Fareed Zakaria, of Newsweek; George Packer and Jeffrey Goldberg of The New Yorker; Richard Cohen of The Washington Post; the blogger Andrew Sullivan; Paul Berman of Dissent; Christopher Hitchens of just about everywhere; and Kenneth Pollack [now at the Brookings Institution]."
Keller poses the question: "[K]nowing what we knew then, were we wrong to support the [Iraq] war?" After reviewing the costs of the war, in money and lives [he says "at least 100,000 Iraqis" were killed but the best estimates are closer to a million], he concludes that "Operation Iraqi Freedom was a monumental blunder." But "Whether it was wrong to support the invasion at the time is a harder call."
It's not a hard call for most of America, or the world for that matter. Keller is asking the wrong question. The more important question is how the executive editor of the New York Times can be so confused between right and wrong, when tens of millions of Americans, including many intelligent children, can see right through the crap that we are bombarded with every day.
I'm only picking on the Times because it represents the liberal wing of our establishment media. Most of the rest is much worse. This is one of the great structural problems that must be confronted every day by Americans who would like their country to become a civilized member of the community of nations.
The military-industrial-complex is of course another enormous obstacle. General James L. Jones, Obama's National Security Advisor, explained to journalist and author Bob Woodward, in his book Obama's Wars, why "the United States could not lose the war [in Afghanistan] or be seen as losing the war."
"'If we're not successful here', Jones said, "you'll have a staging base for global terrorism all over the world. People will say the terrorists won. And you'll see expressions of these kinds of things in Africa, South America, you name it. Any developing country is going to say, this is the way we beat [the United States], and we're going to have a bigger problem.' "
Before he took the job as Obama's National Security Advisor, Jones was hauling down $2m a year, paid for serving on the boards of corporations, lobby groups, and military contractors including Boeing and Exxon-Mobil. This is a form of corruption more costly to the United States than anything that our elites regularly denounce in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Pakistan.
If all this sounds pessimistic, with President Obama having escalated the war in Afghanistan, and mostly continuing the foreign policy of George W. Bush's second term, things are not nearly as hopeless as they may seem. First, some of what we are seeing is not structural, but situational. The United States is facing its worst economic failure since the Great Depression. This has drawn attention away from our wars, and given the foreign policy establishment more leeway than they normally would have to proceed without regard to public opinion.
President Obama decided early on that he was not going to expend or risk any political capital trying to change US foreign policy, since his re-election would depend on domestic issues. And many other political actors have made similar decisions, not always for purely opportunistic reasons.
Second, the fact that Obama, a perceived liberal and the country's first African-American president, is in the White House, has kept protest to a minimum. If a Republican president were doing the same things, there would be people in the streets and a lot more of the kind of grass-roots organizing that we saw in Wisconsin. And Washington would be paying a bigger political price in the rest of the world for its crimes, as it did when George W. Bush was president.
Nonetheless, the peace movement remains quite strong and is exerting pressure every day in ways that generally go unreported. This summer, 96 per cent of Democrats in the US House of Representatives went against their president and voted to establish a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. This was a result of the organized efforts of the peace movement.
Americans will end these wars and change the foreign policy that got us into them, the same way we got out of Vietnam or cut off congressional funding to right-wing terrorists in Nicaragua in the 1980s: through persistent organizing, educational work, and pressure on their government – especially the Congress. That is how we will eventually become a republic, as most Americans want, instead of an empire.