current Condition Delta global alert against terrorist threats called
by the United States government last Friday because of allegedly
credible threats from "Saudi millionaire" (as heís always
described) Osama Bin Ladenís organization could give us preliminary
answers to an unsettling question. Is the U.S. government or the
militant Taliban regime in Afghanistan closer to being a truth teller?
Media discussion of the threat has already given us an unsettling
preliminary answer to the question of whether top US policymakers
take the US Constitution seriously.
acknowledging in some detail that the crisis might give us no clear-cut
answer to the question so starkly presented above, it is important
to note that the foundation for being able to entertain such a question
seriously has been a long time abuilding, and the result should
be a source of sadness to Americans who want to be patriotic. Time
was when most Americans assumed that their country, while it might
make mistakes in assessment or judgment, played the role of the
good guys in international affairs.
all, the United States defeated Hitler and stayed the long and sometimes
ambiguous course of the Cold War. This country, while not always
wise or forward-looking enough, usually stands for human rights
and democracy in some defensible form or another. And because our
leadersí motives were usually good, they told at least a semblance
of the truth most of the time.
historians have uncovered duplicity and less-than-noble motives
in some of these actions, of course, but they are not widely acknowledged
among the populace. The undermining of the notion that while it
bumbled sometimes the US eventually came out on the right side of
most important international issues coincides fairly closely with
the emergence of the United States as a reluctant and inconsistent
imperial power. Some would cite the Tonkin Gulf incident, a purported
North Vietnamese attack on a US warship that provided much of the
rationale for escalating the Vietnam war and later was shown
to be almost entirely bogus, fabricated by US policymakers eager
to commit American sons and daughters to combat on the other side
of the world.
least the Tonkin Gulf incident and numerous subsequent incidents was an effort to make US military action look defensive in nature.
It was important back then that the United States not look like
the aggressor. The appearance of responding to an outrage by a sworn
enemy was considered an important aspect of maintaining US morale,
resolve and support for an overseas action.
the time of the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo and Serbia, not
such pretense was considered necessary. Slobodan Milosevic had not
invaded or threatened to invade a foreign country. Nasty as he was,
he was not an international aggressor. The campaign against his
regime was apparently considered fully justified by the fact that
he was ruling his country in a way that displeased the Lords of
NATO and Washington. It was not considered necessary for propaganda
purposes to manufacture an incident that would make him look like
an aggressor. Sufficient repetition of the phrase "ethnic cleansing"
was sufficient to justify naked aggression against a country recognized
the bombing campaign, Milosevic and his government hardly models
of straightforward discourse and devotion to the truth turned
out to be closer to accurate more often than NATO or US spokesmen.
From issues like the extent of ethnic cleansing to the thuggish
nature of the KLA to the amount of damage done to military targets
by the 15,000-foot bombing campaign, to the purposeful targeting
of civilian targets by NATO planners, when all was said, done and
investigated, the Serbs turned out to be closer to the truth, earlier
in the game, than the NATOcrats or the Americans.
a solid background has been laid, for some time but more intensively
and consistently in recent years, for questioning whether official
US spokesmen or the spokesmen of a regime as odious to most moderns
as the Taliban regime are more likely to be telling the truth about
matters that might be susceptible to factual analysis. Most Americans
are likely to find this dispiriting, but it is important to recognize
the possibility that our guys are bigger liars than their guys.
two sides have certainly said markedly different things. The United
States has put military forces in the general vicinity of the Persian
Gulf on heightened alert, ordered some 20 warships out to sea, where
they will presumably be less vulnerable to an attack like the rubber-raft
bombing of the USS Cole last October, and put some 8,500 US Air
Force personnel on an intense level of readiness for attack. American
civilians traveling overseas worldwide have been put on notice that
they might reconsider their plans or at least keep a low profile.
reason is said to be credible threats of focused terrorist activity
by the Bin Laden organization, which is blamed for or credited with
bombing US embassies in Africa and other targets. As US national
security authorities on Monday nightís "Nightline" tried
to make clear to Ted Koppel, such a worldwide alert is not called
lightly, on the basis of a single phone call.
Taliban regime in Afghanistan, meanwhile, has told the US not to
be so concerned, that Bin Laden is indeed in Afghanistan as a guest,
but the Afghan government has him under control. He is not allowed
to operate a base for overseas terrorist activities from Afghanistan
and the regime keeps an eye on him. It is more than possible, of
course, that the ultimate outcome of the situation will not provide
an unambiguous answer to the "who was lying" question.
If nothing happens it is quite possible that US authorities will
attribute it to the heightened condition of readiness, which successfully
deterred one or more nefarious planned terrorist attacks and it
is quite possible that they will be right. Such things do happen.
It might be years before the general public and its ostensible tribunes
in the media will have a reasonably accurate picture of what really
the other hand, it is also possible that the Afghan government does
have Bin Laden effectively bottled up in terms of launching attacks
from Afghanistan itself, but that the man has overseas forces he
is able to control in ways that have eluded Afghan authorities.
It is also possible that an essentially freelance terrorist who
has some connection or a claimed connection to Bin Laden without
real control from Bin Laden will perpetrate some outrage. So even
if a terrorist attack or a thwarted attack whose existence is made
public fairly soon does occur, it will be possible that that Taliban
regime didnít actually lie.
unsettling answer about the constitution was provided on "Nightline"
by James Sternberg, a former Clinton administration national security
official. Ted Koppel noted that military forces were scattered and
in a defensive posture just now, crouching to avoid casualties.
But if an enemy assembled tanks on the border of an ally, we would
expect the US military to be right there, ready to fight and expecting
to take casualties for the cause. Did this make the telephone threat
a more ominous weapon than the tank?
answered that if somebody were assembling tanks it would have been
obvious for a while and "the president and his advisers"
would have had an opportunity to assess the situation and make rational
decisions about the nature of the threat, the casualties that might
be involved and other factors that would determine whether a war
was justified by the circumstances.
never mentioned Congress, nor did it apparently occur to him to
take into consideration what Congress might think or do in such
a situation. The question of peace or war, in our modern or post-modern
era, is up to "the president and his advisers," in Mr.
Sternbergís mind. The people and Congress, apparently, are expected
to be bystanders, providing the personnel and the money the president
and his advisers deem necessary.
donít know whether weíre in a "postmodern" era, whatever
that all-purpose phrase might mean. But we do seem to be, as we
have developed into a frankly imperialist power, in a post-constitutional
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