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June 9, 2004

Pride, Patriotism, and Propaganda


by Thomas Gale Moore

After declaring a war on terrorism, the Bush Administration has gotten us into two unwinnable wars, Afghanistan and Iraq. The war on terrorism is not a war; it is a state of affairs. There is no one enemy to conquer, no land to capture, no way to know when we have won the war. Basically, it is a case of law enforcement. On June 6, the Associated Press quoted Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, as saying, "Terrorism is simply a technique being used by extremists. It is not the problem in and of itself – it's a weapon that's being used." In other words, it is not a war. Were it to be one, it would be unwinnable; there will always be another terrorist, domestic or foreign, with a grievance real or imagined.

No matter how terrible the act – and 9/11 was horrendous – it is still a matter of tracking down the perpetrators and their sponsors and bringing them to trial. When a crazed group spread sarin gas in the Tokyo subways, the leader was arrested, brought to trial, convicted, and sentenced to death; when Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Okalahoma City, he was arrested, tried, and executed. Just because the criminals came from abroad does not make what they did in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania "warfare," rather than a God-awful crime.

Nearly fifteen months ago, the United States, in an unprovoked attack, conquered Iraq. As many predicted, we are now bogged down in a conflict that is impossible to win. We have lost our reputation as a civilized member of the world community promoting human rights and democracy. With the exception of Israel, which sees the attack as emasculating one of its enemies, the world's population has turned totally against us. Even our nearest neighbor both geographically and culturally, Canada, has distanced itself from our leadership.

Nearly three years ago, American troops moved into Afghanistan to end the Taliban regime, which had given a home to Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Having toppled the Taliban but failed to find its leader, we have dispersed Bin Laden's followers, without succeeding in tracking him down; the fighting goes on with the death so far of 125 U.S. soldiers.

In Afghanistan, just last week, the humanitarian group Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) was attacked and several of its people killed. American troops are dying regularly in the mountains of that country. We have established a friendly government in Kabul, but it is unable to exert authority outside that city. Unlike Iraq, the international community and Europe have sent help but not enough to provide security. NATO is trying to organize an election for a new government, but is making little progress in establishing sufficient security to register potential voters. Whether a meaningful vote can be held this fall is problematic. Meanwhile, the remnants of the Taliban appear to be growing in power. As in Iraq, there seems to be no end in sight.

The occupation of Iraq and the conquest of Afghanistan have generated more terrorists. In the two and one-half years since we sent troops into that region, terrorist activities have increased. Since our troops entered Afghanistan in October 2001, al-Qaeda or its affiliates have launched six major attacks, killing over 25 people, in Morocco, Spain, Pakistan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, plus eight other strikes, murdering one or more individuals. In the previous three years we suffered from only four attacks altogether, although one of them was 9/11. As a policy to reduce the effectiveness of al-Qaeda, attacking Afghanistan and Iraq must be considered a failure.

What have we accomplished in Afghanistan? The religious extremist Taliban are no longer in power; narrow-minded warlords, only marginally better, have replaced them. The Taliban had been reasonably successful in stamping out the opium trade. Now farmers, with the connivance of the local tribal leaders, are producing a record crop of poppies. Afghanistan has once again become the world's largest producer of heroin. Are we better off without the Taliban but with increased supplies of heroin or would we have been better off with the Taliban still repressing its people but without additional exports to the world's drug markets?

In Afghanistan, the only way to create conditions conducive to reasonably fair elections is to provide security throughout the country. That would take tens, maybe hundreds of thousands, more troops than NATO and the U.S. have stationed there now. But we have no spare troops. We are scraping the barrel to maintain our existing forces in Iraq. Other countries are unwilling or unable to supply many more troops, even for Afghanistan. The Iraqi adventure has eliminated the possibility, remote that it was, that we could pacify Afghanistan. History should have taught us that this was an almost impossible task: Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.) failed at it; the Brits failed in the 19th century; the Soviets failed in the 1980s.

The belief that military power can bring the world peace, prosperity, and democracy should have been dealt a fatal blow. Are we better off for having taken on two wars? We are now bogged down in those two conflicts. Rather than concentrate on bringing to justice the people who attacked us in September of 2001, the Bush Administration is still lumping together real with phony wars. Given the public's willingness to support those unnecessary, unjustified, and unwinnable conflicts, the future looks grim. We should withdraw promptly from both countries. Unfortunately pride, patriotism, and propaganda are likely to deter us from doing what is sensible and even lead us into additional tragic misadventures.

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Thomas Gale Moore is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in economics and has taught at Carnegie Institution of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), Michigan State University, UCLA, and in the Stanford Business School. He has written numerous peer-reviewed economic articles and several books.

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