American Interventionism and The Terrorist Threat
Jon Basil Utley
Updated 9/12/01

Editors Note: first published this guest column by Mr. Utley on August 16, 2001. On Tuesday morning, September 11, unknown persons attacked various targets in Manhattan and Washington, DC, in what many are already calling the most deadly terrorist (that is, non-state) attack in world history. We are republishing this piece in the hope that it will influence the national debate about terrorism that is certain to occur.

At an American Bar Association's meeting on preparing for the terrorist threat, General Bruce Lawler, head of the Joint Task Force to coordinate military support for state governments, said that the threat was from "foreigners who envy us." I asked him in the question period if our having killed or ruined their families might not give some more reason to hate Americans and make them much more dangerous than others who were just envious. He quickly backed down and said he was only repeating a statement of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Similarly, Washington's prestigious Center for Strategic and International Studies' major report, "Defending America in the 21st Century," described the threat as coming from those "who resent preeminent U.S power and/or disdain the West."

There's a reason for this silence about why many foreigners might want to do us harm. The bipartisan Washington establishment – newspapers, reporters, think tankers, soldiers, security forces, intelligence agencies, Congressmen and the military-industrial complex – thrives on war or preparations for war. They don't want Americans to learn and fear that there may be fatal costs to us for our actions abroad. Just as trade and business are the occupation of most of the nation, in Washington, "war is the health of the state," to quote old libertarian, Randolph Bourne. Every war, be it a World War or a War on Drugs or on Poverty, spreads money and power in Washington.

The other reason for silence is that American foreign policy is based almost entirely upon domestic political concerns, with little thought or concern for long run consequences. NATO expansion was promised by Clinton during the last election just to gain Midwestern votes from Americans of Central European ancestry. When Madeleine Albright ordered the bombing of Serbia, neither she nor Clinton thought about how Russia would react. In fact knowledgeable Russian experts believe that NATO expansion and the bombing of Serbia were the turning point, after which Russia started arming China with its latest weaponry, helping Iran and Iraq, and moving back to nationalist policies. Russia's military budget has now nearly doubled (to $8 billion) from what it was before the attack. Similarly, with intervention in Colombia, there is no thought of the new, possibly deadly, combination of Arab terrorists willing to do suicide missions, and Colombian drug smugglers who know how to bribe or blackmail their way into smuggling any weapons of mass destruction (WMD) into the U.S. The drug war in Colombia is, again, being fought to satisfy another domestic constituency, with no thought about possible wider consequences.

Equally, in fighting wars, Washington gives little thought to overall strategy. For example, when former Secretary of Defense Cheney was asked during the Gulf War, 11 years ago, about Washington's plans for Iraq after the war, he replied (honest man that he is): "Well, I don't know, we haven't thought much about that." So now we spend tens of billions of dollars maintaining a massive military presence in the area and are making new enemies by the millions.

In short, one almost never hears in Washington from either Party that foreigners might have legitimate grievances against us. Half a million dead children in Iraq, Palestinian teenagers raging against American-supplied tanks, Serbs without electricity and running water or diseased or ruined and jobless from our bombing, assorted Moslems who blame America for their dictatorships and misery, Colombians with relatives killed by those aided by America. The list of potential enemies grows and grows. Even Basque terrorists now look at America as their enemy after President Bush, during his recent visit, casually promised to aid Spain's government with electronic surveillance. They all now have reason to do us harm, they all want America out of their countries, "out of their faces," in street language. Itís not rocket science.

Right now, we have training missions in 60 to 70 nations, usually teaching counterinsurgency. Even Albanian guerrillas have now been trained by U.S. Special Forces. The military likes training missions because they build relationships with foreign junior officers all over the world. The Pentagon seems to have a clear field to determine which nations it wants to work with. But many nations also have those who are resisting local governments' tyranny, who then see American forces as their enemies. American ambassadors, I was told in Peru last March, don't have authority over assorted semiautonomous agencies – mainly military, FBI and drug war personnel – and often don't even know what those agencies are doing in the nations where they are stationed.

But you'll rarely read this in the Washington press. Nor much about the human misery in Iraq, caused by Washington's blockade of supplies needed to rebuild electric, sanitation and agricultural irrigation stations bombed by America. Chlorine, needed to disinfect Iraq's water supply, and even pencils for school children are banned. Nor was there much reporting, after our bombing of the Danube River bridges, about the devastation of South Eastern Europe and Black Sea nations' barge trade, their major means of shipments to Western Europe. Most Americans would not have approved of these actions – had they known about them. As a New Republic writer put it, "The American Monster is more like an elephant – bumbling rather than bloodthirsty, oblivious rather than fierce."


This missing element, not wanting Americans to think that there may be consequences to our killing foreigners, seriously affects civil defense. CATO published a long and excellent report, (No. 387, 11/27/00) "Are We Prepared for Terrorism using Weapons of Mass Destruction?" It warns that:

"Average citizens are left ignorant of the fundamentals of preparedness.... The lack of any credible public education program in matters of awareness and response violate many entrenched principles of emergency management to minimize the phenomenon of 'crying wolf,' citizens must receive some realistic instruction on recognizing the difference between real 'suspected threats' and everyday oddball occurrences. It means that any attack may be misunderstood by the public, resulting in panic or far more death and destruction than if it was managed properly. At a minimum a simple protective mask and filter will block radioactive dust and fatal particles in aerosol. Closed windows and simple plastic raincoats and rubber rain boots will protect the skin against most chemicals. Household agents such as bleach, lye (in the form of drain cleaners), industrial strength detergents and even HTH (a swimming pool bleach that is a version of an old military agent) are readily available and useful in educated hands."

Still, the government is now spending $10 billion yearly on civil defense, most of it going to protect government personnel and installations. But very little, only some 2%, is going for civilian medical preparations. There is almost no surge capacity in hospitals nowadays which call for supplies and personnel on a just-in-time basis, according to Tara O'Toole, deputy director of Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Bio-defense Studies. She added, speaking at the American Bar Association meeting, that hospital administrators have no training or preparation for triage decisions, that is treating those who can most likely be saved. Such would be contrary to law and open the hospitals to devastating lawsuits, even years later. For details on legal and medical preparedness, please see our handout, "Preparing for the Terrorist Threat,"published in Insight Magazine last January 15th.


Little is written about potential targets in America, but it's interesting to speculate. Hopefully, foreign terrorists would understand that mass killing of Americans would be very counterproductive and that we would retaliate massively. Rather, they could have much more effect for their causes by just making life inconvenient for us. For example, during the bombing of Serbia I used to joke that all they needed for defense would be to have some old Yugo jalopies breaking down or crashing on Washington's very congested Beltway during rush hour for a few days. Just that would paralyze Washington and cause public demands to ground our bombers. My joke often met with angry reactions from War Party advocates, as if I was giving away military secrets.

In a serious vein, I think that military bases and government organizations are the most likely targets. In spite of Washington's accusations about "cowardly terrorists," Bin Laden's targets have mainly been against the U.S. Military (and two Embassies). The Pentagon and CIA are surely the most juicy targets for any terrorist, but American bases overseas are easier – and more likely – targets now. An attack upon one would have the added possible consequence of foreigners demanding the removal of all American bases. The fear of this result seems already to be in Bush Administration thinking about building more long-range bombers instead of the short range F-22, which would depend upon foreign bases. Individual Americans overseas are also vulnerable. Already the Navy has cut back on shore leave over much of the world because of fear of terrorist attack upon our sailors. They now have steel beach parties, confined to their ships. (This news was not reported in the interventionist press; it obviously might reinforce opposition to American interventions in so many nations.)

However, as Jude Wanniski has written, no one controls mad fanatics. Very possibly any major American city could be targeted by those consumed with hate against us. A dirty bomb could contaminate much of a major city. A small tactical nuke (of which many are reportedly missing from Russian bases) would take out 4 or 5 city blocks; new breakthroughs in biology may develop truly horrendous agents of selective death. Or just plain suicide truck bombers with dynamite in a tunnel could wreak havoc upon us. In truth, we are immensely vulnerable to terrorists who would give up their lives for a mission. Still, we also have great advantages. Only the most hardened and embittered remain so after some time in our nation, where most Americans have no idea of the killing overseas being done in their name. In the 1970s and '80s when Washington allowed many Marxist and leftist refugees from Chile and then Central America to immigrate here, they didn't commit acts of terrorism. America is so all-encompassing and welcoming and has so much opportunity that they lost their Marxist fervor. They got jobs, settled down and built their communities.

In any case, the best defense is "to give foreigners less offense," in the words of Ivan Eland at CATO. Already under President Bush we seem much less ready to go about bombing other nations as Clinton did. Except for Palestine and Iraq, no blood is being shed by American bombs. American conservatives did all they could to undermine the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks when Clinton was supporting them. Hopefully, they (other than the Dispensationalists who almost want chaos over there) will now support peace negotiations, for we are hated much in the Arab world. Still, Bush is vulnerable to Washington's sophisticated and entrenched War Party, which wants empire and is now pushing for conflict with China, or any other nation that dares to challenge our might.


  • Be informed – check regularly the anti-intervention websites:,, and
  • Print out pertinent articles and distribute copies to your friends.
  • Go to meetings. At most major Washington think tanks, hardly anyone challenges the prevailing War Party views.
  • Talk radio – call in and explain. Our points are simple and true, they are easy to get across and people respond once they are heard.
  • Write and call editors of the interventionist media, asking them to publish such information as in this article.
  • Go to your Congressman's town hall meetings and ask him the embarrassing questions about our interventions overseas and ask for civil defense.
  • Start a movement asking that our military send guards to protect key bridges and reservoirs and electric stations. The real threats are here, not overseas.
  • Prepare yourself and for your family. Obtain a stock of antibiotics (tetracycline easily cures Anthrax if used early on), gas masks and other items, as above.

Thank you for coming and for your interest. Spreading the kind of information I've described above can only help us to prevent the catastrophic event which many pundits consider inevitable. Terrorism here is not inevitable, but we have work to do in making people aware of the reasons for the threat.

This article is a slightly-edited version of a speech by Mr. Utley to the Convention of the Libertarian Party of Washington, D.C., Summer, 2001.

Mr. Utley is Robert A. Taft Fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Formerly, he was a businessman and then foreign correspondent in South America for Knight Ridder newspapers. He has written on Latin American nationalism for Harvard Business Review and on terrorism for Insight Magazine. He has been a commentator for the Voice of America and has written widely on 3rd World issues.

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