February 23rd 2002

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: New Zealand's Economic U-Turn

Reality finally bites Democrats' leader

Family First rises, Democrats fall, in South Australia poll

2002 NCC National Conference - Building the Movement

Straws in the Wind: Andersen's Fairy Tales / Flying / Out of Africa

New Zealand to vote on new Constitution?

Bioethics: Cloning concerns must be addressed

Letters: "Booming" economy?

Letters: Politics to blame

Letters: Hot air

Letters: True ALP position

Media: Cross-media ownership laws / Negative coverage?

United States: Is the terrorist threat being politicised?

Economics: Privatisation - essential component of globalisation

Law: Abortion link to breast cancer victory

Books promotion page

United States: Is the terrorist threat being politicised?

by Bob Browning

News Weekly, February 23, 2002

It is hard not to agree with Newt Gingrich - at least when the former US Republican Party leader and Presidential policy advisor argues (Age, February 9, 2002) that it would be irresponsible not to take pre-emptive action against terrorists and any supporting states, if they are known to be trying to develop and use weapons of mass destruction around the world.

To wait until the threat actually materialises before acting would be criminally foolish. If so, does anyone seriously believes that the European Union or any other group of nations would have the resolution, unity or capacity to undertake the task without American leadership?

It is also hard not to agree with Salman Rushdie - at least when the British novelist says that doubters and critics of the US-led war against terrorism in Afghanistan were mostly wrong in their fears and warnings, and were surprised (as were many Coalition supporters) by the quick and easy rout of the Taliban.

American forces were not humiliated, in the way the Russians had been, says Rushdie (Age, February 6, 2002). The air strikes did work. It was not difficult to ferret out most of the militants from their caves and remote mountain hideouts. The US military did not get "bogged down" as it did in Vietnam. The Northern Alliance did not massacre people in Kabul. The Taliban did crumble away showing what hated tyrants they were. The Coalition does seem to have got the tribal factions and warlords together enough to form what may be an adequately popular, viable government.

Perhaps it is possible even to agree with Nicholas Kristof (New York Times, February 1, 2002) who argues that the US-led war in Afghanistan was a "merciful war", despite the fact that "we Americans have now killed many more people in Afghanistan than died in the attack on the World Trade Center".

Kristof estimates the death toll at around 8,000 to 12,000 Afghan and Arab fighters, 1000 Afghan civilians, and one American soldier. In each of the preceding years, however, he argues, 225,000 Afghan children died before the age of five, along with 15,000 women who died during pregnancy or childbirth - without anyone paying much attention.

There was no way to save those lives under the Taliban, Kristof says. International organisations were retreating from Afghanistan even before September 11 because of the arrests of Christian aid workers.

His point holds even though saving and improving Afghan lives was, of course, not the reason why the US launched the Afghan war. Remember also that towards the end of the Cold War, once the Afghans had chased the Russians out, the US lost interest, withdrew support, and left the country to the tender mercies of the Taliban until the US itself was attacked on September 11.


Agreeing that terrorism must be countered pre-emptively, and admitting that critics were wrong in many of their predictions and warnings, does not mean we owe the Bush administration uncritical, let alone open slather support for its war policies. History warns us against doing so. Remember the nasty effects of much US foreign policy during the Cold War - especially in Central and South America - and in the Middle East in pursuit of secure oil supplies.

US foreign policy in the Middle East included support for the repressive Shah of Iran and then for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq - until it invaded Kuwait. US support of Iraq operated during the time when Saddam was using poison gas and other chemical weapons, including against his own citizens - a fact that the Bush administration is using now to declare Iraq part of the "axis of evil" and a legitimate target in its war against terrorism.

Oil-based US foreign policy has been the key factor in US support of the Saudi Arabian regime which has been one of the deciding factors, indirectly as well as directly, in the rise of Al Queda, the international terrorist network. The Saudi royal family, reportedly good friends of the Bush family, have been promoting Wahabbism and funding madrassas to preach that militant strand of radical neo-Islam.

Many critics also feel that criticism is warranted of the US-Israel policy, especially now that the Bush Administration is strengthening its support of the right-wing Sharon Government and cold-shouldering existing Palestinian leaders and organisations.

Such criticism is likely to increase now that more than 100 Israeli army combat officer and soldier reservists have refused to continue serving in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They are claiming very publicly (Haaretz, January 26, 2002, NYT, February 2, 2002) that Sharon’s policies amount to "dominating, expelling, starving and humiliating an entire people".

Many critics also think that the Bush Administration’s elastic, selective ’definition’ of what constitutes a terrorist is giving various regimes the opportunity to crack down on their dissidents, unfavoured minorities, immigrants and refugees.

Internationally known writer and Harvard Professor of Human Rights, Michael Ignatieff, fears that the period of pursuing global human rights that was beginning to flourish before September 11 may be stymied:

"If that sounds alarmist, consider some of the evidence. Western pressure on China to honour human rights, never especially effective, has stopped altogether. Chinese support for the war on terror has secured Western silence about repression in the Xinjiang region... [In Chechnya] ... new evaluation seems certain to involve forgetting that Moscow’s war against terror has actually been waged against a whole people, costing tens of thousands of lives.

"A similar chill is settling over world politics. Australia’s government uses the threat of terrorism to justify incarcerating Afghan refugees in a desert compound. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have leveraged their provision of bases and intelligence into a carte blanche for domestic repression. Egypt, which for many years has used detention without trial, military courts and torture to keep control of militants, now demands an even freer hand. Sudan, which was under attack from a coalition of liberals and black churches determined to end slavery and stop Khartoum’s war against the south, is now accepted as an ally against Osama bin Laden. And President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has decided that his longtime political opponents are really ‘terrorists’." ( NYT, February 2, 2002 )

It is increasingly obvious that the Bush Administration and the US Republican Party cannot resist the opportunity to use the war and the terrorist threat for domestic political advantage. Worse, other countries are following Bush’s opportunistic lead by stimulating patriotic, some would say jingoistic fervour, and channelling it to serve special interest agendas.

President Bush’s senior political adviser Karl Rove has already told the Party faithful that Republicans will make the President’s handling of the war on terrorism the centerpiece of their strategy to win back the Senate and keep control of the House in this year’s midterm elections (Washington Post, January 19, 2002).

Rove’s remarks infuriated Democrats who have fully supported the Administration in its conduct of the war. Until Rove’s announcement, Bush had stressed that the fight against terrorism was a bipartisan, unifying issue for the country.

Concern over opportunistic use of the terrorist issue for domestic political advantage increased with the impact of the Enron Corporation scandal. The giant energy-trading corporation faces criminal charges over fraud after filing for bankruptcy protection in highly suspicious circumstances. Enron has ties to both political parties, but especially to Republican officials in the Bush administration.

Concern increased further when Bush’s Vice President Dick Cheney said that the White House would fight the release of documents demanded by Congress as part of the investigation into any influence the Enron Corporation had in formulating the Bush administration’s energy policy. According to the Washington Post:

"At issue is how much Enron, a major contributor to the Republican Party, influenced the Bush energy plan, which eases environmental rules, opens public land to drilling and provides tax incentives to energy companies for exploration. Enron and the White House have acknowledged that Enron executives met five times with Mr Cheney or members of his staff about energy last year, and documents from the meetings could shorored any specific recommendations of Enron’s."

Alarm over electoral exploitation of the terrorist threat extends to Australia. It arose first in regard to how much the "refugee/terrorist" threat figured in the Howard Coalition’s 2001 election campaign. It has moved now to include concern over the Government’s intention to include whistle-blowing on domestic issues within anti-espionage and anti-terrorist provisions and to crack down on media and UN access to its detention centres.

Critics may often be wrong in their predictions and cautions. Undoubtedly this will continue in the future. But is that any reason to curtail rigorous and even sceptical scrutiny of politicians, special interest lobbies, power élites, and populist bandwagoners?

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