George W. Bush and the ‘politics of fear’

President George W Bush’s response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has been a world-wide campaign to kill or capture the Muslim enemies of America – his so-called “global war on terror.” It is an ambitious but, in my view, a profoundly misguided affair which has left the United States more hated, more isolated, and certainly no safer than before. Everything that could go wrong with Bush’s “war” has gone wrong.

The biggest blunder was, of course, to switch the focus of America’s military effort from Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein – from Al-Qaeda to Iraq – although there was no connection between the two and no credible evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction or posed any sort of immediate threat to anyone. The result was the catastrophic war in Iraq which has drained America’s resources, destroyed its reputation and brought untold miseries to the Iraqis. There is, as yet, no clear outcome in sight.

As has been amply explained in the American and international press, the switch of focus from Al-Qaeda to Iraq was essentially the work of a group of neoconservatives, many of them pro-Israeli, who believed that overthrowing Saddam Hussein would trigger vast changes in the Middle East to Israel’s advantage.

To convince American opinion – and indeed President Bush himself – that war against Iraq was necessary for American security, prominent neocons like Douglas Feith, assistant secretary for policy at the Pentagon, and his boss Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, did not hesitate to fabricate and manipulate intelligence to show that Saddam Hussein was linked to Al-Qaeda and had rebuilt his WMD arsenal. This deception lies at the root of many of America’s current problems.

Less Israel-centered right-wingers, like Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, were no doubt won over by the argument that turning Iraq into a regional American strongpoint would guarantee control of the incomparable oil riches of the Gulf for the foreseeable future.

The Iraq war was, therefore, waged by an alliance in the upper reaches of the American government between those who wanted to make Israel supreme in the Middle East and those who wanted to make America supreme in the world.

The switch from Al-Qaeda to Iraq is by no means the whole sad story. The Bush administration has consistently refused to recognize that terrorist attacks on America were a direct response to America’s own policies – such as its wanton abandonment of Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal, its overbearing military presence in Arabia, its pitiless punishment of Iraq after the 1991 Gulf war; and, above all, its blind support for Israel in its conflict with the Arabs.

Instead of recognizing where it went wrong and correcting its mistakes, America sought the “roots of terror” in Arab and Muslim societies, in their supposed envy of America’s way of life, in their ignorance, poverty and political repression, in the alleged violence of Islam, and other similar myths and alibis.

This American failure to acknowledge that the political sources of terrorism lay in America’s own behavior rather than in Arab failings was an error even more fundamental than the military switch from Al-Qaeda to Iraq.

The results – the doctrine of pre-emption, the unilateral exercise of American power, the vastly inflated security budgets, the massive military deployments, the proliferation of bases – did not make America safer but instead served to swell the ranks of its enemies.

Instead of understanding that America was engaged in an asymetric conflict with a relatively small number of extremists, in which victory or anything remotely like it depended on isolating the militants from the sea of potential recruits, the United States allowed the neoconservatives to demonize “global Islam” as America’s main enemy, on a par with Nazi Germany and Soviet Communism.

Misunderstanding the nature of the conflict – inflating the “terrorist” threat, casting it as a global struggle – has been disastrous for America’s war effort in that it has driven its various critics and opponents into each other’s arms: Nationalists and resistance fighters of all stripes and of all countries have teamed up with every species of Muslim jihadist. What had been a relatively isolated phenomenon by a handful of extremists, largely the bitter veterans of the Afghan wars, has become a world-wide insurgency against American power.

The callous way America’s “war on terror” has been conducted has served to compound the grave errors of interpretation and analysis which preceded it. Disregarding the most fundamental principles of democracy, the Bush administration twisted the law to give itself a free hand in confronting its “terrorist” enemies.

It is now widely recognized that administration lawyers, in the Department of Justice and the White House, devised arguments to bypass international laws and treaties preventing the ill-treatment of prisoners in wartime. They found ways to say that the Geneva Conventions did not necessarily apply to “enemy combatants” and that the President, as commander-in-chief, had the right to authorize torture.

These shameful betrayals of legal norms opened the way for the even more shameful abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, where terrible methods were used to get information about Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Iraqi insurgents. The stain on America’s reputation will not easily be erased, especially as no one in real authority has yet been held to account.

What is not always admitted, however, is that America’s disregard of basic human rights has provoked its opponents to acts of equal or even greater barbarism, such as kidnapping and beheading. The first hostage takings and executions took place on 9 April 2004 during the U.S. siege and bombardment of Fallujah in which hundreds of civilians were killed. Fallujah is once again under siege and daily bombardment. Those who survive will undoubtedly seek revenge.

Afghans, Iraqis and other miscellaneous Arabs have not been the only ones to suffer from the Bush administration’s waving of international law. American citizens have been held for long periods without access to a lawyer or to their families. The Patriot Act and the Orwellian bureaucracy of Homeland Security – 180,000 employees and a budget of $40 billion – have gravely curtailed American civil liberties.

Almost equally bad has been the Bush administration’s blatant exploitation of the terrorist threat for domestic political purposes. Vice President Cheney, and the President himself, have gone so far as to suggest that a vote for John Kerry will make the U.S. more vulnerable to attack! A major theme of Bush’s campaign has been to exaggerate the terrorist threat in order to frighten people into voting for him. Such scare tactics – what may be described as the politics of fear – have been effective with an ill-informed American electorate, but have also been widely condemned.

Could a Kerry presidency reverse these pernicious trends and correct these many fundamental errors? It is a task worthy of Hercules.

Patrick Seale, a Paris-based political analyst and commentator, wrote this article for THE DAILY STAR.

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