This article was first published in The American Conservative, March 1, 2010.
If the last few decades prove anything about America’s strategy in fighting Islamic terrorism, it’s that no matter what the other side throws our way, America will respond in the most counterintuitive and self-destructive manner imaginable.
The routine goes something like this: if America is attacked by terrorists from Country A, then our response will be to bomb the hell out of Country Z, in which Z equals a doormat of a country whose sole purpose is to provide an easy, morale-boosting win. This strategy has produced mixed results, from total failure to complete catastrophe, depending on variable Z. The doormats have turned out to be booby-trapped.
Take our most recent example of this counterterror formula: a terrorist from Country A (Nigeria) tries and fails to down an American plane. According to the warped logic of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment, we must naturally attack Country Z—Yemen. Leaving aside the question of how effective it is to bomb any demographically-exploding Third World country, let’s follow the hawkish logic: some misfit can’t figure out how to blow up his underwear, but we still have to find perpetrators to punish. Problem is, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is from Nigeria, which has almost 80 million Muslims, the largest number in sub-Saharan Africa. So that’s not going to work. There’s Saudi Arabia, where al-Qaeda’s founder, its sponsors, and its ideological support all come from—that would be a logical Country A to bomb. But the Saudis sponsor the American foreign-policy establishment at least as much as they sponsor anti-American terrorism, so bombing them would be tantamount to suicide for our policymakers. Then there’s Pakistan, another logical choice: that country’s notorious spy service is believed to have been protecting al-Qaeda’s leadership lo these many years—why not bomb Pakistan? Answer: we’re already fighting, and losing, against a Pakistani proxy army, the Taliban. Just imagine how much worse things would be if we expanded the conflict to Pakistan proper, which has over five times the population of Afghanistan and nuclear weapons to boot.
Yet the simple-minded hawks need to invade and bomb someone, just so long as it’s someone they believe will be a pushover; an easy victory where the results are all but fixed in advance; some country that could play the military equivalent of the Washington Generals to America’s Harlem Globetrotters.
That’s how Yemen, a place Abdulmutallab passed through and supposedly got his training in, becomes the new Country Z—the tangentially related state we need to bomb to make things better. As far as the meatheads in D.C. know, Yemen should be a pushover. Otherwise, we’d have heard something about Yemen by now.
Ah yes, lovely Yemen, the perfect choice for another open-ended war, exactly what the bankrupt, overstretched, kneecapped American empire needs. It’s the sort of counterintuitive target the counterintuitive imperialists who have brought us so much ruin would choose for their last gamble: it’s as if they selected Yemen precisely because there’s nothing to steal and nothing to conquer. The only thing a war with Yemen would guarantee is more death, more debt, and generations of anti-American hate to keep our grandchildren busy. To the serial losers who coaxed America into the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the losing odds Yemen offers are just too tempting to pass up.
Inside of every Houthi rebel tribesman, there is a tiny, goo-covered Charles Krauthammer trying to get out.
So Sen. Joseph Lieberman goes on television and says, “Iraq was yesterday’s war. … Afghanistan is today’s war. If we don’t act pre-emptively, Yemen will be tomorrow’s war. That’s the danger we face.” This sums up just how deranged America’s hawks have become. To their minds, wars come in three tenses: past, present, and future. Leaving aside the fact that Afghanistan was yesterday’s war before it became today’s war and that America is still losing both wars in whichever tense Lieberman uses, consider his argument: I gambled American power on Iraq, and I lost; I’m now in the process of losing another war. Therefore, if we don’t want to lose the next war, we need to start it now—to trick time, so to speak, so that we can fight the future in the present tense.
No wonder American power is collapsing harder than just about any empire in history. But it’s not as though Lieberman is displaying any originality. The politicians and wonks leading America down the drain are following a logic that’s been operating for the past three and a half decades, always with disastrous results. It hasn’t mattered whether the controls of the U.S. war machine were in the hands of a peanut farmer or a washed-up actor, a rich white chickenhawk or a socialist of color, America’s military strategy vis-à-vis Islamic terrorism knows no party line—or common sense.
Just look at the record. In 1975, America was smarting from defeat in Vietnam, Gerald Ford was president, and a couple of “bold-thinking” hotheads in his administration had a brilliant idea for how to restore America’s confidence. As luck would have it, Cambodia, one of the world’s poorest countries, then in the middle of a Khmer Rouge holocaust, offered itself as Country Z. Cambodian Communists seized a U.S. merchant boat, the Mayaguez, and briefly held the crew hostage. Rather than negotiating for their release, Ford’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and his underling Dick Cheney pushed for a massive military “rescue operation.” It was a disaster: some 40 American servicemen were killed in the attempt to take control of the island where our sailors were supposedly being held. In fact, the Americans had already been released before the operation started.
In 1983, Hezbollah suicide bombers killed 220 Marines, the worst death toll the service has suffered since the battle of Iwo Jima and perhaps the most pointless mass-death of Marines in the outfit’s brilliant history. Reagan’s response: invade Grenada, a resort island a few miles off of Florida. In his defense, at least he didn’t invade Iraq or Afghanistan, but the basic policy of reacting to terrorism by invading some other “cakewalk” country was set.
Also on Reagan’s watch, Iranian-backed militants in Lebanon kidnapped American citizens and twice blew up the U.S. Embassy. His response: send the Ayatollah a birthday cake and a Bible, along with shiploads of TOW antitank weapons to help Khomeini fight Iraq. Still, something had to be done for public consumption, given all the Americans that the Iranians was killing. So Reagan chose to pick on Col. Muammar Qaddafi, the Gary Numan of scary Muslim villains. He bombed Qaddafi’s tents and killed the cross-dresser’s 4-year-old daughter.
The last terror attack of the Reagan era came just a few weeks before the 40th president left the White House, when a Pan Am jet was blown up over Scotland. Everyone and his grandma knew that the Iranians and their Syrian proxies were retaliating for the USS Vincennes shooting down an Iranian passenger jet in the Persian Gulf a few months earlier. But guess who George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s replacement, blamed the Pan Am explosion on? “Glass Jaw” Qaddafi. Unlike the Iranians, Qaddafi could be counted on to cave and cry uncle, even when he wasn’t guilty. He handed over one of his agents for a show trial in Scotland, and as if it were part of the deal, that Libyan agent was released a few years later by British authorities because he wasn’t feeling well, or something like that.
Then there was Clinton. In 1993, proto-al-Qaeda terrorists led and funded by Saudi Wahhabis tried blowing up the World Trade Center with van-bombs. Clinton’s response: roast a bunch of American Kool-Aid drinkers in Waco, Texas. (The implication is that Texans are the Libyans of North America, all bark and no bite.) In October 1993, Somali terrorists humiliated American forces in the worst military disaster since the 1983 Lebanon barracks bombing. Briefly, America was sobered up by the experience and decided not to bomb someplace like Bhutan or Upper Volta, though I’m sure policy planners considered it. By the time of the Kenya and Tanzania embassy bombings in 1998, Clinton couldn’t hold back, so naturally he destroyed a Sudanese aspirin plant and put on a harmless though expensive fireworks show in Afghanistan.
Under George W. Bush, America’s asymmetrical strategy went off the scale: Saudis, Kuwaitis, and Egyptians trained in Afghanistan and commanded by a Pakistani attacked America with airplanes, and we responded with a catastrophic invasion of Iraq. Operations in Afghanistan became a sideshow to the main event in Mesopotamia. And, as it turns out, right after 9/11 our ultra-hawks considered opening an even more illogical front: a top-secret memo cited in the 9/11 Commission Report—apparently written by Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith for Donald Rumsfeld—urged “hitting targets outside the Middle East in the initial offensive,” including Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. The report notes, “The author suggested … since U.S. attacks were expected in Afghanistan, an American attack in South America or Southeast Asia might be a surprise to the terrorists”—not to mention a shocker to any member of the reality-based community.
Which brings us to the Nigerian underwear bomber and 2010’s pending war in Yemen. It doesn’t take a genius to see how this will end up. It’s just too bad that we’re the ones picking up the tab for Lieberman and company’s mad misdirection.
This article was first published in The American Conservative, March 1, 2010.
Mark Ames is the author of Going Postal: Rage, Murder and Rebellion from Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine.
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