Unilateral US Military Action Against Terrorism Bodes Ill for the World:
Counter-terror Won't Work

Praful Bidwai - TNI Fellow http://www.tni.org/
The Hindustan Times, 14 September 2001

Nothing since Hiroshima and Nagasaki has convulsed the world's conscience as powerfully as the butchery of innocent civilians in Tuesday's terror attacks in the US. However, the shock, agony and anger produced by these ghastly, wholly unconscionable, acts are now giving way to calls for revenge and retribution in America, and to loose talk of a new global alliance for "freedom and democracy" against "jehadi terrorism" in India. American leaders insist on portraying these attacks as acts of "war". Many are deploying language reminiscent of Reagan's "Evil Empire", which would rationalise the unleashing of retribution with unlimited or maximum force in different parts of the world as America's "self-defence".

Colin Powell has gone so far as to threaten large-scale and long-term retaliation against terrorism--whether "it is legally correct or not". And President Bush says he makes "no distinction" between "terrorists" and states that harbour them. A vengeful mindset has thus crystallised, which declares: if you're not with us, you're against us; we will pay the terrorists back in their own coin; force is the only language they understand...

Nothing could be more harmful than this mindset to the cause of democracy, freedom and pluralism--in name of which the retribution is being threatened. Equally, nothing could more badly undermine the cause of a just, plural, multilaterally balanced, rule-of-law-based world order than unilateral military action by Washington, whether undertaken formally under NATO auspices or not. Such action seems imminent. Yet, no power or state in the world is attempting to counsel restraint upon the US-neither the European Union, nor Russia and China, nor even formerly strongly multilateralist states like India. The UN too has been passive. Ironically, the world, or rather some more innocent civilians outside America's borders, could thus end up paying a high price through insensate violence and overwhelming use of force--just as New Yorkers tragically did.

The only way to prevent this is to immediately activate the Security Council and other multilateral instruments and mandate them to act in a way that balances the use of proportionate, moderate force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, with a staunch defence of civil liberties. After the mess that NATO made through its unilateral intervention of the situation in the former Yugoslavia, especially Kosovo in 1999, there is a compelling reason for doing so. Yet, the prospect of this happening appears bleak.

Thus, we have the bizarre spectacle of a Cold War military alliance, which lost its very reason for existence a decade ago with the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, now invoking its "collective defence" Article 5--for the first time in half a century! The US as the dominant partner of this far-from- democratic military coalition--there has always been one finger, not two, on NATO's triggers--seems all set to repeat the 1983 invasion of Libya, when Gaddafi and Co were branded "Mad Dogs" and then mercilessly bombarded. America today can target whomever it chooses--or rather, its all-too-fallible intelligence agencies suspect. This would be bad enough even if the US had a half-way respectable record of direct or sponsored external military intervention.

As it happens, that record is embarrassingly bad and profoundly undemocratic: from Iran and Central America in the 1950s, to Brazil, Cuba and Vietnam in the 1960s, to Chile, southern Africa, Nicaragua and El Salvador, and above all, Afghanistan in the 1970s and 1980s--not to speak of Panama, Haiti and Angola, or the first Iran-Iraq war. In each case, America either snuffed out democratic or moderately nationalist regimes and sided with brutal dictators, or produced/strengthened new monsters while fighting old ones. These include Saddam Hussein (strengthened by the US tilt towards Iraq in the first Gulf War) and the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, who in turn produced Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. Bin Laden is in many ways an American creation.

Put simply, America, which believes in its own unique Manifest Destiny, has never learned to moderate its overwhelming military power and use it wisely, to universal, democratic, and just ends. Today, it has embarked on a purely militaristic Rambo-like strategy, based upon the national-security obsession characteristic of the Republican Right, to combat terrorists by "hunting them down". However, such a strategy is badly fraught. It will inevitably lead to severe curtailment of and attack on fundamental rights and people's freedoms. It will create a climate of suspicion, paranoia and nationalist hysteria: already, certain religious communities are being openly maligned, and Arab- Americans are receiving threatening calls. It will give respectability to intellectually bankrupt "theories" like the Clash of Civilisations, itself a pitiable attempt to invent a post-Cold War "enemy" for the US.

Above all, a militarist approach will fail to tackle the conditions and causes of terrorism itself. Force may be necessary to fight terrorism in the short run, but it alone cannot suffice. It can quickly become counter-productive. Sub-state terrorism arises from and is rooted in factors such as exclusion, discrimination, communalism, anomie and ethnic hatred, often compounded by brutalising, poverty-enhancing, elitist economic policies. Unless these factors are addressed, terrorism cannot be sustainably combated. Militarism leads to state terrorism which typically ends up aggravating sub-state terrorism, and is itself far worse than it. Israel-Palestine is a good, if horrifying, case in point.

Those who are praying for a new Indo-US anti-terrorist "strategic partnership" (with Israel thrown in) or for US "global leadership" against terrorism--and there are many in India--should therefore pause and think again. It is deplorable that the Vajpayee government has blinded itself by its Pakistan obsession to offer just such a partnership to the US. The eventual costs of a direct US presence in the neighbourhood could prove truly onerous.

There are three other major lessons in the present episode, which has exposed the limits of US military might, as well as militarism. First, the skilfully executed aircraft attacks in New York and Washington should put paid to any Missile Defence plans. Critics, who convincingly argued that MD cannot credibly meet the real security threats which the US faces, now stand vindicated. Howsoever sophisticated an MD shield might be, short-range missiles and aircraft can underfly it, and inexpensive decoys can fool it. "Absolute" security through MD is dangerously illusory. The whole episode also puts a big question mark over the doctrine of deterrence--the idea that a rational evaluation of "unacceptable" retaliatory damage will prevent an adversary from attack. It is now plain that the world's largest nuclear arsenal cannot prevent or deter mass murder.

Second, it is unwise to seek security principally through physical means and preventive barriers. The air cover around many critical strategic structures (e.g. the Pentagon, the White House, etc) will probably remain vulnerable to suicide-bomber aircraft. The world's 430-odd nuclear power reactors are each a potential Chernobyl which can be devastatingly triggered off by easily available conventional bombs. The current non-proliferation regime, based on physical inspection of nuclear material movements, is highly unreliable. A leaked International Atomic Energy Agency report shows that the world's plutonium reprocessing inventories annually include or exclude scores of kilos of "material unaccounted for"--the equivalent of several Pokharan-type bombs. Again, there are severe limits to how much you can tighten X-ray screening of hand baggage at airports: weapons made of ceramic, composite material or carbon fibre will pass unnoticed. Besides, high-rise buildings, airliners and huge amounts of combustible plastic are all part of normal urban architecture today.

Finally, we must reflect on the long-term causes of terrorism-rooted in unbalanced, rootless, ruthless, growth, cultural erosion, uprooting and destabilisation, social strife, ethnic exclusivism, chauvinist nationalism, and extreme centralisation of power. Only non-military social, economic and cultural policies can address these factors by promoting equitable, balanced, people-centred development, where human beings matter more than markets, and where comprehensive social security prevails over military preparedness.

Copyright 2001 The Hindustan Times