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Andrew Bacevich: Even Dumb Ideas Have Consequences

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

It came and went in a flash and now it's long forgotten, buried in the rubble heap of history.  But maybe, given recent events, a little excavation is in order.  After all, as the author of Constantine's Sword, James Carroll, wrote in 2004, looking back on the 9/11 moment, "A few days after the assault... [s]peaking spontaneously, without the aid of advisers or speechwriters, [George W. Bush] put a word on the new American purpose that both shaped it and gave it meaning. "This crusade,' he said, "this war on terrorism.'"

It was the presidential equivalent of a Freudian slip, the sort that reveals one's deepest preconceptions.  After all, there was only one set of "crusades" and Medieval Christendom launched them against Islamic "infidels" of the Middle East.  There has been no such presidential slip since.

When, in January 2002, for example, George W. Bush gave his State of the Union address, his speechwriter David Frum, who liked to speak of the "stinking bowl" of the Arab world, ditched the very thought that there might be a crusade against Islam in America.  Instead, he and an associate came up with a phrase that hinted at a more ecumenical set of enemies.  In imitation of Germany, Japan, and Italy, the "Axis powers" of World War II, he puffed up three rickety regional regimes -- Iraq, Iran, and North Korea -- into a looming "axis of evil." ("Seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger.")  It may have been farfetched to compare Iraq's megalomanic autocrat Saddam Hussein, Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and North Korea's "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-Il to Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo, but it proved adequate for the needs of that moment.

How, after all, could the United States be "at war with Islam," when the distinctly non-Muslim North Korea was on board the SS Axis of Evil?  Still, when you look back on the fate of that "axis," something strange should jump out at you.  After all, the Bush administration knocked off Saddam over a non-existent Iraqi nuclear and WMD program which, in the pre-invasion months, its officials insisted might put mushroom clouds over American cities and leave Iraqi drones spraying chemical and biological poisons over East Coast cities.  Since then, in conjunction with Israel, both the Bush and Obama administrations have gone after Iran's nuclear program, including rounds of cyber warfare, a massive build-up of forces in the Persian Gulf region, threats of war, sanctions, Israeli assassinations of nuclear scientists, and so on, and yet Iran, too, has no nuclear weapon and no one claims it does, nor do most experts think it's even close.

As it turned out, only the one non-Islamic country in that axis of evil actually built and tested a perfectly real nuclear weapon in those years.  And the response seems curiously instructive: though it announced its first successful test in 2006 and the actual building of a bomb in 2009, no war threats ensued, no invasion occurred, no cyber-attacks were launched, no giant military build up in the region occurred.  In the end, next to nothing happened.  In fact, when you think about it, since 2001, just about every war-like act by Washington, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, the Philippines, or elsewhere, has been directed at a Muslim country or at Muslims in a county.

That Washington is at war in a number of Islamic countries may not mean that the U.S. is "at war with Islam" -- after all, North Korea lacks energy reserves, while Iraq and Iran are located in the oil heartlands of the planet -- but two administrations have certainly had a remarkably curious way of showing their respect for Islam.  Crusade?  Hmmm.  Just consider, as does Andrew Bacevich, TomDispatch regular and author of Washington Rules, the curious case of "Jerry" Boykin. Tom

Boykinism
Joe McCarthy Would Understand
By Andrew J. Bacevich

First came the hullaballoo over the "Mosque at Ground Zero."  Then there was Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville, Florida, grabbing headlines as he promoted "International Burn-a-Koran Day."  Most recently, we have an American posting a slanderous anti-Muslim video on the Internet with all the ensuing turmoil.

Throughout, the official U.S. position has remained fixed: the United States government condemns Islamophobia.  Americans respect Islam as a religion of peace.  Incidents suggesting otherwise are the work of a tiny minority -- whackos, hatemongers, and publicity-seekers.  Among Muslims from Benghazi to Islamabad, the argument has proven to be a tough sell.

And not without reason: although it might be comforting to dismiss anti-Islamic outbursts in the U.S. as the work of a few fanatics, the picture is actually far more complicated.  Those complications in turn help explain why religion, once considered a foreign policy asset, has in recent years become a net liability.

Let's begin with a brief history lesson.  From the late 1940s to the late 1980s, when Communism provided the overarching ideological rationale for American globalism, religion figured prominently as a theme of U.S. foreign policy.  Communist antipathy toward religion helped invest the Cold War foreign policy consensus with its remarkable durability.  That Communists were godless sufficed to place them beyond the pale.  For many Americans, the Cold War derived its moral clarity from the conviction that here was a contest pitting the God-fearing against the God-denying.  Since we were on God's side, it appeared axiomatic that God should repay the compliment.

From time to time during the decades when anti-Communism provided so much of the animating spirit of U.S. policy, Judeo-Christian strategists in Washington (not necessarily believers themselves), drawing on the theologically correct proposition that Christians, Jews, and Muslims all worship the same God, sought to enlist Muslims, sometimes of fundamentalist persuasions, in the cause of opposing the godless.  One especially notable example was the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979-1989.  To inflict pain on the Soviet occupiers, the United States threw its weight behind the Afghan resistance, styled in Washington as "freedom fighters," and funneled aid (via the Saudis and the Pakistanis) to the most religiously extreme among them.  When this effort resulted in a massive Soviet defeat, the United States celebrated its support for the Afghan Mujahedeen as evidence of strategic genius.  It was almost as if God had rendered a verdict.

Yet not so many years after the Soviets withdrew in defeat, the freedom fighters morphed into the fiercely anti-Western Taliban, providing sanctuary to al-Qaeda as it plotted -- successfully -- to attack the United States.  Clearly, this was a monkey wrench thrown into God's plan.

With the launching of the Global War on Terrorism, Islamism succeeded Communism as the body of beliefs that, if left unchecked, threatened to sweep across the globe with dire consequences for freedom.  Those who Washington had armed as "freedom fighters" now became America's most dangerous enemies.  So at least members of the national security establishment believed or purported to believe, thereby curtailing any further discussion of whether militarized globalism actually represented the best approach to promoting liberal values globally or even served U.S. interests.

Yet as a rallying cry, a war against Islamism presented difficulties right from the outset.  As much as policymakers struggled to prevent Islamism from merging in the popular mind with Islam itself, significant numbers of Americans -- whether genuinely fearful or mischief-minded -- saw this as a distinction without a difference.  Efforts by the Bush administration to work around this problem by framing the post-9/11 threat under the rubric of "terrorism" ultimately failed because that generic term offered no explanation for motive. However the administration twisted and turned, motive in this instance seemed bound up with matters of religion.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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I don't believe you'll find many true believers of... by Vernon Huffman on Wednesday, Sep 26, 2012 at 2:51:43 PM